"Tinari spoke of this moment. I will follow through with his wishes."
"Then you are a fool, old woman," Kousa spat at the Queen. "Your judgement is clouded by your desire of power."
The Queen lunged at her enemy and screamed, "And your judgement, Mistress? You believe it will lead us to prosperity! You fraternize with devils and plot against your own royalty."
Kousa smiled with a look of pure venom. "No, My Lady, I simply humble myself to a higher royalty." She backed away from the Queen and stood near the last intricate window. Blue and green light streamed through the glass and tinted her pale cheeks to match. "They walk this way even now, as we stand in this sacred place." Her fingers traced the outline of two bodies, their forms made of pure light. "The Great Battle has begun."
"And my part in this?" the Queen inquired. "Why exactly is it that you have a stolen me away from my guards and brought me here?"
"Gods like sacrifices, Majesty," Kousa turned an evil eye toward the other woman. "After all these years, they must be famished." She licked her lips. "While my offering may not be as selfless as it should, it will serve the needs of many."
The Queen, usually calm and commanding, now trembled in her satin gown. Kousa had laid to waste the twelve royal guardsmen whose sole purpose was to protect the Queen, and no weapon had been seen during the massacre. Strong magic throbbed in the air around them. She had tried to warn Tinari that Mistress Kousa was capable of such things, that she had kept her close all those years for a reason, but the Prince paid no heed. Everything was falling apart around her. Tinari had left in a rage after the escape of the Black Knight, River was missing, and the castle, her home, was falling apart one stone at a time. Desperate to escape, she plotted in her mind as Kousa mused aloud at her own intelligence. I should have killed her when I had the chance, the Queen grumbled under her breath. Tinari didn't need her. Had he known of her allegiance with the Ancients, he would have slit her throat himself. The stone floor beneath their feet lurched and rocked as the castle was swayed by another crunching twist of magic. The Queen sank to her knees. Her mind spun with fear. This castle would claim her life, and she would never live to see her daughter married to the Prince of Avinash. Her hopes of a union between their lands faded as the light through the windows diminished.
"My Queen," Kousa bent low to whisper in the woman's ear, "they have arrived. Let us greet them with joyful hearts." The Queen felt a commanding grip on her arm, and she glanced up to see two figures enter the room.
"Joyful already?" a familiar voice cut through the dust and noise of another collapse within the castle. Willow stepped from the shadows with Reza by her side. "I could not have expected a better reception," she smiled down at the kneeling Queen.
"Willow?" Kousa stepped backwards, loosening her grip on the Queen. "How did you-"
The gypsy girl crossed the room in three steps, bringing herself face to face with Mistress Kousa. "I've come to make a deal with you." Her words shook the elder woman to her core. "I want to raise the beast."
"Then you raise the death of us all," the Queen warned quietly from her resting place on the floor. She stood and faced them. "He was imprisoned for a reason. Anyone so blinded by stupidity as to release him deserves whatever fate rests upon their shoulders."
"Ignore her," Kousa smiled. "She has no more power in this place. It rests in your hands now, Willow. I will take you to the door."
"Wait," Willow spoke, "there's more. Things are going to change, and not in the way you expect." Kousa regarded the girl in a new light. She had changed since the day Merl had pointed her out in the slave galley. No more was this a scared girl in chains, terrified of her own power. Before Kousa stood an Ancient, a young woman in control of a stronger magic than anyone had ever seen. "I will give my power to the beast. This is the end of my journey. The rest of you will have to leave. The castle won't stand through this battle." Willow took a deep breath. Never before had she spoken aloud that which she knew to be true. This really was the end. "Tell me where the door is. I must do the rest alone."
"You trust her," the Queen laughed, her display of hysterics enough to shock the others. "Do you know where her power comes from, girl?" Her steps were more like a slither as she wound her way between Kousa and Willow. "This woman entwined herself with dark magic, then abandoned her own twisted little children when they bore the brunt of her misdeeds! Do you truly think that she will give you what you need?"
Willow looked to Kousa, then back to the Queen. "Are you so much better, Your Highness? You have given River's hand to a man who loved only power, a wolf who would gladly kill anyone in his way, including you." Her green eyes squinted at the woman. "Your laws had my people killed. The blood of my family is on your hands." She looked the Queen up and down, and she momentarily pondered what her death would look like. "Pray that you die before I do, Majesty."
Kousa took the redhead's words as a signal to lead on. She made for the door as she explained the location of the mysterious door Willow needed to find. "Follow the lowest tunnels. You will come to a pathway of five choices. Go north. The rest will become apparent."
Kousa opened the door, and the floor shook again, this time violently. Stone crumbled around them, and the Queen took her opportunity to launch herself at the girl. In her hand was a knife that no one had seen. Willow fell to the ground in the confusion, and Reza stumbled after her, desperate to protect her from the crazed woman. His eyes met Willow's as the windows above them shattered, and shock flowed between them both. "Reza!" Willow shouted. He gasped but could not answer her. Above him was the Queen, her hand over his back, the knife between his ribs.
Beyond the confusion, hidden in shadow, Trace peered through the dust at the robed figure in the doorway. It was time for them to move. "That's our signal, kids." She lifted the girls by their shirts and pulled them into the hallway. "Run back to the meeting point. I'll be right behind you." Trace pushed them behind her and ran for the doorway. Something had happened inside, and she knew she had to get in. Kousa gave her no resistance, diving out of the fray and running down the nearest flight of stairs. Trace considered following the woman, but a cry of anguish pulled her into the Mistress' chambers. A pile of bodies by the shattered windows caught her attention.
The Queen was the first to recover from her mistaken maneuver. She pushed Reza aside and lunged at Willow once more, this time stopped by the strong arms of the woman behind her. "Not today," Trace warned. "You'll have to go through me first."
"You," Willow began, hefting herself up onto her elbows and staring at her savior. She rolled over toward Reza and examined the wound that was now covered in blood. "Stay with me, Reza. I can fix this."
"No," he insisted, cringing at the pain as he spoke. "There is no time. Go with Trace."
Still holding the Queen by her dress, Trace caught sight of her wounded friend. "What did you do?" she turned the Queen to face her, wrenching the bloodied knife from the woman's hand. "What did you do to him?" she screamed.
"Reza!" another voice cried from the doorway. They all turned to see the littlest girl staring at them. Mara ran to his side and took him in her tiny arms. "No, Reza!" She turned her reddened face up to Trace and pleaded with her. "Save him," she begged.
"I'll do better than that," Trace answered through a clenched jaw. The hand with the bloodied knife drove itself into the back of the Queen, and she twisted the blade expertly as the woman fell to her knees. "River said you were horrid. I couldn't agree more." She let the woman fall from her grip, then dropped the knife. "Reza's right, Willow. We have to go. There isn't time for this."
Willow turned to her, a flame in her eyes. "No one else is dying today," she whispered, her hands already covering his wound. Heat filled the room, stones fell from the walls, but no one dared to move. Mara held Reza's hand, and Trace watched as the blood soaked into the floor. Willow closed her eyes and pushed her magic into his body, healing him from within. Something below them gripped her and pulled her down on top of him. A low growl escaped her lips as Willow fought the magic countering her own.
"Red?" Trace yelled. "What's happening?" She knelt beside Mara and pulled the little girl away.
Reza stared up at her with renewed vigor. "She can't stop it this time. It's too late. Nothing can stop it."
The fire in Willow's stomach churned and burnt her from inside, and the heat grew to an intensity that singed their skin as the air boiled and stung. Smoke curled at her lips as her fingers sank into the stone below Reza's body. It was consuming her. In a move of daring, Trace grabbed Willow's shoulder, hoping to shake her from the spell. A strong arm shot up at her, taking her own shoulder in Willow's grasp. The two beheld one another for a breath as the smoke thickened around them, then Willow spoke her last words before the beginning of the end. "Get out now. Get everyone out."
Trace reared back as flames consumed the gypsy. The floor gave way and collapsed, claiming Willow and pulling her into darkness. Reza rolled away from the crumbling edge at the last second, reaching for Trace's outstretched hand as he kicked at the falling stones. Breathing hard and shaking from the near tumble into an abyss of smoke and dust, Reza took Mara into his arms and glanced at Trace. "She meant it."
Cold air whipped Penna's hair wildly around her face, and she gripped tightly to the small boy in front of her as he whooped with joy. Again, though her stomach was still somewhere behind the last hill they had glided over, Phidi insisted on diving and swooping through the air in a dramatic fashion. His wyvern had fallen with the rest, but it bore no injury from the incident. A low whistle had summoned it to the boy's side. "It's the fastest way, Penn," he had convinced her. She still hadn't forgiven him for keeping the animal a secret all the time they had hidden in the woods. "Grimm can find his way." They had seen others as they soared over the landscape. Everyone was moving towards the Drylands Castle.
Now, alone above the clouds, Penna let her mind stray. It had been so long since she had seen Trace. They had fought. She had said words she regretted. She had cried, Trace had laughed, and they had both turned and walked away from the fire, not realizing that they would never return. Penna had been in love from the moment Trace had saved Phidi. They had run for days, faster than she thought possible with such a small child. Trace carried him when Penna grew tired. They became a family, and their family grew with each new refugee who joined them. Before Phidi's seventh birthday, they had formed into a clan of their own. There had never been time for anything else between them. Trace led them, made the rules, and kept them all safe. When things were quiet, Trace would look at Penna, and the need in her was rekindled. Nothing ever came of it, though, despite Penna's desire. She closed her eyes and let the wind cool her eyelids.
"You want her to be in charge around here?" Trace spat. She stood by the fire, tense, ready for a fight. "That girl is unstable, Penn. She's a risk."
"She's my friend," Penna tried to reason. "I never said-"
"You've said enough!" Trace drove toward her with an accusing finger, stopping mere inches from the girl's chest. "This place runs the way it does because of my rules."
"Your rules?" Penna stood, fighting the urge to shrink and hide until the fight was over. She looked the elder girl in the eye and walked forward into the outstretched finger. "The only reason anyone follows you is because they're scared of you." Trace slowly dropped her hand, and her chest heaved with her rapid breath. Penna was so close, her skin, her lips, right there before her. She had never known the girl to be so upset, so bold. "Willow is kind," Penna's tone softened, "she listens."
The sting of the other girl's name made Trace wince, and she lashed out with harsh words before she could contain them. "Does she keep your tent warm as well?"
Tears slipped from her eyes as she stared at the woman she loved but could never have. "Whatever it is that keeps you from me," she hesitated, knowing better than to speak of Trace's past, of the girl she had been before she, too, ran for her life so many years before. "I can't fix it. I cannot mend it for you. Nor can I wait for you to ignore it until you grow tired of your own loneliness." Penna backed up a step, and she ran her fingers through her hair as the words sank in. The fur down the back of her neck stood on end. "I cannot be alone, Trace. Not even for you."
The fire had come soon after. Penna knew that Trace had made it out alive, but that had been the last they had seen of one another since Willow was taken, since so many of the cirque had been killed in cold blood. They had scattered, just as Trace had planned. It was a brilliant escape for the survivors of the attack. Still, Penna often wondered where Trace had gone and why she had not returned.
"There," Phidi pointed with an outstretched arm, bringing his sister out of her thoughts. She followed the line of his arm to a castle below the clouds. It was smaller than she had remembered from childhood, but their viewpoint so high in the atmosphere afforded them the chance to see what those on the ground could have only imagined and contrived into the tales that survived beyond that day. The castle, stone, glass, mortar and all, was moving. It had broken free from the bonds of its foundation, and it now writhed like an animal in pain. Towers had become horns, windows had turned into immense eyes, and a gaping mouth took the place of the courtyard entrance, shards of stone serving as the teeth of a snarling beast. It roared and fought, tearing its feet from the earth, demolishing everything near it. What had once been the north wall of the training yards for the Royal Guard had now been claimed as a tail, its terrible rocky spine crushing the orchards around the castle with each destructive pass.
"Gods above and below," Penna exclaimed, her voice hoarse and thick in the howling wind. "How are we to help Willow now?"
"Not Willow, but the others!" Phidi shouted, his arm still pointing at the ground. Four small bodies could be seen fleeing the destruction, but their path was not clear. Phidi guided the wyvern into a plummeting descent, risking everything for speed. Though they could not see what lay ahead, those escaping from the castle were running directly into the two Ancients from the sea. A battle of immensity was beginning, and they were caught in the center of it.
"We'll crash!" Penna screamed, gripping Phidi so tight that he strained to breathe. Her arms were loosened by a sudden flexing of his shoulders, and Penna realized that her little brother had grown more than she had given him credit for over the last few years. His eyes found her and looked into her reassuringly. Praying that her trust in him was well-placed, Penna closed her eyes and held on as the ground rushed up at them.
"Reza's plan doesn't seem so bright all of a sudden," Aelish held River by the shoulders as they pressed themselves up against a stone wall. Four enormous feet passed, crushing thatched roofs and wooden stalls into splinters. "There won't be anything left of this city once they're through." He stared up at the gods, awe and terror in his eyes.
"Perhaps that is for the best," the Princess whispered. She, too, was impressed by the size and grandeur of the gods walking through her kingdom. Reaching for his hand, she stepped forward, leading them both out of shadow and onto the street that had once sold slaves and prisoners into lives of torture and brutality. The castle, a building which had once been her home, groaned and leaned to the side before raising itself into a standing position. It was alive, and it moved like an animal that had been caged for centuries. River had heard its whispers all through her childhood. She knew of its power, and she knew of the danger involved in releasing it. "Does not the legend speak of the end of one age and the beginning of another?" Aelish looked at her pale face, his own the very image of fear. "Let us fulfill it. We have out part."
He nodded, regaining the stoicism of a warrior in battle. Squeezing her tiny hand in his, he set off at a run, knowing that the Princess could easily match his pace. Great voices overhead spoke in a tongue long forgotten, but Aelish ran on, pressing toward the graveyard at the edge of the city. Reza's directions had been very specific, as had his instructions for everyone's role in the battle. His was a game of strategy, not strength, and every man and woman involved was necessary for the pieces to unite and bring success. Fires blazed in abandoned cottages, shop windows were broken, doors sagged on broken hinges, and those few who still remained in the city were either frozen in fear or running for their lives.
"Trace," Reza had explained in a calm voice, "you will go into the castle itself."
"I like your plan already," she smiled.
"Mara and Jinna will go with you."
"What?" she stood suddenly, facing the young man with all of the defiance she could muster. "We're going into battle and you want me to be a mother hen?"
Reza sighed heavily, impatience settling into his brow. "They know the inside of that castle. You do not. You need them." Jinna nodded approvingly at his words, but shrank when Trace stared her down. "Find Mistress Kousa. Willow will need her. Aelish?" The warrior faced him and awaited his instructions. "You and River must go to the graveyard."
"Why?" River stood, placing herself beside the handsome soldier.
Reza looked away for a moment, as if considering the answer, then replied, "An old friend is coming, and his path will not be clear. You will know what to do when he arrives." River and Aelish exchanged glances, but both knew better than to enquire further.
"And where will you be?" Trace asked accusingly.
Reza looked to the highest point on what had remained of the castle before they departed. "I'm going to find Willow."
Calla opened her eyes again, this time anticipating the blur of darkness and light which had nearly blinded her the first time. She could hear wind, but no sensation touched her skin. She knew it was cold, but she could not feel the sting of it. She couldn't feel anything. Her eyes searched in the darkness for anything familiar, and she struggled to stand, but her limbs were heavy and clumsy. Calla couldn't remember how she had come to such a place, nor did she know how long she had been there. Perhaps she had always been there. The whinny of a horse far away shook her from her stagnant thoughts, and she turned her head toward the sound.
"You can't stay," a soft voice whispered beside her.
"I know," she answered, though she did not truly know.
"You came here the wrong way."
"I came the only way I knew."
"And you must go back. You won't find anything here that you can take with you." The voice was so convincing, so encouraging that Calla found the strength to stand. Lights flashed again, and she saw the harsh landscape of a sandy valley. Far away was a grove of trees. "She told you the words. Say them now."
Calla scrunched up her forehead at the suggestion. She could say the words. Ulhetha had made her memorize them. It would be so easy. "No," she barely managed to say in return. This wasn't right. "I came here for something."
"Was it me?" The voice had changed. Its pitch was higher now, and it resonated in Calla's chest and throat. "You won't find me here, sweet child. This isn't the place you thought it would be."
"Mother?" Calla turned. A dark silhouette faced her several paces away. "Is it truly you?"
"You let me go so long ago, little one. Don't search for me now," the voice soothed. "This is not where souls depart to."
Calla tried to walk closer, but the soft sand held her feet steady. She reached a hand out to the figure, and the lights flashed again. She gasped as the face of a beast was revealed where her mother had been. "What are you?"
"I am a prisoner here, like all the rest."
"Where is my mother?" the young woman screamed. "What have you done to her?"
The beast crept around her, keeping her always three paces from it. "She is not here. There is nothing here for you. If you are caught....." Calla heard the warning in its voice, but she could not fathom why such a creature would try to help her. Fear rose in her chest with every breath. "You must go."
Closer this time, the horse whinnied again. "That's how I came."
"You imprisoned him here with us."
"Ulhetha said it would lead us to a way out. She said to find another, to bring her with me."
"He cannot leave. He belongs to this world now. We all belong to this world."
Calla shook her head, wishing that her mind would focus. She lifted one foot, placing it ahead of her in the soft sand, then did the same with the other foot. Slowly, deliberately, she made her way across the valley toward the trees. The creature followed her. "How did you come to this place?" she asked. Fear in an underworld seemed irrelevant somehow, and Calla accepted the beast as a companion on her journey.
"There was a war long ago. My people were condemned to this world, as were some of our enemies. I was the first." She heard the creature hiss, and for the briefest moment, she thought it might be crying. "Only the darkest of magic opens the door to this world."
"Or the lightest," Calla responded before she realized what her words meant. "That's what Ulhetha wanted me to do," she remembered. "She wanted me to free her, to bring her back. For Willow."
"Willow?" the voice growled, changing from a benevolent companion into an unpredictable animal with one word. "You ally yourself with the one who would upset the balance between these worlds?" A snarl sounded behind her, and growls surrounded her on both sides. "You come to this place for an Ancient?"
"Silence!" the voice bellowed, stopping the shuffling of many feet. Calla could not see them, but she could sense a mass of bodies near her. "This human speaks of freeing an Ancient. She has condemned our brother to an eternity in this world as a means to claim the desires of her gods." All around her, growls and panting breaths agreed. Something snorted hot air on the back of her neck, and Calla began to wonder if Ulhetha had chosen the right person for such an important task. "I tried to tell her to go back."
"She came," a new voice spoke, "entangled with our brother." It was smaller and less commanding, but the voice held its ground around the others. "Even now he calls to her."
"He calls out of anger!" the first voice yelled back, generating cheers and grunts from the crowd. A dim yellow light flashed behind her, and Calla saw for the first time that the valley was filled with beasts of every shape and description. There was no way out.
"Bring him and ask him yourself," the small voice answered boldly. "Call to him now. Let him tell us how she came to walk in the world of the imprisoned."
Hooves pounded through the sand as they waited, all holding their breath in anticipation. Calla still could not see in the absence of the flashing lights, but she could hear the mighty warhorse approach. His heavy gallop did not slow as he drew near, and the panicked snorts and grunts of her captors warned Calla that he would not stop. Praying and trusting that her instincts were right, the young woman reached out with both hands and took hold of the body that leapt into the sand beside her. It jerked her from her feet and dragged her through the confused mass of creatures, her legs flailing and spraying sand in every direction as the horse turned and charged for the grove of trees. He slowed long enough for her to pull herself partly over his back, and she managed to work her way into a sitting position in the absence of a saddle. Calla silently thanked him and buried her head in his mane. When she looked up, they were standing still amongst the trees. A presence there shed a low, green light over everything, but no beasts surrounded them. "How did she know?" Calla mumbled.
"We gave some humans our gifts," a sweet voice answered. Calla and the horse eyed their surroundings, but there was no one else in the wood. "Hepsebah saw the future. Ulhetha saw the past. Both gifts had their place."
"What did you give?" Calla slipped quietly from the horse's back and felt the springy earth beneath her bare feet.
"I gave a child," the voice said, thick with emotion.
"She needs your help. So do I."
The trees shook gently, dropping aspen and oak leaves onto the forest floor. "What you ask is beyond my abilities."
"But it is not beyond the power of your gifts when they are combined," the girl eyed the horse, and he gazed into her.
"What you suggest is an alliance," the trees whispered back. "It was tried before, and it failed. That was why Willow was so important."
"She lost something, Rowan," Calla turned back to the trees. "And with it, we all lost hope that our world could be saved. This is the only way. Everything will be lost if you don't help her now."
"No one can raise the dead, child. Death is death, even to us." The horse nodded, nickering softly.
Calla smiled. Ulhetha had been right. So consumed were they with the past, none of them could imagine a new future. "This is not about death. It is about theft." Darkwood dug his hoof into the soft earth and raised his head. "Tara was taken. Her life beats in the breast of another. Willow will have him killed before the sun rises, but the body..." Her voice darkened as she thought back on the scene of the beach covered in blood. Of all those who had died fighting for peace in her world, the resurrection of only one could be afforded. "She is the missing link between your worlds. If you let her die, all hope of peace dies with her."
"You speak of a descendant of the Animari?" The trees shook with excitement. "A human?" Calla nodded. "How did this come to pass?"
Calla sat and crossed her legs, surprised at how comfortable the forest floor could be. "The horse people of the South have their own legend," she began. "They speak of the one who was born with the power and bravery of the finest warhorse ever known in their land. Exiled from his home for deceit and treachery, this rider took with him the last link to the world of the Animari, the same horse from whom all of their mighty warhorses was descended." She looked up at Darkwood and smiled. "Together, they set right the imbalances in the world of mankind, or at least they tried." Her eyes dropped, and she laced her fingers together in her lap. "But the Southlanders looked to their men for this hero, only to miss the very one they had sought for so many generations. Her birth is a mystery, but her destiny is clear." The trees sighed and swayed as they listened. "Willow loves her, Rowan. She loves her with a power you cannot imagine."
"And you believe that their love will change your world?"
"It already has."