Present day Adearian
Two weeks before The Festival of the Goddess
Queen Isabel relaxed against the rails of the ship as the rocking of the waves settled her nerves. Being on the open water always brought her comfort and a sense of peace. She made a mental note to do this more often, whether she had the time or not. Since leaving Candor, both her excitement and her fear threatened to overwhelm her, even more so since the Captain had informed her they would reach Manight within the hour. The last time she set foot there, some twenty-eight years ago, she vowed never to return. The invitation from Queen Abigail, concerning the Festival, came as a complete surprise and somewhat of a shock. She debated with herself for months until finally deciding to turn the invitation down, when her daughter, Victoria, expressed her opinion in favor of going. Vic, as she was commonly referred to, wanted to see if all the hype concerning Manight was true. For Vic’s benefit, Isabel had accepted and she would keep telling herself that. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that her pulse had quickened at reading Abigail’s words written on the invitation.
She didn’t dread many things, but she did dread the moment she laid eyes on Abigail again. When she was a teenager, her father had allowed her to study at Shara’s University, even though she wasn’t an Item Sorceress. Compared to Candor’s teaching style, Manight’s was one-sided, but she wouldn’t trade her time spent there for anything, especially her time with Abigail. In the past thirty-five years, she often thought about her, but never allowed her memories of their time together to invade her life. Old memories, for everyone’s sake, should always remain buried. She smiled and leaned into the rail as a cool breeze swept over. Her life turned out exactly the way it should have and if given the chance to go back and change it, she wouldn’t. She loved her husband deeply and Vic was a testament to that love. His unexpected death a few years back almost broke them both.
She pushed off the railing, ran her hand through her long auburn hair, and blew out the breath that she was holding. Her eyes swept the estate and the surrounding shoreline. The sight of the cliffs and the jagged coastline never failed to take her breath away. From where she stood, she could make out the stone wall that enclosed the estate and the top of the Castle. She did a double take and squinted into the distance when movement at the top of the cliffs caught her eye. There was clearly a struggle taking place, but they were too far away for her to make out any specific details. After a few minutes, she gasped and stepped forward when a body fell over the side of the cliff and bounced off the rocks to the sand below. She shivered and rubbed her arms when a second body fell over the side and disappeared into a gray fog.
“Mom.” Vic leaned against the railing beside her. “What just happened?”
Isabel couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Magic.”
“I know, but I didn’t think magic was allowed within their borders, and shouldn’t the guards be on the lookout for bandits this close to the Festival?”
“It’s not supposed to be allowed, and yes, they should be on the lookout.” She bit her lip and kept her eyes glued to the cliff, cringing when a third, then a fourth body fell over the side. After a few minutes, she could make out two people walking into the forest. The Mages that the royal estate employed shouldn’t have allowed whatever had just happened. “It shouldn’t have happened and I hope it doesn’t take the guards long to discover the bodies.” She turned to Vic and squeezed her hand. “We will have to keep all our senses alert during our time here. Even the Royal Mages shouldn’t be performing that type of magic inside their borders. Whatever is going on, I’m afraid we will be in the middle of it.” Deep in her gut, she knew what had just taken place was one of the reasons Abigail had invited her here.
Vic grinned and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Really?”
Isabel looked at her daughter. Really looked at her. Where had the years gone? Before her stood a twenty-four-year-old, confident woman. From the short, fiery red hair, to the heart melting dimples, she was the spitting image of her father. She couldn’t get annoyed at her enthusiasm, because she was the same way when she was her age. “Don’t get too excited. We are here for the Festival and the reading. Nothing more. We are guests and as guests we will stay out of and away from Castle business.” Maybe the more she said it, the more she would believe it.
Vic planted her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “Mom, really. When have we ever shied away from anything?” She shook her head. “I told you this would be a new adventure for us. Something we could do together. Besides, I brought plenty of notebooks to catalogue our time here. How often do we get to visit another country? Surely.” She winked. “I will have something interesting to write about.”
Isabel nodded and leaned against Vic, content to stand beside her and watch the port draw closer. One day, Vic would be Queen and she hoped she never lost her playfulness. Even with being blessed with magical abilities, Vic had walked the one path no one expected; she had become a teacher and taught the youngsters the basic elements of magic. She was well liked and loved in Candor, but Manight was not Candor. They would not put up with what they would consider reckless behavior. She would have to keep an eye on her. Whatever was happening in Manight would only lead to trouble. Her eyes closed of their own accord and she took a deep breath when she sensed the shields. “Brace yourself.” Crossing through the shields never ceased to amaze her. It was an extraordinary feat how the Mages accomplished it. A moment later, she stiffened and concentrated on the magic swirling around them. The shields were strong, but there was a disturbance within them.
“That’s all they have?”
Isabel opened her eyes, wrapped an arm around Vic’s waist, and pulled her close to her side. “I told you that our magic was different than in other parts of Adearian, but do not believe for a second that their magic isn’t as powerful as ours is. It’s just different. You know they have strict regulations in place. It is virtually impossible to break through their shields.” She stopped talking when Vic frowned and a dozen different emotions crossed her features in a matter of seconds. “What? Victoria?”
Vic sighed and took a step away from her. “I…I…there’s something I haven’t told you.” Isabel reached for her, but Vic took another step back. “I wasn’t completely truthful with you about why I wanted to come here.”
Isabel’s heart pounded in her ears and she gripped the rail to keep herself steady. They had always shared everything and for Vic to keep something back scared her more than she wanted to admit. “Talk to me.”
Vic turned away from her and looked out over the water. “Do you remember about a month, month and a half ago when I excused myself early from dinner? I said I wasn’t feeling well.”
It was odd at the time, because Vic never excused herself from dinner, but she hadn’t thought anything about it. Maybe she should have. “Yes, I remember.”
Vic rubbed her hands down her arms. “I felt something.” She ran her hands through her hair. “It’s hard to explain. I felt.” She touched her chest. “I felt someone call me. She needed my help. I felt everything she felt. From the searing heat, to the pain, and the bones breaking.” She shook her head. “It was hard to breathe. It was hard to do anything. I didn’t know if I would be able to break the hold her emotions had on me. It was like she was projecting onto me.” She frowned. “I don’t see how that’s possible. I thought the only way to project such strong feelings was through a blood link.” She sighed. “My questions didn’t keep me from helping her, though. I went into the study and pulled Dad’s book of spells from the bookshelf. I knew the distance between us was great. It didn’t dawn on me until we passed through the shields that I’d already pushed through them once before.”
Isabel stiffened. That was the last thing she had expected to hear. “What are you saying?” Why was this happening now?
Vic shook her head. “Mom, you know what I’m saying. I was in your office when you received word that someone attacked Princess Jalen. It was the day after I shielded someone. A woman. It was me. I shielded her.” She held her hand up. “I don’t know how, but I did it.” She shrugged. “It just came naturally. I was pulled to her.” She grasped Isabel’s hand. “How did I do it and what does it mean?”
Isabel kept her features neutral, but her stomach was churning. Vic was right. Projecting usually only worked on blood relatives or those you deeply cared about. She couldn’t explain to Vic what had happened to her, not on this trip. Maybe not ever. Some things were never meant to be brought into the light. She squeezed Vic’s hand. “You saved her life. Everything else will fall into place. Some things don’t need an explanation or can’t be explained. Just be grateful you were there when she called out.” Vic didn’t look convinced so Isabel decided to change the subject. “You want to meet Jalen? Is that the reason you wanted to come here?”
Isabel nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem, but let’s keep everything else between us. No one is to know what you did for her.”
“Victoria, you know that if the wrong person found out what you did, you would be putting your life in danger. I won’t take that chance with your life.” She bit the inside of her cheek. “The magic you defeated must have been powerful?”
“It was. I honestly didn’t think I would be able to fight it.”
“But you did.” Isabel smiled.
Vic grinned back. “I did, but it drained me.”
“Performing powerful magic will do that.” Vic was one of the most accomplished sorceresses for her age. There were many others more powerful than she was, but she had an incredible ability to focus her attention far better than most. Whoever had tried to kill Jalen would be looking for whoever shielded her and she would make sure Vic had a guard at all times. “We will not disgrace Queen Abigail, Manight, or Candor by practicing our magic within the city.”
“Mom, you’re the one who gave me a crash course on how to put our own shields in place so we could still use magic in our rooms.”
“I am, but at the time I was your teacher, now, I am your mother. Please do not do anything foolish. I cannot stress enough we are only guests. While I know I could get us both out safely if need be, I don’t want to have to make that choice.”
Vic reached both of her arms out, grasped her right wrist with her left hand, and bowed her head as a sign of respect for the crown. “I would never do anything to disgrace you, my Queen, the crown, or Candor. I would do anything for you and our people.”
Isabel sucked in a breath. Her little girl wasn’t so little anymore. “Lower your arms and raise your head.” She ran her finger down Vic’s cheek. “I know that. I wouldn’t know what to do if anything happened to you.”
“Good thing you won’t have to find out.” She waved her hand in the air. “Enough of that mushy stuff. A girl can only take so much.” She laughed.
Isabel squeezed Vic’s hand. “We should prepare. The port draws near and according to you, our adventure begins.”
Vic pulled her close, squeezed her tight, then pushed her to arm’s length. “I can hardly wait.” She winked.
Isabel turned back to the shore when Vic disappeared below deck. Vic’s confession certainly was unexpected and hopefully wouldn’t bring any unwanted attention their way. Secrets long held needed to stay that way, and she prayed they didn’t play a part in what was or what would happen in Manight. Some secrets deserved to stay buried.
Lanis leaned back against the door, crossed her arms across her chest, and eyed the Jester, who sat at the table. His brown trousers, white shirt, and black cape were forgettable, but the smirk on his face spoke volumes. If she didn’t already know what he was capable of, she would have never believed him to be a Rogue. Did he really know where Anya was, or was he playing games with her? After everything they’d been through, to be blindsided by Anya’s kidnapping felt like a punch to the gut. Given the chance to do it all over again, she would have never opened the letter from the Ramden Council. But, in the end, it hadn’t been her choice. Anya knew she would never say no to the Council, but she would have said no for Anya. No one’s life, not even hers, meant more to her than Anya’s. The very thought of someone besides herself touching Anya fueled her hatred ten-fold and she would make sure everyone involved paid with their lives. She pushed away from the door, stepped over the body on the floor, and sat down across from the Jester. “What do you want?”
The Jester leaned his chair back and laughed. “You know, it’s funny. Seeing you in front of me now, I don’t know what she sees in you.” He spat. “You’re nothing special.”
Elson stiffened beside her and she held her hand up to hold him back. The Jester laughed and cut his eyes to Elson before bringing them back to Lanis. “What do you want?” Lanis repeated.
He cocked his head and stood. “I want what everyone wants. But in this instance, Lanis Welsh, Protector and lover to High Priestess Anya, I don’t want anything from you, but I do want something for the both of us.” He stared at the body on the floor before retaking his seat.
“She asked you a question, twice,” Elson said. “She deserves an answer.” He picked up his sword. “If you know where our High Priestess is, you need to tell us.”
“Well, my, my,” the Jester said. “What a big and strong, dare I say, protector you have.” He laughed. “Too bad he wasn’t the one put in charge of guarding Anya.” He looked at the body and back to Lanis. “Is he the man you put in charge of Anya?”
“He is.” Lanis was fast losing her patience, but, for Anya, she would keep her temper in check.
“Good.” He nodded then wrung his hands together. “I don’t trust many people,” he said, looking at them both. “But I do trust one unconditionally and I will stop at nothing, as long as it is within my powers, to see that she is safe. I will not tell you how, when, why, or where Anya and I met. I will only tell you that I also wish no harm to come to her, but it is not within my power to save her. When she begged me to save her, I told her that that was the difference between you and me. I cannot go against an Oath I have signed, but that you would stop at nothing to save her.”
“Wait a minute.” Lanis stood and clenched her fists by her sides. “You’ve seen Anya and she begged you to save her and you said no.” Anya never begged for anything. She was always the strong one, the one taking care of everybody else, and the one everybody could count on. What did they do to her?
The Jester stood so fast his chair toppled backward and he pushed the table against the wall. “I did what I could. I live by my Oath; you don’t. I did what I could and I could only do that because of loopholes I put in my contracts. I did what I could for you along your journey because of Anya and I am doing all this because of her. If it weren’t for her, I would have already killed you. Do not try my patience. You will lose.”
“You already tried and failed to kill me once.” She waved her hand between them and sat back down. “And we both know you wouldn’t try something here.” They were wasting time. “If you know where she is, tell me, so I can save her. You’re right; I would do anything for her.”
“Even give up your own life.”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation.
He turned away from her and leaned back against the wall. “Because that’s what it might take. It will not be easy to get to her. I only had so many options and I chose the one that would keep her alive the longest. I don’t know what they did to the cell she’s in, or who was in it before her, but she is fading far quicker then she should. Believe me when I say it wasn’t easy keeping her alive.” He ran his hands through his hair.
She rubbed her neck, looked to Elson, and nodded. He sat down on the bed. “Where is she?”
“First things first. I notice that you’re missing someone. Did she get lost along the way?” He smirked.
“She isn’t of any concern to you. Answer my question.”
“You are no fun at all. Tsk, tsk.” He shook his head and frowned. “I really don’t know what she sees in you.” He shrugged.
Lanis tilted her head back and bit her lip when it dawned on her what his problem was. He was in love with Anya. “Get on with it.”
His smirk vanished as quickly as it appeared. “I cannot help you. What I am about to tell you is the only help you’ll get from me. There is someone that will help you, but you have to get to her first and it won’t be easy.”
Great. That’s all she needed, another obstacle. Why couldn’t anything ever be easy or at least not life threatening? “Who?”
He shook his finger at her then looked at it in disgust. “Pity Manight doesn’t allow its citizens to use magic.” He shook his hands out. “Where was I?”
“You were about to tell us who we have to see,” Elson said.
“No. I was about to tell Lanis who she has to see. You, my friend, will not be going with her.”
“We’ll see,” Elson muttered.
Lanis couldn’t believe everyone was being so calm. It was disturbing on a whole new level. “Can we get on with it?”
“Queen Isabel is visiting Manight to partake in the Festival and she’s staying in the Castle at Queen Abigail’s request. You need to get in and talk with her. She will be able to help you, but you will have to be honest with her. She doesn’t like surprises.”
“What can she do?” Elson said. “She can’t practice magic in Manight.”
“No, but she can practice magic inside the Castle walls. Where do you think the Mages are that protect Hadmore’s borders and more especially Manight’s? The Royal Estate is the only place in Manight that allows magic.” He addressed Lanis. “Be careful; she doesn’t take well to strangers. Candor is a lot different from Manight. Do not play games with her.”
Lanis frowned. “Let me get this straight. First, you want me to get into the Castle, then you want me to find Queen Isabel and talk her into helping me, but she can be hostile. How do you purpose I do that?”
The Jester shrugged and his eyes strayed to the body on the floor before coming back to Lanis. She couldn’t decipher the look in his eyes. “You need her to help you.” He ran his hands through his hair. “What I did to Anya will take a very powerful magic to cut through it and that type of magic cannot be found here.”
Lanis’s stomach dropped. “What did you do to her?” How could this get any worse?
“They have her in a small cell in the center of a Holders outpost set back inside a cave. You do know who the Holders of the Spheres are, don’t you?” He looked first at Elson, then Lanis. “He does; do you, Lanis?”
If they had her, this situation was far worse then she could have ever imagined. “I know some. I know they worship Damrek.” She shook her head. “I know they are searching for the seven spheres. No one knows much about them or where their hideouts are. I know there is a Book of Damrek, but I’ve never seen it. Have you?” she asked Elson.
“I have,” the Jester said. “To me, it’s just another book, but to them it’s their whole life. Lanis, do not underestimate one’s love for their God, even if it is a false one.”
“Oh, I won’t.” She leaned forward in her chair. The Jester looked deep in thought, but he also looked nervous. “So you’re telling me The Holders of the Spheres have her.”
“Yes and you have to understand that what I did, I did for Anya’s safety. I enclosed the room she’s in in an enchantment. A very powerful spell. Isabel will be able to help with that. No one can enter the room and no one can leave.”
What? “Is this a joke? How am I supposed to get her out if no one can enter and leave the room?”
“I did it for her safety. I left a two-week supply of food and water. That’s all I could do for her. It is up to you to save her. I told her you would be coming for her. Was I harsh in making that statement? Would you abandon her now, Lanis? After everything.”
“Of course not.”
“Where is she?” Elson said, standing.
“Follow Laramore’s border until you reach the ocean. From there, travel along the water until you come upon a large rock formation littered with several cave openings. The cave you need is the one with a small sword etched into the stone. There aren’t any shields guarding the door, but beware, some of the most feared fighters belong to the Holders guards. They will not think twice before killing a stranger. Stay on top of it.”
“Well, isn’t that fantastic. Is there any other obstacles I should be aware of?”
The Jester smirked. “Oh, there’s plenty, but nothing you’ll hear from me.” He sobered quickly. “Do take my word. You will need Queen Isabel’s help.” He sighed and glanced at the body on the floor. “For a favor, I can contact somebody who will get rid of that body for you.”
It wasn’t her ideal situation, but she would work with what she had. “All right.” What was one more favor to owe?
He clapped his hands and laughed. “Perfect.” He bowed before her. “Anya awaits you, my Lady. Do not tarry. Time isn’t on your side.”
Lanis dropped her head in her hands when the door shut behind him, and the quiet inside the room washed over her. Anya needed her and she would stop at nothing to find her.