I did it! I finished a thing before the deadline I gave myself! I'm a sorcerer! 8D
This is, indeed, the final chapter of Night Watch, and I've been looking forward to it for some time. It's the longest chapter, but I had a lot to cover before it could end, so I'm not mad. Doom makes an appearance, along with several other Deltorans we all know and love; and we cut back to Rin to catch up with our various brokenhearted parents. I figured it was long overdue. And I didn't want people to forget too much about them, as they will be central to the final book.
Oh, and Zadina. Is losing her mind. For reasons. ;D
Chapter 15: Messages
It was nearly six o'clock in the morning, by the time the remaining Crusaders returned to Southside. And instead of returning straight to Bhlai House, Star urged Porrima the grach to land in Zan's neighborhood. After all his brothers had been through, it felt right to see him home to them first.
As Zan was fumbling for the key to his house, Star left Porrima a final pat on her shoulder and a generous thank you for all her help, before sending her back into the night.
"We shall meet again soon, I think," the creature had hissed back before taking flight. "Take care, Small Star. It has been a pleasure flying with you this night."
All was quiet at Garased House. Somewhere in the upper rooms, Zamiel and Zaneth had either exhausted themselves and fallen asleep, or were waiting up for their brother in tense silence. It seemed that they were sleeping; though the key had to be jiggled in the faulty lock and the door hinges creaked loudly as it opened, the Crusaders heard nothing stirring anywhere. No voices impatiently calling Zan's name, no feet running to greet them. Even in the garage on the side of the house, Dolosus and Unos didn't seem to have heard them.
"Ah, finally, a little boredom," Forley commented in a low voice. "I feel I've had my fill of noise for one evening."
"I think we all have," Zan agreed, shrugging off his jacket. "I can't wait to get into my warm bed and sleep, and sleep, and sleep."
Forley hummed thoughtfully, no doubt thinking the same for himself. But Star was moved by how tired Zan suddenly was, and how well he had pushed it aside all night. And on his own birthday, no less.
"Let's go, Star," Forley said impatiently, walking back to the open door. "Bhlai House isn't a long walk from here; if we hurry, perhaps we can outrun the rain and any nearby guards. Both are coming after us with a vengeance, to be sure."
"I'll be right there," she answered as he went on his way.
Zan looked at her curiously. "Is everything alright?"
Star was unsure of what to say. She had so many things on her mind, so many things she wanted to say all at the same time. Picking the right words for them was difficult.
"I'm sorry this wasn't the birthday you wanted," she said at last. "I know you wanted to spend it in peace, with your family, not running around on more missions and bickering with pirates. You barely got to eat any of your cake, for pity's sake! It didn't turn out at all how we wanted it to, and I'm sorry."
To her surprise, Zan smiled and clasped her hands in his own. "Don't be. If I'm honest, it was the best birthday I've ever had. It wasn't a peaceful night; but I spent it doing what I love to do, with people I care about, and that's what matters to me. We saved a lot of lives tonight. We've changed them for the better, and that makes me feel so… So…"
He was still trying to find his own words, but the ones he had already chosen had filled Star with pride in him. All at once, she couldn't bear to hold back her own true thoughts any longer. While he hesitated, trying to finish his sentence, she closed the short space between them, halfheartedly telling herself only to hug him – not to kiss him like she desperately wanted to.
Yet this was exactly what she found herself doing, without thinking twice about it. For all he had done, and for all the love and courage in his heart, he more than deserved it. He had proven himself and earned it. She couldn't imagine herself living this singular moment with anyone else.
It was her first kiss, after all. It was his, too. It was special. Magic, in its own way. She could feel it, not as a deep rumbling and ethereal chiming, but as something soft and light and warm. Something like sunshine and clouds, so far away and yet almost close enough to touch, and beautifully, simply free.
It was love, she realized. Real love, for the right reasons, because of the things that mattered. There were no details or puzzles or complications there. Only truth, and freedom.
When she looked at him, his violet eyes were wide and bright with disbelief. He seemed paralyzed. Star felt the same, disbelieving, herself, that she had been so bold. She was also acutely aware of her cousin, waiting for her by the door; his gaze was like heavy bricks on her shoulders, impossible to ignore.
Star hated to have to leave now, of all times; but what else was there to do?
"Happy birthday, Zan," she whispered.
As she tore herself away and joined Forley at the door, she wondered what Zan would do next, now that she had given him what he wanted most in the world.
Forley was graciously quiet for a moment as they walked through the rain. Then he cleared his throat awkwardly.
"I presume that what you meant to say was, 'I love you'," he suggested with a sly smirk.
Star smirked back and shrugged. "The words didn't make it into my mind fast enough," she answered simply. "I'm exhausted, too."
"You realize what you've just done, haven't you?"
Sighing to herself, Star fixed her eyes on the dark street ahead of her, resolving to feel no remorse whatever. "I've perhaps created an enormous problem for everyone," she grumbled, angrily remembering what Alanis had said to her. "I will have to leave this city someday, and I shouldn't be toying with his heart like this, and I'm only going to hurt him. I know, I know. But I just…"
She found Forley's arm around her shoulders, and his gentle laughter in her ear. "Yes, all that bother, too, if you insist. It wasn't what I was thinking of at all."
Before he could finish speaking, a shout of joyous laughter rang from the house behind them. They stopped to look back, astounded. Forley's smile grew warmer, and he patted Star's shoulder.
"What you've done is, you've made Zan Garased the happiest young man in the world," he said proudly. "That is quite a feat, if you ask me. I know some members of our original company won't care much for it, but I think it's a fine thing."
Star began to blush, but she also felt oddly safe. "Do you really?"
"Absolutely. Now save your breath for the walk home. It's a way, still, and I'd hate to fall from the frying pan and into the fire now, of all times. If we can just make it home, we can call it another night of successful Crusading; and that will be a fine thing, too."
Most of Habaharan city was sleeping, but its malevolent queen was not. She was pacing in the highest room of the palace' north-facing tower, stormy red eyes on an equally violent sea. It was a rare and precious view of what lay beyond the famous wall. A view that few were supposed to think too hard about, and were in fact encouraged to ignore.
Zadina had not felt fury so passionately in quite some time. Report after hasty report had poured into her offices in the late hours of the night, and they painted a picture that seemed to say that someone in the city refused to leave well enough alone. The capture of a live Maris in the early evening had felt a triumph to the queen – something to remind her people of her great power, and a fresh brain to pick for useful secrets of the far west. Secrets which could, perhaps, finally lead to a successful invasion.
Her last attempt at that had gone poorly. It had involved cunning and flattery and deceit, which she might have known would never have worked on a specimen as clever as Zeel Moakel, the lost one, the traitor. On this occasion, she had planned to skip formalities altogether, to move straight to pain and death threats. It worked often enough with her own people. She had been certain that one small Maris would be easy enough to break. She had looked forward to it.
The second report had followed on the heels of the first, and it had infuriated her. Her Maris was gone, whisked away from the most secure place in all of Habaharan, at the hands of the same Crusaders who had cost her so much in the last few months. More and more unwilling but useful commoners escaped certain doom at their hands every week. In hindsight, she might have known to expect them to attempt a gallant rescue. But, of course, she never would have expected them to do something as futile as storm the Central Dungeon – let alone do it and survive! How was it even possible?
Sadly, she would never know just how that had been allowed to happen. The two guards whose one job it had been to guard the one entrance to that dungeon had been dragged before her in a shameful state. They had stumbled before her, dizzy with heavy drink and badly singed all over, babbling of beautiful music and pretty women and a surprise attack by fire.
Zadina had been disgusted by it. Commands had been given in a blaze of anger. Those two pitiful excuses for Central Control officers had been dead for hours, and the general in charge of them had been demoted a whole rank for their disgrace. She was pleased with herself for making such a shining example of their failure to the rest of her warriors. Such a breach could never be allowed to happen again.
Never, ever again. It simply could not happen again, for a number of reasons.
And then, not long after she had sent troops to comb the city for her lost prize, another report had come in. More attacks on her officers – by ice, this time. Her men had seen the missing Maris, in the company of others who could only be the Crusaders. They had been within grasp. But, as always, they had worked some magic they should have had no access to, and shoved some of Central Control's best people aside like play things.
A boat had been stolen from the naval harbor on the city's far side; it only meant that a naval officer had been involved in the escape, somehow, which was baffling. But the officer the surviving men and women had seen matched no description anyone had ever heard of. He had been a complete stranger, filled with deep magic and a great many dangerous secrets.
Which all paled beside the fact that one of the fastest ships in the navy's scouting fleet had been stolen, beyond a doubt with the Maris on board, less than an hour before yet another storm rolled over the city. There would be no chasing it in the current weather. Even Zadina, the Dragon Lord, queen of all the Zebak, knew better than to waste skilled officers on such a mission. They would all be lost, as surely as her Maris and her ship would be.
Rain was pouring again, and the winds of the new storm were tearing at the city below her. It matched her mood well. She felt trapped and helpless, unable to do anything about the current problem but rage uselessly.
She felt bitterly betrayed, as well. Someone of Central Control had turned their back on her, helped free her captives, and stolen her things. Someone was not following orders. Someone was resisting her will.
And that would not do in the slightest. For a number of reasons.
And if I am betrayed, she thought slowly, there is no one among my men I can fully trust. Even my generals are suspect, now. One of them may be hiding the traitor among their ranks, whether they know of it or not.
The plans of my ancestors have failed me. My army of unwilling servants has found a will of its own. And if that will grows stronger still…
Troubled by this idea, she paced away from the north-facing windows and wandered to the opposite side of the tower. To the wide window which faced the south, the barren wastelands, and a solution.
I need a new army. An army with no will of its own. An army I can trust to obey with question. And I know just where I can get one…
On an impulse he couldn't explain, Doom of the Hills was travelling west. Deltora's coast had been hovering in his mind for days, and he couldn't say why. All he knew was that he needed to go there, even though it was the middle of winter and travelling was difficult.
Thinking about it as he rode across his homeland, he recalled one of his more interesting friends predicting something about the west, when they had met in the fall – short months ago.
"I see the great rivers of our land joining, and a lonely little ship sailing out of the dark night to meet them," the dragon had said thoughtfully, then. Hopian was the very last dragon of the Opal, gifted with foresight and great wisdom. Whenever he spoke of future events, they were sure to pass, eventually.
Deltora's two great rivers – the Tor and the Broad – crossed paths on the western coast. A small port town had grown up there over the centuries, aptly if not uncreatively named Where Waters Meet. The town had been ravaged in the past, during 16 long, terrible years of invasion; but it had since been rebuilt, and was thriving once again.
It was the only place near either river that could receive a sailing ship. Which was why, after puzzling for days over it, Doom was finally riding hard to the west, to investigate.
He had a friend or two from Amethyst territory who would likely have taken him in for the night, if only they were there. Ranesh was the town hero, a local boy who had grown to be head advisor to the king, himself; and Marlien, his wife, was from Tora, just to the north. However, they now lived far away, in the palace in Del. This long into winter, it was unlikely that they would journey so far north unless they had a good reason to.
Doom frowned over this, disliking the idea of paying a stranger money to stay at a wayfarer's place. He wandered the wild, now, and would have preferred the shelter of some secret place, hidden somewhere unexpected. Just thinking of having to stay for a time among people made him uncomfortable.
Then he laughed grimly to himself. He suddenly reminded himself strongly of the daughter he didn't speak much about, who also lived in the palace in Del.
Because, of course, she was married to the king.
But Doom disliked thinking too hard about that, as well, and so pushed it from his mind. He focused instead on how bitterly cold it was growing, the farther north he rode, and allowed himself to complain quietly about how numb his fingers were.
He journeyed like this for two days. As soon as he had crossed the invisible boarder that separated the territories of the Opal and Amethyst, he began to feel a familiar, invisible tugging, and it seemed that the world was passing by at incredible speed. It was the will of Toran magic, speeding him all the faster to his destination. Or, at least, to the destination the people of Tora had decided on for him. Normally, he would have been glad of the assistance; but today, it concerned him.
The people of Tora had been expecting him. Their magic had been waiting to greet him, and swoop him away. Perhaps in the opposite direction he wanted to go in. They needed him somewhere… But where?
Nearly to his relief, he saw the beginnings of the wall of Where Waters Meet rising from the horizon. The tug of magic began to lessen, as the town itself came into view. In spite of wanting to expand the town, the people were already erecting a real wall of solid brick to replace the wooden one that had tided them over for so long. Doom supposed there was a reason for it, but it seemed counterproductive to him. He rode past in and into the town without looking twice at it.
It was just past dawn, and the streets were filled with a chill mist. Fresh snow covered every surface. The sounds of shops being opened echoed from a few buildings; otherwise, it was serenely quiet. Doom rode in silence through the town, headed straight for the docks. He had been hauled here partly against his will for a reason, and he had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with the Opal dragon's prophecy.
When he reached the tiny shipyard, he tied his horse to a post and carried on by himself. After walking for only a few minutes, he spotted a few people standing together at one of the docks. Two were wearing the long, flowing robes of Tora – one red, the other purple, bright and impossible not to see in the mist. The third was tall and dark, dressed much like he was in a long coat, sturdy trousers, and heavy boots.
Doom didn't have to look at them a long time to guess who there were. Indeed, he felt he would have known Ranesh, Marilen, and Zeean of Tora from any distance, after all they had been through together.
The mere fact that the couple was here, when he had been so sure they would not be, made him wonder very much. They had been summoned, perhaps as much as he had been, and of course they had answered the call.
What in Adin's name was going on?
"You wanted to see me," he greeted flatly, appearing out of the mist like a shadow, pleased to have surprised them like he had wanted to. All three of them jumped in alarm, and Zeean's hand flew over her heart as she scowled at him.
"Never do that again," she scolded. "I can imagine you are upset, Doom of the Hills, but it is no reason for such spite."
Doom's mouth twitched into the slightest of rueful grins. "Then I would say we're even," he answered. Then his face returned to its usual frown and he crossed his arms, staring out as far as he could across the sea. "Now tell me, what has happened that you needed me here so urgently."
"A ship sailed into Deltoran waters very early in the morning," Marlien supplied right away. "We know little of it yet, but our people have sensed no ill will from it. All we know is that it is small and unexpected. We aren't even sure where it's come from."
"We were woken by the call around five o'clock this morning," Ranesh added, sounding irritated. "There was nothing for it but to bundle up and hurry here as soon as possible; there wasn't even time to wake our son and bring him with us, as we would have wanted to. I'm not exactly pleased to be here, myself."
Marlien and Zeean glared at him, but he plainly didn't care. Doom couldn't say he blamed the man.
"Do their majesties know of this?" he asked.
Marlien shrugged. "We left a scribbled letter; but we know so little, and time was short, and so the letter is very vague. But it explains where we've gone so suddenly, and why, as best it can."
"So why summon me?" Doom nearly demanded. "It hardly seems to concern me, and I was busy."
"You were nearby," Zeean replied simply. "You were nearby, and we felt that we could use all the help we could find in this moment. I must say, it was a relief to find you so suddenly close at hand."
But I was not nearby, Doom thought to himself. I was two days away from here when I felt so strongly compelled to ride this way; and there was no strange ship wandering in our waters then. So… I just happened to be there, just when I was most needed.
It was far beyond a coincidence, and he didn't entirely care for it. What did it mean? What was he needed so badly for, that the cosmos had rearranged his life to place him here, right at this moment?
A few more minutes of anxious waiting passed; and out of the growing dawn, a dark shape appeared in the mist. It drew closer, and the shape became the solid form of a small ship, its brown sails slack in the still morning air. It appeared to be a trading vessel from its size, fit more for boxes and crates to be neatly packed away than for a large crew to travel comfortably. As it drew closer still and Doom got a better look at it, he could also see that the ship was built for speed, for cutting through waves like a dart. Perhaps, to make daring escapes with loads of loot all the easier.
Just the kind of ship a pirate would favor, Doom thought warily, his fingers brushing the hilt of his dagger.
Yet as the ship sailed along the neat rows of docks, there was no noise coming from it. No threats, no curses, no drunken bawling – nothing at all, in fact. As the ship clumsily pulled up to the dock opposite them, it seemed as though it was being driven by ghosts. There was no light, no movement, no sign of life anywhere on board.
Staring and wondering very much, the four companions slowly approached the vessel, watching for any sign that they might be walking into a trap. But the more they looked at it, the less likely it seemed. The ship just sat there, looming nonthreateningly before them, bobbing listlessly in the calm waves.
Cautiously, Marilen stepped up ahead of them, peering at the deck. "Hello?" she called as boldly as she dared. "Is there anyone there?"
"Answer us," Zeean added, her aged voice deep and grand with authority. "If there is anyone on board this ship, I command you, in the name of Adin, answer us!"
At last, something stirred. There was a scuttling noise on the deck, as someone crept around unseen; elsewhere on board, there came the muffled sound of a child giggling, and another child crying softly, and other voices hushing them, telling them to keep quiet.
It was an odd mix of sounds. Very odd…
Pale fingers appeared gripping the railing, followed by a pair of flat, cold eyes in a pale, hairless face. Doom blinked in surprise at. It looked….. Like a Maris.
"In the name of Adin, you say?" the creature called back, its female voice anxious, but also filled with wild hope. "Do you mean to say, we are in Deltora?"
Zeean and Marlien looked between each other, puzzled by the question and how desperately it had been asked. Looking more awake now, Ranesh stepped between them to take over.
"Yes, indeed, you are in Deltora," he called back. "You are in the town of Where Waters Meet, in the land of the Amethyst, on our western coast. Now state your business. What brings you here so early on a winter's morning, with no warning?"
The creature jumped to its feet in joy, revealing the rest of a body that was definitely Maris. A young Maris, too, by the look of it. She looked over her shoulder, nearly cackling with glee.
"Brax! Lillo! Get up, it's alright! And get the others up here, too! We're finally here!"
To their astonishment, another pair of youngsters hopped to their feet from where they had been crouching on the deck, also cheering in excitement. These two were not at all Maris; they were dark in color, with bright eyes, and strange black marks from their hairlines to the tips of their noses. One of them, a young girl, darted out of sight and began hollering words in a foreign tongue below deck.
As the sound of many people storming onto the deck filled the air, the Maris turned back to the people on the dock, her fishlike face grinning broadly, showing off rows of pointy little teeth. "I am afraid it is a long story," she called to them, laughter in her voice. "Let us ashore, and I shall explain everything."
Ranesh hesitated at the request. "How many are you?" he asked, as more and more young people crowded onto the deck.
"14, in all," the Maris answered. "13 Zebak children, and one Maris child – that is, myself. We have come seeking sanctuary. Please, let us ashore; and, as I said, I shall explain everything."
Ranesh, Marlien, Zeean, and Doom clustered together, whispering furiously amongst themselves.
"Zebak?" Marlien asked, looking mainly at her husband. "What is this, Zebak? I've never heard of such a thing, have you?"
"I don't think so," he said thoughtfully. "It's a harsh sounding word, isn't it? I think I would remember it."
"Well," Doom pointed out, "the Maris has agreed to explain what it means, though she seems fixed on the condition that we let them off the ship first."
"But should we allow such a thing?" Zeean wondered, glancing at the gang of young faces crowded at the ship's railing. "There are so many of them, and we don't even know where we've come from, or what they want with us."
"They want sanctuary, apparently," Doom put in. "The Maris just said so. Sanctuary from what, though? What kind of trouble could so many young people be in?"
"It could be risky," Ranesh muttered, a heavy decision being weighed in his eyes. "We can't just let strangers unannounced into our country, not after we've finally won our freedom back. Who knows what they really mean to do here?"
Marlien squeezed his arm and glared at him again.
"Ranesh, they are only children. Besides, I sense no ill from anyone on this ship, and see nothing but truth in anything the Maris has said. Let them off the ship – if only to let them stretch their legs, at least."
Ranesh looked back at the crowd of eager faces awaiting permission to land, and over the ship that was entirely too small for so many of them. After another moment's thought, he finally nodded and gestured to the crowd.
"Come ashore, then," he called to them. "Come down here and explain yourselves."
Several of the children cheered in triumph, and the Maris sighed deeply in relief. The two tallest of the children – the ones with the marks on their faces – wasted no time in lowering the gangplank all by themselves, and the rest of the gaggle began storming down to solid ground, one after the other. The marked girl bent to pick up the smallest of them, another girl who was still half asleep, and carried her down.
"Lillo, are we there yet?" the child could be heard yawning.
Lillo rolled her pale green eyes, as if she had heard the question repeated many times recently and had grown sick of hearing it, but was now charmed because she could finally answer, "Aye, Layla girl, we are."
The green-clad Maris came last of all, warning the smaller children to be still and quiet, though it was plain that they mostly wanted to run off and look around. Small Layla was fidgeting and complaining loudly, more awake and filled with excitement to finally be off the ship. Lillo had to set the child on her own feet before she squirmed free and fell, though she kept a firm grip on her hand. It seemed the 13 dark children knew each other well, as if they were all brothers and sisters, perhaps. But it still didn't explain their sudden presence.
The Maris paused before the four Deltorans, unsure of which one was in charge and who to address first. Thinking of it, Doom wasn't sure of that, himself.
"I am Iris of Fisk," the Maris said at last, as much to any of them as one. "With me are Brax and Lillo of Habaharan, and their company. Thank you for allowing us to land here."
Ranesh stepped forward and shook her webbed hand. "I am Ranesh, advisor to the king," he answered. "With me are my wife, Marlien, court historian and librarian; Zeean, elder of Tora; and Doom of the Hills. I have to say, the four of us were very… Confused, when we realized a stray ship had entered our waters. We had no idea what to expect from it, but I'm certain it was not this. Since you have offered to explain yourselves, please do."
"I would be confused, myself," Iris muttered, then cleared her throat. "We have escaped from the land to the north. Our mission was to find a safe place for these children, who have never known freedom. But they will not be safe in Maris, and so we sailed for Deltora, instead. We have been at sea for nearly a week in this small ship, sailing through storms, fending off serpents and other foul creatures, and praying that the Dragon Lord has not pursued us."
"Wait just a moment," Ranesh interrupted her. "You say you came from the land to the north?"
"Yes, we have."
His face became very suspicious. "You mean the Shadowlands, of course."
Iris blinked at him. "…No, of course not. We have sailed from the city of Habaharan, in the Zebak lands. I believe the place you call the Shadowlands lies between here and there, separating the two entirely. I was warned, before our escape, to give the place a wide berth for safety's sake; I was also told that your land is separated from it by mountains, and that I might sail closer to land once we had passed them. I can see now that this was very true."
The Maris was very pleased about this, but Ranesh was not satisfied.
"Then this Dragon Lord of yours… You don't mean the Shadow Lord?"
"No, I mean the Dragon Lord," Iris answered plainly, as if it was obvious. "I know of the Shadow Lord. I have heard enough tales from our traders who come here – and those who would not come here, while evil ruled this land. The Dragon Lord is a human woman of flesh and blood, though I am not surprised that you might mistake the two. They are very alike in magic and wickedness."
Ranesh stood back a bit, thinking this over. "There is another country beyond the Shadowlands?" he mused, looking over his shoulder. "Doom, think hard. You survived that wretched place. Did you hear nothing of such a land while you were there?"
"No," Doom answered flatly, annoyed to have it mentioned in front of so many strangers. "Like you, I think I would have remembered. I've heard no more of the Zebak lands than you or any of us have."
Several of the gathered children gasped, looking offended. "What do ye mean, ye ain't heard of us?" the marked boy demanded in a loud voice. "We been right there, all along! An' we heard o' ye before."
"Aye, we did," Lillo agreed snappishly, releasing the child's hand to plant her fists o her hips. "Yer our last hope, see? We been enslaved all our lives. Jus' got free, we did, from a fate worse than death. Ye can't not help us!"
It was the word "enslaved" that struck Doom's heart, when he thought on it later. He had wondered at what so many children might have to run so far away from in such a tiny craft. It seemed more and more that it had been a desperate escape from something truly terrible. A glance at small, impatient Layla proved this even more, as a beam of rising sunlight came over the dock and the child began to cry, complaining that it was burning her and that she wanted to hide from it. As if she was unused to seeing the light of day.
Doom felt moved to face Lillo squarely and try to calm her.
"There is no reason to shout at us," he said in his gruff way. "We know a thing or two of fates worse than death, ourselves." He glanced meaningfully at his companions, who were now reflecting in silent shame on the troubles they had faced during the Shadow Lord's reign of terror. Except for Marlien, who was kneeling in front of Layla and offering her a piece of candy with a kind smile. The girl had stopped crying and wandered over a bit shyly to take the treat.
Lillo saw this, too, and took a deep breath instead of snapping again, more willing now to listen to reason.
"We are more than willing to help you," Doom continued. "However, the matter of you staying here lies with the king – who, as it happens, is kin to each of us in some way or another. Your company will go with us to Del, and he will sort out the rest."
The two marked children ducked their heads nervously, raising their hands to brush self-consciously at the stripes on their faces. Iris looked at Doom with an odd face.
"A meeting with a king means naught but death to their people," she growled, as if insulted that he had frightened her companions. "Are you certain…?"
Zeean held up her hand in peace. "Leif is a good man, with a heart too big for his own safety," she said gently. "He has never been able to turn away a soul in need; I don't know if he has the capacity for it. He will help you, in whatever way he can. Almost certainly, he will allow you to stay in our land for as long as you need to."
Iris looked satisfied with this, but the Zebak children still seemed unsure. All of them but Layla, now safe and warm in Marlien's arms, and babbling casually about everything she had been through recently.
"The journey to Del can wait a day or two," Marlien said suddenly. "This little one says they ran out of food and water in the night, and that a nasty cough is making its way among them. These children need food and rest and medical attention before they go anywhere."
Ranesh nodded, and went to stand beside his wife. "They will find all three right here. I will make sure of it. Whichever of them don't fit into the inn, I will look after in our own house."
Listening to all this, Zeean nodded, as well. "I will return to Tora, then. It seems I have a few letters to write. I will be back in a day's time to journey with the rest of you."
"Very well," Doom agreed. "I will go ahead of you this evening, if you would lend me your speed. They might like to know ahead of time at the palace just what is in store for them."
Zeean laughed vaguely. "Indeed, they might. We will send you with all speed, then. I will see you tomorrow."
And, in what seemed like an instant, Zeean had turned and gone, vanishing into the mist and hurrying away on her own magic. The children were all amazed by this; but Iris recovered and tapped cautiously on Doom's arm.
"I know that it is winter, and that Maris ships will not be due for another few months," she said slowly, "but I am very anxious to be getting home. I also know that Del is located on the coast. Do you know if there are any ships there headed west?"
Doom honestly had no idea. He hadn't been back to Del in nearly a year. He looked to Ranesh for an answer, only to see them distracted by the child in his wife's arms and not paying attention.
"Ranesh, this Maris wants very much to be home," he repeated. "Is there a ship in Del going that way?"
The man thought about it for a moment. "…Why yes, I believe there is – and it is a Maris ship, in fact. It arrived at harbor a few weeks ago; but the Silver Sea has been all storms, on and off lately, and so they have been unable to leave. Sir Perlain has been beside himself with impatience over it."
Iris had already been thrilled at the news; now she looked ready to jump out of her skin. "Perlain of Pandellis is here?" she asked, her voice squeaking with excitement.
"Ah, you know him," Ranesh commented. "I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. I'm sure he will be happy to take you home, once it is safe to sail again." He chuckled over it and turned back to his wife. "What luck, my dear, for all of us. What are the odds?"
"Lucky, indeed," Marlien agreed, smiling down at the child in her arms. Layla was falling asleep again, clinging to her for comfort, but also looking quite peaceful. Ranesh was smiling, too, moved by how close the two had grown in so little time.
"I want to keep her," Marlien said quietly. "I feel there is a rightness to it."
Ranesh hummed thoughtfully over it, and stroked the child's frizzy hair. "I feel it, too, I think. Perhaps you ought to hurry home, love, while I stay and take care of things here. Josef should meet his new little sister as soon as possible."
Iris looked pleased about this; the other children seemed nervous, but also relieved to see that their smallest member had already found a safe, loving home to belong with. Doom watched all this in silence, with regret aching in his stomach.
I don't think about Jasmine nearly enough, he thought bitterly, suddenly jealous of the young couple and the child who had, all at once, become their daughter. It isn't right, no matter how we feel about each other.
For the first time in a long time, he was glad to have a reason to return to Del and be with his family for a time. He could hardly wait.
The winter snow had always been a chore in Rin. At the base of the land's largest mountain, forever haunted by the loathsome beasts called ice creepers, deep snow was an inescapable part of life there. It's people were well suited to it, though, and simply dealt with it, as they dealt with most hardships.
Also, most of them could still remember a time when the snow had piled up much higher, and winter's bitter chill clung longer and longer with every passing year. Winters in Rin were now much milder than they had been for centuries, and there was only a handful of people to thank for that.
Rowan, himself, remembered all this as he shuffled through the snow toward his house, and didn't complain once about the cold.
It had been a busy morning for the village's famous healer. A cold was making its rounds, as it seemed to every year. One or two people had developed a fever, which hadn't lasted long under his watch. Someone's foolish child, looking for a game to play indoors, had slid down a stair railing and ended up with several splinters in her leg. Those splinters had all been plucked out like thorns, and the small wounds had been dressed and bound, and the girl had certainly learned a valuable lesson.
"With any luck, it will be the greatest adventure of your life," Rowan had commented as he had left the girl's house.
"I hope not," she had huffed back, standing up straight and puffing her chest out proudly. "I want to go on many great adventures, just like you did."
Rowan had sighed over this. "Adventures are vastly overrated," he had grumbled, shaking his head as he had left, no doubt leaving the girl and her family concerned over his mood.
He couldn't blame them for it, of course. He was no less kind or gentle than he had always been, but the people had come to know him over the years as a happy man. Not so very long ago, it was normal to see him laughing and smiling to everyone he met – and no wonder. His life had become everything he might have wanted it to. He had found friends, and his family had become very large very quickly. He had not one, but two younger sisters who he loved fiercely and was very proud of. He had a beautiful wife, and a daughter who had been just like him in every way. He was doing work that he loved, that he was good at. There was no reason why he shouldn't have been filled with joy, then; it would have been strange, if he hadn't been.
And so, it would be strange if he were happy, now. In what had seemed the blink of an eye, much of that happiness had been stolen from him. The wife and child that had filled his days for nearly 15 years were gone. The house where they had lived together still stood in the exact same place, and there was always work for a good healer; but now, both were empty and terribly lonely to him. And everywhere he looked, he felt he saw something that reminded him of them in the most painful ways. So he no longer looked at much more than the cobbled street while on his errands, and rarely found a reason to smile anymore.
He knew that it unnerved the villagers to see him so changed, but he was beyond caring. At least they were unaware that Star had taken the Earth sigil with her, when she had defied him and left on her own adventure. The sigil was none of their business, and few had ever actually seen it. He supposed that some still didn't know that it existed, and he honestly preferred it that way. He could still use his own deep magic without it, because he was the Earth Titan; but the gold medallion was still the source of his people's magic, and he felt its loss as deeply as that of the people he missed so much.
It was also painful to think of Alanis, the younger and more awkward of his sisters. And of Forley, who was now a restless young man, and of Leah, who had so many personal troubles and no idea how to face them. They had certainly gone with Star to protect her, if they could, and perhaps even to prove themselves to their people. The holes left behind in their village were all enormous; and their loss had left all their parents as mere shadows of the lively people they had once been.
Rowan missed them all every day, at the same time wrestling with a fading hope that they were even still alive. The idea that they might return home and that their family might be reunited one day was past hoping for. He had known that from the second he had realized they had left and what their destination was, for he knew that many things could enter the Zebak lands easily, but nothing could leave without the will of the Dragon Lord.
He would never see his wife or any of the children he loved so much ever again. He understood that, and had done his best to make peace with that. But a year had passed, and more, and accepting this never became easier. When he woke alone in his house each morning, he felt that he had to take this fact up like a terrible length of chain, and haul it around on his back everywhere he went.
And so, grim as he had grown, he appreciated the troubles of his people and the way they filled his mind. It was something productive to do, a distraction from the constant sense of misery he felt. It was more than some of his friends could do. He couldn't think of the last time any of them had been truly cheered by anything.
Except, there was one thing he could think of, and he forced himself to smile faintly over it. When Annad, his other sister, had married only months after the tragedy, their mother had been scandalized. She had scolded the young woman for showing such disrespect. Annad had shrugged her anger off, saying that there was no reason to put her life aside forever, and that it was at least something meaningful to do with the present. It hadn't been enough for their mother, who had remained furious for weeks; but Rowan had understood, and had let his sister be.
And now, not a month ago, she had given birth to a healthy pair of twins, and she had insisted on naming them Fliss and Bron. It had seemed to their whole brokenhearted family a sign – an omen, even. There were children before them right now, not in their dreams or memories, who needed them. It gave them a faint, sad hope that these precious children would become the new rhythm of their lives.
Rowan thought of this, too, as he let himself into his house, and he was far from satisfied with it. He didn't want a new life. He didn't want to replace his beloved family with a new one, and learn to carry on that way. He wished with all his aching heart that his life could be what it was before.
If only I could see them again, he thought wearily. If only I could see their faces, just one more time, just to know that they are all alive. I would ask for nothing ever again…
It was no coincidence that he was thinking this just now; he found himself making that wish several times a day. However, as he wished it this time, a familiar feeling came over him like a cold, crashing wave. And with it hissed a voice like bubbling sea foam, overflowing with excitement.
Rowan, there is news. Good news! Sit down immediately. I have much to tell you.
It had been a very long time since the Keeper had spoken so passionately in his mind. Wondering what his closest friend was so excited about, Rowan went into his study and sat with his back against the door, settling himself for a long talk.
What's all this about good news, Doss? He asked. I thought that all of Maris was grieving just now, as we have been here.
Yes, over Iris of Fisk, as you know, the Keeper agreed. But this is the good news! The child has returned to us!
Iris has come home, alive and unharmed! Perlain found her in Deltora, that wide and wondrously free land in the south, and so he has brought her back. The Fisk clan is beside itself, and her parents – well, you can only imagine their joy, and their anger. I believe the girl is never allowed to leave her house again for all the trouble and sorrow she has caused, which she would normally have thrown a fit over. On this occasion, however, she seemed quite content with her fate. I believe she has learned a valuable lesson from her journey.
Though he was deep in a trance, Rowan felt himself sighing in relief. Thank the heavens for such blessings! At least one father has his daughter back… And what luck, too! Of course, we knew she must be sailing for the Zebak lands, to look for the children we had already lost, like the proud young fool she is. What a miracle, that she found herself so far off her course. She was never in the Zebak lands, after all.
There was a heavy pause, as though a tiny droplet had disturbed a still pool.
That is not true. Here. Let me show you.
And into his mind surged a flashflood of images – memories, he realized with a start, of Iris' whole adventure from its very beginning. From the girl's point of view, he saw her small craft tossed in a raging sea, lost in a terrible storm. He watched as she drifted ashore in an unfamiliar land, and her sight was filled with the startled, marked faces of Zebak people in plain, rough clothes. He felt her terror, as men and women in gray uniforms came into view, hauling her off and throwing her into the back of a covered steel cart, speaking amongst themselves of a dungeon and questionings.
He felt her fear, as the cart trundled through streets she couldn't see. He then felt her shock as the face of a marked child appeared under the cart's covering, and her further surprise when another child was thrown into the cart with her and carried away.
He saw the cavernous halls of the Central Dungeon, heard cries of despair echoing from unseen places, felt Iris shivering at the terrible sound. He saw the dark and damp of a lonely prison cell, where she and the child with her were shoved together to await their fate.
"My big sis is—Vivi's smart and brave," he mentioned quietly. "She's gone to get help, I—I bet she's back home right now. She'll get the Crusaders all—her and Zan and Star and Forley. They're coming to get us. I know it."
He saw those very young people appear, just as the boy had predicted.
"The marks aren't real. Now please, lower your voice or the real curs will hear and come find us, just when things are going so well."
"A lot has changed since we last met."
He saw a simple escape become a waking nightmare, as begging voices went unanswered. He saw a long, thrilling journey through what the child called the slums. He watched as lives were saved, and as Iris' heart and mind began to open.
"I thought all Zebak were warriors, bred for mindless destruction. It is what we have always known."
"We were wrong, Iris. Completely wrong. We never even knew the half of it until now."
He watched as the party made its way below ground, into reeking sewers that teemed with filthy, hidden people. He watched as they were greeted as heroes by pirates, and welcomed with honor into their den. He watched as a mighty warrior, wreathed in deep magic, came to meet them.
"Avast, me hearties, gang way. Gang way, I say, fools! I pity dey soul what frighten dem chilluns!"
He learned of a new mission – Iris' one chance to escape the Zebak lands with her life. He learned of a ship called the Skiver, and of 13 children who desperately needed a captain. He watched as Iris finally, reluctantly agreed to be that captain.
He saw a much larger party traveling back through the sewers together, to a place called Bhlai House. And there, he saw all the faces he missed so much, all of them alive and well, smiling and laughing to see their missing people home safely. He saw a host of other faces he remembered faintly, and finally learned the names and personalities that went with them. There were still others he had never seen before, none of them cold or unkind. He could feel how surprised Iris was by all this. He was surprised by it, himself.
He listened as the new mission was explained, and he watched as the man Zamiel first shook his head over it, and then eventually relented. He was exactly as Rowan remembered him: terribly conflicted, but unable to change anything.
He listened as a tale he knew all too well was retold, for the sake of an anxious audience.
The deep waters of the world have always been a place of great treasures, mysteries, and secrets; and none are greater than Jaggra, daughter of Polaris, lady of all waters and mother of all that dwells in the deep…
He watched as they made themselves ready to leave again. And he heard messages that needed to be delivered at once.
"Tell my father and sister that I'm using every skill they've given me, and that I'm using them to help people in need…"
"Let our father know that I'm still baking, as always. And getting into plenty of trouble, too. That certainly hasn't changed."
"He has changed a great deal, and so have I…"
"Say hi to Marlie and Allun for me and my brother, too. We really like the kids they made."
"Also let them know that the mark isn't permanent and will fade with time…"
He watched as his daughter drew the Earth Sigil from under her clothes and hold it high – obviously so that he would see it.
"I've guarded it with all my strength; and in return, it's given me some of its power… It was an accident. I never meant to bring it here, and I'm so sorry. I've felt like a thief, having it like this…"
He saw Zan put his arm around her, and saw without a shadow of doubt what there was between them.
He saw his wife, smiling bravely, staring into him from across time and space.
"I will see you again. I love you, and I will see you again. I promise."
He watched as the pirate captain worked wonders in the chill streets, protecting his party with wind and water and ice.
"Beautiful magic. I've never seen anything like it."
He saw a small ship full of frightened children, desperately trying to make it ready to sail.
"Thank the stars yer 'ere, cap'n! Sail's all jammed up, it is. I dunno what to do!"
He felt courage and hope swelling in Iris' heart, as she boarded the ship and took command as best she could. He felt the gust of freezing wind that whisked the Skiver away into the dark, stormy waters of the Silver Sea. He felt her sorrow, as the faces of her friends were left behind her, and freedom rose to take their place.
He watched as a long, difficult week passed on the Skiver. He watched as hungry serpents began to follow the ship expectantly. He watched as new storms overtook it by day and night. He watched as food and water began to dwindle. And he watched as Iris surprised herself by being a good captain, caring for her crew, and even – quite oddly – growing to like some of them.
He watched as the ship finally found land in Deltora, the wide, free country he had heard so much about, where the rescued Zebak children were promised safety. He felt Iris' heart leaping for joy as she was reunited with an old friend, as she prepared to board another ship – this one bound to take her home. He watched as she sadly said goodbye to the crew she had grown so fond of, as she wished them luck with their new lives, and he felt her sorrow once again as she left them.
He saw her watching Maris appear on the horizon. He saw the whole town rush to the docks to welcome her back, and her tearful parents running to embrace her. Then he heard her beg at once for an audience with the Keeper, for there was much she had to tell him.
It had been a long and exciting journey. Nearly a month's worth of Iris' memories flashed through Rowan's mind in short minutes, leaving flickers of images and whispers of voices behind. He toppled over on his side as the visions ended, feeling drained and dizzy. These memories were incredible. They were everything he had wished so dearly for.
Zeel and Star were alive. His whole family was alive! And they were not taking their imprisonment lightly. They were fighting for their freedom, and for the freedom of all people in that terrible city.
Star and Forley were fighting for that, together. He had never been so outstandingly proud of either of them.
How long ago did all of this happen? He demanded.
Short weeks, not even a month ago. And something tells me that our dear ones made it out of that last mess with little trouble. We cannot know for sure, I am afraid, but we can have faith in them.
Yes… Yes, we can.
They make a fine team, do you not think so? Together, they are working wonders. I am proud of them, as well. Now then, do you not have something to be doing with all this knowledge?
The Keeper was right about that. Rowan jumped to his feet, tugging his coat back on as he ran from his house. And for the first time in more than a year, he was laughing with real joy. There was no way to help himself. He held such wonderful knowledge, and had the happy task of sharing it with everyone.
His family was alive. And in spite of all that lay between them now, he would see them again. Without hesitation, he could say he was sure of that.
And everyone needed to know it, too.
And there you have it. 8D
I can't believe I crammed ALL this into less than 10K, which is what this is pushing. It may be the longest Star update so far; and considering how long some of them have been before, I'd say it's a milestone.
What's that, I hear you wondering? Rowan's kid is named Evan, and Norriss' kids are named Fliss and Bron? Like most things, yes. I've done it on purpose. Because when you get right down to it, I'm just a very wicked child. XD
The fourth installation probably will not be around until sometime next year. I need some off-time to revamp it's plot, as it suddenly picked itself up and ran off in five different directions. Also, I'd like some time to work on some other things, including: something cute about Annad and puppies; another Manus and Gla-Thon short my brother is pestering me about; and a little Britta-related something I like to call, "The After-Party". KM2000 knows the one. ;)
Who knows? I may even take this hiatus to finally write What Happens in Del, like I've been meaning to for nearly two years. :P
But for now, Night Watch was completed in less than a year, despite everything about 2016 trying to stop me, so I'm calling it a day.
And again, just because I'm so bad, here's a few extra words to jump that 10K point I was complaining about before. OOOOOOOOOH SO SHINY. AND LONG.
Merry Christmas, friends!