By Sulia Serafine
[A Protector of the Small fanfic set in Tortall with a different ending; all credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me. WARNING! SPOILER FOR SQUIRE!
This is the third story, after Unforgettable Amnesiac and A Chance. Only one more part after this, to complete the quartet.]
Neal was first. Kel was last.
That was the way it was supposed to be. The day before Neal was to take on his Ordeal, King Jonathan IV, Thayet- his queen, and their advisors had gathered and decided that two years had been enough for a certain amnesiac's probation. Joren had continued his duties as squire to Paxton of Nond, and once again passed a sizable amount of examinations.
As announced by the King himself, Joren would go last.
The only problem was, how were they to give him an Ordeal for Knighthood if he had already been in the Chamber? During the daylight hours, mages and Mithran priests stayed in the Chapel, trying to construct a Chamber of their own that had power enough to test Joren in the way they desired. But since no knight could tell about his Ordeal, they were left with very little to work with.
But those were the daylight hours in the Chapel. No one seemed to pay attention to the squires about to risk their lives for their final test, those who would have to stay at vigil by night.
The Winter Fair.
"Neal?" Kel tapped him on the shoulder. "Let's eat. Are you hungry?"
He patted his flat stomach. "Actually, yes." He offered Yuki his arm. She accepted, and the three friends went strolling through the crowd, looking for a food vendor.
Later, when they were listening to a storyteller relate the birth of Mithros, Kel thought she noticed someone familiar at the edge of the audience. She excused herself from her companions and tip-toed around people carefully, whispering apologies.
When she finally spotted the very short cropped blonde hair that flattened against the head, she knew it was Joren. He sat on a bench, feeding something to Pockets. The kitten had grown, and was now a female adult. Her black stripes had disappeared from her neck though, and now she was mostly gray with a patch of white on her underside.
Keladry approached the two from the right. She clasped her hands behind her back. "Psst."
He looked up. "Oh! Hello," he inclined his head to her in greeting. Pockets jumped over his lap and looked up at Keladry expectantly, hoping for a Midwinter treat from one of her master's friends.
Joren scooted aside and picked Pockets up so Keladry had room to sit.
"What are you doing here at the Fair? I thought Neal's Ordeal was-"
"It is," she cut him off. "He's sitting over there." She pointed in the direction she just came from. "With Yukimi noh Daiomoru. We're trying to distract him so he doesn't fill himself with worry."
"Ah." He put away the rest of Pocket's treat in a pouch and put it back at his side. "Well, what do you think of your own... Ordeal?"
She shrugged, hiding her feelings on the subject. "I'm not sure what to think."
"Be quiet!" a child scolded frumpily. She was trying to hear the storyteller, but the two squires had been talking too loud. Keladry lowered her voice to a whisper.
"What about you?"
Joren smiled. "I wish I had remembered what went on the first time. But since I don't, all I'm worried about is keeping my memories this time." His face took on a mischievous expression. "My mother bought me permanent ink for my Midwinter's gift. She plans to scrawl her name onto my hand before I enter the Chamber, just in case I forget her again."
They laughed. The child in front of them turned around once more and shot them a menacing look. The two adult squires immediately ceased their interruption. Keladry stood up.
"Do you want to sit with the rest of us?"
He shook his head. "No. Pockets and I are fine right here. I'll talk to you later, though."
She nodded. A particular thought came to her. "Are you coming in the morning to see Neal come out of the Chamber?"
"Of course. I'll be there to catch him, just in case he falls out like I did. Trust me, I know how much it hurts to land face first on those flagstones."
Quinden, Esmond, Seaver, Merric, Keladry, and Joren were all there when Neal stumbled out. Alanna wrapped a blanket around him. He did not fall. He simply looked exhausted and trembling, aside from his frantic eyes.
After Yuki had offered him her shukusen and Neal left, the rest of them filed out of the Chapel, wanting to return the next morning to see the next... and then the next...
"I don't want to sound like a wimp, but I'm scared," Merric said.
"I think we all are," Seaver murmured. "But we can do this. If Neal can, then we can."
They went their separate ways, to prepare for Neal's knighting ceremony that evening. Joren lingered behind, at the entry to the Chapel. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the wall.
Keladry pivoted on her left foot, turning, and went back to get him. "Come on. Don't think about it."
"Thanks." He smiled feebly at her and went on his way to where Pockets was waiting, no doubt. Keladry sighed and wondered how her former enemy would fare this time around.
It was right before Merric had his Ordeal that the structure that the mages and the priests had attempted to create within the Chapel collapsed. Numair stared at it, feeling the wisps of magic that seemed to be from the Gods, and no mortal in that room.
"What now?" a priest croaked.
The door to the Chamber slammed open by itself.
"Oh, Mithros! Keladry! Esmond!" Joren called as he ran clumsily down the hall to reach them. He almost tripped over two servants in the process. Pockets was at his heels, meowing in protest of his fast pace.
Keladry and Esmond exchanged confused glances. The older blonde stopped short of them to catch his breath. He walked the last three steps.
"What's wrong?" Esmond asked. Within the last year and a half, everyone had come to accept Joren as a different person, and welcomed them into their tight-knit group. Joren was so happy, and was able to open up to them after that.
Now Joren was trembling, beads of sweat on his brow. "Do you remember... that thing that Numair Salmalin, the mages, and the priests had tried to create? For my Ordeal?"
"It collapsed. There was no accident or anything. It just collapsed and then the door to the Chamber opened... and... oh, Goddess, I'm going to have to go back in there!"
"Calm down. Everything will be fine. Don't get hysterical," Keladry said to him. Joren took a deep breath.
"What if it decides to finish me off this time instead of just wipe out my personal memory?!"
Esmond, now a knight, shook his head. "It'll only finish you off if you let it. And besides, it gave you a second chance." He paused. "Although you're right, it's positively maddening to be in there- you can survive."
The two dragged him down to the kitchen to get him a drink of water and some food. He was pale as a sheet. Later, they enlisted him to join Neal, Seaver, and them to spend the afternoon with Merric. They did a lot of things, and soon forgot the time until Merric stopped smiling. After that, they stayed in one of their rooms together, waiting for the next morning.
At dawn, they went to the Chapel to see their friend. Merric was fine, but terribly tired. His Knightmaster dragged him away for food and rest right after he confided in him a simple sentence and grinned.
"Too scared to scream."
Keladry had managed to avoid everyone the next day- after seeing her family and Lalasa- taking in all the solitude she could. Surprisingly, when she saddled Peachblossom for a long ride in the Royal Forest, Pockets came to the stables. Apparently, Joren knew she wanted to be alone except for the animals and sent his dear cat for company. Pockets and Jump had a terrible time sharing their box seat on Peachblossom, but they managed it for all their strange cat/dog friendship.
Neal, Seaver, and Joren kept their own vigil in Joren's room. They talked and ate, occasionally playing with Pockets, who reveled in all the attention.
"I hope everything goes well," Joren whispered.
"It will. This is Kel we're talking about. She's tough," Neal reassured. He stroked Pocket's back, also scratching her below her chin.
Joren poured himself another cup of water. "We know."
At dawn, they rose again with intents on going to the Chapel to see their friend come out of the dreaded Chamber. Anticipation and anxiety settled inside of each of them, a barbed wire around their guts. A crowd of people had come to see if the Girl would emerge. But the three companions already knew the answer.
And there she was.
The door to the Chamber was closed and Keladry was crushed in an embrace by Raoul and Buri. People applauded. Joren was angry to see a few men trading coins in the background- evidence of betting, but he ignored it. Keladry's friends rushed forward, telling her how proud and happy they were. She took it all in stride, only smiling faintly and leaning on her Knightmaster for support.
As she exited, she whispered to Neal and Joren. "Piece of cake."
"Do you want to do something... maybe go into Corus?" Keladry asked. If Cleon had been home instead of teaching farmers to fight, she knew that he would kidnap Joren and force him have a good time at a tavern within the city. The two had become friends, much to her astonishment, very unlikely friends. But it worked well in an odd way.
"No. I think I'll just stay here with Pockets. Maybe take a walk around the garden. But that's it really." Joren put his mentioned cat down from where she had lazily lounged on his shoulder. He was in his room, with four other newly made knights. One of which was Neal, the other Keladry and then Esmond and Seaver.
They all tried to talk him into something so he wouldn't have to think about what he would have to face that night and the next morning. They were unsuccessful though. He assured them he would be fine, and if they would just be there in the morning for him.
Keladry looked behind her when she realized that Neal had not followed the rest of them out yet. He was talking to Joren in low tones over something. It ended when her best friend playfully punched the shorter blonde in the shoulder and laughed. They said goodbye and parted.
"What was that about?" Keladry asked when he caught up.
"Nothing. I've just been entrusted the cat in case something happens. But I doubt Pockets would be good for me. It's impossible to keep her fur out of my pockets when she does her snooping, and my laundress complains about it so much."
She smiled. Two years and things had changed. She was glad.
As they instructed me, I heard their words- but they were all secondary and subliminal to me. I'd heard them before, though I do not remember. Remember. That was the first word ever imprinted on my mind with such frustration. I've been here before. I've done this before. I just can't... remember.
"You may not ignore a cry for help," Gareth the Younger said to me. He was the only one whom Paxton could convince to do the instruction with me. Of course. The conservatives who would have helped in my last Ordeal and the one that did- they have seen me these last two years becoming friends with Keladry and the others. I think they did not appreciate it. What biased idiots.
"It means that rich and poor, young and old, male and female may look to you for rescue, and you cannot deny them."
The instruction went on, still unimportant in my mind. Ishould be listening and hanging on to their every word, but I'd already heard it. Call me disrespectful if you want, but I was more concerned about how I should come out this time. Alive, mind-erased, or dead. Those were my three options.
Chivalry. I can uphold the code of chivalry. Uphold the law... yes. I shall do that. The King and his men had made special plans to make me meditate upon chivalry these last two years. It was a part of my probation orders. I guess I must not have been too keen on chivalry before then.
Yes, I must have been a brat. But I shouldn't think of that now.
I should think of the good I'd be obliged to do, what I WANTED to do. It had been my choice. I could have used this second chance to go home and be a coward, living out my regretful days at Stone Mountain with that man who calls himself my father.
I could have locked myself up in a tower and jumped out the window after so long an isolation. I could have been that maiden in the storybook, but instead of waiting for rescue, I could have abandoned hope. I stayed, though. And I endured my own maddening thoughts.
I'm here. And I have friends waiting for me to succeed.
There had been darkness, and cold from the small chamber. A strange presence half-said, half-thought within Joren: Wait. I know you.
Yes, Joren nodded stiffly. What will you do about it this time?
I will not allow any man to leave this place twice.
Joren stood his ground. Do your worst.
He was in Corus. Except it wasn't Corus. The sky was too blue, the clouds too much like cotton waiting to be plucked and spun into thread. The people around him bustled about their daily work in such an orderly fashion. There was the constant drone of talking, but nothing else. He couldn't catch a snippet of any conversation, even when he stood beside a merchant and his customer. It was simply the droning noise of a crowd.
A girl about the age of eight in a clean dark pink dress tugged at the end of his tunic. He crouched down to be eye to eye with her.
"You must help us! Defeat the villain!" the girl cried. She hugged her ragged doll close to her chest, rubbing her nose with her sleeve. "Please, you must!"
Aware that he could not speak, Joren merely nodded. He had no idea what this would lead to, and how they would use it to scare him, but he'd face it. He'd deal with it.
The next thing he knew, he was in a town house. The colors were bright and vivid. Too vivid. He squinted his eyes and reached out to touch a silk curtain. So soft. Sunbeams from the windows warmed his body as he stepped closer. Birds perched on the roof edge outside. It was peaceful. Too peaceful.
Footsteps indicated someone behind him.
He whirled around, hand on the hilt of his sword. Where did the sword come from? It didn't matter. It was part of the Chamber's illusion.
"Oh, it's you. Why are you here?" Keladry asked. She was in riding breeches and a baggy white shirt.
Joren shrugged. What else could he do? All this must have been a ploy to get him to talk. It had been so easy to spot it though. Something else had to be happening.
She didn't seem to mind that he was silent. "Well, get out of here. You must find that villain and defeat him. You took an oath, remember that. "
Joren held out his hands in a helpless gesture. He thought, Where can I find this person?
As if reading his mind, she pointed out the window. "Ask Neal. All I know is that the villain kept terrible company."
A brief flicker of darkness, like a lone candle had gone out, then been lighted again. This time, he was in a marketplace, watching Nealan Queenscove gaze lovingly at a shukusen while eyeing a pendant set out on a table for viewing by a red bearded merchant.
"Oh, there you are." Neal tucked Yuki's gift back into his belt. "What do you think you're doing, you moron? Go, arrest that terrible villain! He's a scoundrel, he is. I could have lived my life peacefully never having heard of his existence. But woe to me, I had."
I still don't understand. What does this man look like?
"You'll know him when you see him. I think by his appearance it will be obvious," Neal nodded. "You can ask Cleon what he looks like, if you're so fretful."
Darkness passed over him again. Joren could feel a force tugging him in another direction. He couldn't control his legs, which took him to the designated destination against his will.
The tavern smelt of ale and wine. Serving maids swatted away rude hands, but others giggled at the attention. There was a more orderly side of the tavern. In this out-of-place section, a certain redhead sat sipping from a mug.
"Hello, man. Come on. Have a seat. I've been waiting for you."
Waiting for me?
"Now, I can't tell you much, except this fellow is dangerous. He's more than that. He's deadly." Cleon laughed heartily. "I'm actually very relieved that they chose you to go after him, and not me. I would have been too scared."
Joren nodded. A serving maid placed a frothy mug in front of him. Joren hesitated from drinking though. He waited for his friend to direct him to another person, like they had the two times before. But no direction came. Cleon simply sat there, drinking and eating.
Was that it?
"Yes, you dolt, that's it! Go! Shoo, for Gods' sake!" Cleon waved him off, taking a long gulp from his ale. "The rest of us will see you later. It's all up to you now."
The blonde stood up, leaving some money on the table to pay for the mug he never drank. He walked straight out, having to navigate around no one. They all parted for him, as if his departure had been announced.
It was all too easy. Something big had to be coming for him.
He wondered around the streets for a long time. His feet took him wherever they wanted, and he couldn't direct them any other way. After what felt like eons, he stopped in front of a large oak door. He could smell the smoke from the torches as they were in their sconces.
Torches? Sconces? Wait, he was-
Inside. He was in a familiar stone hall. There were three finely woven tapestries in that hall. He walked over to inspect them. According to them, he was home. He was in Stone Mountain.
Paxton had let him visit Stone Mountain only once. But Joren had not been able to remember what it looked like.
The heavy door he'd stood in front of a moment ago, it opened with a loud creak. His hand strayed to his sword hilt again, ready to fight. The villain was in his home. That had to be why he was there. If the Chamber was cruel enough, it had probably made someone in his family that very villain. Or maybe worse. It could be someone from his past. Gods knew whatever came next.
The formal dining hall was empty. No relatives, not even his parents. No servants, no rats. It was empty. Not even dust dared to settle on the ground. Candelabras were situated on either end of long tables. More torches were on the wall. It was eerily quiet. From but one very high narrow window, the last dying rays of sunshine leaked through, striking the paved stones in front of him.
I can't take it anymore! Show me this villain so that I might fight him and be done with this!he furiously thought.
The Chamber seemed to laugh at him, daring him to do that again. Joren obliged, particularly fed up.
Who is the villain?!
Shadows consumed the opposite side of the dining hall. Joren gripped his sword handle, already pulling it partway out of its sheath. He could face up to this villain. This evil man.
"Did you not hear me? I said, I am."
That voice. Joren's lip quivered.
Out of the black void, stepped a young man. His naturally pale skin shown especially ghostly in the moonlight that now replaced the sunset from the top window. He was dressed richly, in the best clothing money could buy. It was a shocking contrast of black and white silk, the finest woven cotton, and dyed breeches. The boots shone, proudly polished. His short cropped blonde hair was so light. He was undeniably handsome. But mostly... familiar.
He was Joren's mirror reflection.
"Yes. That's right. I am you," the pseudo-Joren affirmed, pointing to himself and then to Joren. His very own voice, which Joren had heard a million times a day. It was so perfectly him that he shuddered. His twin continued. "I am the villain. I have always been the villain."
Without another word, Joren drew his sword and charged his twin. If this was the trick they were trying to pull, then he would now allow them to succeed! The Gods thought they could shake him up by giving his enemy his very own face? They were in for a surprise.
Before he could strike, the world around him twisted. It distorted. His hands were not where they were. His body. His being. It was all twisting around. And then... it cleared. He could feel himself fall headlong past his double, a short flight through the air before colliding with the hard stone floor. The pseudo-Joren cackled, arousing terrified shivers from the original.
Joren's dark twin held his right arm out. The glove on the hand disappeared. The fingers twitched. And there it was! A sword sprouted out of the flesh of the palm, shiny and magnificent. It made a sickening squish sound as it exited his double's hand and rested in his grasp. Trickles of some sort of bodily fluid dripped off the blade, part red and part infectious yellow, a mix of disease.
"If you want to fight me, then let us fight."
Joren stood down. He couldn't believe his eyes. This wasn't happening. He wasn't a villain. Joren knew what the Chamber was trying to say to him. And he despised it.
This is you, you damned mortal. This is you.
His mind screamed out. No! I am not a villain! No matter what you do, I know I'm not a villain!
The pseudo-Joren let loose a bloodcurdling scream as he fell to his knees. He dropped his sword on the stones, grabbing a handful of his shirt- the part that was right over his heart. He spat on the stones. His voice changed, becoming deeper. It was thunder in the mountains, it was the quaking echo of a giant's song. It was the embodiment of evil. "Fine! If that's the way you want it, you BRAT! You think you're hurting now, huh?" He bared his teeth like a predator. "You have yet to know what PAIN is."
His body passed through the floor like a ghost. Only the sword remained, glistening with the disgusting fluids to have leaked from the hand that bore it.
Joren grinned. Had he passed? That was it? It felt so terrible, seeing himself, an image plucked from a mirror. These were his inner demons. And the Chamber, just as he'd been warned, had attacked them. But he knew he could triumph. He had. He wasn't afraid of himself anymore. He wasn't.
Don't be so cocky.
His smile disappeared. What was that?
And then he knew what was next.
"I am the villain."
Out of the shadows again, arose another figure. This one was slightly smaller than the first. He wore the same expensive clothing. His eyes were pale blue... icy blue. His skin was the same complexion. Unbelievably pale. But his hair, though pure white-blonde, was tied back in a horsetail. His voice was more youthful than Joren's, the evidence of not as much an age difference as one would think.
"Do you know who I am?" the young man asked.
"ANSWER ME!" the newcomer bellowed. It echoed throughout, hurting Joren's ears.
Reluctantly, Joren answered. I know who you are. And it sickened him.
The young man smiled. "That's right. I am the original Joren of Stone Mountain."
He knelt down to pick up the sword. He wiped off the strange fluids from it using a black handkerchief, then tossed the handkerchief away. It phased through the floor. His voice bubbled with sadistic enthusiasm. "So you know that I am the true villain, don't you?"
Joren bristled. He gripped his sword handle so tight that his knuckles were white against the rest of his hand.
"Yes, yes. You know."
The younger version of him attacked.
Joren was frozen where he was. He could not move in time. It did not come as a shock that he'd been sliced. He could see the attack coming, yet he was powerless to do anything. The blow was at the shoulder, not deep, but enough to make him want to scream. He withheld it though. One noise from him and he would have failed. The pain felt so real. The blood seeping into his tunic was too warm, too red. He moved now. He fell to his knees, just like his previous double had. But he did not let go of his sword.
"Get up, you WEAKLING!"
I'm not weak!He stood, seething with pure hatred for his younger self. And he raised his sword to strike.
They fought for so long. Joren was always the one to be struck, to be bleeding. Once on the forearm. And then, on the thigh. Across one cheek so that it marred his pale, stricken face. But the blood was not real. It couldn't be! All he had to do was keep that in mind. This was all a nightmare, a trick. His muscles ached and he couldn't breathe with his burning lungs.
He was going to lose.
"Don't you see now?" his younger self taunted as he leapt back to gloat. He was unscathed. "You can't beat me! You are NOTHING!" his voice was magnified tenfold, creating headaches for the unfortunate Joren. "You got that, you little shit?" There was another strike from him, another gash on Joren's body for him to stifle the torment.
"You. Are. Nothing. No matter how many good deeds you do, or how many friends, I will always be stronger than you!" He laughed maniacally, his eyes wide with bloodlust.
No, no, no...Joren mentally moaned. This was too much. This was... It was...
"It's the truth, you little son of a bitch." This time, he spat at Joren's face. The spittle dripped down. Weakly, he wiped it off, his sleeve already soaked with blood so it left a red sheen on his unblemished cheek. "I will always be greater than you because I'm the original!"
He pointed an accusing finger. "I deserve to be out there living my life! Not you! I worked all those long hours to obtain my skills, not you! You little thief, you just woke up," he snarled, " You just... woke up and took everything that was me and turned it into a little scared sissy. I DESERVE TO BE THERE!" It was like all the might of the Gods went into his voice, intensifying the fury. "You're... You... are... nothing... but my SHADOW!"
Tears coursed down Joren's cheeks, the salty drops making his face wound sting. He shook his head vigorously, trying so hard to shut his eyes tight against everything. Don't give in, he commanded himself. You've beat this before. You just don't remember. Another part of himself relented. It's so hard! I can't do this! I can't... I... I...don't remember beating this. How can I do it again?
The other Joren shook his head sadly. "You see? Don't even remember... I am the real one! You're nothing but the ghost of me."
Joren's pain redoubled. He could feel his blood running down his body. The sensation was like a thousand knives stabbing him mercilessly, or having his skin ripped from his body, or his bones shattering all inside. His intestines being squeezed or exploding. Once again, down on his knees, the jolt sent through his upper legs as his knees hit the floor.
"You're the fake! You're the piece of nothing that the Gods decided to leave behind, just to make sure the world knew what evil was!"
"YES!" He kicked Joren in the stomach. Again. And again. Joren's eyes snapped open, his mouth open ready to cry out, but he bit his lip and fell over on his side. He curled up into a fetal position, sobbing quietly. The agony was so real.
"You must die here, because you're not real. I am! I am the real Joren of Stone Mountain!"
Something tore from deep inside of him. It was primal. It was vicious. It was all he needed to survive. Immediately, he got up on his feet, and slashed at his younger self.
Three times. Twice at the chest, and once at the belly. He was blinded by pure fury. All he could see was red. His every limb ached as he swung his sword. His eyes stung with tears and droplets of blood splattered on him from his feral attack.
Gods, the bloody mess. The macabre scene of his younger self's slaughter was almost enough to make Joren scream in terror at what he'd done, to keel over and vomit out all his insides.
The younger Joren's face twisted into an expression of horror. He cried out, blood flying from his lips as he fell backwards and down onto the floor. His eyes were wide, staring at his killer with pure malice. His gray intestines were almost visible from the slash across his bellow. Death should have been instant, but this was the Ordeal, and death waited patiently. Raw pink flesh, oozing with dark blood from his more sensitive organs. Parts of white bone, now free of the human guise that covered them.
So, he laid there, still grinning though he was in his last throes of death. Red covered his perfect pearl teeth and matted in his hair. He stared at Joren with such insane content.
"You know," the dying one gurgled through the blood flooding his throat. His body's twitching was starting to subside. "I can't... can't help but wonder... if... if th-this counts... as suicide..."
And then he started laughing. Laughing.
Joren tried so hard to force his tears back and to keep from screaming his lungs out. He dropped his sword. It clattered onto the floor, still not louder than the infernal cackles of his former self. He put his hands over his ears, still trying to force away the terrible nightmare. It wasn't real. Reality wasn't as the Chamber made it to be.
I'm me! I'm Joren of Stone Mountain! I'm not him! I never will be!
He collapsed once again, his strength leaving him.
I'm... I'm... Oh, Gods... Dear Gods...
He could taste his tears as they dripped onto his lips.
I've killed myself.
Keladry and the others waited impatiently. It had been too long. It was never this long. Was it because this was the second time Joren had been inside? Something was terribly wrong and Keladry was so afraid for him. The room was hushed. No one dared to speak, fearing the wrath of someone else whose nerves were on end.
The door opened.
And there he was. Short haired, blonde Joren of Stone Mountain. Unhurt, unscarred. Paler than snow, and eyes red from his obvious crying. But no one would hold it against him. They were well aware how cruel and dangerous the Chamber could be. He managed to stay conscious and stumbled into the waiting arms of Paxton and his mother, who joyfully sobbed at his healthy emergence.
"He's okay!" Neal whooped. The circle of friends cheered.
As Paxton made to lead Joren out, they managed to catch up with him at the door. He pushed Paxton away to face the group behind him. Joren stood warily on his own feet , but he forced his eyes open and wiped his clammy hands on the thighs of his breeches.
"Joren! Joren, you're okay, right?" Keladry asked, concerned.
He looked from one face to another. His mouth trembled.
"Who... Who are you?"
They gaped at him. Each pair of eyes were as wide as saucers. After all that had happened, those words still flowed from his mouth? After the years he'd had to go on probation from his first Ordeal, this... this... disaster happened again?
They let out held breaths, each one of them scolding him in their own way. Joren accepted pats on the back from them and turned again to lean on Paxton. They exited the Chapel and the crowd that had come to see him also left. Miraculously, a man had survived the test twice. And it would go down in the books of history.
As Joren limped along, still feeling the sting of wounds that weren't there, he turned to Paxton.
"Can I ask you something?"
His Knightmaster smiled at him, no more guilt and no more shame in his eyes. "Of course."
"I'm not the ghost of the bastard that was once your squire, was I?"
Paxton shook his head. "No. No, you're not."
Joren nodded. "Thank you."
He laid down on his bed. It wasn't before long that a familiar little creature came to rest on top of his stomach, purring and rubbing her head against him. He opened his eyes and gazed at her, fondly caressing her head with his thumb.
"I'm not anyone's shadow. I'm real. And I have you, and you're real, too."
Pockets stared at him in a 'what-are-you-talking-about?' fashion.
"Never mind," he chuckled and pulled her closer to lay a gentle kiss on her head.
Author: *yawn* Okay, I'm officially drained. I can't type anymore. I did this whole thing in one sitting and now my back aches, my neck aches, and I'm sure Joren aches, too. So, I think I'll wait to write the final part of this quartet later. Some people have been mistaken though. The first part was Unforgettable Amnesiac (1). The second was A Chance (2). This makes the third, Genuine Fake (3) and the fourth I haven't titled yet. Tell me what you think of this part! Review, people! Thank you!