"Well, I hope you're proud of yourself."
Reisshen looked around at the sandy isle upon which the pair had found themselves once the mists had cleared, her displeasure written across her face. Caitlin took in a deep breath of the salty ocean air. The air was hot, reminiscent of the coast south of Azure Grande during the summer, and without the proximity of the sea she imagined it would have felt dry as the golden-brown sands in which they stood. She raised her face to the wind, reveling momentarily in the gentle sea-breeze playing with her hair, only to lower her head afterward. Caitlin felt bad for how things had ended up, worse for dragging the elf along with her.
A keening cry from above compelled the duo to look overhead, where they saw a bloated, squid-like creature pass overhead. A craning tendril with an insect-like eye strained downward, fixing a curious gaze upon the strangers. The strange apparition gave another cry- like the sound of whale. It swelled to even greater girth, only to suddenly contract, jetting away.
Reisshen shook her head. "Those aren't typical specimens of your world, are they?"
"Not the least bit, no."
Reisshen looked around again, wrapping her arms around her torso. "Where do you think we are?"
"I haven't a clue." Caitlin looked around as well, noting the rocky cliffs ahead- sheer drops that led to shallow pools and barnacle covered rocks below. The sea here was oddly stilled; the torpid waves that brushed up against the rugged shores barely stirred the pebbles. She could see where the becalmed sea rose to meet the horizon, but she spied no sign of land beyond. There was a distinct lack of the waterfowl she would have expected, though the floating squid-like creatures congregated here and there. She saw something leap from the lethargic waters. Whatever it was, it was like no fish she had ever seen.
"Where do you think we are, Torren?" She whispered.
The elemental's answer was not unexpected, and not reassuring. "We are beyond the mortal realm. A great power dwells here, but who or what it is I cannot say."
The princess turned her gaze, surveying the isle much as Reisshen had before her. While much of what she took is was rocky cliffs broken by the occasional beach, and further inland a dusty plain, there was one feature of note. To her left lay a grandiose building, nestled amongst hills of stone on the far side of the island. Turreted walls of white marble rose up from the stony cliffs; beyond them she could see gleaming gilt spires and stained glass domes. She couldn't decide if the edifice was a cathedral that wanted to be a castle, or the other way around. Whatever the case, it was as impressive as out of place. "Maybe we can ask whoever lives there."
Lacking any alternatives, the elf shrugged. "I suppose we have no better leads. Do you see a way- Oh! I believe I see a road." She pointed to a double row of palms some distance away which seemed to lead to one of the castle's walls. The other end drifted into distant mists which had not fully receded. The elf led the way, heading toward the trees.
As they walked, Caitlin decided to ask the questions burning in her mind since the elf's return. "I'm glad you managed to find us. There's no telling what might have happened if you and Brian hadn't come along. That said, why did you save me?"
Reisshen paused in her tracks, looking back at her. "What do you mean?"
"You didn't have to help me control those memories. You could have left me. And you didn't have to chase after me when I got us stranded here." She added. "And again, I am sorry about dragging you along with me."
Reisshen sighed. "Oh. That." She started walking again.
Reisshen explained in a soft, perhaps weary voice. "I suppose you wonder why I was so late to arrive, yes? When I left that castle last night, it was because I had heard rumors of elves passing through those lands. I needed to find out who they worked for, Lunaria or the rebels."
"Rebels?" Caitlin mulled that information over. "Marcus mentioned that you abhorred Lunaria. I take you aren't alone in that."
Reisshen nodded, still not turning back. "She is a tyrant, lording her power and divine heritage over the other elves, and it has only grown worse from the moment our expedition set foot in your world. She stole our rights from us time and again, at first justifying it as necessary for the safety of our colony, but now she does not bother to even give excuses." Reisshen finally turned back to look at Caitlin, and her expression would have caused anyone else to take a step backward. "She has the elves pray to her like she's a Goddess! It's ludicrous! Blasphemous!" The elf turned her attention back toward their destination. "So yes, a lot of elves object to her methods. I heard the whisperings long before I left the colony to seek you out. I just wish I had been more concerned with the others before then. I might have known who to talk to."
"It's not an open rebellion yet I take it?"
Reisshen shook her head. "As much of a devil as she is, she's used her charms to great effect. She makes all manner of impassioned speeches to quell any objectors. She surrounds herself with loyal young elves, holding them blissfully hostage against their families. Others have disappeared- at her orders no doubt. And those things aside, any elf would be cowed at the thought of facing her magic. So yes, any rebels would lie in veils of shadow."
The elf continued, "So, I left to contact that group, but I was disappointed. They were from Lunaria's elite guard, young elves taken in by her beauty that would have protected her with their lives. Worse still, I spied Kazemaru amongst them, laughing and sharing drinks with them like an old friend. I listened in, but the things I heard were unholy. They planned to ambush you, worse still, afterward Kazemaru promised to take them to- what was it called? Sarreth? There they would be granted new lives as monsters not unlike Kazemaru himself. I thought then to kill the traitorous lot with my own hands, but luckily the big oaf intervened and stopped me. I was quite upset at the time, but after the battle I witnessed, I- he probably saved my life. I wouldn't have stood a chance against Kazemaru."
"I only defeated him because Brian sacrificed his life to give me the chance."
"Would it have been the same if you had given in to your memories and fought without restraint?"
Caitlin felt a chill. "I have no idea what might have happened then." She closed her eyes. "I don't even want to think about it. What if… what if he was right about me? What if I turn on my friends once the seal is gone? You have no idea how frightening that thought is to me."
Reisshen stopped again, and turned back to Caitlin, her expression a lot more gentle. "You complain about that all the time, you know." She shook her head and put a finger over Caitlin's mouth, leaning close to the girl. "I understand. It's only natural to be scared of something unknown, especially one so close to the core of who you believe yourself to be. I think your fears aren't entirely unfounded, no, I think that they're also leaking through from beyond that seal you often speak of. You are worrying double."
"By that logic, the other side of myself would know only too well what horrors she would be capable of."
"Perhaps. You're overlooking something. The other you doesn't want to hurt her friends either. I don't think you would be out of control if your memories returned."
Caitlin suddenly found herself fighting back the unbidden tears as a lump began to form in her throat.
The elf wrapped her arm around Caitlin, standing beside her. "You can cry on my shoulder if you need to, Caitlin. The truth is, I could care less about Lunaria's bounty on you. All the more after seeing her followers. If staying with you and your companions meant I could never return to the colony I would consider myself doubly blessed." She paused, collecting her thoughts. "I'd wager it comes as a surprise to hear me say that."
"It does." Caitlin managed to hold back her emotional outpouring, but nevertheless found comfort in leaning her head against Reisshen. "I didn't think you liked me very much."
"I didn't hate you. Circumstances didn't paint you in a favorable light to me, and when I heard the tales of you from Marcus I was a little jealous despite myself. He seemed to care for you a great deal, and I didn't think that you deserved his admiration." She ruffled Caitlin's hair. "You changed my mind, though. Whatever you might say, you have a good heart. That's probably why Marcus likes you."
Caitlin asked, "You know, I always wondered. It seemed like there was something between you and Marcus. Maybe I'm the one who should be jealous."
"It was just one night."
"You- you slept with him?"
"I'm certainly not the first."
Caitlin's face turned red. "Could I ask what it was like?"
"I've never… so…"
Reisshen looked thoughtful. "You know that's very personal, right?"
She shook her head. "He was well practiced. I suppose the thing I remember most was how sincere he was. He'd look into my eyes and- I wouldn't use the word love about a man I'd only known for a day- but I knew he cared for me a great deal. I could see his heart was open to me. So much raw emotion. It was a special night."
Reisshen lightly slapped the back of her head. "What, did you expect some gritty details or something? That's all you're getting on that subject." She laughed softly. "You remind me of myself at that age, burning to know those adult things." She squeezed the princess with her arm. "We should keep moving. Come on."
Before long the duo had reached the double rows of palms, and as expected the road leading to the massive building at the tip of the island. They followed along the path of once polished slabs of granite, white stone speckled with black and glittering micah that had been worn by the ever present mixture of sand and dust. The playful breeze would whip past at odd intervals, taking on a mischievous streak as it carried gritty puffs across their path and sometimes into their eyes.
The playful wind did little to break the monotonous silence surrounding that island, and the occasional punctuation of the cry from the mysterious flying cephalopods was more cause for alarm than anything else. Finally Caitlin could stand it no longer and resumed her conversation with the elf. "You never did answer my question."
"What? You're still on about that?" She shrugged. "I guess it was seeing Lunaria's men with the Ashfolk that set my mind on this path. When Brian ran off with me I had a thought. I don't think she's really a Scion. I think she's one of them, an Ashfolk. It would explain much."
"An Ashfolk? Why? And why would that not make her a Scion?"
Reisshen explained, "The Scions are descendants of the Great Mother. She was said to be the Daughter of God. A wise and benevolent deity as lovely as she was powerful. She lived for a thousand years, spreading love and kindness and healing throughout Gaia. At the end of the thousand years she decided to live as a mortal. She took a husband and had many children, living happily to a ripe old age. Or so the legends go. It is a story from antiquity, but the Scions are quite real. They are blessed with good looks, good health, and they can call upon the divine power of the Mother that we call the True Magic."
Caitlin nodded slowly. "In my world we call such people Godlings. They are the descendants of our deities, though not full Gods themselves. It sounds like the same thing. They wield great powers from their divine parentage." She paused for a moment. "So, that would mean that your Scions are quite powerful."
"They have the power to do things most would consider to be miracles. The Scions are venerated amongst the elves, and will usually end up in a high position. Hence why Lunaria is the leader of our colony. There is a general and civic leader, of course, but they will defer to her on all matters. The thing is, her magic always felt... off to me. Too dark for a Scion's power. If she were an Ashfolk like Kazemaru or Nonami, it would explain how she came by the magic to fool my people into thinking she was a Scion."
"I don't know. Wouldn't the other Scions find it to be fishy if one just popped up out of nowhere?"
"Not really." Reisshen explained. "You can imagine that the Mother's bloodline has gotten a little confused over the hundreds of years since her passing. Her children were numerous, and each of them had a family, and so on. It is common now for scions to go undergo an awakening to their heritage, often from previously unknown families. So really, any elf could potentially be a Scion and just never know it."
"Does that apply to you too?"
Reisshen laughed, "If only. Then I could rightfully challenge Lunaria and give her a nice beating." She shook her head. "But I surely would have awakened the divine powers by now if I were."
Caitlin nodded, "I guess so. But you know, you're a strong magician in your own right. You managed to diffuse Kazemaru's planar bubble, and those arrows had some real power behind them."
Reisshen smiled despite herself. "Well, I don't usually like to show off, but I come from a strong magical bloodline. My father is the court magician of Vesperone, not a shabby title at all. When I was young I would often go to one of the Order's monasteries to train. There was a kindly old Paladin who would teach me while he rested in the gardens."
"Wait… there's an order now? Like a church?"
"Well, no, yes, err…" She scratched her head. "The Order of Spring is allied with the Church, but as far as I know they aren't a direct arm of it. They're more like… peacekeepers. And run by a council of Scions. They train in the use of magic as well as arms. But they don't go to war. They intervene in conflicts if they get out of hand, when there are a lot of civilian casualties or if the combatants resort to abhorrent tactics. And they also perform peaceful duties like bringing food to people when there's famine, or using their magic for healing and curing plague. Basically, they carry on the Mother's work in their own way." She looked up at the sky, deep blue, yet there was no sign of the sun. "That Paladin thought I should follow in his footsteps. One time he told me that he had put off taking an apprentice just to give me the chance. But I turned him down."
"Really? It sounds like it would have been an honor. Why did you say no?"
Reisshen sighed. "It wasn't an easy choice for me. I was really proud that he asked me to be his squire. But that wasn't the life for me. I wouldn't have been happy living like a soldier. I wanted adventure, freedom, to be able to feel the winds brush through my hair and to go where my feet take me."
"I understand." Then she looked down. "I wish I could do the same. This might be the last taste I will ever have of that freedom."
Reisshen looked over at her with that gentle expression again. "I don't really understand. I know that Galahad has been rushing to take you back to your King and there's been talk of a tower."
Caitlin nodded somberly. "I'm not just a princess. I'm the Princess of the Tower, a special case. There's a powerful elemental spirit confined inside of me."
"Yes, that's the name I gave him. But I am his living prison. I did make a pact with him, but my situation isn't the same as Marcus and his spirits. If he were to be freed from- well- me, he would be subject to the seal of the Nesuune that summoned him, and would be forced to attack Azure. Once I'm returned to the King, he'll send me back to Azure Grande Tower. It's a fortress to keep me safe, and a prison to confine Torren if something should happen to me. I will never be allowed to set foot outside of the tower until the day when I must pass Torren on to the next princess. Because of our pact that could end up being a very long time, even until the end of my days. I thought about running away, of course. But I would condemn countless lives for my own selfish desires."
"I weep for you. Yours is truly a great sacrifice. Is there no alternative?"
Caitlin shook her head. "So long as the Nesuune seal remains there is none."
"And the seal cannot be broken?"
"It lies within their most sacred grounds, or waters, or whatever you'd call underwater territory. And since it was woven from their prayers it has no physical manifestation. We would have to fight a war, underwater, and find a way to smash beams of light as well." She shrugged, "Perhaps your elfin magic could manage that last one. An underwater war would still be a tall order."
Reisshen nodded, "It would. I have a feeling disrupting that spell would be just as tall of an order for my magic. But if we don't give up hope, perhaps we can find a way. And I have a feeling that it wouldn't be impossible for you fight off an army."
Caitlin laughed softly, "Maybe not. I am pretty strong, after all. I bet Malley would help me out, too. Having a dragon on my side ought to count for a lot. I'd just have to find a way to grow some gills." After a moment Caitlin sighed. "I keep letting myself get sidetracked. You saved me to oppose Lunaria's plans. But you want something of me."
Reisshen nodded, "You are knowledgeable about the Ashfolk. I don't know from whence it comes, most likely this prior life of yours. I know you would not be able to fight for me, and I have no right to ask. But you know how to fight the Ashfolk. You know their weaknesses, their strengths. If Lunaria is one of them, then you can teach me how to fight her. Otherwise we may never be rid of her."
Caitlin sighed again. "I knew it must be something like that. I can't really give you a useful answer. I don't even… I can't grasp half the things that I know of it… unless I am forced to by circumstance. That has been the way of my torment thus far." She shook her head. "I'm sure just about anyone would tell it is a fool's errand to fight an Ashfolk. But perhaps… if you could find those Nazen we met at Middleton…"
The elf nodded slowly. "They are warriors who serve your Gods."
"Yes. The Ashfolk seek to overthrow the divine. According to our beliefs, the Nazen are descended from the mortals who originally fought against the Ashfolk during the uprising. They were made into an army dedicated to fighting the Ashfolk, so if anyone would know how to fight them, the Nazen would. Also, their weapons are blessed, so that even a mortal might pierce an Ashfolk's dark sorcery and strike a solid blow."
"Right, I remember one of the Nazen handed me a dagger when he thought I might face an Ashfolk."
"A mortal king was able to strike down the Slayer, in her moment of great weakness, using a Nazen blade. That alone should be proof of the power that Nazen weapons hold. Mortal weapons were said to shatter upon her bare skin."
The pair grew silent again as the edifice drew nearer and nearer, until finally the walls towered over them. She stopped at the base of the stairs leading up to the bronze gates, eye to eye with a pair of sentries.
The two guardians were tall, stately and beautiful women hosting white feathered wings from their shoulders. They were dressed in white linen and lightly armored, proudly wearing gilt breastplates, gauntlets, boots, and winged coronets. Their pauldrons were shaped in patterns reminiscent of feathers. Each of the sentries bore a massive gilt sword with a sparkling white blade. Upon each one's chest she bore the sigil of Rath, a set of six wings that descended from a blue sky.. They regarded the visitors only with smiles, and nodded encouragingly as Caitlin hesitated.
The one standing to the left of the doors, with pale blue hair and eyes to match called out, "Hail travelers."
The sentry opposite her added, "Welcome to Veyn's palace." While her hair and eyes were a pink color, Caitlin couldn't help but note the similarity in the shape of their faces, the crook of their smiles, their bearing and build. Were they related? Sisters, or cousins? Or perhaps simply crafted by the same hands.
"Is that where we are? This is Veyn's domain?" Reisshen drew up behind Caitlin with a note of uncertainty.
The first of the sentries nodded in answer. "We felt the reverberations from your recent battle. Our Lord must have drawn you to this place, or you would surely have ended up in the Lands Between."
"By that, you mean Rath?"
She bowed her head. "Yes."
"And you are his angels?"
"Yes, my sister and I have served the Prince of the Skies for seven hundred years."
Reisshen asked, "If you are angels of Rath, then why do you stand at arms here?"
The two angels exchanged a look, and the second gave up a somewhat embarrassed smile. "Our Lord has stationed us here for the past hundred years while the mistress has been… absent."
The first sentry added, "We would tell you more, but it is not our place to discuss those matters."
"Hmm…" Caitlin looked up at skies, pleasantly blue yet sunless. Then she looked back at the angels. "You've been very helpful, and I hate to impose any more, but I don't suppose you would know the way back to Allore from here?"
The second sentry apologized, "I wish I could help. Certainly my sister and I could guide you back to the mortal world were we not bound to our duties here."
The first added, "However, our Lord must have had a good reason to bring you here and not return you to your world as he did the knight. You should come inside." The angels exchanged another look. "I think he will be anxious to meet you."
"Is it really all right for us to enter this palace?" Caitlin asked.
"Of course. You're expected. And the Scion is welcome to enter these hallowed halls as well."
Caitlin exchanged a look with Reisshen. What was going on here?
Reisshen turned to the angels. "I believe you are mistaken. I am no scion."
She leaned her head to one side. "Oh? I didn't notice. Either way should present no problem."
With that, the angels parted to either side, holding their arms out to the door as it opened seemingly of its own accord. The sentry encouraged them, "Do not be intimidated, please enter. Zelthain should find you momentarily, so feel free to make yourselves at home."
Caitlin looked around nervously, but she had little alternative. Not to mention a chance to meet the God she had prayed to since she was a little girl. She inclined her head to each of the angels, "Thank you." And then stepped through the gates into a courtyard garden. Reisshen followed, from her expression her misgivings had only grown.
They continued onward, past fountains and statues, through a haze of sweet scented flowers and the laughing music of running streams. The air here was warm and humid, the lush scenery surprisingly soothing. Some of the flora here was recognizable, yet others were strange and otherworldly. Reisshen stopped beside a bramble of blue flowers which had a strong resemblance to roses. She brushed her hand along a bud, which abruptly blossomed to life at her touch. It seemed to reach after her as the elf withdrew her hand.
"Elf's Heart. The last thing I expected to see here."
"It's native to Gaia. I had never heard of it taking root in another world. It only grows where magic is present."
"When you put it that way, is it so surprising to find it here?"
The duo entered a large building across from the gate, a long entryway leading to the largest of the domes they could see. They passed through a hallway fit for giants, strolling across a plush sky blue carpet bordered with golden thread. Tapestries lined the walls to either side, depicting various scenes. Caitlin noted a single similarity tying each of the scenes together; a young woman central to each of the pictures. She was short, slender, possessed of dark brown locks.
It didn't take long for the unsettling emptiness of the place to bug her. Though it was spotlessly clean, the edifice was deathly quiet. There were no sounds of other people moving about or conversing, not even a catch of distant humming, and no other sign of inhabitants; not lords, nor ladies or even servants.
Caitlin found herself straining her senses before long. Searching for the faintest noise, the smallest sign that they weren't alone here. It all seemed to be in vain. She stole a glance at Reisshen, but from her expression and darting eyes the elf found herself in the same predicament. Caitlin decided that she was glad to have the elf with her. Despite their differences, she knew Reisshen could handle herself. In a place like this, her connections to natural magic and the spiritual would doubtless prove to be more valuable than Marcus' enchanted steel or Maleran's raw ferocity. She wondered if she would have had the courage to keep going if she were alone or if she might have just huddled in some corner and cried.
Finally the pair emerged into a domed chamber, by all appearances an amphitheater. Tiered rows of chairs lined the floor, with staircases at regular intervals leading down to a central stage of polished oak. The only notable feature upon the stage seemed to be some kind of coffin or casket, but her eyes didn't linger on that when she saw the dome itself. Both she and Reisshen were stopped in their tracks by the depiction in stained glass. The background was that of a stormy sky, and upon a throne of clouds sat the woman from the tapestries, clutching a distinctively shaped jar.
Reisshen stared at the woman for a full minute before turning to Caitlin. "Why are you on that picture?"
"The girl in the stained glass… she looks a lot like you do."
Caitlin looked away. "It's coincidence. A lot of Azurrian girls look like I do. That's why I was chosen as a double for the princess."
"Then who is she?"
"Veyn, the Goddess of Storms. Do you see that jar she carries? They say that when she takes pity on sailors who are beset by gales, she will draw the storms into it, and if they offend her then she will unleash from it a hurricane that can last for days to tear their ships to pieces."
"Kind of a loose cannon, that one. Is that all she is known for?"
Caitlin laughed softly, and shook her head, "On her good days she's known as the patron goddess of music. Singers in particular."
Reisshen's expression lightened slightly. "Truly?"
Caitlin nodded. "That's probably what the amphitheater is for. Our tales of her say that her voice could shame even the loveliest of songbirds and calm the most savage of hearts."
"Come to think of it," Reisshen pondered aloud, "I don't think I have heard you sing."
Caitlin smirked. "Count yourself fortunate. My singing would shame a songbird in an entirely different way." She took a few hesitant steps down the stairs before looking back at Reisshen.
"What should we do?" Reisshen looked around the room. "The angels said someone would meet us, but I don't see a sign of anyone here."
"I don't know. Keep going I guess. Those chairs look comfortable enough, but perhaps we should find somewhere a little cozier to wait. We would be lost amongst the clutter if we wait here."
Reisshen nodded. "Sounds good. This room is nice and all, but the air feels far too still."
Caitlin led the way down the stairs to the stage, intending to go up the other side and further into the palace. However, she was drawn almost as if by a spell when she passed by the casket. She walked right up to it, noting the glass top and the bed of roses. And both she and Reisshen let out a gasp when they saw the woman enshrined within it.
"Coincidence nothing." Reisshen looked between the woman in the casket and Caitlin, wide-eyed. "That's… you."
Caitlin ran her fingers along the glass surface. She shook her head. She didn't have shimmering locks that curled that way, she didn't have those red lips. "It can't be."
"You lived another life before, right?"
"But… I'm not like her. I'm not so beautiful."
"She's dressed in white satin. Her hair has been arranged, possibly curled. She wears make-up, at the least lip rouge."
"So what's your point?"
"You're like me. You don't worry over much about appearance, you just brush your hair when you get up in the morning and wash your face and call it good. Am I wrong?"
"That's the only difference. Someone probably spent hours, maybe half a day preparing her. But when I look at her face, I only see your face."
Caitlin stared down at her, entranced. "Could it be? I never had the money for cosmetics or rouge growing up. Even if I had managed to get some, never the time to apply it."
"You aren't a bad looking woman. You just need to stop comparing yourself to people like Maleran and Eleanor."
Caitlin asked in a near whisper, "Is this… the truth I didn't want to see? Am I… was I the Goddess of Storms?"
"It looks that way."
"But… it doesn't make sense."
"The evidence is right in front of your eyes."
"No… I mean…" She took a moment to gather her thoughts. "Veyn... she was never… counted amongst the dead of the Gods."
"Could it be because she incarnated into you?"
"It must be." Yet her heart seemed to protest. It made sense, but it still felt off.
The spell was broken when she heard footsteps from behind. Both she and Reisshen turned to see who approached, but Caitlin's expression quickly turned to shock.
A/N- This chapter was rather problematic, and it went overly long in my first draft so I decided to post it as two chapters instead, hence the abrupt ending. It did give me an opportunity to expand on the dialogue between Caitlin and Reisshen, which I did not regret doing. Mostly exposition here, and I can't really comment on the Caitlin/Veyn angle without giving too much away.