Author's Note: I don't have much to say on this individual chapter, but this one and the next four were all written over the course of one week. For the most part, they were written over the course of one day. I apologize for any problems with the quality of the writing that are the result of it, but I hope you'll find the plot is finally moving along thanks to this.
Enjoy the five installments that make up the end of the first part of the novel!
Last Line(s): “Good. Now I think all we need to do is get some more information,” Aspen decided. “We can ask Lira to tell us more about Telorum. We'll want to know everything we can before we leave.”
They were one step closer to returning home.
They found Lira in the dining hall. She was sitting alone at one end of the table, an empty plate pushed off to the side and a piece of parchment paper in front of her. Cass watched as the quill in her hand glided across the paper. The doodles were seemingly abstract in nature, but Cass quickly realized that she was drawing a landscape. Trees sprung to life on the paper, their gnarled trunks and falling leaves surprisingly familiar. Cass couldn't tear her gaze away. It had to be something she had seen around Rey – that seemed to be the only place that Lira drew – but she couldn't remember where.
Aspen didn't spare the drawing a second glance.
She plopped down in the seat next to Lira and grabbed a roll from the bowl an arm's reach away, taking a loud and large bite out of it. The noise caught the other's girl attention, and Lira quickly put down the quill. Cass managed to tear her gaze away from the doodle. She quietly sat down in the seat beside Aspen and filled her plate with food.
“Good morning,” she said. There was a smile on her lips and a distant look to her eyes. It must have been something about the location shown in her artwork that made her so happy, but Cass didn't have the slightest idea what that something could be.
“'Morning,” Aspen replied.
Cass muttered a similar greeting, absentmindedly fiddling with her locket as she glanced back at the drawing.
Aspen went to pour herself a glass of water. “Hey, Lira?” she asked, looking up from her drink. “Could you tell us about Telorum?”
The smile almost immediately faded from Lira's lips; the serene look was gone in an instant, replaced by a somber, serious expression. Cass hadn't expected Lira to be happy at the thought of the kingdom, but there was something unsettling about the look on her face. “What do you want to know about it?” Lira questioned. The quill was gently and softly placed beside her plate.
“The king is probably a good start,” Aspen decided. She glanced over at Cass for confirmation—Cass quickly gave it with a nod. The king would dictate the policies of the kingdom. If they want to easily sneak in, they would need to know what to expect from both the king and his people.
Lira took a deep breath.
“King Kartiel is the monster under your bed,” she quietly said. “I admittedly don't know much about him, but few people do. He's...different than previous kings, according to my dad. Telorum has hated the alliance this kingdom is a part of for centuries, but this king has managed to be even more dangerous than his predecessors.”
Aspen took a bite out of another roll. “Why is he so bad?”
Cass felt like she knew—somewhere—the reason for the difference, but Aldonius's memories refused to give her more than a nagging feeling. She continued to fidget with a locket in lieu of answers, hoping that Lira would be quick to fill in the missing information.
“His father was killed,” Lira said. She folded her hands and rested them on the table. “It happened decades ago, long before I was born. He was plotting the downfall of our kingdom—and the alliance. A brave member of this kingdom infiltrated his ranks and killed him before his plan could be put into action, though we only have theories on who that person was.”
An unfamiliar anger rose from within Cass. It had to be Aldonius's memories; there was no reason for her to feel so furious and upset at the mention of the last king. But it was difficult for to quell the feelings, even though she had determined their source. She could only partially calm down by clenching the locket so tightly in her hand that it hurt.
“His son swore vengeance on his coronation day,” Lira concluded. “Ever since then, Telorum has been quiet. We all know something is going to happen, but no one knows what...” Fear flickered across her face, and her skin grew slightly pale. “Everyone sees the Dark Mage as a sign that King Kartiel is beginning to fulfill his promise.”
Aspen glanced between Cass and Lira. When their gazes briefly met, Cass saw worry flicker across her face. Cass tried her best to give her a small smile, but even that was strained.
“What's so special about the Dark Mage?” Aspen asked, shifting and straightening in her seat. “I know that he's Kartiel's right hand man, but why would he be so terrifying?”
Aspen took a large sip of her water.
Lira gave her a look.
“I might have spoken of this before, but the Dark Mage worships the fallen,” Lira reminded them.
Cass remembered that conversation—Lira had mentioned that his soul was corrupted by the magic he wielded. The same magic that King Kartiel wielded, and the very same magic she wielded. She had barely begun to eat her breakfast, but she pushed her plate away at the thought. The anger was momentarily lessened by her nausea at what the Dark Mage stood for. Aldonius's memories were giving her the strangest feeling about him, but she couldn't quite explain it. And, whatever those feelings were, it would change nothing about what his magic had done.
“Kartiel is dangerous,” Lira said, “but the Dark Mage is more magically adept that he'll ever be. The fallen have made him incredibly powerful. It's...It's believed that if he launched an attack on this kingdom, many people would die or be seriously injured.”
How could Aldonius have ever told her that darkness magic was good when it could do something like that? The hands she had hidden underneath the table began to shake when she imagined what would happen if she let herself freely tap into her magic. Would she change and become a monster like him?
“Rodet's intel says he's never seen without a cloak on,” Lira whispered. When Cass glanced down at the table, she saw that Lira's hands were also shaking. “We think that he might not be normal under it anymore. If he used his magic as extensively as we've guessed, then his soul might not be the only thing that was corrupted...”
Someone suddenly cleared their throat from behind her.
Cass spun around—a wild, panicked expression on her face—and found herself staring at Mr. Ream. Lira's face lit up when she saw her father, and Aspen smiled.
But the sight of him did little to help the growing knot in her stomach. The description of what would happen to someone who abused magic like her was a reminder on how everyone in Rey viewed her. Aldonius and Aspen were the only ones who didn't see the story of the Dark Mage as a prophecy for what she would become. But Aldonius was in an entirely different kingdom, and Aspen could only do so much to calm her growing fear.
“Am I interrupting something?” Mr. Ream asked. His tone was innocent enough, but her stomach refused to stop feeling so nauseous.
“We were just talking about Telorum,” Lira explained. “Cass and Aspen wanted to know more about it, Dad.”
His gaze swept across the two of them, landing on the locket Cass was once again clenching tight in her hand. They had to leave Rey. She knew that it was the only way they would ever get back home. But when he looked at her and her locket like that, and when she thought about the way Aldonius's memories made her feel about him, she wished she could just keep quiet and stay here to avoid any sort of conflict.
He sat down in the seat next to his daughter. “I was there for a time,” he reminded them with a smile that should have been warm and comforting dancing across his lips. “If you have any questions that Lira couldn't answer, I'm sure I can satisfy your curiosity.”
Cass gave a panicked glance at Aspen, but her best friend was already opening her mouth to talk with him.
“What's Telorum like?” she asked, resting her chin in her hand. “Lira told us about the king and the Dark Mage, but we haven't gotten to talk much about how it was run.”
Mr. Ream studied her for a moment.
“Most people don't ask me about that,” he said. “I usually get asked for stories about the last king, or my experiences in Telorum's capital—people typically want to know how bad it was compared to here.”
Aspen shrugged. “I like asking weird stuff,” she simply said. Now she caught Cass's gaze, but it was already too late. The question had been asked, Mr. Ream was getting curious, and Cass was rowing all the more certain that they would have to address the reason for their questions in the very near future.
“King Kartiel VIII was in charge, as you would expect,” he began. He held Aspen's curious gaze. “I heard talk of a council among Telorum's people, but I was never allowed to sit in on their meetings—if they even did exist.” His smile turned wistful. “I can only assume that it was because my rank was too low.”
There was a brief lull in the conversation.
Then Aspen dove right back into it, despite Cass's concern. “What about security? Was there an army? A royal guard?”
Mr. Ream folded his hands and rested them on the table as his smile faded from his lips. Cass fiddled with the locket and tried to imagine that she was anywhere but seated at the table in the middle of this conversation.
“You want to go to Telorum, don't you?”
Lira glanced frantically between her father and Aspen.
Even though it had been Aspen who had asked the questions, it was Cass who gave the confirmation. She nodded. It was her idea; she would take the blunt of the reaction. If they were going to venture in Telorum, she would have to start being braver. They would never find a way back home if she didn't.
“We...We appreciate the help you've given us,” Cass said. She wanted to duck her head down, but she held it high and willed herself to into Mr. Reams blue eyes. “But you don't know how the lockets work. Telorum would have that information somewhere. Aspen and I would just have to find it, and then we could get back to our world...”
Mr. Ream shook his head. “It wouldn't.”
His voice was harsh—surprisingly so to Aspen and Lira, if their faces were anything to go off of. But Cass had anticipated a reaction like this, whether it be from her own gut feeling or Aldonius's memories. So she took a deep breath and tried to not look as panicked as she felt.
“Telorum,” he continued, “is oblivious to the power of the lockets. When I worked there, I tried asking the people of its capital what they could do. None ever gave me an answer. Going to Telorum is foolish and a waste of time, you won't find answers. You'll lose your one chance at returning to your home.”
Aspen suddenly grabbed onto her hand and gave it a squeeze underneath the table. “We're more resourceful than you think.”
“You're children,” he replied. He had yet to fully yell, but the anger had clearly seeped into his voice. “You have no idea how important those two lockets you're wearing are. They're not just accessories—they're powerful weapons we can use to defeat Telorum once and for all. Kartiel always avoided speaking of them. The only things he ever avoided speaking about were sensitive, important things; they were matters of national security.”
Aspen's grip tightened.
“But we want to go home,” Cass quietly protested. Mr. Ream's expression softened ever so slightly, but she knew that he wasn't going to change his mind just because someone he had been so quick to label as just a child was desperate and scared.
“I can't let you leave,” he said. “We need you here. Even if you somehow managed to convince me otherwise, the king has ordered that you're to remain in Rey until we can understand how to make the lockets work.”
Silence had fallen upon the table. Lira had gone pale. Aspen's hand was trembling, and Cass knew hers was, too. Mr. Ream watched them like a hawk, daring them to continue arguing with him. Cass had known convincing Mr. Ream would be the hardest hurdle to overcome, but she hadn't expected to be turned down so quickly. She would have to try convincing him again. Maybe she would go before the king, even though she was terrified of dealing with him and Prince Rodet. Or maybe they could sneak out under the cover of darkness, despite her having been relying on Lira and her father's support to prepare them for the journey and actually slipping into Telorum-
Aspen took a deep breath beside her.
“What if one of us stayed?"
Cass turned and stared at her, eyes wide.
“You've been more interested in my locket than Cass's the entire time we've been here,” Aspen continued. She straightened and look Mr. Ream right in the eyes. Cass opened her mouth to protest, but Aspen kept talking. “We don't have to keep avoiding the subject anymore. Cass makes you uneasy because of her magic and her locket. If I stayed, you would still have access to a locket. And if Cass went to Telorum, you wouldn't have to deal with her. That does sound nice, doesn't it?”
Aspen gave her hand another tight squeeze, a reassuring smile flickering across her lips as she glanced at Cass.
Mr. Ream mulled over the suggestion. The red slowly began to leave his face, and he adopted the calm expression he had prior to the conversation. “That does sound like a good idea,” he admitted. Cass wanted to protest that it sounded like a horrible idea, but she bit her tongue. Aspen had managed to win him over over. And Telorum was their best shot at getting home—she couldn't fight against the decision when she was knew it was the only way for the plan to remained unchanged.
“I just need one thing,” Aspen said.
She glanced at Cass again. “I want one to be able to communicate with Cass whenever I want. Is there something you could give her that would let us do that?”
“We have the mirrors,” Lira suddenly said. Cass was surprised to realize that she had spoken; she had been quiet ever since their true intent for the questions was revealed. Some color had returned to her cheeks, but she still looked uneasy. “As long as you don't lose them, you should be able to communicate.”
Aspen smiled. “Perfect.”
The legs to Mr. Ream's chair scrapped across the hardwood floor as he rose from his seat. “I'll go inform the king of this development,” he said. He glanced at his daughter. “Could you help gather all the materials Cass will need for her journey? She should be able to leave by noon today if we get things done now.”
Lira gave a small, hesitant nod.