"Our home has changed," a tear emerged in the corner of the god-queen's beautiful eye. "How long has it been?"
A firm hand gripped hers. "Too long, my love." Together they walked gracefully through the streets of a dying city. "But our time has returned. This is our land once more."
"This," growled a low voice, "was never your land, and never your time." The earth shook with power, with anger. What few walls remained in the Drylands City crumbled as the beast rounded on his enemies. Its feet came to rest in the place where slaves had been traded two days before.
Smiling with benevolence, the god-king extended his free hand. "My Brother," he crooned, "we are no longer bound to the earth or to the sea. It is mankind who has wronged us."
The face of the beast, framed in stone and marble, twisted into agony. Its eyes went dark, and it bent low, tail swishing violently side to side. "You blame men," it whispered. "Perhaps you blame the gypsies as well," the voice changed. "Perhaps," its face suddenly turned up to look into the eyes of the Ancients, "perhaps you blame me." Sharp teeth glistened in the last light of evening.
"Why would we blame you, Brother?" asked the woman from the depths of the sea. "Our fate has not been so different as your own. Can we not forget old quarrels? Can we not move forward as stewards of this world once more?"
"Stewards!" the beast growled, its speech in one half words and in the other half the snarls and grunts of an animal. "Your posture is grand indeed!" The woman shrank at his words, stung by the undercurrent of magic, of pure hatred. "Tell me, pretty one," the beast went on, "in all the years of your confinement below the waves, how often did you think of kind acts you would share with the humans? I will tell you!" The outburst and volume rattled the panes of glass in the beast's own eyes. "Anger," it then whispered, "I slumbered and dreamt of anger. My dreams were foul, they were horrid. It was not a restful sleep. I dreamt the dreams of man, and by my act, I was condemned and they were saved."
A hand reached out and graced the top of a stone turret. The beast looked into the eyes of the god-queen, unsure of what it would find there. "Where are they now, Brother?" she asked. "Where are the men you spared from their own evil? Look around you," she extended her hand, and they all observed the destruction of humans. "Was this the awakening you wished for?"
Inside its chest, somewhere near the Princess' chambers, Willow lay on her back, tears resting in her opened eyes. She could not move, she could not speak, but she could feel, and the sensation of pain and betrayal which coursed through the castle was crippling. She was only vaguely aware of her own body, of broken bones and bruises yet to surface. Her magic was all but spent, and what little power trickled through her veins was now nothing compared to the immense creature that had become her captor, her home, her body. She heard its every word, she felt its pain, and she could do nothing. Her arms and legs twitched with the beast's movements, and her breath matched his own. She was becoming him, and he was returning to his own form. Draining her energy like the roots of a tree which draw water from underground, the beast slowly transformed his body from stone into scaly flesh, from castle turrets into horns, from glass into eyes.
River gazed at the headstones of those dead long before her own birth. She felt at peace in the graveyard, though her companion twitched nervously. For a warrior, she thought, he is strangely afraid of death. Aelish paced the dirt road at the perimeter of the burial ground. His eyes darted from the low gate at the south end to the carved temple at the north. No one came to sing to the dead anymore. The people of this age were consumed with the effort of preserving their own lives. "Where is your family buried?" the Princess asked.
Aelish halted his hurried steps and turned toward her, but his eyes fell to the ground. "My family," he smiled, but his lips, too, fell after his breath escaped them. His eyes lifted. "They could not be buried. They were burnt by the flames of the Royal Guard." River swallowed, but her eyes never left his. "I saw things that day," he slowly began to walk closer to her, "things that would bring an ordinary man to his knees. But it was neither magic nor wyverns which stole the lives of my brothers and my father from me." His steps ceased in front of the girl, and he took hold of her hands. "It was men."
"You placed your faith in a man," her words encouraged.
"Raven is no man," he whispered. "He is more than you or I could ever be. He is an idea. He is promise." The sun began to set over Hillmarch behind them.
River smiled and brushed the hair from her warrior's eyes. "We are all more than we can be in these times, and yet we are also human. We love," her eyes held his firmly, "we fight, we struggle, and we die." Aelish glanced at the graves around them. "Raven may very well be something you and I will never understand, something we could never be. To the people he is a warning, a dream, hope, terror... He is many things. The idea," her soft fingers brushed the chin under his trimmed beard, "is you as well."
The earth below their feet trembled with the footsteps of the Ancients and the beast, but another vibration, lower, more primal, made its way to the surface. River felt it in her skin and bones, and she reached out to Aelish, letting him take her into his arms. In unison, they turned their heads to see the ground around the headstones lurch and sink, only to be replaced by a gaping hole. The rumbling only increased, though the earth held firm after the upheaval of stone and dirt, until the warrior realized what was coming. Possessing the strength of a true warrior, he lifted the Princess and tossed her to safety just as an enormous war-horse charged through the opening in the ground. It whinnied and bucked wildly, throwing its rider aside like a saddle blanket.
Grunting from the impact, Calla landed squarely beside River. She lifted her head and breathed in the night air, grateful to have survived the journey back from the underworld. The horse, equally bursting with life, beat the ground with his hooves and snorted into the night sky.
"Darkwood?" Aelish spoke. The horse calmed itself and tossed its mane at the tall man.
"Where did you come from?" the Princess helped the other woman stand.
"I've been through hell," Calla answered.
Aelish turned on his heel and chastised her. "Mind your tongue. You're speaking to royalty."
Calla laughed, for what felt like the first time in her life. The air in her lungs was cool, and her muscles ached from the effort. It was the most glorious sensation she could imagine. "I was in the Underworld," she managed to say between gasps. "I brought him back for Raven. And I've brought back something else."
Trace had the children in her arms as she ran. The street was a blur under her feet, but the dust in her lungs burned and threatened to make her cough. She hadn't looked back. She hadn't the extra hand to grab hold of Reza. She could only hope he was still following. Every street she ran down was littered with dead bodies and crumbled buildings. She lifted her right leg high to leap over a cracked beam from the roof of a shattered building, clearing it just barely with the other leg. Behind her the beast kept coming, its every stride a whole city block. She dared not spare a glance, though her mind fought the idea that a castle could tear itself from its own foundations and walk freely. She ran with every ounce of strength in her body and all the willpower she could muster in her spirit. She ran like the day she saved Phidi from the Royal Guard.
They had run for hours. It would have been impossible to convince anyone after that day that a body could truly exert itself for so long, but they had indeed run from noon until sunset, from the edge of the city to the beginning of the forests of the north. When they stopped, they collapsed. Penna woke her much later, perhaps a full day after their escape. A cool, damp rag swept the dirt from her face and soothed the bruises and cuts she had departed with. Trace opened her eyes to see the young girl she had just helped for the first time. Sincere, brown eyes stared diligently at every wound, deciding how each should be treated. Trace wanted to push her away, wanted to tell her that she didn't need anything, but the words wouldn't come.
"Are you hungry?" the girl asked. Trace sat up, bracing herself against the trunk of a tree, and nodded. Her stomach had been empty for more days than she could count. She was handed a chunk of dry bread, which she ate slowly. "I was able to get a little food before..." The girl stopped, unable to speak of their terrifying flight from the edge of death. "Thank you for saving him."
"You're too young," Trace mentioned between bites.
The girl just stared at her. "Too young for what?"
"To be a mother."
"Oh," she nearly laughed, though laughter wasn't in her, "he's my little brother." Trace nodded, finishing off the bread in two more bites. "His name is Phidi." She watched the older girl search for crumbs to devour. The bread had been all she'd been able to scavenge in days herself, and she and Phidi were both starving. It was worth it, she told herself, though her mouth continued to salivate. Words weren't enough for her little brother's life. "I'm Penna," she said, though her voice was too quiet.
Trace grimaced at the memory, but nothing could slow her pace. She carved a sharp corner around the wreckage of a broken horse cart and dove down a narrow alley. She had been running all her life, and now, near what could very easily be the end, she ran with everything she had. Not far ahead, the rumbling of the Ancients' footsteps rocked the foundations of those few buildings which still stood.
"She loves you."
"What do you know about love? You ran from it. I see it in your face."
"I ran from death," Willow tried to answer with defiance, but fell short.
"Love, death... Is there a difference?" Trace stared into her. "Penna thinks you mean well." She glanced at the redhead suspiciously. "But you and I know the truth. You're running, and you'll sacrifice anyone in your path to flee your demons." Willow found her mind drifting to thoughts of the Circle, of the death she watched all around her. "They'll follow you here. They'll find you wherever you hide."
"No. They'll never come here."
"When did you last go to the city, Red? That training camp is bursting with recruits from the bread lines. The Queen is the only employer left with food for her men. They can't afford not to hunt you."
"Me?" Willow stood, boldly facing her opponent. "How is all of this about me? I'm no one. I'm no one, Trace."
"You're a fugitive. A murderer." Trace withdrew the edge of her long cloak and pulled out a tattered parchment. She unrolled it and handed it to Willow. "You're the Red Sorceress."
The color drained from her lips as she read each line. "The Red Sorceress is wanted for crimes against Her Majesty, the Queen of the Drylands, and for offenses against Her Royal Guard, including witchcraft, murder, arson, and conspiracy. A sum of 1000 gold will be paid to whomever brings her to the Royal Court alive." She glanced up from the page to the face of the Cirque's leader. "How long have you had this?"
"I could have turned you in weeks ago." Trace took the poster and promptly tore it down the center. "Not that the money wouldn't help, but we're not exactly welcome in the city either. They'd arrest me, too." Willow relaxed slightly, her eyes still on the torn page. "I still don't trust you. But she does. And I... She and I..." Trace searched for the right words. "The others don't need to know."
Both turned as they heard the sound of footsteps in the dry leaves. Penna reached into their midst and grabbed the torn pieces of parchment. She read slowly, the forbidden text weaving its way into her mind as panic grabbed her chest. "Willow. It's you," she stared up at her friend. "The description.... It's you. Gods above and below. You've got to run. You should be further away."
Before Penna could react, before Willow could speak, Trace halted everything. "She stays." Everyone was silent. "She's part of the Cirque. She stays."
Trace would never forget the look of love and gratitude on Penna's face that day. It was as close as they had ever come in that last year to being together. It was the closest Trace had ever come to love. The memory set her legs shaking and brought her to a stop in the center of the city. Before her was the slave stockyard. Behind her was the beast. Without warning, four giant feet crashed through the walls of the old prison barracks. Trace froze in place, wary of being crushed by the Ancients.
"Out of one hell and into another," whispered Jinna from the strong grip of Trace's right arm. She felt the other girl tense at the words.
"Not for long, kid," she answered, spying the wyvern swooping low between the giants. "Don't let go."