Syuveil examined his face in the mirror, muttering under his breath. He had fallen asleep over The Complete History of Kadessa and one of the sentences had rubbed off onto his cheek. Something about the Winglies and their architecture. He scrubbed it fiercely with his hand to remove it.
Ah, books. How wonderful they were. It took care of boredom and friendship right there. If only they could take away the memories. Those pressed hard into his mind, impossible to erase. The fact that he had fallen asleep over a book did not help things much, as it only made him think about the last time it had happened. In fact, it had been the exact same book. That day he met her and everything changed.
"Syuveil, open the door! Aren't you awake yet?" The voice pulled him away from his studies and he stumbled to the door on numb legs.
Damia was balancing on the tip of her hammer, trying to raise herself onto her toes. "It's way past dawn! Have you been sleeping until now?"
Syuveil rubbed his eyes tiredly and stared at the sky. Judging by the sun, it was almost four hours past dawn. "Ugh." He moaned, rubbing his eyes again. "I haven't been sleeping until now, I just never went to sleep."
"Did you at least find anything in your books?"
"Nothing. I even borrowed usage of Emperor Diaz's library. Absolutely nothing."
Damia swayed on her hammer and leaped off lightly. "Well, speaking of the big guy, I've got more bad news for you. He wants you to go to the Wingly mines near that new Crystal Palace. He says there's another Dragoon there."
"Me? Why me? I'm tired."
"Shirley is trying to find another Dragoon, and Belzac is working with Emperor Diaz on something or other."
"What about you?"
"Me?"Damia opened her eyes very wide and blinked them twice, looking for all the world innocent as a bird. "I can't go to the Wingly slave mines! I'm just a thirteen-year-old girl!"
Syuveil glared. "Oh sure, when we're going on dangerous flights, you're an adult. But when you have an assignment, 'I'm too young.'"
She stuck out her tongue and giggled. "That's what you get for being too old! Too bad! Get moving, Windy. It's the slave mines near the Crystal Palace. We don't know who it is yet, so take the Spirit." She tossed him a small violet-black necklace, glittering with inner fire. "Diaz narrowed it down to somewhere in the eastern part of the mines. It's a young female with dark hair. Good luck with that. Who knows how many people fit that description? You'd think they'd be able to narrow it down some more."
Still muttering darkly and rubbing sleep out of his eyes, Syuveil took the stone and headed for the Crystal Palace.
Damia, sweet Damia. Only a child and yet beneath her twirling and dancing and endless, endless chattering, she too held a soul full of pain. She knew the world was on the brink of destruction, but she clung to her childish illusions, though she knew clearly what it meant to be so falsely illusioned. He had never asked her why she did that, or how she did that. He left that answer to her, the only part that she kept private from her friends. It showed only in battle when she screamed as she struck her enemies, in the shaking of her shoulders after a fight.
She was such a darling. He missed her.
"Do you know what Lord Diaz is looking for?"
Syuveil chose his words carefully. He could not let it slip that he was searching for a person that would be part of an elite strike force that would fight the Winglies in the imminent uprising. For all purposes, Lord Diaz was still a well respected scientist and philosopher. "He is looking for a female. For an experiment." He added quickly at the guard's lecherous grin. "A dark-haired young female. A special one. I have my own locator spell."
The guard shrugged. "Go ahead. One less mouth to feed. Take the pass. Be out by sunset."
Thanking the guard, Syuveil began wandering the eastern sections of the mines, the stone surreptitiously held in his hand. Everyone here was dark-haired by being covered in soot and dust. How was he supposed to find this girl?
The slaves here mined crystals, beautiful sea-green jewels with a silver light that went to building the Crystal Palace. It seemed well enough, Syuveil mused. It was organized at least. The slaves didn't seem too unhappy here. Maybe it was not so bad.
Until he reached the mines themselves.
The mines were a series of catacombs underneath the mountains that surrounded the Crystal Palace. The several entrances to this maze of resources were located in a giant clearing also inlaid with the crystals. The slaves perhaps worked hardest here, being easier to flog in the open than in the tight corners of the mines. So these were the ones that were better off? These sweating, beaten, filth-covered Humans looked as though it was the strongest effort to try to live.
The slaves were skeleton-thin, their skin sagging on their bones. Six inches of chain separated the manacles on their wrists and ankles. Eyes were sunken and dark, no spark of life or hope anywhere. Some were young as thirteen and some old as seventy or eighty. Like the raised undead they moved, mechanically and emotionlessly. Slave drivers whipped those too slow or those that resisted—not that there were many of the latter. Despair hung like a palpable mist. Syuveil did not dare to breathe.
The Spirit-stone pulsed rhythmically in his palm, emitting a soft glow. Glad to take his eyes away from the terror in front of him, he glanced at the stone. It tugged in his hand. The girl was near. Where?
All these slaves were chipping at the rocks in search of crystals, moving mindlessly while they tried to pretend they were somewhere else. In such a situation, dreams were a necessary commodity. But none of them looked particularly special. Taking four steps in the direction the Spirit was straining, he could suddenly hear a sound in the air.
That was odd. It was more of a buzzing now, but he continued walking, heading up one of the ridges where the Stone was frantically pointing him toward.
"—silence us!" the voice was yelling. "We know what we are building! You cannot choose our lives and rule us like slaves!"
"Quiet!" Another voice was soon followed by an unmistakable sharp crack—a whip, undoubtedly beating the slave that had dared to speak up against the Winglies. Thrusting the Spirit into his pocket, Syuveil hurried toward the sounds.
The whip cracked down again, easily drawing the Wind Dragoon's eye to a female. She was curled up on the ground, trying vainly to shield herself, and amazingly, still shouting. Even as the Wingly ripped open her skin, she ignored the blood. Once, twice, thrice more the whip raised open welts.
"Stop! Stop it!" Syuveil caught the Wingly's hand before the whip could come down again.
The Wingly was obviously surprised at the newcomer, whose green robes and clear eyes definitely marked him as not a slave, Human though he may be. "Who are you?"
"I am Syuveil. I work for Lord Diaz. What were you doing?"
The Wingly bowed his head; Diaz was well respected. "I was merely beating this slave for speaking out against her betters."
"Betters, my starved body!" the girl snarled. Truly she did not know what the meaning of silence was.
The slave driver's blood-colored eyes flared and he raised the whip again. Syuveil stepped in the middle, quieting the both of them, and looked at the female.
She was tall for a slave, arms and legs long and willowy, the kind that must have been awkward during her prepubescent years. Her hair was naturally dark, even under the soot. Blood from the whipping and scars from older ones covered her body and dulled the glow of her skin but could do nothing to lessen the fire of her steel-colored eyes. She stood as straight as her wounds allowed her to do, resting her weight on one hip. Her glare was dangerous. Defiant.
A slave defiant in a Wingly camp?
Syuveil did not need the Spirit-stone to tell him he had found his Dragoon.
"Wait. I am looking for a female of her description. I will take her off your hands. I have a pass."
The Wingly hesitated. "I'll have to verify it."
Syuveil rolled his eyes and tossed the slave driver a gold coin. "It's been verified. Can we leave now or is there some sort of paperwork to be done?"
The Wingly looked at him as if he was crazy—paperwork for a simple slave? "No. But I warn you, that one is much more trouble than she is worth. I'd sleep with a knife under my pillow if I were you."
"I'll keep that in mind, thank you." Syuveil said, taking the female by one arm and leading her away.
She struggled under his grip but did not start hissing and spitting until they were away from the eyes of the other slaves and slave drivers. "I'm not leaving a public slave mine just to be your personal slave!"
"You won't be." He assured her, hauling her by the arm through the mines and workers. Personal slave indeed. He could not imagine this woman taking orders from him.
"Then where are you taking me?"
"Did it ever occur to you that I might be setting you free?"
The slave made a nasty sound. "Yeah, right." The derisive tone of her voice was bitter and harsh, dark.
Syuveil stopped walking, but kept his grip to keep her from running. He had no doubt that she might attempt to do so. "You might not believe me, but when we get back, I'll show you. Besides, I would think that you would be happy to get away from here."
"I'm not leaving without the rest of the slaves." She said flatly.
"Why? I saw them when you were screaming. They didn't bat an eye."
"They can't. To survive, you don't do anything that might attract Wingly attention. I'm the only one dumb enough to stand up against them."
"You're brave. That's another good quality we're looking for."
"We? Who we?"
"Hush." Syuveil dragged her past the perimeter guards and free of the mines. She followed quietly, though she slowed at the half-built Crystal Palace, watching the Winglies fly from one spot to another, carrying supplies. The construction of such a structure was too important to leave to slaves. Instead, the task was shifted to a handpicked force of Wingly workers.
"Do you know what they're making us mine for?" The slave asked, the fire in her eyes smoldering. Her dark aura closed around her like a cloak.
"Crystals. Toriana crystals for the new Crystal Palace."
Mud-coated eyebrows drew together. "Do you know what it is?"
"Toriana crystals are a sort of semiprecious gem that hold slight magical qualities. The Winglies will use it to rule life itself, deciding which babes in the womb will survive."
She tugged her hand away. "You know and you're not doing anything? Soa help your damned soul! How can you stand it?"
"Calm down." Syuveil told her. "Here. You are injured."
Carefully, he poured Healing Potion onto her still-bleeding wounds. In moments, the skin had knitted itself back together leaving faint markings that would disappear in a week at most. Too bad the Winglies did not care enough about their slaves to give them Potions.
The slave watched what he did not with gratitude or appreciation, but with a dark wariness. She obviously expected him to have something up his sleeve, and was surprised when he pulled his hand back.
"Everything will be explained." Syuveil explained. "Just come with me. Trust me."
She glared. "I'll follow, but only because you paid for me. Just don't expect me to trust you. And I suggest you don't trust me either."
Ah, Rose. How could he ever forget her? From the day he met her everything changed. Real life was no longer something that came after studying, life itself no longer defined clearly.
He had never met a darker person.
After her outburst and her cynical remarks, she had fallen silent. She had not said a word when they arrived at Kadessa and he led her to his tower. She took the clothes he offered and disappeared into the bath without a sound. Now Syuveil paced the room restlessly. Where was Emperor Diaz? Only he would be able to persuade this woman to join. It occurred to him that he didn't even know her name.
She emerged from the bath then and all he could do was stare.
The hot water had scrubbed off the dust and dirt of the mines. The skin, where not marred by scars and welts, was pale as ivory, once smooth. Her hair, once the pebbles and soot came out, was black as dragon glass. The shapeless brown slave tunic she had worn had not done justice for her figure, but the silk dress she now wore brought into clarity her slight figure and long legs. The scars and wounds could not deny the curve of her hip, or the elegance of her neck.
She saw him looking at her, and something of a sigh escaped from her lips. "Come then. Can we at least go to the bed?" She asked, drawing open the laces on the bodice of her dress.
"Hey! Wait!" Syuveil averted his eyes to the History of Kadessa on his desk. "What are you doing?"
She seemed confused. "Don't you want me?"
"Don't I—what? What?" None of his studying or books or long-dead scholars could tell him what to do in this situation. "I—I think you mistook my meaning, Lady."
"Were you not looking at me?" She questioned, shaking back her dark hair. "It is not as if you do not know how to take a woman. If you want me, you know fully well that you can have me. The slave driver you bought me off of did so to me many times."
"What?" Syuveil's mind was reeling, his eyes now scanning uselessly over the multitude of books scattered over his room and yet always returning to the woman standing in front of the bath. The steam still poured off her body and surrounded her in a mist. "He…he took you against your will? That is against your rights."
She glared at him. "I am a slave. We have no rights."
"No longer. You are no longer a slave here. As of now, you have been freed. All I ask is that you stay here for a while, just long enough to meet a friend of mine."
"This Lord Diaz of yours?" At least she was lacing up her dress. Syuveil began breathing again.
"Yes. I believe he would like to speak to you. It is about the slaves in your mine."
This got her attention. "What do you mean?"
"That is why I went to free you from the mines. You are one of the chosen seven that will lead the rebellion against the Winglies' rule. I am another. We are called Dragoons, the warriors of the Dragons."
"Dragons." She repeated flatly, and again he realized he did not know her name. "You expect me to believe that I am chosen by a dragon. I am a slave. I am nothing more than a slave. Dragons do not choose slaves."
Syuveil hesitated. "I do not yet know your name, Lady."
Her eyes flashed for a moment and her shoulders shifted. "I was once called Rose."
"Rose. Do you really expect me to believe that you are just a slave? Slaves too can be chosen by Dragons, for it is the calling of the heart, like to like. One of the Dragons sought your soul, knew your heart. He chose you to be his new Master, slave or not. But you are no born slave. You were once a noblewoman."
She was surprised. "How did you know?" She finally asked.
"When you shook back your hair, I saw you had pierced ears. Only the nobles have pierced ears. And the way you walk, the way you act. The haughtiness in your tone. You are the daughter of a Human noble that fell on hard times. Your family could not protect you when the Winglies took over your home and dragged you off to the slave camps. They probably killed your parents. It was not so long ago; that is why you are still so fiery, still able to fight the Winglies, which explains the scars that cover your body. But…you fight for something, not just the Cause. What happened? Who did they take from you?"
Rose stared at him with a new light in her eyes. "Very good. You are not some stupid bookworm, after all."
"Who was it?" Syuveil persisted gently.
She looked away for the first time, eyes flashing, fists clenched. "My sister. She was nearly twelve. She didn't understand and she fought them. We had each been given a dagger, to use if need be. She only knew she was being threatened, and reacted like any animal would. She took it out and cut one Wingly's leg. He howled in pain and beat her up. It was bad. I couldn't do anything to help her. They had dragged me away and I fought to get back to her, but they outnumbered me. I could hear her screams, yelling for help, for my mother and father, for me to help her. But I could not."
"His comrades pulled him off her, but I could see the blood over her face, the pain. They were saying how she was damaged now, no good to them. She couldn't be sold and she couldn't work. Don't waste the money. So the one that she had cut. He took out his sword and," her breath hitched a little. "He took out his sword and slit her throat open. Just like that. He killed my sister, the bastard." Her fists clenched tighter, knuckles white. "I watched and I wasn't able to help her. They took me to the mines and I saw what it was like for the rest of the slaves. They're broken, lost. I had to help them. I couldn't watch them wither away and die like my sister."
"What was her name?"
Rose's her lips carefully shaped the word like it was one of the highest forbidden spells. "Aurora."
Oh. Light to her dark. "You must have been close." He said.
She tossed one of his books at him. Only Dragoon-trained reflexes got him out of the way; her aim was true and her arm strong. "I don't need any of your stinking sympathy! I'm here for a reason. You bought me, and obviously, it's for some reason. You want me to meet this boss of yours. Fine. I'll meet him. I won't guarantee anything though. Unless you order me to." She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him, testing him.
Syuveil sighed deeply. "What will it take?" he said. "I have fed you and bathed you. I have taken you away from the mines. I am freeing you. You are a free Human as of now, Rose. All I ask if that you meet Lord Diaz and listen to what he has to say. We're not here to bully your or order you into submission. You're your own person. So are we. Here we don't try to change that. You should meet Shirley and Damia and Belzac. You'd like them."
She continued glaring at him, but as he observed her—this time from a detached view like a scientist—he could read the emotions in her eyes. She had been betrayed too—maybe one of her servants had sold them out to the Winglies in trade for his own freedom. Rose had been beaten by life and stood back up, willing to take another beating but no longer believing that it would not come. She had lost her precious disillusion and spurred her dark side into dominance. No wonder she would be the Darkness Dragoon.
Yet he saw the underlying hope in the gray depths. She wanted to be saved, to be held, to know that the pain could go away and she could do something to help other people. She was not completely withdrawn.
Syuveil walked up to her and held out his hand, fingers closed, waiting.
Rose held out her hand cautiously. "What?"
The chain with the Darkness Dragoon Spirit was set onto her palm where it glimmered in the soft light with its dark glow. It had found its master, emanating its pleasure. It knew Rose, deeper than anyone did at the moment. It pulsed with power in her hand. "Is this for me?" She asked quietly.
"Yes. I'd like to say it's from me, but it's not really. It's from the rest of the team, and the Darkness Dragon. It's the necklace that is going to explain everything for you. Put it on. I think you will understand."
Declining his help, she did so, the pendant lying between her collarbones, emitting its light and bringing a priceless smile to her face. Tendrils of dark light snaked up from the pendant to wrap around her body and frame her head. "What is this?"
"It is your future, and the future of the slaves. Lord Diaz will be able to explain the details to you. But that is the core of it. I have one too." He gestured to the green one lying against his tunic. "For the Wind. Like you, I have been chosen to fight for the cause."
Gray eyes narrowed. "You have lost someone too."
"I was an orphan that lived with a group of scholars. We were a close-knit group, until the Winglies thought that we were too educated and too dangerous to roam free. They dragged off many of the higher scholars to be hanged. They burned our buildings and libraries and killed many of us. I was among the handful that managed to escape. They didn't just destroy life that day, they destroyed the essence of wisdom."
"Is…is everyone here like this? Carrying their pain and understanding the loss?" He knew how much it hurt her to spit out those words.
"Yes. Perhaps Shirley most of all, because she takes on the pain of other people. It is her gift to help others feel better, but at her own expense. You do not have to be alone anymore, Rose. We can share in your pain."
She stared up at him, tears in her eyes. Her world of solitude was crashing down around her and she didn't know what to do.
So Syuveil took her face between his hands and kissed her gently. It was unexpected—to both of them. He didn't know why he was doing it, or how, for that matter. But she didn't resist. Arms slid around his waist, arms still soft despite her work at the mines, and she kissed back with a tenderness that she must have been keeping buried. Her instant disillusionment, her harsh life in the mines, her repeatedly battered pride when the Wingly commanded her to let him take her—all that disappeared when she found the comfort in Syuveil's arms. The wind played over them, singing softly, and Syuveil pulled away, shamefaced.
"I am sorry." He said, turning red. "I'm very, very sorry. I do not know what I did that. I should never have. Please accept my apologies."
She was smiling, obviously enjoying his discomfort. "Why are you sorry? It was…nice. Why apologize for something that you did? Have your regrets before, not after."
"Well, but…the book of etiquette says that—"
Her eyes glittered dangerously though she never lost the smile. "If you do not shut up and do it again, I will take your 'book of etiquette' and beat you over the head with it."
She changed his life then, bringing him away from a world of books where everything was in control. She showed him fire and passion and darkness and life. Life was no longer a word in a book. She had agreed instantly to Diaz's offer and worked her way into the hearts of all of the other Dragoons. They all loved her.
Love. Love was another word in a book until he met her. Until he met her, he had never known the fire. She was the reason a little smile came to his face when he got out of bed. He never tired of seeing her, or listening to her cynical remarks, or debating with her no matter how stubborn she was.
Until Zieg came along.
If only Emperor Diaz had not found that boy…well, no, those were selfish thoughts. Without Zieg, the war would not have been won. Without Zieg, the elite team of Dragoons would never have succeeded in any of their missions. But without Zieg, Rose would not have left him.
He had been there when they first met, and he saw the burning light in Rose's eyes. She was experiencing something she had never known with him. Though she had been comfortable with him, even loved him, it had not been enough because she had found her soulmate now. He knew, in that instant Rose smiled, that he had lost her.
"'Tis not you." She insisted. "Do not think that it is your fault. And I would like to believe that it is not mine either. But Fate has seen it fit that we are not meant to be."
If their roles had been reversed, a biting remark would have come, saying how using Fate was but an excuse. But that was Rose's role, and Syuveil could only blink. He had known, after all, that everything would change when he met her, and that things would change when he lost her. He only wished that she would say something less detached, something that reminded him more of the fiery dark Rose he had first met. This pleading shadow was not his Rose.
"Syuveil." She said desperately, trying to get him to meet her eyes. "Please. Look at me. Syuveil.""Syuveil! Damn it, wake up!"
Whoa. Wait a minute. That wasn't how things went.
Syuveil blinked slowly, dragging himself away from a world of memories. The dusty remains of his preserved Tower room came into focus—the desk with its Completely History of Kadessa, the filthy mirror that he could still somehow see through, the age and pain that each Dragoon carried, and Rose.
That couldn't be. But yet there she was, looking not a day older than the day she left him. Their relationship had been civil if not warm after their breakup, but they had watched each other's back in battle. Her face was warm now, even if she was scowling at him.
"It's me, Syuveil. Rose."
"How are you here?" He was not stupid. He knew that he had died. He remembered dying.
She bit her lip and shrugged. "It is a long story, one that would bore you. You never liked story tales very much. But the point is that I'm back, and we need to talk to you."
"We?" Only now did he see Zieg standing behind her. "Oh. You bring him here with you?"
"That is not Zieg." Rose said, gesturing to the boy. "This is Dart, Zieg's son. Millennia have gone by and it does not seem logical to you, I know, but believe me. I am telling the truth. Do you know what has happened?"
"I died in one of the first battles. Blasted Virage, I think it was. Or was it a Wingly? I just remember pain. But yes, I remember death, and I know I have been here for a long, long while."
She settled to a crouch to look at him. "If you know that you are dead, and that you are nothing but a shade now, why have you clung to this existence?"
Syuveil thought about her words, thought about the endless waiting. Corners and ink and books and thoughts. "Because I wanted to figure out the difference between life and death. Because I wanted to find knowledge before I passed."
Rose made a noise that sounded very unladylike. "Bullshit." She said. Ah, there was the fire he had missed. "Life, death, it does not take millennia of clinging to a dusty old room to figure out the distance. And you already have knowledge. You have read the books in here hundreds of times each. What would reading them one more time teach you? No, those are false reasons, my friend. While I am sure you were afraid, I think there is another reason. Tell me. I wish to know."
"I did not stop loving you, you know." She said quietly, so quietly the boy Dart could not hear. "I did not stop caring about you. You just weren't my soulmate. It didn't change my feelings about you in any way. I just couldn't have you dreaming on and believing things that weren't real, leading you on. It would be unfair. You always did have a hard time discerning real and unreal. Please, tell me why you stayed. I need to know if I am to understand you."
Syuveil looked into her gray eyes one last time. "To see you again. Somehow I knew that you would survive and that you would be back. I needed to see you one more time before letting go of this world completely. Darkness Dragoon you may be, but you were the light in my life. I had to see you, to assure myself that everything was real and true, before I could go into the darkness and disappear. I loved you, and I didn't stop. I love you."
For a moment it looked as if tears would come to her eyes. But she had turned tough again, suffering more losses and pains. She no longer had the Originals to comfort herself with, no one to talk to and share the pain with. Perhaps her life was more agonizing than his death.
She smiled for him. It was a forced smile, but the fact that she tried it for him was more than enough. She reached up, took his face between her hands, and brought her lips to his.
It was a chaste, gentle kiss compared to the ones in the past, but her lips were so soft and she could get rid of some of her own pain while easing his own. She pulled away though she did not release her grip. Where they touched, lines blurred. The dead and the living conflicted. She looked a shade too for a moment, so much so that Dart pulled her back.
"I do love you. Don't doubt that." She said to Syuveil. "And I can't promise you that letting go of this world leads to light. But I can't say that it leads to darkness either. There is nothing to be afraid of because what will come, will come."
He smiled even as he felt the pull of the other side at him. Soon he would disappear. He did not know what was on the other side but confronting it was better than living in fear of it, especially now that he was sure he had Rose's love and was reassured of the line between real and unreal. "Darkness and light. You have already torn down the wall of difference between them for me, Rose. You changed it all. I am not afraid to disappear anymore. You are my darkness and my light. I love you."