Josiah was hard at work for the first day, using the wind to blow away their tracks and water to drown any scents. It may not be enough to stop a blood tracker, if that was what Farron sent after them, but it would fool regular scouts. Question was, how hard would Farron look for them now if he thought Ezra was dead, and if he believed Ezra's lies about where to find Prince William.
They followed the edge of the vast black and white lake, occasionally riding straight through the water's edge, the cool water erupting from beneath the horse's hooves in glittering sprays. Josiah caught the prisms of colors in the tiny droplets with his sensitive sight, seeing the life inside each one. Sometimes he thought he saw haze around them, almost like the auras that Oracles saw, but when he blinked, they were gone.
In the distance, the mountains of the Mid Reaches loomed high, the purple, green and white peaks reflecting in the cool calm of Lake Rhea with an almost unreal clarity. Chris saw only death in their shadowed peaks, and the others were hard pressed not to feel the same way. Returning to them meant they had failed, that the quest, if that is what it was, had been a failure.
Josiah cast glances at the most solitary member of their group, disliking the blank expression on Ezra's face. The black prince was keeping his own company as much as he could, his defenses solidly built, though Vin and Josiah had both tried to draw him out when they stopped for food. With all his secrets told, it was almost as if the thief felt he had nothing else to say.
The first night they didn't stop except for brief rests, riding through much of the night along the water's edge in a straight line, trusting Josiah's mage skills to prevent their horses from faltering. But, by the second night, neither they, nor the horses, could continue at the harsh pace. Risking a fire for the first time, they hid deep inside the dense forest that blanketed the edge of the lake, using the thick canopy and mossy branches as shelter. It had started to drizzle earlier, and, by the time they stopped, a full thunderstorm had broken out over their heads. Josiah blocked the water from drenching them until the others could whip up some defense out of their oiled canvas tents.
Ezra, looking decidedly miserable, shook the water from his hair in a spray, then laughed when he saw Nathan glaring at him. The healer had not moved away in time to avoid getting hit by the spray.
"Sorry Nathan," the thief grinned, "didn't see you there."
"No, I expect that you didn't," came the cold reply. Gathering his silks around him, the healer settled himself down near the fire and promptly sneezed. "I hate this," he muttered. "Blasted weather."
"Now, now, Nathan, thunderstorms never last," Josiah remarked. "They may be bright and powerful, but they wear themselves out quickly."
As he spoke, the land suddenly flashed white, blinding them. Seconds later, thunder rippled through the forest, causing JD to shiver.
"We don't often have thunderstorms up in the mountains," the boy chattered, pulling his cloak tighter.
"You don't?" Nathan asked, curious. "But I always heard that the rain up there was practically incessant during most of the year."
"Sure, but it's mostly just mist, or drizzle, or a light rain. It never just dumps buckets on you like this."
"It is very peaceful up there, actually," Josiah agreed. "In five years, I don't recall any truly violent weather. I mean, you get blizzards and ice storms in the western kingdoms in the winter, and boiling hot temperatures in the summer, and, in the eastern kingdoms, there are hurricanes, thunderstorms and the occasional tornado and typhoon. But up in the Mid Reaches, the weather is just sort of..."
"Gray," JD sighed. "Boring."
Josiah nodded, but he clearly did not think the concept was boring. "I wonder why that is?"
"Location," Ezra said sleepily, from where he had settled himself next to Nathan and draped an arm across his face. "Altitude, landscape, that sort of thing," he yawned, turning himself on his side and drawing up a blanket around his shoulders.
"Right," Josiah sighed. "Of course."
Ezra smiled, "JD is right, though...it does make the place sort of dull. I always tried to avoid staying there for longer than a day or two, when I was forced to use that route."
"It won't be dull for much longer," Chris said darkly.
No one spoke for awhile after that, the rain pounding on the leaves and canvas drowning out any further need to speak. Fairly quickly, everyone but Chris and Vin, who were on watch, fell asleep.
Chris wandered around the camp, feeling the sudden stillness as the thunderstorm quit and the forest still hadn't regained its spirit yet. He stepped lightly, ears straining to hear the owls start hooting and the wolves to start howling again. Vin leaned against a wet trunk, feeling the dampness and rough texture through his thick wool cloak. The crossbow was loose in his grip, and he tapped it methodically against his leg as he stared out into the black expanse of the forest.
At some point, the moon came out, albeit briefly, but it was enough to create an illusion of diamonds sewn into the velvet green as the light caught the captured beads of rain. Fireflies flitted about around the trees like will-o-the-wisps, and Vin thanked the Gods that Josiah was with them to protect them with his magic wards.
One of the sleepers sniffed where he slept, then again, and his breathing became more shallow, almost gasping. Vin looked over at the group, then across at Chris. The paladin nodded and tiptoed through the sleepers until he stopped next to Ezra. The thief was on his side, his shoulder visibly shaking. Frowning, Chris knelt and picked up the edge of the blanket that had fallen off and drew it back up around the thief's shoulders. Then he rested a gloved hand on the arm, trying to offer comfort to the sleeping man.
Moments later, he stood up again when it seemed that Ezra had calmed down, and the paladin crossed over to Vin. The scout's furrowed brow asked a question, and Chris shook his head.
"Just tears, nothing serious," he told him.
Vin gave a heavy sigh, wishing that were true. Chris walked away, moving to the edge of Josiah's wards and leaning on a fallen tree.
Another fifteen minutes or so passed, and the forest did finally come alive, insects being the most prominent noise buzzing in their ears. Trained to ignore such annoyances, neither watchman noticed.
Then Josiah screamed.
The mage hugged his knees, his eyes staring blankly into the fire in front of him, rocking slightly. Nathan spoke to him, trying to draw him out, but the older man was practically catatonic, eyes wide and unseeing.
At the same time that he had shrieked, the wards had collapsed around the camp, and now the others were all up and on guard, feeling the pressures and dangers of a now exposed area. They weren't so much afraid of human attack so deep in the wilderness, but they were wide open to the fey.
Everyone had swords drawn, except Vin, who had cocked his crossbow and was resting it on his right forearm, ready to be brought to his shoulder on a moment's notice. He asked JD if the kid wanted to use the scout's longbow, but JD had shaken his head vehemently, muttering something about not trusting himself.
Ezra sat next to Josiah, watching Nathan intently as the healer searched for some medical reason for the older man's state.
"Josiah, please," Nathan coaxed, lightly touching the mage's arm, "you have to hear me. I'm right here. Can you blink, turn your head, anything?" Grimacing, Nathan tried pinching Josiah's arm, but he may as well have been swatting at flies for all that it got a reaction.
"Can you reach him with your healing magic?" Ezra asked, "The same way you reached his sister?"
Nathan shook his head, "That took me months before I had any idea how to move inside her brain enough to repair what I imagined was snapped. If I tried that with Josiah, without knowing anything about how his brain is set up...." the healer shook his head.
"They do say madness runs in families," the thief said quietly. "From what I've heard tell of his father, I would call him the progenitor of both Hannah's illness and now possibly Josiah's. Maybe the illness is similar enough to try?"
Nathan shook his head, "I'm not sure this is madness, Ezra, not in the way you mean. There was no catalyst for this episode, no reason for it. Fact is, this is different from any episode I've seen, including those of his sister. Usually the mad will follow you with their eyes, or react to painful stimuli, but Josiah's just ignoring me. I think he's there, he's just thinking too much about something else."
Ezra snorted, "Well, your right, Nathan, sounds like he's perfectly sane to me."
Nathan looked at him sharply, then shook his head. "You're not helping."
Nathan frowned, and touched Josiah's arm again. "He's completely cut himself off from the outside world for some reason, including his magic. He wouldn't see a flash of lightening now much less be aware of the power it possesses." He grimaced, his mind working furiously for a solution. After a moment, he looked across at the thief again. "Touch him."
Ezra jerked, "What?"
"Touch his arm. Hannah reacted to you, maybe Josiah will too."
"Nathan, I've touched Josiah's arm loads of times...."
"I know, but maybe this time will be different. Maybe he's somewhere where the current inside your blood might affect him." The healer bit his lip, "Please?"
Ezra frowned, but shrugged. Reaching out, he placed both his hands on one of Josiah's arms and closed his eyes. After a moment he lifted them off and smiled apologetically at the healer.
"Sorry, Nate. Nothing."
"Well, it was a long-shot." Nathan placed a hand on Josiah's head, gently petting the soft, short gray hair and repeated his earlier questions: "Josiah? Can you hear me? We need you here, old friend, come back to us...."
Standing a few feet away, Chris looked up suddenly, hand still gripping his short sword like a vise, and turned in the direction of the lake. "Does anyone hear that?" he demanded. Ezra glanced at the paladin and stood up, then also turned to look in the direction of the lake.
"Hear what?" JD asked, rapier tapping at his boot in a nervous fashion.
"Singing?" Buck cupped a hand to his ear, "Coming from the lake?"
"Sirens," Chris swallowed, "Has to be. Buck, sing something!"
"What?" The captain looked at Chris like he was crazy.
"Sing one of your drinking songs, or guardroom songs, as loud as you can. Those are sirens, Buck. Sing, now!"
The captain continued to frown, but he was still trained well enough to answer an order. He started slowly, singing a ribald song about a lassie from Erin in a low-slung blouse, then got louder as Vin joined in. The scout grinned, enjoying the wicked lyrics almost as much as Buck did.
Ezra winced as several particularly discordant notes threatened to collapse his eardrums.
The siren's music faded into the background, unable to compete with such cacophony.
Only vaguely listening to the hearty music, JD wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow, as exhaustion and the humidity played with his health. Blinking, he suddenly thought he could hear something or someone hissing...almost as if someone were trying to get his attention. Looking downwards, he caught sight of a tiny man hidden in the greenery, dressed in colors that made him almost invisible. The small man smiled, emerging from the thicket. He didn't reach JD's knees in height.
"Hey there, little one," the fey creature whispered. JD instantly backed up a step, wondering how someone five feet smaller than he was could call him "little."
The fey creature looked surprised at the boy's trepidation, and raised his hands to demonstrate passivity. "Oh, no, no, please! Don't be frightened, son. I've come because I know who you are and why you're here. I've come to help, veritably, truly!"
"Help?" JD looked around at the others, but none were paying him, or his strange companion, any mind.
"Yes, yes, to help, good lad. I know that you want to defeat the evil one named Farron, and, as one of the blood, I have come to tell you how."
JD shook his head, "As one of the blood? But...why would you help me? Josiah says that you folks are glad about Farron's rise, because it heralds the ascension of blood magic over elemental again, and your return to the world. Why would you want to help?"
"Because I am not one of the new whelps infecting this land with poisoned blood, laddie. I am one of the old fey, and I liked the way things were. Peaceful and perpetual." The little man shook his head and stepped closer, allowing JD to see the carrot color of his hair beneath the dark green hat. The creatures eyes were the color of obsidian, absorbing the fire without reflecting it. Swallowing, JD found himself drawn into those eyes as easily as the light.
"Old fey? Like the northern elves and dwarves? You're one of them?"
"Aye, one of them, yes, veritably." The head bobbed, though it seemed as if the eyes never moved. "Do you want to know how to defeat Farron?"
JD smiled lightly, his mind filling with images of the others praising him for finding the solution, his heart swelling with the hope of a world without Farron. He nodded at the creature, and the fey man smiled.
"I will tell you, then, sir, veritably. I have a sword. A magic sword. It glows like the moon when quiet and dazzles like the sun when in use. It cuts through anything, whether real or magic, and makes its wearer invincible against the bloods. The Mandate can not stand against it. Farron can not stand against it. He will die with one touch of the good in it, veritably!"
"A magic sword..." JD smiled more brightly, why not? "Where is it?"
"I have it. All you have to do is answer three questions," the creature said innocently.
JD's face fell, "three questions? Why?"
"So that I know you are the one to bear it. I think it must be you, veritably, but I must be sure, see? The sword has only one bearer."
JD frowned, "Why do you think it is me?"
"Because the bearer is the youngest of the seven. That is you, yes?"
JD nodded. The creature grinned.
"Then no problem. You answer my three questions, and the sword is yours...."
JD knelt down, totally entranced by what the little man was offering. Over by Vin, Ezra shook his head, as if he were realizing that he had been falling asleep at his post, and rubbed his hands over his ears.
"What if I can't answer one of them?" the former stable boy asked, tilting his head. He lay his rapier on the ground next to him, forgetting it.
The creature shrugged, "If you fail...then you don't get the sword."
"Is that all?"
The creature chuckled, "You ask a lot of questions, laddie."
JD nodded, "I know. Is that all?" he repeated.
The fey man's eye narrowed, "No, but it is of no consequence. Question number one: where are you from?"
"JD?" Ezra blinked and rubbed his green eyes, and shook his head again. He couldn't quite see, but it looked as if the boy were kneeling and talking to something.
"I'm from Four Corners," JD smiled.
"Question number two: where is your heart?"
The thief knocked Vin on the arm, but the scout was oblivious, staring aimlessly into the forest. Both his and Buck's singing continued, but it sounded stilted, almost as if he were singing mechanically. Josiah had stopped rocking, and was watching Ezra. This startled the thief so much, he almost forgot what he was doing. Then he heard JD answer.
"My heart is here," the boy said, his hand thumping his chest proudly. Looking around, the boy realized that Ezra was gesturing at him. For some reason, this frightened the young man. Ezra was going to try and get the sword first! Turning back to the fey man, he demanded the third question, and quickly.
"Patience, little one!" the fey admonished, "Now, Question number three: where is your soul?" he asked, his black eyes deepening.
"JD! NO!" With sudden clarity, Ezra saw the creature, recognizing the leprechaun for what he was. Ripping the crossbow from Vin's slack fingers, Ezra raised the bow up and fired a single shot at the creature's face. The leprechaun screamed, jolting JD and causing the kid to stumble backwards onto his butt. The arrow caught the creature's sleeve, but it had already run, meaning that when the arrow landed, it was sticking out of the muddy earth, a piece of fabric the only sign that anything else had been there.
"DAMN YOU EZRA!" JD yelled loudly, grabbing his rapier up from where he had dropped and raising it up. "The magic sword was mine! I could have saved us all! Now we're all going to die because of you!" He ran at the thief, and Ezra fell back, raising the arm holding the crossbow just in time to stop the rapier from slicing at his face. A long gash on the arm burnt through his senses, and the thief cried out in pain.
"JD!" Vin jumped on the boy's back, bringing him to the ground. Ezra continued to stagger backwards, dropping the crossbow and gripping his bleeding arm. The boy continued to fight and yell, while Buck moved in to help Vin. Chris took up a position between the struggling men and Ezra, not hiding the confusion on his face. Nathan ran to the thief's side, taking the arm and pulling up his magic to heal it.
"What happened?" Buck demanded where he had pinned back one of JD's arms. Vin shook his head where he held onto JD's other arm, but he was looking at Ezra with a dumbfounded expression.
"How did you get my crossbow?" he asked.
"A leprechaun," the thief panted, feeling a little lightheaded all of a sudden, as if he'd just run a mile up a mountain. "Cast a spell on us, so we wouldn't see it talking to JD. I'm guessing he was trying to steal him away."
"He's wrong! He was one of the good fey!" JD retorted. "He said he had a sword, a magic sword, that made its bearer invincible!" Tears were rolling down his face now, and he shook his head, still reeling from what felt like the loss of all his dreams.
"No, JD, he was a leprechaun, not one of the northern fey. He was asking you three questions, right? And the last was, where was you soul. You can't answer that, JD. It has no answer."
"No, I know where my soul is, thief! I know!"
Ezra frowned, leaning slightly against Nathan, "Oh really? Where?"
The kid opened his mouth to answer, then paused. His eyebrows knitted, and he shook his head. Suddenly very tired, the kid's logic returned with a sudden flash of insight.
"Lords Above, what did I just do?" he muttered, his eyes widening, "I'm sorry, Ezra." Vin and Buck let go as JD slumped to the ground and buried his face in his hands. "Gods, but it would have been nice, if it had been true."
In the background, the siren song grew again in intensity.
"Buck!" Chris said quickly, looking in the direction of the lake again. The captain instantly started singing again, this time choosing a Brishnian patriotic song, once more drowning out the sirens with his tone deaf singing. Tuning him out, Chris turned to listen to Ezra's answer to Nathan's question about how he knew something was wrong with JD.
Ezra shook his head and leaned more against Nathan, "It was like fighting a monsoon, Nathan," he said loudly, to be heard over the singing, "Something was trying to keep me from looking over at JD, but I could hear him talking, could hear the leprechaun tempting him...." The healer was holding a hand to Ezra's forehead, then let go when he was satisfied there was no fever, though he disliked the abrupt lack of color in the man's face.
"Your blood must protect you somewhat from the blood magic, being as they are related," Chris said, his voice also raised, rubbing his neck with his hand. "But it is obviously not sensitive enough, and we can't keep this level of alertness all night, every night." He looked at Josiah, ashamed to realize just how much they had relied on the man's wards before now. None of them had realized just how strong the fey had become, but clearly gaining the third Key had had a major effect on increasing their power just in a few short months.
Ezra looked up then, his eyes bright. " Josiah!" he shouted, "He was looking at me! When I figured out what was happening, I saw him look directly at me...." he looked across at the mage, but Josiah looked as catatonic as ever, rocking slowly back and forth.
"Must have been your imagination?" Nathan suggested, also watching the mage. But it was a question, not a certainty. Nothing seemed certain anymore.
Ezra shook his head and went to sit down in front of the mage, "No, I think he was reacting to the danger, somehow. Or maybe, reacting to me being able to fight the blood magic." Reaching out, he placed his hands on the big man's and stared into his eyes.
"Can you see me?" the thief asked, feeling a bit stupid. Nathan was kneeling next to JD now, rubbing the boy's back. The others just watched Ezra and Josiah.
Ezra frowned, and gripped the hands a little tighter, "Josiah, I know you are in there. Can you see me? Hear me? Anything?"
Again no response.
Ezra gritted his teeth and let go of the mage's hands. Standing, he looked around the campsite, then quickly started to gather up blankets.
"What are you doing?"
"A test," the thief shoved the blankets at each person, ignoring JD's tear-strained and apologetic face when the boy looked up at him. "Wrap these around your heads, and hum."
"Hum?" Vin said, raising his eyebrows. "Hum what?"
"It doesn't matter. But Buck, I want you to stop singing." The captain frowned, then began a new verse, waiting for Chris to agree. Ezra also looked to the paladin.
Chris looked back at him, confused. "I don't understand."
"Josiah and I are going to listen to the sirens."
Chris frowned, and looked at the blanket. Then, with a tired sigh, he did as Ezra wanted. Seeing the paladin wrap the blanket around his head convinced the others as well. Buck stopped singing, the only sound coming from him and the others a light hum.
The siren song returned, and Ezra found himself looking involuntarily in the direction of the lake. The harmonic voices rose on the wind, growing in strength as more and more of his body responded to the sound, and the thief found himself turning in that direction and taking a step. A hand on his shoulder stopped him, and he shook his head as if to clear it. Narrowing his eyes, he looked at Chris, who lifted his hand off the shoulder.
Swallowing, and starting to feel the strain of fighting the voices, Ezra moved over to Josiah and sat down. His whole body thrummed with the music, and he realized he had started to shake. Every movement not sending him in the direction of the lake caused him pain, his muscles screaming in agony of not being able to go where they wanted.
Forcing his hands up, Ezra touched Josiah's hands and focused on the blue orbs. His jaw was chattering with the tiredness, and he became acutely aware that whatever protection his blood afforded him, it was nowhere near strong enough to fight the sirens.
"Help me," he whispered hoarsely, watching the mage closely. "I can't hold on much longer."
Josiah didn't blink. Ezra shut his eyes. Gods, what had he been thinking?
The siren song grew louder, filling every sense, tingling on his skin, leaving a silvery feel on his tongue. It blacked out his vision of everything but the beauty of the lake's waters in his mind's eye.
Then something snapped, and his eyes flew open. He couldn't resist anymore. He didn't eve notice that Josiah had stopped rocking and seemed to be watching him as he tried to get back on his feet.
He was stopped by a fierce grip on his hands.
Josiah growled, then yelled loudly, still gripping Ezra's hands in his as he stood up to meet the now struggling younger man's movements, forcing Ezra to kneel back down using his superior strength. Letting go suddenly with one hand, Josiah pointed a single hand in the direction of the lake, white light exploding from the center of the palm to blast towards the invisible sirens. Then, letting go completely, both his hands flew in a series of quick movements, white light mixing with faint echoes of blue and red and brown to create an almost visible barrier around them.
The sirens screamed, and stopped.
Ezra fell to the ground and held his head. His muscles twitched, causing him convulse slightly.
Josiah collapsed to his knees next to him, panting and reaching out to touch the younger man's shaking back.
The other's ripped the blankets off their heads and surrounded the two men. Nathan went to Josiah first, grabbing the older man's head and looking him straight in the eye.
"Can you hear me?"
Josiah knocked him away, "Yes, yes! Help Ezra!"
"He'll be all right. I need to know that you will be."
Josiah frowned at the healer, not understanding. Then his eyes widened, "Hannah...."
The mage nodded, and a smile lit his face, "I...she...in my dreams...I know, I know..." he grinned, looking at the others hovering around them. "She found me, talked to me. I understand who we are, now, and what we must do! I know how to defeat Farron." Then his face fell, and he looked at Ezra, who had managed to calm down enough to lay more or less quietly.
"But you especially will have to trust me," the mage said, looking directly into Ezra's eyes. The thief frowned, then he chuckled, the sound coming out more like a series of hiccups as his body continued to react to the released adrenalin. When he stopped again, he grinned up at the mage.
"Josiah, I just trusted you to break out of your catatonia in order to save me from certain death," he laughed and struggled up onto one arm. "I think that suffices to prove that I trust you."
Josiah shook his head, "No, son, it's not your life I need you to trust me with. I need you to trust me with your soul."
Ezra simply stared at Josiah, squinting slightly, "My soul? What does that mean?"
For some reason, a tinge of anger underlined the question, something the mage didn't expect. He pushed Nathan away and sat back, rubbing his hands through his short gray hair.
"Well, um, I realize it is an imprecise term...."
"Imprecise? My soul? That's not imprecise, Josiah, it's absurd." Turning away, the younger man lay down again with his head against a log, wrapping his arms around himself to ward off a sudden chill. Kneeling down next to him, Vin wrapped his blanket around Ezra's shoulders and tucked him in. The thief thanked him with a crooked smile as his body started to shiver slightly.
Meanwhile, the healer took hold of Josiah's shoulders and made the mage focus on him again. A faint yellow glow lit Nathan's fingers as he passed them across Josiah's forehead and down his neck. Josiah frowned at him, but let him work. Finally, Nathan sighed.
"Josiah, what happened to you?" the healer asked, gathering a blanket around Josiah's shoulders. The older man shook his head, accepting the comfort by pulling the blanket's corners together in a tight fist. In the background, Vin began vigorously rubbing the thief's arms beneath his blanket. Ezra couldn't seem to stop shivering, and Vin was doing what everyone did when they saw a friend or family member shivering -- he was vigorously rubbing the man's arms. Oddly, Ezra didn't seem to mind. Even odder, no one else seemed to think it was strange. Only Josiah smiled slightly as he watched the unbidden form of affection. Then he looked back at Nathan, and worked through his mind how to answer the healer's question.
"I'm not really sure," the mage began slowly, "I've been having horrible dreams lately, but I doubt that is something peculiar to me," he glanced at the others, seeing confirmation in their quiet expressions. "Anyway, the worst one was a recurring nightmare I'd been having about Hannah. I would dream that I could hear her calling to me, telling me I'd buried her alive, or that I'd failed her quest, or destroyed her life. At least that is what I thought she was saying." He frowned, rubbing his forehead with his fingers to dispel the growing headache. "I was wrong."
"You know, I'm beginning to wonder if we will ever get anything right," Vin said, irritation coloring his tone as he slumped down next to Ezra, giving up on trying to warm the other up. Ezra sighed slightly, and managed to bring himself to a sitting position again with Vin's help. In other words, he leaned slightly on the scout's arm.
"Yes, well, I've been wrong about quite a few things on this quest," Josiah said quietly, "but I am able to see clearly now, thanks to my sister."
"How?" Nathan tried not to show his skepticism, but death was something his profession was taught early on was an irreversible phenomenon. Apparently, along with every other legend and myth that was becoming reality in this crazy world, ghosts were also becoming fact. He hated the thought of that. People should be allowed to rest.
Josiah smiled at his friend, sensing his unhappiness, "Hannah was able to use her power to split her aura from her body just before Farron killed her, that place giving her the ability. Then, before the energy of her mind could be lost within the void, she hooked her mind to mine. Not that I was aware of it. All this time, when I dreamt, I thought I could hear her, but my own fears and conceits drowned out her voice."
"Funny that," Ezra murmured, shutting his eyes and leaning more against Vin's arm. Josiah nodded.
"Yes, well, again, that is something I realize is not peculiar to me. Hannah, however, got tired of being ignored, and, judging us to be safe for the first time in a while, she took action and forced my consciousness from my body to meet hers."
"You screamed, you know," Nathan told him. Josiah raised his eyebrows.
"I did? How embarrassing," he frowned at them.
"And it cut you off from your magic. The wards fell."
Josiah's frown fell, and he shrugged. "Yes, that I realized when Ezra...." he looked at the younger man, but Ezra had fallen asleep. He snorted, "Well, for all that I may not have been in my body, I did remain in contact with the rest of you. Sort of amazing that," for a second, his academic side flashed through, but then it disappeared as he looked back at the thief. "Anyway, I could hear him calling for help when the foolish boy almost gave himself to the sirens to get me back..." he shook his head.
"So, what did Hannah tell you?" Chris asked, moving to kneel next to the preacher.
Josiah pursed his lips and looked at the ground, once more weighing his answer. When he looked up, he asked Vin to wake Ezra. The scout looked down at the man leaning on his shoulder and nudged him. The green eyes fluttered a moment before focusing again on the mage.
"Can't this wait until morning?" the thief asked petulantly. Josiah ignored him.
"Do you know of the legend of Four Corners?"
"Legend?" the thief yawned.
"Which one," JD said cheekily, grinning.
"THE legend, son. I'm talking about Center Rock."
"Oh that?" JD snorted, "Josiah that's just a..."
"Don't say it, JD," Buck said quickly. "After sirens, leprechauns, fairies, sprites and the Mandate, I don't think you can ever say that again." The kid twisted his lips into a sneer, but stayed quiet.
"Do you know the legend?" Josiah asked Buck.
"Sure," the captain shrugged. "Everyone knows that one. The Center Rock marks the point where all Four Kingdoms meet. They say that, if you stand there, that you can feel all the power that exists in the Kingdoms, the energy that is the source of everything. For a moment, you may even be able to know what it is like to use that power."
"They also say," Chris added somberly, "that those who have stood in that point disappear. Lost inside the energy they wanted so badly to see and use. That's why you only feel the power for a moment before you're gone."
"But, see, it is a myth!" JD asserted. "When I was a kid, we used to play around the rock, daring each other to climb on it. Eventually, we all did, and nothing happened. It's just a rock, Josiah. The stories surrounding it are just that, stories. And if you say that Farron might have reawakened it, the way he has everything else, then I can dispel that too. Just before we left, one of the other men in my village, one whose family was killed in one of the emperor's raids, he went to the rock in desperation. Nothing happened."
Josiah frowned at this news, "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, Josiah."
"But Hannah was so certain," he paused, and drew the blanket closer. After a brief moment, he turned to look squarely at the boy, "JD, where is the rock located?"
The kid shrugged, "Not far from town. Maybe a mile? Almost straight north away from the river, up on one of the mountainsides."
"I wonder....Vin," Josiah looked at the scout, "You know your maps pretty well, tell me, do you think you could pinpoint the place where the Four Kingdoms meet?"
Vin frowned, "Not off the top of my head. I take you don't think the Center Rock is the real center?"
"No. But that doesn't help much if we can't find the real center."
"My father knows," Ezra said sleepily. "When we traveled through the Pass when I was a child, he tried to find it. Said he knew that the Center Rock was not real." He yawned again.
"Did he find it?"
"Sort of. It's not far from the Center Rock, but it is well hidden inside a thicket of brambles. I remember watching as all these soldiers tried to break through it, but it kept growing back almost as fast as they would chop. And then, when Farron finally thought he'd gotten through, turns out he'd just pushed through to the other side. We never did find the center." His eyes were closed again.
"He gave up?"
"Yeah. He came to the conclusion that there must not be anything worth looking for after getting enough scratches on his arms to raise a bunch of nasty welts," the young man smiled, looking younger at the memory.
"Could you find it again?"
Ezra remained silent for a moment, and after a time, the others wondered if he hadn't fallen asleep. Then the green eyes opened, and the pale moonlight reflected in them without glitter. All the youth was gone from his face as he stared directly at Josiah, pure ice in the gaze.
"Even if I could find it again, I will not."
The mage grimaced, "Why not."
"Because I know what you want. You want me to stand at the center. I won't."
Josiah frowned deeply, watching as Ezra shut his eyes and rolled away from Vin to lie once more on his side. The scout reached a hand across to touch his shoulder, then stopped, sensing the man's need for isolation.
The mage picked at his robe, noting that the magical white fabric had finally been torn, "Ezra, do you recall when we spoke of your aura, and I said that it was made up of every color?"
The thief made no response, but he was obviously listening.
"Well," Josiah gave him a crooked smile, "I was wrong. And...you were right."
"Right?" Ezra opened his eyes slightly, but he didn't move.
"You have no aura. It is, essentially, a void. There is nothing there."
Ezra sighed and closed his eyes again. Josiah's face flushed with irritation.
"There is nothing there, Ezra, because it is meant to be filled, see? And the reason the rest of us each hold the power of an element is because we are your anchors."
"Anchors?" Chris asked, also watching Ezra.
"Listen," Josiah looked up at the paladin to get his attention, "have you ever visited the coast near the Northern Reaches? Where all that volcanic basaltic rock formed itself into columns, some a hundred feet high?"
Chris nodded, "you mean the Giant's Steps?"
"Exactly. Those columns are all hexagonal, Chris. When all that firerock cooled, it formed hexagons because that is the most stable and strongest shape in nature, strong enough to contain the earth's most powerful force. We, in essence, are the six sides of those columns, as representatives of the elements. Ezra is the center, as representative of the blood, but with the potential to harness the elements as well, his empty aura."
"I'm not standing at the center," Ezra said quietly, lowering his head closer to his chest and taking a deep breath.
"Hannah told you all this?" Chris asked, ignoring the thief.
"I'm not going to show you where the thicket is, so forget it," Ezra stated again, curling himself into a ball.
The mage sighed, "Ezra, I realize that you're...."
"Josiah, your sister is dead. It's all a delusion. Let's just all go to sleep now, okay?" Ezra was well aware he was whining, but his heart hammered so hard in his chest that he didn't care.
"Ezra, don't be such a...."
"I am a prince. I can do as I like."
Vin and JD snickered at this, but Chris's brow knitted in anger and he stood up to go loom over the smaller man.
"Your highness," the paladin hissed, "I regret to inform you that you have no choice in this matter."
"Brishnian paladins mean nothing to me. I'm Danaerian."
Chris knelt down, "Right now, I could care less if you were Elvin. You made me a promise, did you not."
"It was not a promise to stand in that place."
"It was a promise not to run out on me. If you refuse to do this, it'll be the same as if you had."
"Why? Because there is no other way to defeat Farron? But there is," Ezra rolled back over, his eyes bright. "If I kill him, then kill myself, the Mandate will have nowhere to go."
Chris watched him a moment, than lowered his head.
"When Farron killed Selene..." Chris scratched at his hair, eyes seeking to fix on something other than the men around him, "And I saw the Mandate....All the royal families are tied together by their blood, by the Keys, Ezra. If you kill Farron and yourself, the Mandate still has one more blood relative it can infect. The holder of the last Key. It will move onto him simply because it has nowhere else to go."
"But...Billy's just a boy," Buck said quietly, instantly reading Chris's mind. The paladin nodded.
"I know. And I'm his paladin, I can't be the one...I took an oath."
"One of us would have to kill him," the captain said blandly. "It would be the only way to save him from the Mandate, Chris, should it come to that. Your oath would be served...."
"You would kill a boy?" Nathan demanded quickly, unable to comprehend the direction the discussion had taken.
Chris turned his back on them then, his hands tightly clasped behind him. This was obviously something he had been thinking about for a long time. Buck reached out a hand to touch his oldest friend's shoulder, but the paladin shook him off.
Josiah shook his head, "Chris...Sir Larabee...this conversation is unnecessary. I believe what my sister told me. The Center is the reason we were brought together and the reason we are who we are. There is no other explanation. It is what Destiny designed."
Chris turned to look at the mage, not hiding his skepticism. On the ground, Ezra once more rolled onto his side away from all of them.
"But what if you're wrong?" JD asked, "I'm sorry, Josiah, but it's so unreal."
"You prefer a magical sword from a leprechaun?" Buck said quickly. JD glared at him.
"I would," Vin said, "After all, that's sort of what I was hoping for in the first place." He shrugged.
"The Center is real, brothers," Josiah said. "It is, I can feel it." He looked again at the young man lying on his side, hidden in his blanket, and licked his lips. "Ezra, you are the heart of this. I promise, I will not let you become lost in that place. You just have to trust me."
The thief, however, did not respond. He stared out at the black trees, feeling the pain of the sirens call still in his limbs. Vin leaned over and touched his friend's forehead, brushing back some of the now fairly long dark brown hair that stuck to it.
"I was only a child," he whispered, so low Vin wondered if he was the only one supposed to hear. The others, though, all looked across at the still shivering form under the blankets, easily catching the phrase in the still night air.
"Where the bramble thicket is..." Ezra continued, "the trees, their limbs form a sort of arch, like a doorway, and the thicket is at its most dense right between them. I remember...walking up to the archway and trying to see through the thorns and fog, my mind dreaming about the legends of Pan and Fairies, and wondering if this was the way through to their world." He smiled, "Of course, now that I have seen them for real in this world, I am no longer so entranced as I was then. But I remember that thicket, that archway. I remember my father shouting orders at his soldiers somewhere nearby, and the thrashing of the men as they desperately chopped away at the brambles. But, see, where I stood, it seemed less thick. I even reached out, and found that, if I wanted, I could have walked through the brambles easily, and gone through my archway. But, then I caught that sensation for the first time. The same as when Hannah touched me. I knew, without a doubt, that there was only death on the other side. So...I backed away and sat on a rock, waiting for my father to finish, knowing he would never find what I could so easily have reached." Ezra shut his eyes, then turned to look up at Vin's face hovering over him, then over at the mage. Josiah looked tired. Ezra frowned, "It is odd, mage, but, until you mentioned the Center, I'd all but forgotten that memory."
Josiah nodded, "Will you trust me?"
Ezra lowered his gaze, then asked a general question of the group, "How far are we from Four Corners now?"
"A week, if we push it," the healer replied, having made the trip the most recently.
"Then I'll give you my answer in a week."
It did not take him a week. The next morning, Ezra had quietly informed the mage that he would do whatever Josiah felt necessary.
The rest of the ride was quiet, everyone feeling the stress and wondering if this would be their last seven days of peace.
Eventually, they hit the edge of Rhean River where it dumped into the Lake. The thick white river was audible from a mile away, amplified as it was by a massive waterfall over a hundred feet high. Unlike the Tillurian side of the Mid Reaches, where the mountains descended gradually into the hills and plains of that Kingdom, the mountains here seemed to erupt out of the earth without warning. The flat warm forests of Cathacus abruptly gave way to high limestone cliffs covered with lichen and moss, tree branches sticking out of crevices at odd angles. Waterfalls abounded in this area, thundering down into deep black pools, churning and forcing their way downwards to reach the lake at the base as quickly as possible. As they turned to follow the river's edge, they gladly allowed its deafening roar to take the place of conversation.
The climb upwards into the Pass was steep, and, unfortunately, required that they join the main road fairly early on. No other way was feasible, and the trees quickly became few and far between in the rocky landscape. They split up into three groups to make themselves less conspicuous, but having to jump and hide behind boulders at the meeting of every stranger on the road kept them constantly at edge.
Luckily, because of the wars, there were not that many travelers.
There were, however, a lot of soldiers.
When they finally saw the cairn marking the beginning of the Pass, every one of them let out a relieved sigh. Less than a day later, they saw the smoke rising up from the chimneys of Four Corners. A huge grin split JD's face, and he breathed in the damp foggy air as if it were crystal clear.
"Happy to be home, kid?" Buck asked, seeing the rapture on the former stableboy's face.
"Home," JD repeated, taking in another deep breath. "Yeah, we're finally home."
"Where we belong," Josiah nodded. The others all looked at him...but none denied the sentiment.
They all felt it too, the odd welcoming strength of this place. They were home.
As if feeling a shift in the wind, the townsfolk all looked up as they arrived, though most quickly turned away again as if afraid of what they saw. From the seven's experience on the trail, it was obvious that the pass had become one of the main thoroughfares for Farron's returning soldiers, and for refugees looking to escape the new emperor's hold. The increased activity and prominence was taking its toll on the once isolated and proudly independent village.
Building was going on in the town, as new houses were added, and many colorful wagons packed with furniture and goods filled the alleys. JD couldn't help whistling slightly as he kneed Lucky forward. Standing in front of his hardware store, one of the villagers raised a hand at seeing the boy, then lowered it quickly as some soldiers came into view.
Luckily, Farron's men were too tired to pay attention to any more travelers, and simply walked past the newcomers without a glance. Once they were gone, the storekeeper came forward and reached up to grab hold of Lucky's reins.
"JD, son! Welcome home," he said cheerily.
"Mr. Wickham," JD greeted with a nod, "How is everyone faring?"
The man's face fell slightly, but he gamely held onto his smile, "Oh, well enough, well enough. Been lots of trade with all the soldiers and folks passing through, and, as you can see, the town has started to grow even fatter at the seams." He looked around, frowning slightly. "Ah, but I'm sure things'll calm down soon." The dark tone in his voice belied the sentiment, though, and when he looked back up at JD, there was black in his expression. "But, son, you and your friends have got to get out of sight. They're looking for you, you know." He jerked his head towards the center of town, but it was obvious he meant the soldiers.
"Looking for us?" JD said, "Up here?"
"How do you know?" Buck asked, kneeing his own gray stallion closer. Mr. Wickham shook his head.
"Not here. Listen, is this all of you?"
JD turned in the saddle in time to see Vin and Chris ride up next to them, while Josiah, Ezra and Nathan hung back near one of the livery stables.
"Good." Wickham turned and clicked his tongue at a couple of boys that had moved to stand in front of his shop. They came jogging over and one took Lucky's reins from the shopkeeper's hands. JD smiled familiarly at the boy, who he nodded back with a short 'welcome home.' Meanwhile, Wickham looked back up at JD.
"We'll get your horses and your things, but you must all get out of sight quickly. Go to Inez's. The Oracle awaits you there. Inez has already been signaled to keep the back door open."
JD frowned and looked at Chris. The paladin shrugged and gave an imperceptible nod, and, taking the signal, JD and Buck quickly dismounted. Chris turned around and indicated to the others than they should dismount as well. Before they were even off their horses, another couple of villagers came jogging over from the livery to take the reins from the three men. Ezra looked with curiosity at Chris, but the paladin shook his head. He'd tell them later.
As they moved swiftly away in the direction of the back door to Inez's tavern, JD nudged Buck.
"The Oracle...Buck, do you think he meant...?"
"Yeah kid," the captain smiled. "Sounds like our ladies made it here...and have been making a something of a stir."
Inez led them into a large storage room at the back of the tavern, this one much cleaner and busier than the little one behind the bar. Packed shelving lined every wall, and one long table sat in the center, boxes stacked up under it. Inez had said nothing in greeting, except to touch Ezra lightly on the shoulder in welcome, a shy smile on her face. He looked a bit nonplussed at her regard, but an elbowful from Buck had brought his attention back to the present.
"JD!" Wells jumped off the table where she had been sitting, her short legs swinging in a nervous motion. In two steps, she had her arms around the boy in a tight hug, her head buried in his shoulder. As nonplussed as Ezra had been, JD staggered under the hold, and, with a bemused smile, he weakly hugged her back.
Eloise was standing in a corner, her stance proud. She wore dark brown breeches, a contrast to the peasant dress that Wells wore, and a heather green doublet. Most markedly, she wore her father's sword at her waist, one hand resting on the pommel. Her red hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and no make-up touched her face. Despite the bandit-like appearance, there was no question as to the majesty in her. As they filed in behind the stalled JD, the others almost wanted to bow.
The former princess smiled lightly when she saw Buck, and he grinned back. Neither, however, made a move towards each other.
And standing next to Eloise, her arms holding onto the now nine year old boy in her arms, stood Mary, her blond hair unkempt where it framed her tired face. Billy wriggled in her grip, until she let him down to run across to Chris. The paladin swept the boy up into his arms and returned the desperate hug. Mary took a step forward, then backed up again, patient to wait for the welcome to end, her pale blue-green eyes tracing the patterns on the flagstone floor.
There were three others in the room, people that JD knew well as the leaders of this town. Colonel Matheson, the old Brishnian soldier and mayor of Four Corners, sat on a stool next to the table. He was tall with scruffy white hair sticking out from his head in patches, and a once sharp van dyke beard covering his chin. JD was a bit surprised at seeing the old Colonel looking so ragged – normally he was the peak of refinement.
Next to the Colonel were a couple other local leaders -- Mrs. Potter of the general store, and Harry Conklin, leader of the miner's guild. JD frowned as he saw that Mrs. Potter wore mourning black, wondering if her presence here meant something had happened to her husband. All three nodded a quiet welcome to the rough looking seven men that walked in. Matheson cleared his throat.
"Gentlemen, welcome. We have been expecting you here for a while."
"Expecting us?" Chris repeated, walking with Billy still in his arms over to Mary. She touched his arm, and he reached around with his free hand to take her hand in his.
"Since Lady Eloise and the Oracle arrived over a week and a half ago, yes." He waved a hand in Wells's direction, "Miss Casey there has been plagued with nightmares and images, none of which bode well for us, or for anyone on the Dajan." Matheson coughed a bit, and Mrs. Potter rubbed his back.
Wells was still holding onto JD, though she was standing next to him by now. She nodded and looked to the floor.
"I thought you didn't hold by Oracles, Colonel," JD said, holding tight to Wells hand.
"Son, after the last few months, I'm willing to believe in many things," the Colonel sighed. "I've had miners disappear without a trace, and others scared half to death, muttering stories about gremlins and goblins. Bandits have been escaping into town, crying about hobgoblins and succubae, and then...and then...." he stopped and looked over at Conklin.
The guild leader shook his head, shoving wire rimmed glasses higher up along the bridge of his nose. "One of the camps up near Center Rock was attacked...and from all accounts, the creature...the creature was some kind of troll or ogre. Nine foot tall, ugly as sin and mean as hell. We managed to kill it, but not before it took a lot of men."
JD gasped, and Buck groaned. The others all held similar expressions of disbelief. Though none had ever seen such a creature, the horror stories they were all told when children left indelible impressions on their minds. Unfortunately, it made sense that the creatures would start plaguing the mining villages, being mountain creatures.
"So, frankly, when Miss Casey arrived with Lady Eloise, we were more than ready to hear what she had to say," Matheson concluded. JD sighed and looked around at the others. They were all frowning, disliking the news more and more. But, before Matheson or Chris could say anything more, the kid decided he had to know something.
"Mrs. Potter?" he looked across at the woman, "I couldn't help but notice....May I ask why you are mourning? Did the fey...?" he paused, swallowing thickly, not sure anymore that he wanted to know the answer.
In response, Gloria Potter looked down at her dress, picking a little at the black lace fabric with gloved hands. When she looked up, however, there was no fear in her eyes, merely anger. "No, son. Not the fey. My husband was murdered," she whispered, "by a group of bored soldiers. I do not plan on letting Farron come here without letting him know what his men have done." JD looked stricken at the news – he'd liked Mr. Potter.
"Oh gods, I'm...."
"Why do you say that Farron is coming here?" Chris interrupted, retaking the conversation. Mrs. Potter frowned.
"Don't you know? He's following you. Maybe only a couple of days behind. He's coming for King William."
"King...?" The paladin turned angry eyes to Mary. She met them evenly.
"There is no point in hiding it anymore, Chris," she said tiredly. "In two days, we'll all be dead anyway."
"No...no, you must run," he replied seriously, grabbing her arm. Still sitting in the crook of his other arm, Billy watched them with glassy eyes. He too knew his heritage now.
"Where? He'll find us, Chris. Wells and Lady Eloise have told us about the Mandate. It will lead him to us as surely as a dog follows a scent." At his dumbfounded expression, she shook her head. "Am I wrong?" she asked.
"No," he whispered back. She nodded and reached her arms out to take Billy from him. The young King shook his head and held tighter to Chris's neck. The boys grip, though painful, was something Chris didn't want to give up either.
"Is she right, Sir Larabee?" Colonel Matheson challenged, standing slowly and leaning heavily on the table edge. "Are we doomed should Farron come?" There was a strange underlying tension to the old man's voice, and it brought everyone's attention back to the present. Matheson frowned, "Or is there still something you can do?"
"I've had dreams," Wells said slowly, looking at each of them. "Of magic, strong and elemental, living in each of you. And in you," she pointed to Ezra, "there is something more. The potential to harness the power of the Kingdoms, blood and elemental. The power of the real Center Rock."
"So I've been told," Ezra agreed solemnly. "A fluke of my blood, it seems."
"Blood," Wells said, letting go of JD. Her hands she held clasped before her. "Then you are he? You are Assizran? Farron's son?" At Ezra's short nod, she sighed heavily and leaned back against JD. "I knew it," she said, looking heavenward.
"Farron's son?" Eloise's eyebrows shot up as she looked at Ezra. "You're Prince Assizran? You're that Ezra?"
Ezra smiled for possibly the first time all week, catching her eyes almost shyly. Eloise surprised him by grinning back, and she even laughed.
"Now I know how you all knew about that disused waste chute!"
Ezra grinned, but Eloise hadn't finished. She jumped around the table and grabbed him in a fierce hug, something which surprised both Buck and Ezra immensely. The captain actually glowered a little.
Eloise shook her head, "I wondered what had happened to you, cousin. Twenty five years is a long time to wait for someone who promised to show me how to beat the guards at poker."
"You...you remembered that?" he asked as she pulled away. Still grinning, she nodded.
"Are you joking? That had to be the best visit I'd ever had! I begged and begged Selene to take us to visit you, or to invite Farron back, but...." she shrugged. Then she smiled again, "Damn, but you grew into such a handsome man! I knew I recognized you. Remember how we...."
"Um, sorry to interrupt," Buck said, sidling up and taking Eloise's arm, "But shall we get back to the matter at hand?"
Both former royals blushed and nodded, backing away from each other. Smiling, Wells noticed that Eloise looked happier than she had since Tallus.
"Miss Casey, is there anything else you can tell us that might be of use?" Josiah asked.
Wells shook her head, "If you already know about the Center Rock, then no. Just that Farron is not far. The Colonel here sent spies down either side of the Pass, but they are almost unnecessary. I can sense Farron's coming as if he were already in the room." She shivered, and JD gripped her arm more tightly to comfort her.
"Two days...," Matheson sighed. "And I have word that there is an army mobilizing on the Tillurian side. Three hundred men, at last count. And, on the Cathucun side, Farron will undoubtedly be bringing an equal number up here at his back."
"So many men," Conklin whispered, "for just our little town?"
"No, because of them," Wells told him, swinging her hand to take in the seven men.
"Us?" JD looked at the others. None met his gaze, save Nathan.
"But....I mean, we're good, but, against hundreds of men? Just the seven of us? You must be joking."
"Something prevents me from seeing into the future anymore, JD, but in Farron's heart, I know he is expecting something massive to happen up here."
"Then he has more faith in us than we do," Nathan said wryly, leaning against a back wall.
"I must admit, you do not seem like much," Matheson agreed. He shrugged, "No offense, gentlemen."
"None taken," Buck said back, his fingers nervously playing with the leather on his pommel.
"And the town won't be much help. We will do what we can, but most of the people are afraid. They'd rather lay low and hide."
Vin sighed, his mind drifting to Tascosa, "Then you should hide. Don't give Farron reason to burn you out or hurt anyone."
"Not all of us want to hide," Eloise said firmly. Next to her, Mrs. Potter nodded.
Chris shifted finally, dropping Billy to the ground so that the boy stood in front of him. "Then, Eloise, would you be willing to take my role during the battle?"
Eloise looked surprised, "Your...?"
"You are as good with that sword as your father, which means that you are exceptional. I ask that you use that gift to protect Billy and Mary, to act as their paladin."
Eloise's mouth fell open, but she quickly recovered to nod solemnly. "My life is theirs, Sir Larabee," she assured him. Next to Chris, Mary smiled at her thankfully, and Eloise bowed back.
"I would like to help, too," Mrs. Potter interjected.
"You have children, Gloria," Harry sighed. "Perhaps you should think of them first." Gloria shot him a dark look, but at his quiet gaze, she finally turned away. As much as it galled her, she knew he was right.
"Perhaps we should evacuate?" JD suggested.
"No...with trolls and the Gods know what else out there, we'll be safer here. The soldiers will not bother the town, not if they have you to deal with. Except for Mary and King William, who we plan to stash up at old woman Nettie's place with some guards, the rest of us plan to stay here and do what we can to protect our homes." Colonel Matheson sat back down on his stool with a deep breath.
"It makes sense," Chris said quietly. "Thank you for what you are doing for us." By "us" he clearly meant himself, Mary and Billy, not the six men he was riding with. Standing together, the three looked like a single unit. Mary snaked an arm around Chris's back.
Matheson just nodded, and rubbed his eyes. "Well, may I suggest that you all rest up for the rest of this day. Your travels must have tired you. Tomorrow....tomorrow you can go in search of the real Center Rock."
It had the quality of a dismissal, and, after waiting for a nod from Chris, everyone in the room quietly dispersed.
All except Ezra.
Making his way to a far corner, the thief moved to sit down on the stone floor, his back to the boxes, and pulled his knees up close to his chest. For several minutes, he just sat there, his head resting on his knees, trying to remember how to breathe.
A soft rustle of skirts caused him to look up, thinking that maybe Eloise had returned to talk to him again about their childhood. That was, until he remembered that the former princess was wearing breeches. So he was not prepared Inez stepped quietly into the room.
"Getting supplies?" he asked. She shook her head, her dark hair loose about her face. She was a beautiful woman, with ebony eyes and a tanned face, the product of growing up in the mountains. She sat down on the floor next to him, and touched his hand with her own.
"Many people have visited this tavern over the decades," she said quietly, trailing a finger up and down his hand. "Between the time when it was my mother's, and now that it is mine, I have seen hundreds of faces of all shades. But, for all that, there are certain faces, usually those belonging to people who passed through more than twice, that I started to come to know. And there was one in particular that I came to look forward to, for when he visited." She dropped her hand and sighed, looking out at the room.
Ezra frowned at her, his expression uncertain.
"Yeah," she shrugged, still smiling at him.
"Even now, after knowing what I am?" Ezra asked, remembering the sad look she had given him when she learned he was a thief.
"Yes...believe it or not. I think I...I think I was...." She paused, shaking her head slightly. "I don't know. Maybe it is because you always treated me like a lady when you came, or the fact that you saved that old man once all those years ago, or...maybe it was because I liked your face. It changes, you know, depending on how you look at it? It is never the same face, though your eyes are always the same...."
Ezra dropped his head, a large dimpled smile on his face, "Madame Roscillos, I think, perhaps, you don't know me well enough to...."
"No, Ezra. Prince, thief, or spy -- whatever you are...I know you. You are not the only one who can read faces, you know. It is needed as much in my profession as yours." Reaching up again, she fiddled with the dark lock on his head that had fallen forward. He turned to look at her, an she was surprised to see an expression of total hopelessness on his face.
"Everything hinges on tomorrow," he whispered, taking her hand and gripping it, "Why me? Why here? Inez...I don't think I can do this."
She let go his hair and trailed a finger down the side of his face, unsurprised to feel that he was shivering slightly. "You will do this," she said, a fervent quality to her voice, then she smiled wickedly, "And afterwards, you will bring me flowers and take me out to dinner. We will go to the hotel and order the most expensive thing on the menu. Then you will kiss me."
Ezra blinked, and actually started to laugh, lowering his head to his knees again. "The most expensive thing on the menu? Who do you think I am? A prince of a still existing Kingdom?"
Inez smiled, and snuggled closer, resting her head on his arm.
"Buck and Eloise have gone to her room," Inez said, as if Ezra hadn't spoken, "And I believe Mary has taken Chris home with her. JD and Casey went for a walk to see the river. The rest of your friends are together getting drunk out in front...."
"Yes...And I was thinking...Perhaps, of all of them, you should not be the one to spend this night alone." She lifted her head and looked at him. When he didn't reply immediately to her proposal, she stood up and held out her hand to him. With the briefest of hesitations, he took it, and let her lead him away to the back stairs.
"This is it?" Chris regarded the brambles with a sneer, not hiding his disappointment as he tied Solon to a tree. "It's a mess."
"You sure this is the place, Ez?" Buck asked, buckling on his short sword. "No offense, but it sort of looks like every other wood we've passed so far." He pulled his axe off of his mount's saddle, figuring, if nothing else, it might be useful at chopping through the thicket. For good measure, he grabbed his hammer as well and stuffed it in his pack.
Ezra just stood quietly, staring at the confusing array of twisted branches and ugly thorns with a defeated expression. Without answering either's query, he simply walked forward to a point where the thicket seemed to thin out a little and looked up at the overhanging trees. Turning around, he pointed up at them and shrugged.
As he had described, the tree's limbs curved toward each other, creating a perfect arch. Beyond, the mist and fog that was typical of the Pass shrouded the interior, making it difficult to determine the size of the place. Still, from their perspective, the copse didn't look much larger than a small market square in size, and the six men had to wonder why it had taken Farron's men most of the day to cut through it all those years ago.
Ezra turned again and stared back up at the natural archway, his posture rigid. Despite having led them here, it was obvious that he was not really ready for what might be inside. Understanding, Josiah came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. The thief sighed and shut his eyes, then shrugged off the touch. Giving Josiah a brief nod, Ezra took a step.
The brambles fell away.
"Well, that has to be a good sign," Vin smiled. When Ezra had stopped at the sight, the scout came up behind him, interested to see that the brambles disappeared before him as well. "I sure wish I had had this power when I was scouting for the army," he deadpanned, taking the lead and smiling back at the thief. Ezra smiled back and moved forward to join him.
Once begun, there was nothing to it. The thicket faded away for all of them, as if it had never been there. Together, the seven men walked deeper into the glade, each hesitating only briefly as they reached the "archway." They could all feel it now, the sense that this was a place that had not been touched for centuries, maybe for millennia. No one knew how old the legends about the Center Rock was, but there was a definite sense of antiquity here, as if millions of years might have passed while this small glade stood still. To Ezra, it felt like he was entering an ancient tomb.
"Are there any stories about people who have done this before?" JD whispered to Josiah. The preacher smiled a little, knowing that there was no reason to whisper, but, somehow, it seemed appropriate.
"Not exactly, no. But, the fact that stories about it exist at all suggests that someone must have been here before."
"But the warnings...about losing yourself in the power? If people have been here before, how would they have lived to talk about it?"
Josiah shrugged, "Legends are rarely first person, son, although the description may sound like it. All you need is a witness, it doesn't have to be the protagonist. And then, there is the possibility that someone has done this before and succeeded. After all, if they hadn't then how would people know about it at all?"
JD absorbed this logic slowly, knowing full well that it was all only conjecture. Still, it was easier than thinking that it had been waiting just for them all this time.
Fog enveloped the men, subduing the sounds of the forest except for the buzzing of insects and the calls of birds high up in the trees. Even the roar of the Rhean River faded within the thicket. Finally, even the buzzing was gone, and all they could hear was their feet trampling the leaves and brush underfoot.
"This place didn't look so large from the outside," Buck noted idly. His voice seemed unnaturally loud in the silence, and they all shot him dark looks. The captain shrugged.
"He's right," Nathan whispered, stopping and turning to look behind him. He was at the back of the group, and was a little worried to see nothing but fog, thicket and overhanging branches behind him. He realized that they formed a tunnel, and, looking forward again, he frowned at the fact that he couldn't see its end. Ahead, the others were had all stopped to look back and wait for him.
"I...I don't think it ends," he whispered nervously, indicating the tunnel like structure with his hand. Ezra, who had been leading with Vin by his side, looked in the same direction, and would have stepped backwards if the scout had taken a firm grip on his arm.
"It will end," Josiah assured everyone. "Trust in that. Keep going Ezra."
Chris took the initiative and walked up behind the thief. Giving him a tiny shove, he propelled Ezra forward. The thief turned with a glare, straightened up, and started moving forward more purposefully. Chris grinned.
The thief only took perhaps four more steps when the illusion of a tunnel fell away and he found himself standing in an almost perfectly circular clearing. The sun, heretofore absent, shone brightly down from above, out from a perfectly clear blue sky.
Entering just behind him, the others staggered in, each one mouth agape, confused not only by the weather – sun in the Pass was a rarity – but by the fact that they hadn't seen it coming.
"An optical illusion?" Nathan suggested, trying to remain logical. Josiah just shrugged.
"Or maybe just magic," the mage noted, smiling slightly.
Chris walked forward carefully, examining everything from the markings on the trees to the rocks on the ground, measuring and memorizing. Then, like the others, his steel colored eyes were drawn to the center of the clearing, to the pattern of stones sitting there, looking as if they had been waiting a long time. Only waiting....
Six large rocks stood attention in a roughly hexagonal shape. They were plain gray, roughly five feet high, without marking or adornment. They weren't even similar in shape – some were thin and cylindrical, others fat and square. There seemed no reason to them, except, of course, for what they were guarding.
In the center, no more than a few inches off the ground, was a perfectly hexagonal piece of clear obsidian. Like the rocks, it had no markings, but while the outside was smooth, the inside was a complicated mess of angles and cuts, as if someone had shattered it from the inside out. The sunlight caught at the odd angles, making it glitter.
"It looks broken," JD said quietly, moving to stand with the others just outside of the area marked by the sentry rocks.
"Maybe it is," Vin said. "That would work with our luck."
"I don't believe in luck, Master Tanner," Ezra replied. "I think it is exactly as it is supposed to be."
"Well...it's a hell of a lot more impressive than the big piece of granite the town calls Center Rock, even if it is sort of small," JD added, smiling.
"More n' big enough for a man to stand on top of it, with a hint of wiggle room," Buck nodded, then he looked down at Ezra's boots. "How big are your feet, Ez?"
Ezra snorted, "Not big enough, Captain Wilmington."
"Josiah, there any special way we should do this?" Chris asked, looking across at the older man.
The mage shook his head, "Your guess is as good as mine, Chris. We could stand in front of the sentries when Ezra steps into the middle, or we could stand between them, or maybe behind them, facing out. Or we could face in...."
"Mage Sanchez," Ezra interrupted, dragging a hand down his face in exasperation, "Your confidence is overwhelming."
"Well, I know where you stand," the mage retorted snidely.
"Dead center," Nathan added, picking up Buck's wicked humor.
"Nathan," Chris chastised, "Don't." The healer gave him a wry smile and backed off. Ezra nodded his thanks at the paladin and smiled. Chris shrugged back, a tiny smile on his face, "But he does have a point." Ezra's own smile fell instantly.
"Sir Larabee, I think this would be a good time to point out that I never liked you."
In response, Chris laughed, and the others quickly joined in. The humor went a long way to dispelling the tension that had been crushing them all for the past week. It faded when they noticed Ezra staring back down at his feet, the thief's own smile fading as he imagined himself standing on that glass.
"Mage Sanchez, I think you should stand within the stones where they are placed," he suggested quietly, "and facing me. That way, maybe you or Sir Larabee or one of the others can intervene if something goes wrong...."
Josiah nodded, "Sounds logical."
"Ezra," Vin asked suddenly, smacking the thief on the arm, "you gonna keep using our last names, or do I have to hit you?"
A wry smile graced the thief's face as he looked up at Vin, "Sorry...Vin. Force of habit when I'm annoyed or angry...or scared out of my wits."
"Yeah, well, don't be. This is going to be easy. A real piece of cake."
"A piece of cake," Ezra repeated, looking again at the rock. Abruptly, he exhaled loudly and scratched at his thick hair. "Well, let's get this over with, okay?" He stepped right up to the glass's edge and stopped, turning to wait as the others slowly filed around the clearing. Without being told, they each picked a rock which most seemed to suit them. Chris, for example, chose one of the taller rocks, thin, and perfectly straight. Josiah, on the other hand, picked a stouter rock, the top chipped in a few places, and a long white scar of quartz down one side.
Soon they were all in place, standing at attention about four feet from where Ezra stood. The thief licked his lips, offered one more smile, then stepped up.
Nothing happened. The thief frowned, staring at his feet.
"See, it IS broken!" JD said, crossing his arms over his chest. Ezra sighed, turning around in place and shrugged.
"Or maybe I am not the right one," he whispered sorrowfully. Looking up at Josiah, he lifted his foot as if to step off, and suddenly froze, his eyes widening. He looked at the others, his bottom lip trembling slightly as he placed his feet firmly back onto the Center Rock. "Did...did you feel that?"
"What?" Josiah asked, gripping the staff in his hands tightly.
"The earth...it, it...Goddess help me, I can't get off!" Terror gripped the thief now, and he reached a hand out to Josiah, as if the mage could pull him off. Josiah just watched, mouth agape, not knowing what to do. Hesitating, the older man stepped forward, raising his own hand to take the other's, only to draw it back when Ezra jerked violently, like a puppet being pulled by its strings. A loud cry erupted from the thief as he drew his arms away from Josiah, his hands forming shaking fists by the sides of his face.
"Too late, too late! Get back!" Throwing his arms around himself, Ezra bent over, looking as if he were about to wretch. "By the Light! When did it get so cold? Josiah! It's freezing!"
"Josiah?" Chris asked, his hand on his sword, the metal half drawn from the scabbard. He took a step forward, "What...?"
The paladin stopped when Ezra suddenly collapsed to his knees on the glass, the hexagon growing larger as they watched in order to encompass him, and the thief started to shake, his hands shifting up to cover his ears. "Screaming... Someone is screaming! No, not just someone...many, many....and...and," he sobbed, tears flowing down his face as he stared out at them, "and the ground is on fire! It's everywhere! Josiah! Something's wrong! Something's WRONG!"
The mage shook his head, "Ezra, listen to me! There is nothing here. It...it has to be a trick..." the mage took another step forward, and ran into something. Putting his hands up, he felt the ice-cold, invisible barrier that had formed up from the edges of the glass, blocking them from their seventh. Fear filled the older man's face now as he started to punch at it, "No! Ezra! Ezra look at me!"
But the thief had fallen forward so that his head was pressed to his knees, his hands wrapped squarely about his head, oblivious and completely alone. He started to rock, quietly begging the voices only he could hear to stop screaming.
That's when it got dark.
Without warning, the sky blackened, the sun blocked out by a wave after wave of dark gray cloud, their masses churning and roiling overhead. The others looked up at the mini cyclone, knowing perfectly well that it was forming directly over Ezra's shivering form. Beneath their feet, the earth began to tremble, and the leaves on the surrounding trees withered and fell, as if the life were being leeched out of the landscape. Grass crunched underfoot as it browned and died with everything else.
Wind blew in from all around them, passing through the invisible barrier as if it weren't there, wrapping itself around the thief in a tight grip. And from above, the clouds started to swirl faster and faster, forming a funnel that slowly began to dip and rise, dip and rise, dip and rise, each time getting closer to the ground.
"Tornado," Vin whispered, his hands now also pressed against the barrier. As if in answer, thunder erupted inside the clouds with a deafening boom, and lightening streaked the sky, landing to explode inside the clearing barely feet from where they all stood. Freezing rain and hail started to pelt down on their exposed heads and backs, eliciting tiny nicks and bleeding cuts on everyone's face and hands.
Alone inside the eye of the storm, Ezra had started to scream, the sound cutting through the tornado's winds. His dark form started to blur inside the gray winds, running together like water thrown at a still wet painting.
Chris had pulled his sword and was hacking with all his strength at the nothingness separating him from Ezra, yelling all the while in frustration, while Buck used his war axe like a mallet, his expression grim. Josiah was trying to gather his magic, holding his staff over his head in both hands, but it refused to come – the stone at the staff's tip remained dull and lifeless. JD, meanwhile, had gotten down on his knees and was trying to dig under the barrier, all the while frantically calling Ezra's name, and Nathan was trying to bend the barrier with his tiny bit of healing magic, figuring it was worth a try. After a moment, he got down on his knees and started to help JD.
Vin continued to rest his hands on the barrier, his eyes closed, unable to believe they had let this happen. What had they done wrong? There had to be something more!
Then, like a shockwave, he remembered. Startled, his gray blue eyes flew open, and he backed away from the barrier, amazed that they had all forgotten their purpose here. Closing off his mind to the tornado, he gripped his hands into fists and called out silently for the power he knew was there, begging it to awaken. Shutting his eyes, he turned his face to the sky and turned all his attention to sensing that one element that was his alone.
And like a feathery touch, it answered him.
Opening his eyes again, he stared with wonder at the world, grinning as the storm seemed to stop where he stood. All around him, coloring everything, even his friends, was an intense green light, it's power humming with life. Having never seen it before, except as a fading thought when he was in Tallus, it amazed him how deep and rich the color was, and how true. As he was able to focus more on it, he realized that the green light was not stationary, but was swirling like the tornado, though it spun in a counter direction. Without effort, it seemed to pass through the barrier, proving itself more powerful than both it and the tornado, and it seemed to grow brightest where it swirled around Ezra.
"We have to use our elements," he whispered, then, more strongly so that the others could hear him over the wind, "The Elements!" He saw Josiah and Nathan look back at him, both within hearing range. He laughed with the power he felt and flung up his arms. "Use the elements!" he yelled, drawing the green power of life to him. When he reached out again, the barrier melted away beneath his touch. In moments, he was by Ezra's side, throwing his arms around the bent back and holding on. The Tornado dipped down and touched the scout's back, whipping his long brown hair across his face.
Then another arm wrapped itself around them, and Vin risked opening his eyes to see Nathan on Ezra's other side, the healer's eyes shut against the driving rain. Josiah was there a moment later, his staff thrown away as useless, placing a hand on Ezra's still bent head and the other to grip Nathan's arm. JD and Buck were next, taking up positions similar to Josiah. By unspoken accord, they all knew that they had to all be touching the thief somehow.
Last, accompanied by an angry bellow, Chris stripped away the rest of the barrier and joined them, completing the circle they had made around their seventh.
At his touch of Ezra's back, the world buckled, almost throwing them all off. But it only made them grip more firmly, grimly determined not lose their seventh...or themselves. The screaming blasted all their ears, and the gray pushed once more to try and take them all.
But the wind only managed to make one more pass....and was gone. In moments, it was if the storm had never been.
Sunlight poured down on them, and Ezra stopped shivering. Lifting his head, he found the others all surrounding him, and his tearing eyes narrowed, confused. But, as he looked further, beyond their worried faces, the confusion fell, and was replaced by absolute wonder. The others looked around at his expression, but to them, the clearing looked exactly as it had when they arrived.
"Are you all right, son?" Josiah asked, lifting his hand from Ezra's head. The thief focused on him and smiled, at first uncertainly, and then more brightly.
"I'm still here," he said. "It was going to take me, but I'm still here. And just look at it! Isn't it amazing?" He smiled at all of them, his hands opening before him, and patted Vin on the arm. The scout smiled back, but his eyes were still lined with worry. Ezra didn't seem to notice.
Slowly, as if he had just aged fifty years, the thief stood up, his feet still firmly planted on the Center Rock, and tipped his face up to capture the sun. Hesitating slightly, the others let go and backed off when he seemed to be all right, though they chose to stand well within reach.
"Thank you," Ezra whispered to them, not looking down. "Thank you. You drove away the void – now all that is left is the light," he laughed, wondering if he was making sense, and wondering if they could see what he saw. "And all I have to do is...." he trailed off, and started laughing again.
Around him, the six men stood close by, frowning slightly, watching as Ezra reached a hand up towards the sky and gripped it into a fist.
Pure Light exploded around him, blinding them and knocking them off their feet.
In the middle of a swirling mass of color, Ezra continued to laugh.
Surging out of the hexagon at his feet, pure light saturated the area, the obsidian focusing all the wild energy of the Four Kingdoms within its facets and Ezra releasing it into the clearing. The moment Chris had touched the thief, the hexagon had filled with light, driving back the gray void with ease – but it was a light only Ezra could see.
Swirls of color of every kind circled around him, crossing and mixing, then remerging as bright as ever. Pure black light passed through his right hand, while orange passed through his left, and he plucked their magic as easily as if he were plucking petals off a flower. Then he released it again, letting it swirl back into the light. Shutting his eyes, he felt the warmth of fire, the cool of water, the pulse of blood, and the rush of life as they brushed past his skin. The magic whispered in his ears and tingled on his tongue, played with his hair and glittered inside his eyelids.
Smiling, he opened his eyes and sighed. He understood now what it was he had been given this gift for.
Vin groaned, bringing his hand to his head as he rolled over, his memory a jumble of images. Blinking, he became aware of several things at once. First, someone had wrapped up his coat to act as a pillow behind his head. Second, the sun shone brightly overhead, warm and inviting, and a light wind rustled the grass and leaves. Third...someone had their hand on his forehead.
"Hey Vin," a soft voice drawled as the hand pulled away, "how are you feeling?"
Gray-blue eyes opened slowly, focusing carefully on the man hovering over him. Ezra was smiling, and looking extremely apologetic.
"I'm really sorry for what happened," the thief said wryly, "I didn't realize what I was doing when I took hold of that power. It sort of knocked you and the others out for a bit." He stood and backed away, allowing Vin to prop himself up on his elbows.
"You did this?" the scout asked wonderingly, seeing five men slumbering close to him, all with "pillows" and some with makeshift blankets. Ezra shrugged, and Vin shook his head. "Well, hell," a crooked grin filled the scout's face, "I am impressed." Ezra laughed.
The sound woke the others, bringing them around slowly until only Nathan was still rubbing his eyes and complaining about early morning risers. Ezra had moved away to sit himself on the edge of the Center Rock, his feet crossed in front of him casually.
"You know, I think this is the first time since we met that I was the only one awake," the thief grinned. "I was tempted to run off with your things, but, then I figured you possibly deserved better. Only possibly though, after all, you did get me into this mess." He waggled his eyebrows at them, and Chris grumbled something about ungrateful thieves as he got onto his feet.
Josiah bent down to gather up his staff, then wandered over to sit himself on the ground next to Ezra. He couldn't help but tilt his head as he regarded the other man, until Ezra started to mimic his examining gaze with some exaggeration. Josiah huffed and turned to look at Chris.
Feeling a bit guilty, Ezra sighed a little, "Sorry, Josiah. I know I have to tell you what happened, but I was sort of waiting for everyone's attention. But, so you know, I am no different now than I was before I stepped on this rock...with one little difference."
"The power of the Center Rock," Chris said, moving to lean against one of the sentry rocks, "Do you have it? That is, can you control it?"
"Um...yes," Ezra frowned, then smiled brightly again, "In a way. I used it to augment each of your talents, and to allow you all the use of your elemental powers. Right now, I would say that not even an army could stand in your way." He grinned and stood, watching as each man looked down at themselves and each other, as if they could see what Ezra was talking about. The thief shook his head and walked up to Chris.
"Sir Larabee, you already had the gift of speed. I've rarely seen anyone wield a sword with as much agility or dexterity, but now that talent has been increased tenfold. No one on the battlefield will be able to move as fast as you, whether with a sword, hammer or any other weapon of your choosing. You are master of them all."
Chris frowned, and looked down at his hands. Then, shrugging, he pulled a dagger from out his belt and made a few passes with it. It didn't look any faster to him. He looked back at Ezra.
"Imagine someone is attacking you, Chris, and fend of their attack."
"All right, but I feel a little silly," the paladin lunged forward with the dagger and started fighting in earnest. Power surged down his arm, and he grinned wolfishly as he realized how fast he was moving. Stopping, he held the dagger up to the light and laughed.
"What about his elemental power?" Josiah asked, leaning on a nearby rock. Chris, still grinning, looked at Ezra expectantly.
"The elements were more difficult to bend than blood, which is how I gave him the gift of speed, and his and Vin's powers in particular were difficult to harness. As such, he has the black magic of death and rebirth at his command, but because the energy refuses to be abused, I could only manage to let him have control over his own death." Turning away from Josiah, Ezra met Chris's eyes carefully, "It means that, at this moment, Sir Larabee, you are immortal. Nothing, not even the splitting of your head from your body, can kill you. But!" the thief raised a hand when Chris opened his mouth to ask a question, "But, the power is not forever. Once gone, any wounds that have been inflicted that are mortal, they will kill you. My suggestion would be to have your wounds healed before it is too late. Of course, if you do have your head severed from your body...I'm not sure that can be healed, but, well, you get the idea." Ezra shrugged, a lopsided grin on his face.
"So, in other words, Chris, try not to get too damaged, eh?" Buck laughed, but his eyes were bright with amazement. Unable to think of anything to say himself at the news, Chris just shook his head and put his dagger away. Ezra turned to Buck next, as he was standing by Chris's side.
"Captain Wilmington, you, of course, have the power of fire. You can throw fireballs, light a candle, or burn down a forest, all with a single thought. But," Ezra smiled-- he was enjoying the telling them the 'buts' -- "But, I don't suppose I need to caution you on what your power can damage. If you burn down a forest, you will kill everything inside, and the fire, once started, could spread without ceasing. Even if you throw a fireball, there is the potential for far more damage than you intended to inflict. My suggestion would be to work with Nathan, as he has the power of water."
"So I do!" Nathan was laughing and looking at his hand, watching as a water pooled in his palm to waterfall down into the ground. "Amazing!"
Buck arched an eyebrow and, closing his eyes for a second, snapped his fingers to throw sparks at the waterfall, instantly turning it to vapor. Nathan looked up and frowned angrily. The captain just laughed and turned back to Ezra.
"Ezra, this is....is the really real? Or am I still dreaming?" he asked. In response, the thief dragged a hand through his tousled hair and nodded.
"It is real, Captain. Very much so."
Buck drew in a deep breath, determined not to allow this chain of events to unnerve him, and grinned brightly. "So, uh, what is my talent? Speed, dexterity, agility...?"
"Ah, no. You are good with a sword, Buck, but not the way Chris is. No, your talent lies in your endurance. Like the fire that you can command, you are, in essence, unstoppable. You won't tire, or even feel strain. Until such time as the power ends, you can fight with the same energy and resourcefulness at the end as you did at the beginning."
"Endurance, huh? That work with just swordplay, or in other areas as well?" Buck waggled his eyebrows, the wicked nature of his question more than obvious to the others. JD rolled his eyes.
Coughing into his hand, Ezra looked over at JD next, and the boy instantly straightened.
"You, Master Dunne, already know that you have the power of the earth at your command. It has given you strength several times, but it can do much more than that. If you wish, you can begin an earthquake, or call up a lava flow, or create a chasm hundreds of feet deep. The earth is a dynamic force, and it will answer if you call. But...."
"But also be aware of what damage I can do," JD finished. "Yeah, I think I get that." Ezra ducked his head and smiled, while JD shrugged. "So, what is my talent? I'm guessing it does not involve my skill with a rapier...?"
"Oh, it does, sort of. This may seem strange, JD, but the way I see it, your talent is that no one ever sees you coming. You are brilliant with a rapier, and your experiences over these past months have only seen it grow. But, because of your age and, honestly, your, shall we say, subdued appearance?....Combined, these make people not perceive you as a threat. That has translated into your gift of being able to pull off the unexpected. What this means, JD, is that I've given you the power to make yourself invisible. If you want, you can make it so that none can see you unless they are looking directly at you."
"No one can see an earthquake coming," Vin noted, tapping his fingers on his legs.
"Right," Ezra agreed. JD frowned, not sure this was a talent as heroic as Chris's or Bucks, but after a moment he started to smile as he considered the possibilities.
"Coming up from behind," he said, grinning wickedly, "They'll never know what hit them." Buck almost expected the kid to start rubbing his hands together.
Ezra meanwhile, had turned to Nathan, "Now, Master Jackson, you are already aware of your elemental magic. As to your talent, I admit to giving you two, but only because you already had some blood magic of your own that was easy to build upon."
"You mean the healing magic?"
Ezra nodded, "You'll have almost unlimited resources to heal, but I could not speed up the process. Though you should be able to heal any type of wound without draining yourself or them too much, it will take the same amount of time as if I had done nothing."
Nathan frowned, a faint gold glow lighting the fingers on his right hand, "And the other?"
"Just a little addition to your arsenal." Walking across to the taller man, Ezra reached around and pulled one of the knives out of its position on the healer's back. Then, stepping back, the thief grinned...and threw it as far away as he could manage.
"Hey!" Nathan turned aggravated eyes on the Danaerian, "Why the hell...?"
"Check the sheath," Ezra replied, a little smugly.
Still glowering angrily, the healer reached back and stopped. Amazement filled his features as he pulled an identical knife out to the one that Ezra had just thrown away.
"Damn," Buck intoned, "That's nice."
"I have done the same for your arrows, Master Tanner," Ezra said, looking over to the scout.
"Vin," the scout rejoined. Ezra ducked his head again.
"Right, sorry. But, the point is, your quiver will always be full for your longbow, and your crossbow always nocked, whenever you need it."
The scout raised an eyebrow and looked at the small quiver he had attached to his thigh. Pulling an arrow out, he mentally counted the remaining, then proceeded to snap the wood in half. When he looked down again to count the arrows in the quiver, he was impressed to see the same number as before he'd broken the one in his hand.
"I have also enhanced your skill at the bow. Of course, you are an excellent marksman -- like Chris, one of the best I've ever seen – but even the best can use a little help. Now, no matter what you aim at, you will hit it exactly where you want to. You want to take down a man a hundred feet away with an arrow to the thigh, just turn your bow that way and fire. You will hit exactly that. It doesn't matter even what bow you use. Even the crossbow will be able to shoot bolts that distance."
Vin shook his head, speechless.
"And his power?" Chris asked. "You said it was difficult to control, like mine."
"Yes, and like yours, he can only use it on himself," Ezra replied.
"He has the power of life, right?" Nathan said. "So, what, he can make himself grow older?"
Ezra laughed, "I'm not sure. Maybe. But what the power can really do is heal any wounds he might get. In essence, you are like Chris, Vin. Any blow you take will heal itself in seconds, without you even thinking about it. But, be careful, though you may seem immortal, you're not. Too many hits or..."
"A severed head," Buck threw in. Ezra shot him a dark look, then opened his mouth to finish. Vin forestalled him with a raised hand.
"I get the idea, Ez."
"What about me?" Josiah asked, still leaning his back against his stone.
"Well, air is at your command, as it always was, though, obviously, more powerful. But the rest of your magic is as it ever was. I could not increase your ability to wield fire, water or earth, as those are not your elements." He shrugged, "However, you do now have the ability to wield them all at once, without extra effort."
"Well, if you didn't augment his magic," Buck asked, "what did you do?"
"Josiah has another gift, Buck -- his strength. Did you know, Josiah, that Buck here once likened you to a bear? He said it was because you could easily crush any of us with those huge hands of yours. Now, it's true that was an exaggeration, but you are very strong. I simply increased that innate talent, and gave you the force of twenty men. You could lift an ancient oak up by its roots as easily as if you were picking up your staff."
Josiah's eyes widened, and he turned to stare down at his hands. After a moment, he laughed. "You know, Hannah always did say that if I ever lost my powers as a mage that I would make one hell of a miner. I wouldn't even need a hammer to break the rocks. I guess...I guess she was right."
"She was right about many things," JD agreed, moving across to throw an arm around the mage. Josiah smiled.
"And you, what about you?" Vin asked, looking across as Ezra sat himself back down on the glass.
"Oh...well, that's the downside of controlling all this power," he shook his head. "I have to use all my energy to make sure I don't let it go. A fact which, like Nathan and his healing power, means I can do nothing for myself."
The paladin's outburst was angry, but the obvious concern underlying it diffused its strength. Ezra sighed.
"It's just the way it works, Chris. I can capture and hold energy, as much as I want, but if I tried to focus it for my own use, the balance of blood and elemental magic that I am barely hanging onto inside would explode in my face. In all our faces. I can pass energy to each of you equally, like spokes on a wheel, since you are my anchors and own part of this power, and I can release it back into the Rock, but otherwise, I have no power."
Chris was frowning deeply, wishing he could see what Ezra was really thinking behind his mask of complacency. The thief spoke casually, as if he were discussing an annoyance, as opposed to the possibility that, with a single thought, he could kill them all.
"Chris, if he's right, we have to hide him," Buck said quickly. "Somewhere in town, or up at the widow's place where they have Mary and Billy. I mean, he can't fight like that...."
"Captain! I resent that. I am an excellent fighter, superior to any mere soldier, and I believe I'm being modest!" Ezra stood up to face him. On the ground, Josiah placed his face in his hand.
Buck, meanwhile, merely looked at him as if her were a moron, and raised an eyebrow, "A good fighter, yes, but against an army? You'd be overwhelmed."
Ezra shook his head, "While I disagree, and heartily, I must also point out that I have to be there, to face Farron. I told you I can capture energy and hold it, so too can I capture the Mandate if I can just get my father to release his control of it for a moment. Then I can release it back into the Rock. With all the other energy I contain, the Mandate will seem like drop in the bucket."
"We can kill him, and the Mandate will pass to you anyway, as his son. If you're here, you can release it to the Rock in seconds."
Ezra's jaw firmed, "You will not keep me out of this fight, Captain. Besides...I need to be close to all of you to keep the power flowing to you."
Buck opened his mouth once more, as if he had another argument, but Chris laid a hand on his shoulder.
"It's his right, Buck."
"But if he dies, then all is lost! Damn it, Chris, don't you see? If some archer gets lucky, or some swordsman, then we lose our powers as well! Farron will overwhelm Four Corners and all will be lost!"
Chris stared at him a moment later, then looked back at Ezra. The thief took in a deep breath, the only sign of his trepidation. There was a pleading in his eyes, one Chris knew well.
"It's his right, Buck," the paladin said again.
Ezra shook his head, "I'll stay out of the main fighting, Buck. I promise. And I will...trust the rest of you to protect me, seeing as that is in your own best interest," he licked his lips, and took another deep breath. "But please, as much as it was our destiny to find this place, it is my destiny to meet my Father one last time....Please, Captain Wilmington, you must see that."
Buck stared at Chris's eyes, seeing the solid conviction in their black depths. Finally, he bowed his head, his eyes closed. Ezra shut his eyes in thanks.
"And the rest of us?" Nathan asked, "Do we get a say?"
Ezra looked at him, his brow furrowing, but the healer only nodded proudly at him.
"Because if we do have a say," he said, "then I just wanted to tell you all that I am proud to have been a part of this journey. We started it together, and we will finish it together. That is my prediction, and my belief." He stuck his hand out to Ezra, and the thief took it solemnly, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
"It's been fun, if nothing else," Vin agreed, placing his hand on theirs. "And, Buck, I'll keep him well covered, I promise."
Buck sighed heavily, then stuck his own hand on top of Vin's. "I'll hold you to that, Tillurian. But, you know, now that my head's stopped talking, my gut's been telling me that Nathan has the truth of it."
"Who would have thought," JD said, putting in his own hand, "that seven men would be so arrogant as to take on an army tomorrow! Now, Buck on his own I could understand...." he grinned as Buck tried to swipe of his hat with his free hand.
"Seven men," Josiah said slowly, picking himself up and walking across to add his hand to the center, "One destiny."
A dark smile crossed Chris's face as he added his own hand, then broke the circle by pushing down and breaking them up.
"Let's finish this."
Concluded on Part Six