Chapter 1: Asbel's Illness; Lambda's Offer
The afternoon breeze was soft, just strong enough to slip through the crack of the study's window, bringing with it the telltale chill of an impending frost. Asbel looked up from the growing stack of papers on his desk, and again found himself wondering where the time went.
It would be almost three years now since he and his friends had dealt with Fodra's core, three years since he'd settled in as Lhant's new Lord and he had the paperwork on his desk to prove it. It didn't feel like it had been that long; the days were flying by him almost faster than he could enjoy the peace that all their efforts had wrought, and for the first time Asbel could understand why Sophie had been so afraid of time's quick passage. If he could count himself so blessed as to have happy days like these continue, then the years would pass in the blink of an eye.
Already outside he could see the leaves dancing in the wind, evading the gardener who was fruitlessly trying to gather them into piles. If it wasn't the wind, the local children would be making a mess of them soon enough. Sophie's garden was all but empty except for the late bloomers who still held fast to their petals. This year's blossomgales had all flown and the rest of the garden was already preparing for its winter slumber. It wouldn't be long now before they woke to a soft blanket of white across the yard.
Asbel let out a yawn and with it he felt a wave of weariness come over him. Rubbing his eyes he shook his head, trying to discard the thought before it took hold. He had fallen behind in his work with all the recent excitement and he had a lot he needed to get done before winter set in. Besides, everyone was out there working hard; he couldn't afford to do any less.
"There you are," Asbel looked up to Cheria's voice breaking the silence of the study. "Not that I'd expect to find you anywhere else. The maids are starting to wonder if you're still alive."
Asbel chuckled. "I'm sorry Cheria, I know I've been really busy lately, but I just can't afford to fall any further behind. Bailey's going to rake me over if I don't make sure the soldiers get some new equipment soon. Their stuff is ready to fall apart."
"It's not the work I'm worried about," Cheria said with a sigh.
Asbel looked up from the paper he was drafting and allowed his eyes to trace his wife's figure. She was as beautiful as always, her pink wavy hair was pulled up but still cascaded down her back and framed her brown eyes. On her face, Asbel saw concern, painted over a look of affection that made him fall in love with her all over again. Asbel stood up from his desk and walked over to her.
"What's the matter, Cheria?"
"Don't you 'what's the matter' me!" She protested, arching an eyebrow in a way that let Asbel know he was in trouble. Asbel stepped back, and Cheria put her hands on her hips expectantly.
"Ummm, did I do something wrong?" Asbel asked, looking at Cheria with an expression that was half confused and half apologetic for some unknown transgression.
Cheria sighed and with it let her frustration fizzle. Honestly, he could be so dense sometimes! She looked back up at him and behind the smile that chipped away at her irritation, she saw the signs that had made her worried in the first place. His sagging shoulders offset the lack of energy behind the eyes that sat only half open over his lazy smile. Though he didn't have any bags beneath his eyes or any other signs that she could see, there was a weariness to him that became more and more obvious with each passing day. He was working himself into the ground and Cheria was afraid to think about what would happen if this kept up.
"Asbel, you look ready to fall asleep any minute now," she stated plainly. "Were you up late again last night? You promised me you'd sleep at a decent hour."
"I did," Asbel replied. "Maybe I just got too much sleep or something, I don't have any reason to feel tired. Don't worry about me Cheria. I'm fine, really."
"Well one of us has to, since you don't seem to be," she shot back. "Honestly Asbel, you've got to slow down a bit. You've done nothing but sit at this desk for the past week. You're going to run yourself ragged at this rate. Why don't you take a break, get some sleep and give your mind a chance to rest too."
"Don't be silly, of course I'm going to work hard," Asbel said approaching Cheria again, his hand wandering from her jawline down to her belly. "I want everything to be perfect for when this one gets here."
"Well that's still seven months away," Cheria insisted, barely able to maintain her displeasure through the wave of excitement that washed over her at every mention of their impending arrival. "A nap to keep you from collapsing on me isn't going to be the end of the world."
"Maybe later Cheria," Asbel replied.
"You're so stubborn!"
"Besides," Asbel continued, ignoring Cheria's outburst. "Richard is supposed to be arriving later, it would be pretty rude of me to be sleeping after he came all this way to visit."
"Well it'll be rude of you to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation with him too," she pointed out. "You won't be good company if you're fighting to stay awake all evening. I'll make sure to wake you before Richard arrives. Please Asbel, you look awful."
Asbel sighed and closed his eyes for a brief second. When he opened them again, his expression had completely changed, as if an entire conversation had passed in that single moment. Normally such a notion would be dismissed as impossible… but it had happened, Cheria knew it had. To anyone else, nothing would seem out of the ordinary but Cheria had come to recognize those moments, and perhaps it was because she had experienced it once for herself that she could see it. The way time around the two seemed to freeze while the words passed silently between their minds. It was something so subtle, yet to her who knew Asbel better than almost anyone, it was clear as day.
After their expedition to Fodra's core, Lambda had said he would dream with Fodra. If that was the case, he hadn't slept for long, or perhaps it had just been her misunderstanding his meaning. True to his word, Asbel had set off on a journey with Sophie and Richard to see the world and when he returned, she began to notice the signs of Lambda's activity again. He never intervened in their day to day life, never again spoke with her like he had in Telos Astue, but she knew he was there. Watching them as they lived their daily lives, speaking with Asbel in that silent way of his.
Cheria had tried asking Asbel about it once, why Lambda had woken. He said he wasn't sure, and Cheria couldn't tell if he genuinely didn't know, or if he simply didn't feel like sharing the particulars. Regardless, the issue didn't seem to press upon him with any degree of importance and the next few weeks of trying to get an answer had been some of the most frustrating in her life. Asbel just assured her again and again that nothing was wrong; the world wasn't falling apart again, Lambda just wasn't sleeping, and he felt no need to find out why.
"Alright," Asbel's reply extracted Cheria from her thoughts, bringing a small wave of relief. "A nap might do me some good, I guess I am kind of tired."
Well at least one of them could talk some sense into Asbel. While she was grateful for at least that much, Cheria just couldn't help but wish it were her words he was truly listening to.
For the moment though, she would accept that Asbel was conceding. She might have been quick to taunt him about it, but Cheria didn't want to think about how long this had been going on. He had such a horrid habit of putting everyone else's needs before his own, even now, and she had been watching him slowly work himself to the point of exhaustion for almost a week. Every time she tried to intervene he would brush her worries aside and push ahead, leaving her powerless to do anything but watch. Now, Cheria feared just how close to his breaking point Asbel might be.
"Good," Cheria replied, setting her concerns aside for the moment. "You won't be doing Lhant any good if you collapse. You need to take care of yourself too."
"I know," Asbel said with a smile that held so little energy Cheria wondered if he'd even make it up the stairs and into his bed. "Thanks for worrying about me Cheria."
"It's my job to worry about you," she replied. "Now get to bed and don't you dare come down until I send one of the maids up after you." If nothing else, she feared she would be sending one of them up to be sure he wasn't smuggling any of those papers up there to work on beyond her notice.
"Alright," Asbel acknowledged, and with it Cheria realized it would be fine. His tone reassured her that he was already half asleep.
Lhant had barely appeared on the horizon when Richard could hear the telltale bustle of excitement from the small hamlet. He wasn't sure whether he should be pleased at the reception he received from the small town or somewhat frustrated at all the fuss. He wondered for a moment if he should have taken a Turtlez after all rather than the small guard that insisted on accompanying him. Not that it would have made any difference; the guard would have come anyway, and if anything the Turtlez would have drawn even more attention.
Richard was grateful for the support of his people; he didn't want that to be mistaken. The respect and encouragement he was given was far more than he deserved, but none-the-less there were still days he wished he could go places without a small celebration being thrown. He'd finally managed to make enough presence in Barona that people didn't all stop in awe when he walked by, but there was still a gap between himself and those surrounding him. A distance none felt was possible to bridge, save for a handful of very special people, one of whom stood out in his mind right now. One person who had stepped over the gap like it was nothing, who had dragged him over to the other side and shown him how wonderful the world beyond could be.
Lhant couldn't come fast enough.
Though it was past the time Lhant should be harvesting, the town appeared as if it were still in the thralls of its local festival, left in place, no doubt, given his pending arrival. The townsfolk didn't seem to mind and were more than eager for another reason to celebrate. Richard couldn't deny them this, he too was glad there was ample cause for celebration. They were currently living in the single longest stretch of peace Ephinea had seen in centuries. That the people could relax and enjoy their lives, not worry about an impending attack from Fendel or about lost trading opportunities and lacking resources, it was dream come true, one he couldn't honestly say stemmed entirely from his own efforts.
Or perhaps it had somewhat, though not in a way he was proud of. He had tried to destroy everything; given the world a common enemy to unite against, and thinking of what would have happened if he'd been succeeded frightened Richard. It made for dealing with the other countries an interesting dilemma. Though the vast majority of the world's populace was unaware of his involvement in what was now referred to as the Valkines Crisis, the world's leaders all knew the full set of circumstances. While they'd accepted the explanation given to them, they were still somewhat wary of him at times, and perhaps rightfully so. After all, those feelings hadn't belonged to Lambda alone.
Shaking those dark thoughts from his mind, Richard smiled, acknowledging the populace who greeted him respectfully. Though it should have taken mere minutes to reach the Lhant manor, their progress was slowed by the excitement of the people and Richard made a mental note to tell Asbel the next time he came to visit, not to tell the rest of Lhant.
What felt like an eternity later, Richard finally found himself in the courtyard before the manor. It had changed very little, even from his childhood days, except perhaps for the beds of sopheiras that grew in ample supply since Sophie's arrival. Yet now, with the flowers all preparing for their winter sleep, it looked much like it had the very first time he had come here as a child.
Richard tried to recall what he'd thought of the manor the very first time he'd set foot here, but found the memories just beyond his grasp. They seemed so very long ago. He somehow doubted he'd even stopped to appreciate the structure or the flowerbeds. He'd been so closed off, so determined to protect himself that he hadn't even let his surroundings in. Then Asbel came crashing through those walls and for the first time he'd stopped to really see the world around him. Perhaps that meant that this place was where his world truly began.
Rushing ahead of him, Richard's attendant pushed open the manor's massive doors. Richard scowled to himself knowing exactly what was coming.
"Announcing His Royal Majesty, King Ri-"
"Oh stop that," Richard cut him off. "I'm not here on official business, that is unnecessary."
"But, your Majesty!"
Richard bit back the words that flew to his lips, knowing he was slightly exasperated from the trip and that the man meant well. Though many a day he debated replacing his attendant, he couldn't bring himself to do so. The man took a bit too much pride in his job, and liked formalities far more than Richard cared for, but his attendant tried hard and Richard could find no fault in his work.
"That'll be fine," Richard insisted. "Please see that the knights get settled in."
"Yes your Majesty," he replied eagerly and returned outside.
"I see that little has changed in the castle," Frederick's familiar voice made Richard smile.
"Indeed it hasn't, though there are days I think some change would do us well."
"Change has always been His Majesty's strong suit," Frederick replied with a short bow. "Would you like me to show you to your room?"
"Actually I'd rather see everyone first, I'm sure I can locate the guest room later."
"I believe Lady Cheria is in the kitchen at the moment, would you like me to show you the way?"
"No that's fine," Richard insisted. Though he didn't visit as often as he'd like, he knew Lhant manor almost as well as his own castle.
"Alright, please let me know if there's anything else I can do for you."
"I will, thank you Frederick."
Unlike Barona Castle that had buried the kitchen so deeply in its intricate structure, it was a miracle any food found its way out, the kitchen in Lhant Manor was an open room just behind the main hall, attached to a dining area Richard didn't doubt could feed half of Lhant. Several tall windows allowed the afternoon sun to stream into the room giving it an open and welcome feel. As soon as he entered a wonderful cacophony of aromas met with him, from baked bread to simmering spices, the very scent set his stomach rumbling. Among the kitchen staff the castle employed few, if any, rivalled Cheria's talent. Her skill and charm lay in the simplicity of the meals she cooked and care she put into them.
"I see your skills in the kitchen haven't dulled in the least," Richard commented, smiling when he saw the small jump that told him he'd caught her by surprise.
"Oh hello Richard!" Cheria replied, glancing over from the frying pan she was tending. "I didn't even hear you come in. I would have waited a bit longer but I really wanted to get supper going so we could eat at a decent hour."
"Do not concern yourself over me. I have to apologize for arriving later than anticipated."
"It's just as well, supper is taking longer than I thought it would. You'll have to forgive me for being poor company."
"Not at all," Richard returned, claiming one of the free chairs for himself. "Can I be of assistance in any way?"
"No!" Cheria burst out faster than her mind could censor her reaction. "I-I mean… No thank you, I should be just fine."
Richard laughed. "I see my reputation precedes me."
"I'm sure it couldn't have been that bad, I mean, Sophie did start eating crablettes again. All in all it only took her a week to get over it," Cheria said with a nervous laugh. She decided against mentioning that the word 'royal crablette' was still enough to make poor Sophie turn green.
"It's fine Cheria, I know my skills in the kitchen are far from adequate," Richard answered with a laugh.
"Really, don't worry about it," Cheria continued, adding some vegetables to the pan. "No one would expect the king to have to cook, you have far more important things to do with your time. Though on the subject of time, what ended up delaying you?"
"Lhant did," Richard replied with a chuckle.
"Yes, I told Asbel he might not want to mention that you were coming, but he wanted to make sure there wouldn't be any problems, and you know how the soldiers love to gossip. No one gave you any trouble, did they?"
"No, not at all," Richard provided. "They gave me as warm a reception as I've ever had. Though I admit, sometimes I simply wish people wouldn't make such a fuss."
"Well if you visited more often, then they'd have no reason to make a fuss, now would they?"
"That's very true. Sadly the throne hasn't been quite so kind to me as of late."
"Yes, Asbel says much the same of his own duties. So who is caring for the throne while you're here? Is Dalen helping out again?"
"No, I'm afraid not. I've managed to get enough work done that they shouldn't miss me for little while. I've put poor Dalen through more than enough with all the trouble I caused, and I think he's quite content to leave castle affairs to me. I've no doubt he's lost a good decade from the stress the Valkines Crisis caused him."
"I'm sure he was glad to play his part, just as we all were."
"Perhaps, still I prefer not to call on him if I can avoid it. I know he'd rush to my side no matter what it is I require, but in some ways that's all the more reason I hate to ask. I hear he's considering retirement, and since he doesn't have an heir, it's caused quite the fuss in Gralesyde."
"I didn't realize Dalen didn't have any heirs," Cheria commented, adding a handful of pasta to the boiling bot. "Does he have any other family?"
"No. My uncle's escapades have left my family dangerously thin, I'm afraid."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"It's alright, it's hardly your fault. Besides, while we're on the subject of heirs, I'm told that congratulations are in order," Richard's tone picked up.
"Thank you very much," Cheria smiled cheerfully. "Asbel and I are quite excited about it. How about you? Is there anyone special in your life?"
"I'm afraid not. I think every nobleman in the country has paraded his daughters before me, but I haven't met with anyone special. Some days I fear it may be a lost cause."
"Well don't lose hope, I'm sure there's someone out there for you, you just haven't met her yet. Besides, you need an heir for the throne in case something happens, heaven forbid."
"Yes, of that I'm well aware, and my advisors see fit to remind me at every opportunity. But given Dalen is retiring without any heirs of his own, if anything should happen, I can only think of one other person I would trust with my kingdom."
"Please Richard, don't talk like that," Cheria insisted. "No one would want that, least of all Asbel. Besides, who is this child supposed to torment if we don't have a little prince or princess running around?"
Richard laughed. "Well if they have half the energy Asbel did, you should be alright."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Cheria replied.
"Speaking of which, where are Asbel and Sophie?" Richard inquired.
"Actually, Sophie's in Yu Liberte visiting Hubert," Cheria provided. "She left just a few days before you sent word you'd be coming to visit. She'll be terribly upset to know she missed seeing you, but I suppose that just means you'll have to come visit again."
"I see you're as ruthless as ever," Richard commented and Cheria simply smiled.
"As for Asbel, he should be down any minute. Actually… I'm surprised he hasn't come down yet; I sent one of the maids to go wake him awhile ago. He's been quite excited ever since you told him you'd be coming. To be honest I'm not sure where he finds the energy. He's been working himself to the bone lately; I don't know how he's still standing some days."
"That sounds like Asbel," Richard agreed.
"Yes, he's always been stubborn that way, but lately it's been worse than usual."
"I'm not entirely sure," Cheria confessed. "He's been getting plenty of sleep, but it seems like he's always exhausted. For the past few weeks he's done nothing but work from dawn until dusk and if I'm lucky I can get him to rest long enough to eat. I know I tend to overthink things, but given his condition lately, I'm really worried. He always looks like he's ready to just give out on me."
"I'm sure he's just working extra hard for the baby," Richard provided. "With everything that happened between him and his father, I can see him worrying about such affairs already. He just needs a chance to slow down and catch up."
"I hope so," Cheria admitted.
The sound of the kitchen door drew both Richard and Cheria's attention, but where they both expected to see Asbel walk in, they found one of the maids returning from town, humming cheerfully with a bag full of fresh vegetables in her arms.
"Oh!" The maid stood startled when her eyes met the Manor's guest. "Please forgive my rudeness, I didn't realize His Majesty was in here!" She stammered out with a bow that nearly sent her parcel tumbling.
"It's fine," Richard insisted though his words did little to stave the poor girl's embarrassment.
"Actually you have good timing," Cheria piped up. "I sent Laura to go wake Asbel up but he hasn't come down yet."
"I'll go let her know you're looking for her!" The maid jumped at the opportunity and practically fled the kitchen.
"I see what you mean about the fuss," Cheria commented with a chuckle.
It was hardly a minute later when a second maid sheepishly entered the kitchen, her apron grasped tightly in her fists as she stared at the floor. Richard wasn't sure what the first maid had told her, but she was clearly expecting a scolding.
"I- I- I'm sorry Lady Cheria!" The maid sputtered out before Cheria had a chance to speak.
"You don't have to apologize, just where is Asbel? And please tell me he's not in the study working."
"N-No ma'am, he isn't. I tried knocking on his door several times but I got no reply. I thought perhaps he was already up and searched the manor but I couldn't find him. I tried knocking again but I still haven't gotten an answer."
Cheria sighed, masking the frustration she exhaled along with it. "He's probably out like a light. Just go in and wake him."
"B-But I couldn't do that! What if he were indecent? It would be improper of me to just enter the Lord's chambers while he-"
"Oh never mind," Cheria cut the girl off. "It's alright, you can go." The girl wasted no time escaping the kitchen.
"Honestly, what do they think goes on in that room?" Cheria wondered out loud with an edge of exasperation in her voice. "He was probably so tired he fell asleep with that jacket of his still on." Cheria shook her head. "I apologize," she said, turning to Richard. "The maids aren't normally this wound up."
"I'll just run upstairs and-" Cheria was cut off as her frying pan flared. She quickly gave a second pot a quick stir and Richard could see her trying to calculate how to find the time to fetch Asbel while not letting supper burn.
"Don't worry about it Cheria, I'll go wake him. I wouldn't mind the chance to chat a bit anyway."
"If you don't mind… it would be a big help."
"It would be my pleasure," Richard replied with a short bow that made Cheria giggle.
"Well don't take too long, supper should be done by the time you come back down," she provided.
Richard slipped from the kitchen, sad to leave the delicious aromas behind him and walked back out into the main hall. Frederick seemed to be busy elsewhere and save for a maid washing the windows next to the door, the room was empty. Richard let out a satisfied sigh and traced the room as he ascended the stairs. While it was largely as he remembered, small changes marked it as his friends' home. Bouquets of sopherias from Lhant Hill decorated the halls, a piano where there had once been a cannon, and pictures of Asbel's family could be found on the walls. He stopped next to Asbel's room and saw a picture of Sophie smiling down on him.
Though the maid had already told him it ended in failure, Richard still began by gently knocking on the door. When his efforts earned him no reply, he knocked again, louder this time, still to no avail. With one last knock, Richard announced that he was entering and turned the knob.
The door slid open to another familiar room. Though the furniture that had once been Hubert's was gone, replaced by a single larger bed, the room was still distinctly Asbel's. Richard only spent a brief second surveying his surroundings, instead walking towards the object of his search that was asleep exactly as Cheria had described, with his coat still on. At least he had rolled over onto his back.
"Well hello there, friend," Richard commented with a grin, expecting Asbel to wake at the sound of his voice, or at least stir, but the young king got not so much as a shuffle.
"If I had realized this was going to be so difficult I might have been inclined to bring a pail of water," Richard said jokingly, raising the tone of his voice, but still procuring no reply.
"Come on Asbel," Richard said seriously, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "If you don't wake up, Cheria's food is going to get cold and then you know you won't hear the end of it."
Asbel still didn't so much as shift, and this left Richard unsettled. He recalled what Cheria had told him earlier about Asbel overworking himself, and while he'd certainly given credit to her statement, he was starting to realize why she was so worried. If he was this tired…
"Asbel." Richard reached out and grabbed his shoulder, ready to give him a gentle shake when a familiar feeling washed through him. The entire world around him froze and there was no number of years long enough for him to forget this sensation.
"Lambda," Richard said, surprised to find himself speaking to the being. While it had been some time since he'd last spoken with Asbel, it had been even longer since his last conversation with the other consciousness that inhabited the body of his best friend.
Exactly what Lambda was… Richard wasn't entirely sure that the ancient creature himself even knew. They'd seen him take many forms, none Richard could be sure were truly his own. He was an entity that existed within another, living within vessels with no body of his own. He had lived within a humanoid, within monsters, and for a time even with Richard himself. Now he had merged with Asbel, and Richard was certain that was where he would remain until the day one of them was no longer of this world.
"Hello to you as well, it's been awhile, hasn't it?"
Lambda's simple reply somehow set Richard's nerves roiling.
"Actually, maybe you can help me Lambda," Richard continued, trying to dismiss the sudden unease that had flooded him. "Do you think you can help me wake Asbel up? He's out like a log and supper is going to get cold."
I'm afraid that's impossible now.
"Don't be silly. I know he's overworking himself and needs some rest, but if he doesn't eat it's just going to make things worse. He still has to get up and move about to keep his energy up."
I this were simply a nap, I'd be more than content to assist you in kicking this fool from his slumber.
"What do you mean?"
Asbel isn't merely tired, he is ill. He can no longer be woken.
"He's sick?" Richard moved his hand from Asbel's shoulder to his forehead. He expected to find it burning up, or at least hot to the touch, but he felt nothing save a healthy normal heat. If anything Asbel was a bit cool from lying over rather than under the covers. Reaching down for his hand, Richard felt his friend's pulse: strong and steady. He wasn't a doctor by any stretch, but he knew a weak or flighty pulse when he felt it, and Asbel was a far cry from any such thing. The hand he still held onto was as warm as he remembered, not clammy or sweating.
"Are you sure?" Richard asked, still holding onto Asbel's hand to maintain contact with Lambda. "He seems perfectly fine to me. I think you might be mistaking overworked for illness." Richard looked at his friend again; he looked just as he always did, save for the smile that had fallen from his face in his slumber.
In the blink of an eye a weight crashed over Richard the likes of which he had never felt before. His lungs pressed against his chest until he could scarcely draw breath. The very air around him pushed inwards until his body shook from the crushing pressure. The blood in his veins was lead, weighing his every limb down. Crashing to his knees from his perch on the bed, Richard fought with every fibre of his will to simply keep his eyes open. What was… happening…?
As rapidly as it had set in, the feeling vanished, leaving the young king feeling so dizzy he might fall over at the slightest touch.
Do you still think I'm mistaken?
"What was that?" Richard demanded urgently, surprised to find he had managed to maintain his hold on Asbel's hand through all that. Sitting back up on the bed, Richard fought to keep his orientation while his head still swam.
That was a fraction of what Asbel is feeling right now.
"What's going on?" Richard asked worriedly. He looked back down at his friend; he still looked like he was sleeping, though perhaps because he had felt it, Richard could see the traces of struggle hidden behind the sleeping expression. The pain that Asbel always fought to mask so others wouldn't worry. Richard could barely contain the concern for his friend that surged through him. If that was what Asbel was feeling, it was far from normal… and it was bad enough that Richard didn't need to be told he had little time to work with. "Lambda, what's wrong with him?"
I do not know. Though I suspect it has been progressing for some days now, like you I thought little of it. Now I fear we've very little time to act. Something must be done quickly.
"I would do anything in my power if it means helping Asbel. Just tell me what needs to be done."
Do you really mean that?
Even if it means carrying me once more?
Asbel's hand slipped from Richard's grasp, and with their contact broken, Lambda's voice went silent.