When they'd arrived at the party it was a little after seven. It was now quarter to twelve. The first four hours of the party had been a true trial for Devon. She wasn't sure about the others, but she was definitely of the opinion that acting like a Monarch was hard work! She'd spent the entire time picking out the "nobles" from the crowd (and there were nobles, mostly from the Renaissance period, but a few from the Middle Ages) and letting them approach herself and Greg. If one or two of the lesser peoples there dared to approach her, she turned her nose up to them and simply did not acknowledge their presence. It made her feel bad to do so, because these were her friends, but they were all in their characters, and a Queen simply could not lower herself to converse with these people.
Unless you're like Queen Selenay of Valdemar, a tiny voice in the back of her mind added. Devon sighed inwardly and smiled at something her friend Tammy, who was dressed as a scullery maid was saying. The first four hours of the party were all acting your character, but the last two-the two that Devon suspected were the only reason people even showed up-were just casual talk and dancing with your friends. Devon was tucked back in a corner with-of course-Rob, Greg and Dina. Tammy had just wandered over, and was all excited about seeing who was to win this year.
"I really hope I stand a chance this year...I figured if I showed up in a maid's costume I had to help and maybe that would score me some points." Tammy said hopefully. Tammy, was not very remarkable though her five-foot six towered three inches over Devon's five-foot-three, she had brown hair and eyes, but was extremely friendly and treated the most insignificant person like a Queen themselves when she talked to them. For that, Devon held her in the highest respect. "Though I doubt anyone stands anywhere near a chance next to you four," she said enviously. "You four were the stars of the party."
At that moment, there was a muffled shout and conversation died down around them for a moment before people got to their feet and started towards the doors to the former game room, also known as the "ballroom."
"I guess we're about to find out just how good we actually were, Tammy." Devon said with a smile as she stood and linked arms with the girl. Tammy clasped her hand in an excited manner and very nearly dragged her through the doors. Greg, Rob and Dina followed closely behind, chuckling. They were just in time to see Josh leap up to stand on one of the DJs enormous speakers. The man, amazingly, didn't say anything about it, and merely handed him a microphone.
"Ladies and Gentlemen! Animals of all kinds! Majesties!" Josh shouted into the microphone, as if he were the Ringleader of Barnum and Bailey's Circus in his best performance. At the word "Majesties," he bowed once again, in Devon's groups' direction, making Devon's heart flutter in anticipation. Josh never gave anyone any kind of recognition during his announcing ceremony, and he's actually bowed to them! They must have had quite the performance indeed!
Oh, Devon, shutup! Don't count your chickens before they hatch! She scolded herself, but Josh was going on.
"Now, I thank you all for coming, but you all knew that this moment of finality would come. You were all very good actors and actresses, but there can only be one winner...figuratively speaking, that is. This year, there are four winners, all of whom performed immaculately and are well deserving of the prize, which, this year is two trophies and two scepters as usual, but also four picture frames in which to put the picture we're taking." Josh looked around at all the anxious faces before holding out his hand for the clipboard. As soon as it was in his hand, he flipped the pages before letting his eyes rest on the winners names. Only then did he raise his eyes and speak into the microphone again. "I am proud to announce that the winners are our very own Kings and Queens, Rob, Greg, Dina, and Devon!"
Devon felt like the world dropped out from under her as she was swept forward by hands that paused in their roaring applause to propel her toward an opening directly in front of the DJs table. Once there, she looped her arms though Greg's who was on one side, and Dina's, who was on her other, as the rest did the same, and they all took a bow. When they turned to look at Josh, who'd jumped down from the platform, he had his arms full of their prizes. It was agreed that the boys would get the trophies, and the girls the scepters (This had been arranged when they first came up with costume idea, in case they won).
Devon accepted her scepter with barely suppressed enthusiasm; it was a shiny gold color and had a fiery red globe at the top made of glass, with fake gems sparkling down the gold casing holding it on. It was beautiful, and was obviously made so it looked almost real; all said, Devon loved it.
As all four of them moved closer together, with the two girls on the inside and the boys with one hand on the shoulder and one on the scepter of their respective partner, Josh directed the cameraman. Juts before the flash went off, Devon felt her eyes tear up like she was going to cry, and her eyes go distant as she smiled rather like someone who's touched the stars after trying forever, and realizing it's no longer a challenge.
This is the last time I can do something like this...She thought, just as the flash went off and she was momentarily blinded. Then she shook her head, as if clearing her eyes of the flash. Don't be ridiculous! You can come again next year and give it a whirl. But something deep inside her disagreed. Somehow, she knew, without a doubt, that she would not be back to compete next year.
She resolutely told that nagging, sad voice in the back of her head to shut up and leave her alone, and smiled and accepted the half-disappointed congratulations thrown at her left and right. As the party began breaking up, her little group held back. Josh walked over to them, grinning ear-to-ear.
"You guys really put on one hell of a show tonight! This is one party that will have everyone talking for years! How did you guys do it?" He was looking from one to the other like a puppy begging for a treat.
"It was Devon's idea," Dina said, laughing flirtatiously at Josh. Devon rolled her eyes with a secret smile, knowing how much Dina liked Josh. "She just had to have that dress...and I had to have this one."
"And it looks dazzling on you," Josh said, moving a bit closer. Devon traded a look with Greg and Rob and they all started walking toward the door.
"We'll meet you outside, Dina!" Devon yelled as she stepped out into the cool night air.
It might have been unnaturally warm weather lately for Connecticut, but the nights turned cool, and Devon could just see her breath puffing out. The air felt wonderful against her skin, but she didn't have much time to revel the feeling; a rough hand reached out of nowhere and spun her around, bringing her face-to-face with Roger Smalls. He was an ugly redhead with a temper to match his hair, and notorious for not bothering to hide that fact.
"If it isn't the Queen herself!" Roger snarled, his face inches from hers. She could tell by the smell of his foul breath that he'd been drinking-probably for quite some while now. "I'm so sick of you and your little popularity clique living it up without giving anyone else a chance!"
Devon might have been paralyzed by his words, but Rob and Greg weren't; they lunged at Roger simultaneously, fists ready. Roger might have been drunk, but he knew he couldn't use her as a shield, and it would be foolish to hold onto her with one hand and fight with the other; he shoved her away from him with far more force than necessary just as Rob and Greg each landed a punch on an eye. The force of his shove sent Devon stumbling into the street, and before she could recover her proper footing, she saw the headlights and knew, beyond a doubt, that it was too late anyway. She heard the screech of tires as the car tried to stop, but she knew it would never, in a million years, be able to stop in time. She heard shouting in the background, but it all seemed so far away...
Devon's last thoughts before she felt an impact that threw her forward with an odd crunching sound onto the hood of the car were that she had been right; she wouldn't be here next year for the Halloween Party.
* * *
Devon was standing in the middle of the most beautiful meadow she'd ever seen in her life. She was standing in the middle on one of the many rolling hills, in her white dress, which was in perfect condition. At first, she couldn't imagine why she had expected the dress to look otherwise, but then she remembered; the accident. Just as she felt tears well up in her eyes and threatening to fall, a warm, comforting hand fell on her shoulder.
"Don't be sad, Devon. All is not over yet." A sad, soft male voice said. Devon turned to see a beautiful man in clothing as white as her- though his looked different. It seemed vaguely familiar, but she could not remember where she had seen it before. The man had black hair, and eyes almost as dark, and completely fathomless. All this she took in in less than a heartbeat.
"But...I'm dead. I'll never see my friends or my family again..." Now the tears did fall, and the man silently pulled her into his arms, rocking her gently as she cried for herself, all that she could have done had she lived, and all that she left behind. It was quite a while later that he led her to sit on a pristine white blanket, and took a seat beside her.
"You might be gone from the world you knew, but you have other choices...all is not set in stone yet." There was something in his sad tone that gave Devon pause, some underlying statement that implied she should be remembering something, but she didn't know what that something was.
"Choices?" Devon echoed weakly. She was positive now that there was something that she should be remembering, and it was so close, but hanging just out of reach.
"Yes, choices." The man paused, looking at the rolling mountains in the distance. The mountains have a strangely purple hue to them... Almost like that song you learn in Elementary School, Devon thought wonderingly. Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for Amber waves of grain. For purple mountains, majesties...
"You, my dear, have more than one," the strange man said in a stern tone that demanded her complete attention, which she readily gave. "Throughout your life you were seated in a position slightly above others, mainly because of your wealth, that it was your parents and not yours is notwithstanding. What is noteworthy, however, is that you never took advantage of this except when necessary. Not when it really counted. There were the childhood quarrels, of course, but humans are not, by any means, infallible." He paused for a moment and stared deep into her eyes before continuing. During those few moments, Devon felt as if her were looking into her very soul. "I think it unnecessary for us to name situations such as I'm referring to.
"I do think it necessary that you understand, however, that it is for that reason, as well as your true heart-and some other, rather interesting circumstances-that you are getting the choices you are. These choices are not to be taken lightly, for they will determine the path you will take from here. You may take all the time you wish to decide, but I do not think it will take you very long." He said this last with a smile, which Devon returned uncertainly. Devon waited for him to go on, but when he remained silently studying her, she tentatively spoke up.
"What exactly are my choices, sir?" Devon questioned, her voice only wavering slightly.
"You have only two, but one is very interesting indeed. You may go on to the Havens, or you may go to Valdemar as a Herald." He sat silently once more, watching her carefully.
"Excuse me?" Devon sputtered. "I can go to Valdemar?! Valdemar doesn't exist!" Devon was more than a bit put out. Here she was, dead and lost, and some-some moron thought it fun to poke at her while she was at her weakest!
"Valdemar does, indeed, exist. It is a world that runs parallel to yours. I believe you have heard of the television show "Sliders"?" The man looked, in all respects, like someone who is having a grand old time and trying very dearly not to show it.
"Yes...that's the one with the crazy people with a device to travel from one world to the next, because there are dimensions of Earth that exist side by side...are you telling me that Valdemar exists beside Earth on a different plain of existence?" she asked incredulously. She had to be in coma or something. That's it! She was in a coma in a hospital bed; she wasn't dead after all!
"You are very much dead on Earth, youngling." The man said with a very somber expression and tone of voice.
Devon paused for a moment to reflect on that, once again holding back tears. She would never again see her friends, but neither of her choices would change that. No matter what choice she made, she would make it alone, and with the hope that whatever her choice would be, it would be best not only for her, but for others as well.
"If I went to Valdemar, would I be a hindrance or a help?" She didn't even want to ask how she would get there yet.
"You would be a great help. You know from reading Mercedes Lackey's books that they can always use more Heralds." He sat quietly expectant of her next question.
"Would I have to be reborn and start over again, or simply sent as I am?" Devon's mind was whirling in an attempt to keep up with things that it never should have had to cope with.
"You would be sent as you are now, arriving in Companion's Field. The whole point of this choice was you, in some ways, died before your time." He leaned back on his hands, his legs out and ankles crossed before him.
Devon's mind finally seemed to wake up from it's slumber, and she remember what had been nagging at her a while ago. "You're the Shadow Lover, aren't you?"
The man merely smiled at her sadly and said, "What is your choice, Devon? I believe you have made it already."
Devon swallowed hard; she had, indeed made her choice. She was one of those people who daydreamed all the time about becoming a Herald, and if she could help by being one, no matter how tough on her it would be, she would endure it. "I wish to go to Valdemar as a Herald."
The man stood and beckoned to someone behind her. Immediately, two misty forms presented themselves on either side of her, and one in front. Suddenly, she was drowning in eyes so blue it took her breath away.
:I am Arden, and I Chose you.: A gentle, yet deep voice said in her mind. There was no doubt in Devon's mind that she had made the right choice when she felt the flood of love and warmth flooding into her mind from him.: Hold on tight, Love. We're in for a rather bumpy ride.:
That was all the warning Devon got, and she'd barely gotten her arms around Arden's neck when there was a blinding flash of light-in which she saw the strange man smile at her sadly one last time-before the world dropped out from under her.