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Aiuna's Demand

Prequel to "Stone Magus"

    Chapter I

      It had been over two centuries since Rokian had last seen Aiuna, and today during his daily devotional, she just… appeared. Her shining crimson gown rippled at her ankles, as if she created her own breeze in the otherwise still room. 

     He jumped to his feet before she spoke. She allowed none of her clerics to bow in her presence, but he hung his head, ashamed to look at her. When he last saw her, it was to redress him for his betrayal. The tightness in her voice that day still haunted him. He never imagined the lack of his attention would hurt a Goddess, but it had. 
     In retribution, she reduced his entire village to cinders. And although rebuilding took years, she spared everyone’s lives, and her blessings appeared only days after. The diversity of plants that sprouted from the ashes were like nothing any of them had seen. Other than an array of multicolored blooms, a yellow succulent - rich in protein - staved off famine, a puffed white flower served as a powerful poultice that healed the injured, and new trees bloomed that produced fine +hardwood for construction.
     Her hands made and destroyed worlds, and he would never question her again. 
Today, she radiated calm and joy. But regardless of the brutality she was capable of, he never feared her, and warmth flushed to his face at a mere glance. She brushed a marbled curl from her eye, exposing the golden iris beneath. Rokian knew it was impossible to love another female as he did her, so he hadn’t bothered.
     “I missed you as well Cleric Sylrel.” 
     He stiffened at the formality of the title, uncertain if she teased. Sometimes it could be difficult to tell. She winked at him before flicking her fingertips as if casting off water, and her altar vanished. A black lounge appeared in its place, and Aiuna stretched across it before propping herself on a tricep and gesturing for him to sit. 
     “How may I be of service, my Goddess?” 
     She rolled her eyes and adjusted the golden cords at her waist absentmindedly. “You know better than that.”
     “I am sorry Aiuna, but I did not wish to be disrespectful.” 
     “You have suffered enough. I have heard your voice every day-as promised.” Rokian’s spine straightened, and a smile crossed his lips. She had been listening. But unsure of what words might heal the rift between them, he sat in silence.
     “We used to have the most thought-provoking discussions.” 
     The back of her fingertips slid over the edge of her chin as if in reflection. “Maybe I left you for too long. Ask the first thing that comes to mind.” 
Since lying to her wasn’t possible, this was a dangerous game she played.
     “Did you really need this many years to decide if I was worthy?” 
     Her eyes lit in amusement. “That is much better! But yes, I did. You forsook me to go play with that traitorous elf of yours.” 
     Rokian’s thin fingers clenched into a fist, and his nails dug into his palm. He had sacrificed two centuries with her because of a dalliance with an abusive male that he could never love as he did his Goddess. That time passed in a blink to an immortal, but it was a tenth of his life. 
     “I will never forgive myself for turning away from you and would understand if you did not either.”
     The shimmering polish on her fingernails flickered in the mage light when she patted beside herself, encouraging him to come closer. Her long legs extended across his lap as she stretched, settling into him. 
     “Well, I have. And it is time for you to do the same.” 
     When she smiled again, he forgot himself and met her gaze. Once before, he had done that, and didn’t remember the entire month afterward. If she chose not to damper the song of her magic, the low hum would shift into a deadly symphony until it burned a mage from the inside out. Today, she let him hear her for only a moment, and his heart fluttered when she grazed his hand, to pull him back into himself.
     “If I recall, red is your favorite.” She twisted her wrist and held the fine stem of a wine flute between her fingertips. 
     “But my visit this evening is not for pleasure, Rokian.” As graceful as a swan, she passed him the sparkling liquid, but his head still swam at the sound of his name on her lips. 
     “I came with a purpose…an opportunity.” 
Rokian’s eyebrow raised as he sipped from the glass. Pure energy flowed down his throat with a sweet bite, energizing him, refilling depleted magic. Aiuna watched him, letting him enjoy the moment. His body relaxed with a sigh, and when his head leaned against the backrest, he grinned and rolled it to the side to look at her. 
Her tongue prodded the tip of a canine as she smiled. “Feeling better?” 
Rokian nodded and rested a hand on her voluptuous thigh. 
     She snickered. “Good. As I was saying, there is something I need, and you are the only elf I trust enough to ask.”  
     “You know I live and breathe for you. What would you have me do?”
     “There is a female youngling in King Rainier’s court. Retrieve her for me.” His forehead crinkled, and his head tilted in confusion at the strange request.
     “A half-elf. But her mother needs to join her, and it will not be easy to convince him to part with his most prized alchemist. As usual, I prefer as few deaths as possible.” Rokian curled his nose at the notion of negotiating with the sycophant. 
     “Is this not something you would rather the inquisitor do for you?”
     “If I wanted Castian to do it, I would have already asked him,” she snapped. 
      His breath skipped. What was he thinking? If she angered and turned from him again, this would be the last he saw of her.
     “Are there any special considerations to make when planning how to… collect her?”
     She sighed. “I understand that you are not fond of children love, but above all else, I  expect you to be kind. The female has been through enough to serve my purpose. She need not be broken further.” 
     He opened his fingers, allowing his glass to plummet and it vanished before shattering against the stone. The Goddess sat with her legs still draped atop his lap. Her warm breath against his neck ignited every nerve, and when her gold tipped nail slipped over his carotid artery, he stopped breathing.
     There was one female in all Neuralia that held Rokian’s attention, and she was close-so close. But to touch her could cause instant death. She played such cruel games with him. His hands trembled, so he spoke to distract himself. 
     “Is there something specific you had in mind?” 
     She scrunched her nose then reclined as if pleased that he had passed another of her tests. 
     “No, I leave the method to you. Bring her here and treat her with kindness. Once you have completed this task, I will return.” 
     A light he didn’t even realize filled the room vanished in an instant, and Rokian kneeled in the position she’d found him. It was as if none of it had happened, a fantasy turned delusion. He sat back onto his heels and listened for his gift. His magic no longer buzzed quiet like an annoying fly. Instead, it echoed against the walls of the temple - restored. He pressed his awareness through the boundaries of the keep, searching mentally for his mate.
     Aiuna has returned to me. 
     In the library, Kailu shot to his feet.

Chapter II

     Rokian worried about getting stopped by his clergy on the way upstairs to his chambers. So, instead of taking the main stairwell, or the ones past the kitchens, he crossed the corridor into the gallery. With no one in sight, his hand wiggled behind a painting of Orlana that extended almost floor to ceiling. He paused for a moment and gazed at the Goddess’s palace, pleased by the thought he may have the opportunity to visit again.
     After peeking out the entryway a second time, his fingertips found the latch underneath the gold filigree frame and lifted. It hadn’t been used in decades and swung away from the wall with a loud groan. He pulled it shut behind him, sealing himself into complete darkness.    
     He searched with his mind again to his mate, pleased to have an excuse to use his gift. It had been so long. 
     Meet me in my chambers. 
     When Kai’s deep chuckle reached him, goosebumps raised on his flesh. After brushing aside dozens of spiderwebs in the passageway—trying not to envision their builders—he exited into the clean room. 
     Jaila jumped and a single brown strand tumbled from her bun as she rounded on him. “Cleric Sylrel! Look at all the dust you swept in. It will take hours to make this space functional again!” She grumbled while pulling open a drawer to retrieve supplies. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you move my conservatory over here.” Rokian humored her obsessive need for cleanliness because the mousy little elf was the best curator on the continent. She picked up the text before her with gloved hands, and wrapped it in linen, as if bundling an infant. 
     “I am sorry, you know I would never—”
     “Out, out!” She pointed at the glass door. “Now, I must find someone to assist with cleaning, but not until I preserve these tomes.” On a normal day, he might offer to stay and help. But since opening the passageway brought a negligible amount of dust, she would need to handle it today on her own. 
     As soon as he burst through the doorway, Kailu slipped an arm around Rokian’s torso and twisted his fingers through his brown curls before drawing him against his chest. He softened when their lips first met, but pressed against him moments later with passion before breaking their embrace. Kailu left his cleric swooning—he always did—but held him close and purred in his ear. 
     “I have never heard you that clearly.” 
     A wide smile crossed Rokian’s face. “I feel… more alive than I have in so long.”  Kailu’s pale fingers wrapped around his mates and he led him across the room to the bar in the corner. He gestured for Rokian to sit, and started cutting fresh mint, before removing two clear glasses from beneath the countertop. Rokian sat with a half grin, recalling the moment his power returned. 
     “How long will you make me wait? What did she say?” 
     “Well, other than the obvious? She’s given me a job to do.”
     Kailu rolled his eyes as he poured a clear alcohol over the mint and added lemon. “Pfft. It is always something with her. What is it this time?” 
     “There is a youngling…” 
     His mate stiffened and his jaw fell. “She came to you about a youngling?” 
     Rokian examined his face and the cords in his neck before continuing. “Is something wrong?” 
     “I just know how you feel about them, love. You must admit, it is a strange request.” 
     The cleric nodded. “It is, and there could be several reasons for it, but I will not question her.” Kailu passed his drink across the bar and stepped around to sit beside him. 
     “Of course not. Sorry I interrupted your thoughts. Please continue.” 
     “There is a female in Erysall…” Kailu’s nose curled at the name, but he remained silent.. 
     “… I am supposed to get her here. Somehow. And her mother—the royal alchemist—is to join her.” His mate brushed his long platinum hair over his shoulder as he stood and rubbed the back of his neck. 
     “Kai, in all seriousness, what is wrong with you?” Rokian asked. 
     Kailu sighed and looked to the other side of the room. “King Rainier is a beast of the worst kind love... So how do you want to do this?” This was one reason Rokian loved his mate. Above all else, they were a team. When Aiuna gave him a directive, it was for both of them. Even though Kailu did not worship her—in the temple anyway—she knew both of them would execute the order. 
Rokian’s mouth twisted to the side. “We need to find out how to get close to the alchemist.”
     “Oh, that is simple enough,” Kailu said.
     “We have been instructed to minimize loss of life.” Rokian was incapable of taking a life and Aiuna understood that. The warning was not meant for him; rather for Kailu. He had plenty of ways to do his job, so murder was unnecessary—and had been for a long time. But it had been so long since her last visit, maybe she didn’t know that.
     No love, she knows I do not need to resort to that. But she is unwilling to stop admonishing me. We have our own things to discuss… eventually. 
     Rokian’s cheek twitched at the reminder that she never snubbed his other half. But then, he didn’t neglect her for another elf either. She’d taken Rokian’s gift before he and Kailu even met. The jealousy passed at the thought of finally being able to talk to his mate with telepathy and his face warmed.
     Kailu leaned onto his elbow and stared into his eyes with a devilish grin. 
     I have missed it too. Look closer and see what else I am thinking about.  
     Rokian winked as he rose. “I know better than that. We have things to do, and will never get them done dallying here together.”  
     Kailu growled again, raising the hairs on his mate’s arms. “Alright, Aiuna’s demands first, but we are staying in my chambers tonight.” 
     He shivered at the thought and shared it mentally before moving toward the door. 
     “You are awful,” Kailu growled. 
     “But you love me anyway.” He winked before they left the room together, not paying attention, and tripped over Lucy in the corridor. The light shined across her face through the window, making it almost impossible to see the pale crystal blue in her eyes. This resulted in both a terrifying and stunning effect of having virtually no irises at all. She smiled at her twin before looking back at Rokian. 
     “I did not want to bother you, but… the Goddess visited?” As an empath, Lucy not only felt the waves of emotion exuded by the cleric, but likely from Aiuna herself when she arrived. 
     “Next time, let yourself in. Why must I keep telling you that? I have promised to lock it when I need to be alone.” 
     “Because she has manners, Rokian. Give her a break. She only moved in a week ago.” 
     Rokian’s olive skin highlighted Lucy’s pale features when he took her hands. “You spent so many years with us, it is easy to forget you are still adjusting to your new position. I have asked you to serve as my personal assistant because I trust you. And I expect you to be part of these conversations.”
     She bit her lip in thought before speaking. “Did she give you back your gift?”
     Rokian nodded and held up a finger. “But that does not mean you are no longer needed. I did not call on you because of my disability. On the contrary, it will be much more interesting working with you now.” Her already pleasant smile grew. 
     “We need to discuss a way to summon you when something important is happening.” He could only speak inside the mind of those with similar gifts, otherwise he was limited to only listening or seeing their thoughts. 
     “I can hear you a little, you know? At least enough to recognize if you repeat my name. A benefit of sharing blood with Kai.” She wrinkled her nose at her twin. “So there is at least one good thing about having to deal with him.” 
     His crossed arms threatened to bust out of his tan linen shirt as he glared with mock seriousness. He could terrify almost everyone he desired, but his sister was not among them—another significant reason to have her at Elden Keep. She narrowed her eyes in a playful response and mimicked his posture.
     Kailu chuckled. “Alright, I am going to my chambers. There are a few individuals I need to contact. It will take longer, but we can get inside without hurting anyone.” 

Chapter III

     Nothing could have prepared Rokian for the sight of what the mad king had done to Calsley castle. Once one of the most beautiful structures on the mainland, it sat in ruins as far as Rokian was concerned. Rainier demolished the delicate spires and replaced them with turrets crafted with rough-hewn stone that didn’t even match the remaining structure. The arboretum and gardens along the north and east walls were now surrounded by thirty-foot barriers. As Rokian stared at dozens of other grotesque modifications, bile rose in his throat. He took a deep breath and pretended he was somewhere he had never been. 
     The high elf glanced up to the alure and shielded his eyes from the sun to count the guards walking between each turret. He paused at the sight of so many and held out his arm to stop his party from advancing.
     “Do we need to consider this a threat?” Olog asked. 
     Kai projected a thought to all of them. He always runs this castle as if preparing for a raid. 
     The cleric smiled at the sound of his mate’s voice in his mind. Kai had been working as staff for an entire season to learn the inner workings of Calsley and develop a plan to extract the youngling they’d been sent for. 
     I have missed you. Rokian projected back. Are we okay to proceed?
     Would I send you into a lion’s den? Kai asked. 
     Rokian snickered and tucked a curl behind his ear. Yes, my love. You definitely would. 
     A guard dressed in gray escorted them inside and left them in a sitting room. Rokian’s escorts stood a body length behind, as they waited for a castle ambassador to arrive. 
     The king decorated the welcome room to the left of the atrium in deep purples and blues. These were very common colors for conceited men like Rainier, as those shades of dye were rare and expensive. Although the palette in the room was very telling about his personality, the amount of iron spread throughout was even more so. 
     Many humans believed iron protected them from magic. If Kailu hadn’t already sent a message warning him of this king’s fear of the gifted, he would have known the second he stepped inside. Every handle, furniture leg, and picture frame was cast of the metal, and most of the decorative pieces scattered around were as well. 
     However much the king hated magic users; it wasn’t strong enough to reject the business offer Rokian made a month ago. A small male clad in bright red swept into the space and bowed by way of greeting. 
     “I am Magister Brem. My apologies for the delay.” 
     The spindly fellow had a smudge across his cheek, and his robes were wrinkled. No respectable ruler would send an emissary dressed like this to greet an esteemed guest. But at least he sent the right man. They were here under the guise of needing their alchemists to make an elixir in exchange for the seeds of a very rare plant. This would give them a reason to inspect the laboratories. And the magister could give him the tour himself.
     “I am sorry if we pulled you from your work.” Rokian gestured at his own face, and the alchemist turned toward a mirror. He chuckled and wiped away the blemish before turning back to the cleric. 
     “I imagine it has been a long journey. King Rainier has invited you to join him for his mid-day meal.” 
     The little male shouted his thoughts into Rokian’s head. He was so loud, the cleric couldn’t ignore him even if he wanted to.
If I bring these orcs, the king will be furious. Brem thought as he looked over Olog and Thalla, checking for weapons; though he would find none. 
     But, as magus, their gifts provided them with weapons that only they could conjure. So often, they carried no more than a dagger.  
     Rokian leaned into his line of vision, breaking Brem’s nervous gaze away from his bodyguards. 
     “Where I go, they go. If it is going to be a problem…”
     Brem bowed again. “I was only making certain they are not armed cleric. Certainly, you understand.”
     “They are my advisors,” Rokian said. “What need have we for weapons here? I know they look scary, but they are scholars, not warriors.” 
     “Of course, sir,” Brem said. 
     The alchemist straightened and led them to the end of the main court before turning down a long corridor. He pushed against a heavy set of oak doors using his entire body, and they slid open to reveal a gallery covered from ceiling to floor with royal portraits. 
The Blackburn family had ruled Erysall for so many generations, that they named the woodlands surrounding the castle in honor of them. Rokian clasped his hands at the small of his back and studied a life-sized canvas of a pair of Erysall’s previous rulers. The queen sat on the throne, in a gown of emerald green, her head held high. Her king stood beside her, a hand tenderly placed on her shoulder, wearing matching garb, lined with furs. The mad king’s thoughts drifted down the hallway, and Rokian rolled his eyes when the doors open and closed behind him.  
     Aiuna grant me patience, Rokian prayed.
     He plastered a smile on his face and pivoted before nodding his head in respect. The king bristled that the high elf hadn’t dipped lower in greeting, but Rokian didn’t even bow to his own Goddess. 
     “I’m glad to see you arrived safely.” He gestured to the table at the far end of the room. “Please, sit. The servants will bring refreshments in a few moments.” Rokian took a moment to gaze at the portrait again before turning. 
     “Your grandparents were loved by so many. I was sorry to hear of their passing.”
     The king shrugged. “I never met them. Did you know them personally?” 
     He and Rokian walked together toward the ornately carved walnut dining table, ignoring Olog and Thalla—the way they preferred. 
     “Not well. But the few memories I have are good,” Rokian said. 
     It was a complete lie. Although not Aiunite’s themselves, a large percentage of their kingdom was inhabited by elves. So they concerned themselves with the needs of the gifted and supported the order. There used to be a temple in Erysall, a large one. And Rokian himself lived here for about five years until they found a cleric appropriate for such a large delegation. But Rainier’s father burnt it to cinders almost a century ago, leaving the cleric no need to return. 
     The two of them sat, while Olog and Thalla stood behind Rokian against a wall, hands folded in front of themselves. 
     “Would your advisor's care to sit?” 
     Rokian waved his hand in their direction. “At the kings table?” He laughed and glanced over his shoulder before rolling his eyes.      “Hardly. What must you think of us?” 
     Rokian’s stomach flipped at the need to treat two of his most trusted council members with such utter disrespect. But as expected, Rainier smiled with delight. And for the tenth time already, Rokian hated being able to hear the beast’s thoughts. 
     “Mr. Sylrel, how is—”
     “Cleric,” Thalla said sternly. Both males spun in shock that she’d commented. 
      Rainier stood, his head tilted to one side. “Excuse me, female? Did you… just interrupt me?”
     She nodded and took a step forward. “I did. The cleric should be addressed by his title. It is a mark of disrespect to do otherwise.” 
     Rokian was glad that the king had his back turned to him, or he would have seen his smirk. If there was anything the lout despised more than magic, it was disrespectful females. 
     Rainier lifted his hand, summoning a guard. When a brute lumbered past the head of the table and reached out with a black gloved fist to grasp her, Thalla jumped away. But before he lunged for her, Rokian snapped to his feet, glad that his magus still contained themselves. He’d let himself get distracted reading Rainier’s thoughts for too long. 
     “Thalla!” he shouted. “I have trained you better than this!” He turned and pointed to the guard. “You will keep your hands off her. She is in my thrall, and I will handle her insolence!” 
     The human’s eyes flashed to the king, who nodded. But Rainier eyed them, forcing Rokian to continue a charade that made him ill. He stomped over to her and grabbed her bicep. And when she opened her mouth to speak, the back of his hand struck her, knocking her head to the side. 
     “Hold your voice!” Rokian shouted as he pressed her against a wall. Her tongue flicked out to prod the split corner of her lip. If they hadn’t planned this, the thoughts running through her mind would have sent him running in fear for his life. Even still, Olog vibrated in anger at the disrespect towards his mate, and Thalla’s green skin turned gray as heat rose into her face. Rokian wished he could communicate with them, but they understood what to do.  
     “Olog! Take her elsewhere and be sure she remembers her place before you return. I’ll not have you making a mess here. We are visitors for the gods’ sakes.” He tossed her towards her mate, whose nostrils flared in an attempt to maintain control. 
Olog’s eyes flashed, and a wide grin crossed his face before he gripped her by the nape as if claiming her. She grunted then growled at him in response. He loomed over her, glaring. When her gaze sank to the floor, he ogled her body without shame, as if glad to finally have permission to take her. 
     “Yes, sir. It’ll be my pleasure,” Olog said before shoving her out of the gallery. Rokian’s gut flipped again. If he were going to cast a play, these two would star in it. 
     Rainier’s grin was wide, so ready to believe the disgusting stereotype. Some of the best people Rokian knew were orcs, but he wasn’t here to conquer the king’s racism. He’d rather the king be dead, but he had too many allies to simply eliminate. When Kai told them how to best proceed, not one of them believed the king would be this easy to manipulate. But based on his behavior, and the erratic and hateful chain of thoughts, he’d gone as mad as everyone said. The cleric sat and pressed his fingertips against his forehead before meeting Rainier’s gaze.
     “My sincerest apologies your highness. This is what happens when you attempt to turn an animal into a scholar. Choosing her to join me was a mistake that I will rectify after we conclude our business.” The king hefted a pewter cup filled almost to the brim with red wine so dark, it looked like blood. 
     “That is why I do not keep females as advisors,” Rainier said. He clucked his tongue before gulping half the chalice. “They are too emotional to rely on for anything important.”  

Part IV

     Olog pushed Thalla into the room at the Inn and slammed the door closed behind him. His mate locked her fingers behind his head and forced him against the frame. Long brown strands of hair hung in her face, having fallen loose from the rough handling. Olog’s fingers laced behind her neck, and he pulled her close, nuzzling his forehead against hers. 
     “I am so sorry,” he said. 
     Thalla chuckled. “For a second or two there, you even had me convinced.” 
      Their eyes closed, enjoying the moment of intimacy and Thalla breathed him in deeply. Olog’s powerful arm looped her waist and tugged her closer, as his head dipped to nuzzle her neck, a sharp tusk scraping against her lower jaw. She trusted her mate, and the vulnerable position made her heart race. She leaned back slowly, so that the pointed tips didn’t injure the soft tissue of her throat.
     “For Aiuna’s sake, you beast. Go protect our cleric.”  
     Thalla linked her pinky finger around a tusk and pulled him down to her. She locked eyes with him and pressed her palm into the middle of his chest before kissing each tusk and releasing him. Olog shivered at the contact and winked at her.
     “We hunt tonight, after the sun sets,” he said. Thalla’s heart raced again, and she wrinkled her nose at him before he left. 
     After untying her white cincture and placing it on the mattress, Thalla pulled the crimson robes over her head and tossed them to the floor with a loud sigh. She donned her leathers and strapped the daggers into a more convenient place on her hip before smiling at her reflection.  
     A rip in the fabric of space itself opened behind her, and she stepped into the void. Cool darkness surrounded her, and she stood waiting. Its inky black interior unnerved most people, and it took years of training to be able to tolerate more than a few seconds.           Because inside, the sound of your own breathing, or your heartbeat, vanished. All that remained to guide you were the pull of the magus mark and touch. Thalla stretched her arm forward just in time to brush an eldritch as it zipped past. When it paused and turned, she projected a thought and an image of the forest behind the barrier wall. 
     Show me the way, friend.
     She upturned her palm, and the jagged talons scratched against her forearm as it gripped her wrist. The shadow djinn would guide wherever commanded. If fear entered you when they were close, they would shred you to pieces. They didn’t guide random magus’ from the kindness of their heart—because they didn’t have one. It behooved them to stay nearby as long as possible, just in case you had a single moment of doubt. There was good reason few magus were brave enough to command these beasts.    
     The void opened, and the eldritch released her. It moved forward to escape, and she held up a single hand as she passed, halting its progress. Its terrible voice projected into her thoughts. It made the echo of many voices at once, almost human in cadence, but instead of words, sound carried in vibrations you could feel in your bones. 
     The creature hoped to cow her before she left, but she smiled and bowed her head in thanks before the void snapped shut. 
     Kailu’s voice replaced the eldritch as she got her bearings. I’ll find you. Stay there.
     Thalla sat on a rock and straightened her black leather boots before resting her elbows on her knees. She could see the suggestion of a wall through the tree line. She would hear any guards before they got close, and they didn’t have the need to be all the way back here, anyway. A light breeze cut through the woods, cooling her neck and making her think of the soft brush of her mate’s rough fingertips. As he passed through her thoughts, a small smile crossed her face as she considered the hunt later in the evening. It had been a long time since he grabbed her like that, and she forgot how much she missed it. If he was here now, at least the wait would be more entertaining—even if his jokes were terrible. 
     The sun sank lower in the sky, and the scent of petrichor reached her nostrils as she kicked the detritus with impatience. 
     Do not be alarmed.
     She blinked and Kailu sat on the stone beside hers. He’d learned years ago that sneaking up on Thalla—intentional or not—was likely to get him injured. He didn’t command void like she and Olog did, he only made himself invisible from a target until he wanted to be seen. Kailu was powerful, but Thalla still believed her gift was better. 
     His gray shirt was rolled above his elbows showing muscular, but pale skinned arms that would burn in minutes in the midday sun. 
     “How have you been here a full season and are still white as a lamb?” Thalla asked.
     He snickered. “I have told you before, no amount of sunlight changes my tone.” Thalla pitied him. If she spent her entire day in the stables, or caring for the grounds, her skin would be a rich olive green like it had been in her youth.
     Kailu continued. “We need you to convince the female's mother that we will facilitate her escape. Sylvie Windsong has been working for Rainier a long time. But she is here against her will.” 
     Thalla turned up her palms. “Why don’t I just go get her? In and out, no big deal.” 
     “Because they must come of their own volition.” Thalla’s forehead wrinkled. 
     “Stop looking at me like that,” Kailu said. “I am only following Aiuna’s direction. Do you think I wanted to spend an entire season here when I could have simply walked out the front door with both of them?”
     Thalla grunted and played with the blade strapped against her thigh. “Rokian already told me what to say. Show me what she and the youngling look like.” 
     In only a minute, Thalla knew the identity of her targets, as well as a layout of the castle, as if she had walked it herself. Her spine straightened as she examined the blueprint he’d planted in her thoughts over again.
     “Is there somewhere you haven’t been able to go? What was that dark space at the end of the blue corridor?” 
     Kailu shifted uncomfortably. “It is off limits.” Thalla’s eyebrows shot up, but the high elf’s voice dropped an octave and all the hairs on her body stood. 
     “Off limits, Thalla. This is not a discussion we will have now.”  She blinked several times, trying to re-wet her suddenly dry eyes, and she shook her head as if erasing a disturbing thought. Something ate at her, something forgotten, distracting her from Kailu’s other instructions. 
     “Damn it. What did you erase?” Thalla snapped.
     “You refused to listen to my directions. So, either you trust me that I will tell you when it is time, or I erase everything, and we start this conversation from the beginning.” 
     Thalla folded her arms over her chest. She hated dealing with psymancers. And if Kailu was the best of them, she understood why the Order outlawed them. She stood and clipped her cloak around her neck. 
     “Anything else?” she said, flipping the hood over her head. 
     “Tell her to come meet me at the stables four hours before dawn… the evening of the half moon.”   
     “Two more days? You don’t understand what it is like for us here. I’m sure it already isn’t pleasant for an elf, but the people here either run, or look like they might try to lynch us.” 
     He shook his head. “I need you here… please.” Thalla rolled her eyes and stepped into the void. A few minutes later, an eldritch released her inside a small chamber room, and the hole snapped shut. In the center of the castle, the room was cool and musty. There was not a safe way to build a fire in an inner room like this. It was a warm day outside, but in here, moisture clung to her skin. In the winter, this place must be freezing.  
     Silvie Windsong served as the head alchemist on Rainier's court. Thalla expected better accommodations for someone with her talents and education. She must have done something particularly grievous in the king’s eyes for him to relegate her to a room like this. In one corner was a small chamber pot covered by a threadbare sheet. A small round table with two rickety chairs sat in the other. The remaining space was taken up by a chest of drawers, and a mattress only just big enough for two.
The muffled voice of a female carried in from the corridor. “Yes, I have told him I would… I… fine.” Thalla tucked herself into the space behind the door and adjusted her hood as it opened. A short, round human stepped into the room and ushered a tiny black haired youngling of only eight or nine into the space. The little one clutched a piece of fabric as if her life depended on it and stared off with a glazed expression. Her head turned to the corner, and she watched Thalla standing silently, waiting for the door to close. It was a good thing Kailu warned her the elfling looked human. With her hair down, covering her ears, it was difficult to tell she was an elf at all. 
     Thalla stiffened, hoping the youngling wouldn’t scream, but she only smiled at her as the haze in her eyes lifted. Sylvie stepped a body length into the room before Thalla spoke.  
     “Please don’t be afraid. I’m not here to hurt you… either of you,” Thalla said, keeping her head down. If the woman saw her before she had a chance to process Thalla’s presence, her screams would summon the guards. Silvie gripped the little female by the bicep and pushed her behind her, shielding her from the figure in the corner. The youngling peeked around her mother’s skirts in curiosity, then pushed past. 
     “I’ve never seen an orc before,” she said as she moved closer. Her mother gasped and lifted her from the floor, backing away. 
     “I’m a friend of Aiuna. And I’m here to help.” Silvie opened her mouth to scream and Thalla held out her hand. 
     “Don’t,” she snapped. “If he finds out about her gift, you know what will happen Silvie. How much longer do you think you can keep her hidden?” The alchemist's mouth snapped shut, and Thalla reached over and tapped the mage light before pulling back her hood. 
     “Kailu sent me.”
     Silvie’s brow crinkled. “The farrier… sent you?” Thalla took a deep breath and rolled her eyes before walking to the opposite side of the room. It was risky, but she wouldn’t listen if she thought her only means of escape was blocked. She sat her daughter on the bed, and gestured to a small chair, offering Thalla a place to sit. 
     The orc leaned on an elbow and kept her cloak draped over the daggers strapped on her thigh. 
     “You know he isn’t a farrier. And you don’t need to pretend with me.” The youngling hopped to the closest side of the bed, pulled her knees to her chest, and rested her chin atop them. 
The human ran her hand through the hair that stuck out all over her head and sighed. “I don’t know why you would come to me, I would never betray the King. Tell me why I shouldn’t call the guards right now.” Thalla flipped her palm toward the ceiling, and a black orb the size of a peach grew in her hand. Tendrils of electricity crackled along the surface, lighting their corner in brief flashes.
     “Whoa!” the youngling said. 
     Thalla smiled at the sudden flash of light in her eyes and snapped her fist shut, squelching the orb. “What’s your name?”
     “Her name is Ruby,” Silvie interjected. 
      The youngling’s fist thumped the mattress. “I could have answered her myself mama!” 
     The orc chuckled. She and Olog always wanted cubs of their own, but as high mages, would never have them. And this elfling had fire. They’d never had a youngling live with them before. She could be fun to have at the keep. 
     “What is your gift?” Thalla asked. 
     “Ruby, no,” her mother snapped. 
     The magus stiffened. “Mrs. Windsong. Where I come from, we celebrate our gifts. We don’t hide what our Goddess gave us.    Frankly, it’s horrible that Ruby has to. We have a place for both of you at Elden Keep. She belongs with her people, and you know it.” Silvie’s jaw clenched and she made a fist to stop herself from trembling. 
     “I know you are scared to leave, but you are scared to be here too. Face your fears for one night and change your life forever. They won’t find you again, I promise this.”
      Silvie paced the room, and Thalla remained seated so as not to scare her. 
     “How do I know I can trust you?” Silvie asked.
     “You don’t. But you are a logical female, and if you take time to consider it, you will see it is the only real option. Do you trust that Kailu would have sent me with a false message? We understand what it must seem like for some strange orc to come to you.”
     “What is your name?” Silvie asked. 
     “Thalla. Kailu is willing to answer any other questions you have, but you must be careful not to expose us. If you have none, he will be waiting for you in the barn four hours before sunrise in two nights’ time. If you want a better life, this is your only chance. Ruby deserves more than this. If you stay, don’t fool yourself into thinking you do it for anyone but you.”
     Before the human could respond, Thalla smiled at the elfling with the big doe eyes, and stepped into the void.  

Part V

     Ruby jumped off the bed as soon as the orc vanished and paced through the spot where she’d paused, looking for a rift. Sylvie sat and rested her forehead against her hands. 
     “Mama, she wants us to leave with her? Please, please can we go?” Ruby asked. 
     “Shhh,” Sylvie whispered, patting the mattress beside her. “If anyone hears you, we will be in trouble. Listen, honey . . . it’s just not safe. King Rainier protects us if we stay.” 
     “But . . . but . . .” Ruby’s eyes shimmered. “Please, Mama. I don’t want to be here anymore.” The tears started rolling down her cheeks. 
     Sylvie paced the room, chewing her fingernails, as Ruby lay face down under the thin blanket, sobbing. Ruby was too young to understand the stakes. 
     Sylvie didn’t doubt Rainier would kill Ruby, as promised. But if they stayed, she would always have a roof over her head. 
Ruby was only eight, and Rainier had her in schooling and in the laboratory every day. They were teaching her to read, garden, and keep a clean lab. He was grooming her to take Sylvie's place—but what if she couldn’t keep her magic under control? 
     Sylvie looked over at her daughter’s frame as her small chest rose and fell, slow and steady. She sat on the edge of the bed, tucked Ruby’s midnight black hair behind the point of one tiny ear, and sighed. There were several children in the castle, but they weren’t allowed to play together. Ruby talked to herself often and cried herself to sleep almost as much. This wasn’t a life for a child, and it wouldn’t get better if she grew up here. 
     Sylvie knew they needed to leave. But she knew nothing about the mages and their plans. She had seen Rokian Sylrel in the labs today, so it was likely he had something to do with the orc’s arrival. What she didn’t understand was how Kailu fit into the equation. Everyone was surprised Rainier had hired a Tanythian elf, and it was even stranger that he would do a job as filthy as shoeing horses. Sylvie thought he’d always looked too regal to be a farrier. Now that she knew he was affiliated with Cleric Sylrel, it made much more sense. 
     She’d caught Kailu watching Ruby in the garden several times. She was a wonderful little actress who liked to play pretend to stave off boredom. Had it been one of the guards, Sylvie would have worried, but he’d always just seemed amused by her.
     If they were going to go, the timing had to be right. Ruby could be unpredictable, and the more time that passed, the worse it seemed to be getting. When she was in the labs or found a book to read, she was quiet and respectful. But at a moment’s notice, she wouldn’t listen to a word her mother said. Only a couple of days ago, her sweet girl had growled at her. If Ruby kept growing angrier, her gift might erupt in front of everyone. She would need to be in the right mood when the time came to leave, or she could get them both killed. 

Part VI

     A few hours before dawn, Sylvie began packing their meagre belongings into a satchel she had stolen from the kitchens. She nudged her sleeping daughter to wake up, then gathered the union rings she had kept hidden and stowed them in her pocket. To the satchel she had stolen from the kitchens, she added one set of clothes for each of them. Nothing else they owned had any value. 
     “Ruby, time to get up,” she said, tucking her daughter’s stuffed toy rat between her hands. 
Ruby’s eyes popped open. “We are leaving?” She sat up so fast, their foreheads almost slammed together. “Really?” She jumped up and threw her arms around Sylvie’s neck. 
     Sylvie hugged back, trying not to let Ruby feel her tremble. “You must promise to listen to every direction I give.” Ruby nodded with fervor, and Sylvie squeezed her hands. “We are going to play a game and see which of us can be the quietest.      Think you can do that?” 
     A sigh of relief escaped Sylvie when Ruby made a little locking motion across her lips, hopped from the bed, and tiptoed across the room. Sylvie cracked the door and listened for a moment before stepping into the corridor. The door groaned open and closed, announcing their exit to all the surrounding rooms. Her heart thudded hard in her chest as she waited to see if anyone stirred at the noise. 
     Sylvie paused at the edge of each corridor, then walked through with purpose. But once they reached the courtyard, there was nowhere to hide. She considered slinking through the shadows, but it would be difficult to defend the behavior if they were caught. They waited still as stones by the doorway for a guard to pass above them on the wall. He paused as if he’d heard something and turned to slowly scan the area inside the allure. Ruby stiffened and scrunched her eyes tight, as if not looking at him meant he couldn’t see her either. Sylvie wiped her hands on her skirts and waited. A few seconds later, the guard looked directly down and made eye contact with Sylvie. His mouth opened to shout but closed again. His face set into a neutral expression as he stared off into the forest beyond, then he continued his route to the next place on his post. Sylvie stared, confused as to why he didn’t shout or call another guard to question them. After a few moments, she shook her head and rubbed her arm across her brow, unsure of how to continue. As he reached the edge of the allure, she decided to move through the courtyard with no cover while trying not to look conspicuous. 
As soon as they entered the stables, a bulky man two heads taller than Sylvie faced them. Both the females froze in their tracks, and a bead of sweat ran into Sylvie’s cleavage. 
     “Llassar!” Ruby cried out, and she jumped into his arms to give him a hug. Her hands flew up to her mouth, and she turned to her mother with a giggle. “Oops,” she said as the blue-eyed man set her back on her feet. “Where have you been?”
     He squatted to the floor and squeezed Ruby tight. “I had to go out on a mission. Sorry I was gone so long.” 
Sylvie stiffened, surprised at Ruby’s comfort with the tutor. 
     “I think you can tell her the truth, Ladybug,” Llassar said. Sylvie bristled at his familiarity with her. 
     Ruby rolled her eyes and groaned. “He helps me with my magic, Mama.”  
     “Wait . . . what?” Sylvie growled. “You’ve been teaching her to use her gifts?” She grabbed Ruby and tugged her away from Llassar. “Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?” she barked. 
     “It’s more dangerous to have her stumbling around without help. The only reason they haven’t put it all together is because she’s had a tutor.” 
     “How does a human teach her magic anyway? And why?” Sylvie snapped.
     “Ruby isn’t the only half-elf hidden here,” he said, as though insulted by her assumption. 
     Kailu slid around the corner, making Sylvie jump and almost fall on top of Ruby. 
     “Come away from the door!” he whispered. 
      Llassar gave Ruby one more hug. “Remember what we practiced.” Ruby’s big brown eyes welled with tears. “This isn’t goodbye forever. I’ll see you again before you know it.” He smiled down at her for only a moment before tugging the door shut behind himself. 
     They had already hitched a horse to a small cart with two crates and a few blankets in the back. 
     Sylvie turned to Kailu. “How long have you all been planning this?” 
     “Getting you out? Half a year or so. But Llassar has been here for years, monitoring things with the king for us. He took it upon himself to help Ruby. You should be thanking him. Gifted younglings must have training, regardless of where they are.       Are you ready to go?” Kailu squatted down level with Ruby who was hiding behind her mother’s skirts. “You are being so brave. Do you think you can keep it up just a little longer?” he asked. 
     She bit her lower lip and looked at the ground for a moment as if contemplating something important. A few moments later, her back straightened and she held her head high. She wiggled to shake away the nerves and stepped closer.                   “Definitely,” she said before adding a big grin. “Can we leave now?”
     Kailu chuckled and held out his hand. Ruby took it, and he led her to the horse, lifting her into the saddle and handing her a green cloak that fit as though it had been stitched for her. 
     “Pull this over your head and keep your eyes low. Do you think you can take care of your mama for us?” he asked. 
Ruby giggled and flushed red. “Yes, sir.” 
     “Good. We will talk again when I get back to Elden Keep.” Kailu turned to Sylvie and helped her into the saddle behind her daughter. “Cleric Sylrel is expecting you in five days. Do not make eye contact with anyone until you are well out of town. Do your best not to stop for anything until nightfall tomorrow.”
     Sylvie got onto her toes to hug Kailu before hopping into the saddle. “I can never thank you enough for this. Are you sure you won’t get yourself into trouble? I couldn’t live with myself if—”
     He waved his hand. “The two of you should be on your way. We want you gone long before sunrise,” he said. 
     “What about the—”
     “Do not worry about the guards. I will see you in a few days.” He opened the stable doors and led them out towards the main thoroughfare. A guard shouted from the rooftop, but Kailu didn’t even pause. “Remember what I said. No eye contact.” 
     Sylvie’s heart leaped into her throat when the guard called out again, but the shout stopped halfway. 
     Erysall was silent. No one moved through the streets. The only person she saw as the horse traveled between the shops was a drunkard passed out beside an alley. She paused long enough to be sure he was breathing, then continued forward. 
They were out before sunrise. She hadn’t been this far away from Calsley castle in years. This time, she would only return in a coffin.

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