This one is for you, Megan. It's finally done. Thank you to -Dream-Silver-Haze- and Valerian Vagrant for reviewing; you've given me such helpful feedback. Without further ado, I conclude the first book:


Stratum of Doubt

They rested now at a mountain range large enough to conceal them from Adish and the Valerian army. Traveling again had been tiresome, but it was not simply to get some place—it was like in the beginning, when they were fleeing for dear life. Aithné couldn't help thinking that they were simply running away.

She could still feel the hollow sadness eating away at her insides when she glanced at Arévis' face, or Terran's, and most especially Kirra's. She remembered their group stopping once; she had cried and cried into Terran's arms. It was a badly needed release, the pent-up tension, fear and grief aching endlessly.

They had barely eaten. Arévis had said it was a good idea to conserve food, but Aithné knew it was because none of them had much of an appetite.

As she sat between two heavy mountains, beyond her sat the bland, dark landscape they had barely escaped. She spotted Arévis in a shallow cave, eyes vacant and shadowed. She had never seen her like this, even in her days of intense study and training. She hadn't cried or yelled. In fact, she had been as kind and soft spoken as she normally was, but with even less words than usual. However, she knew that the decision was eating at her. Aithné would be a fool to think otherwise.

Aithné stood, leaving Terran to the blanket they had been resting on. She walked to Arévis and sat next to her, back against the cold stone.

"Hello." She said simply.

Arévis smiled to humor her. "Hello."

Aithné shifted uncomfortably. "I just wanted you to know… that I think you made the right decision. It wasn't an easy one, but we're here and we're safe because of it… For that I thank you… sister." She pulled her twin into an awkward, one-sided hug. Arévis slowly responded and grasped her back with a grip that quickly turned to steel.

Arévis didn't say anything, so she didn't either. Arévis hadn't responded much to the information Nora had given them, so she assumed that it was stewing for further assessment. As for their revealed identities… Well, that really didn't change anything about their relationship. Aithné still loved Arévis like she always had—she was a sister to her biologically or not. She knew that Arévis felt the same as well.

The wind whooshed loudly, chilling them a bit, the small cave taking the brunt of its force. Here in the mountains, it wasn't as protected from the weather as the earth was below.

"Do you think he'll come?" Terran said dreamily to the night horizon.

"…You mean Nevic?" Kirra said. She was curled up in a ball at their tiny campsite, mainly unresponsive and distraught. She had cried harder and for much longer than Aithné had. It had taken its toll of energy.

"Yeah…" Terran said.

"Nevic's a traitor." Kirra said dully, no inflection present in her voice.

"Don't say that." Aithné said quickly. Arévis pulled away from her and smiled sadly.

"He… He… Didn't come to save him." Her voice broke and she sniveled. Again, she could hear the wracking sobs of Kirra. The princess of Larshmandor was reduced a small, broken child who had lost her brother. Aithné couldn't imagine that anything could prepare her for something like that. She glanced at Arévis next to her and shook her head imperceptibly. She didn't want to think about what they had almost succeeded in doing to Arévis as well.

"He has duties. We can't count on him anymore, obviously. He helped us as much as he could, and now he's back as Valeria's top battle mage. That's where his loyalty has to remain now, or he'll be as good as us in the king's eyes.

"He probably won't even give us a second thought." Terran said. "He probably wouldn't give a second thought to…"

Since Kaleb had fallen, no one had mentioned his name or the incident. Aithné didn't complete his sentence for him.

Terran knelt next to Kirra and rubbed her back soothingly. Her shudders stopped significantly, but she still wept quietly.

"You have us, Kirra. You have us." He said in consolation.

It was true. Where else was there for her to go? It would be pointless to go back to Larshmandor, especially without her brother protecting her. When last she was there, it seemed Kaleb had initiated their escape and battle plan. Kirra had been along for the ride, and now she was simply alone in their original quest for freedom. Now all she had to cling to was the strange fate of Aithné and Arévis, whatever that happened to be.

There didn't seem to be a lot of confidence circulating throughout the group as of late. It was obvious that they were drained, physically and emotionally. Their trip had taken a toll that none of them could have predicted.

"Could we return?" Aithné whispered to Arévis. "To the River Village… Would it be safe to return?"

"That is where they originally found us. It would be ridiculous to consider going back." Arévis said in her comforting monotone.

"Then where? Where are we supposed to go?" Aithné asked in desperation.

"…We go to Aridia. I had told Kaleb and Nevic before." Arévis said resolutely.

"Why?" Aithné asked, perplexed.

"Because we must build our forces. With Adish's eye off his original kingdom, we can try and sway them to our cause. If nothing else, they will not suspect it. Adish believes himself to have complete control of Aridia. If he is wrong, there may be a foothold we can gain. I did not share it before because I did not want to distress you. If I had told you then, at the Healing Aid, that I didn't believe we would be free to return home… There would have been devastation." She finished.

Aithné frowned a little. "I would have been fine."

"Please, Aithné… Let us not get into this. I make sure to consider all possibilities and repercussions carefully before making decisions. I do not wish to discuss, right now, what you view as my mistakes." Arévis said wearily.

Terran looked up bitterly. Aithné could sense a small hostility there, as if he would love nothing more than to discuss them. Did he blame her for leaving Kaleb?

"You mean like with Kaleb?" Aithné whispered intently, curious about her reaction. Perhaps it was cruel to put that pressure upon her at this moment, but she felt a nudge in the direction of clarity—for all of them—might help the others better understand why Arévis could do such a thing.

Arévis said nothing for a while, simply laying her head against the wall and looking forward, effectively closing off communication. Aithné sighed and got up to return to Terran at the spot where Kirra was also. She sat down next to him, close to his heat and comfort.

"Do not get comfortable." Arévis said in a measured tone. "We'll be leaving shortly. It won't take long to get to the pass from here."

"How could you?" Accused the cold, shaken voice of Kirra.

Aithné cringed inwardly. This would not end well.

Arévis said nothing, only stood and gathered her things, glancing at Kirra with a small semblance of sympathy.

"I had to." Arévis said very quietly, her voice steady—so controlled, in fact, that Aithné suspected she was anything but below the surface.

"We could have saved him… You and Aithné—you're seraphs! You have the power to stop an army…" She howled brokenly.

"And a god?" Arévis spoke calmly. "Could we have escaped Adish if he had caught up to us?"

"Y-You could have done it quickly!" She stammered. "Before he came out…" Her speech descendent into a string of incoherency and she let out a wracking sob.

Kirra was on her back now, looking up at the night sky hopelessly.

She let out a shuddery sigh and sniffled. "Gone… My brother is dead."

"That's impossible." Arévis said.

"And how would you know?" Kirra spat.

"Well, you were there when Nora described it to you, weren't you? A guardian cannot be alive without its master." Arévis nodded in the direction of Void, now in the possession of Kirra on its proper belt pouch.

Kirra's crying faded. She pulled out the smallest form of the black dragon. It nestled in her palm contentedly. She sniffled and looked hopefully at its tiny, sleepy state.

"You're right…" She said faintly, a hopeful, trance-like state replacing her teary-eyed one. But then her face hardened again, her sharp features deadly and spiteful.

"But it hardly changes anything. If he's alive—they're only going to hurt him. We don't know how long he's going to last until they kill him… once his use has run out." Her inflection was bitter to the core.

"There is no changing it now. If we want to survive—if you want your father's kingdom to stay in power—that's an alternative even I'd prefer to Valeria and Adish's alliance—then we cannot go back yet. We must become stronger, in force and training, and our attack must be calculated."

That's what Kaleb would've said, Aithné thought.

"You'll have to honor Kaleb's sacrifice. This is war, and unless you want his capture to mean nothing, I suggest you stay and help us. We cannot win by trying to rescue him. All that you have worked and sought for—and what Kaleb sought (which was independence and freedom of choice)—will be gone to the insatiable cravings of an angry tyrant of a god. And I know that none of us want that." Arévis finished resolutely, packing her things on to Sveta.

"I certainly don't." Said Sveta's cool voice. "As far as I can tell, Larshmandor is far less on its scale of abuses than Valeria."

"Yes, thank you." Arévis said. "Though I think that dynamic has smoothed out in Valeria. Zebulun has things quite under his control. He's a powerful pawn to Adish… In fact, I hardly see him doing as much far-reaching political damage without the king. If you really want control, you choose your tools carefully." Arévis said, mounting Sveta finally.

The rest of them had been gathering their things as well at this point (Kirra watched as Terran did it for her), when Kirra spoke up yet again.

"That's all well and good… Fighting for your cause—" She began.

"Well, it's sort of all of ours…" Aithné said sheepishly.

"I wasn't addressing you." She snapped. "It's good that you've chosen to preserve your own lives—since we all know it's the only option you and your sibling have—but what I can't understand is your complete lack of regard!" She stormed. "How can you calmly pack your things and guide us as if nothing has happened? You don't care at all what happens to any of us! You demand that we follow your orders, but did you even ask any of us if we wanted to leave my brother behind?"

Arévis sat atop Sveta, looking directly at the now standing Kirra, her fists balled and her face red from crying and raging.

"Then perhaps you should have gone after him." Arévis said.

Terran looked extremely shocked. Aithné's gaze darted from person to person madly.

"I'm not keeping you here. You wished to accompany us as an escape from your very own kingdom. Do not act as if I am forcing you to follow me and listen to what I say. You are free to go whenever you want." Arévis said, her demeanor chill.

"You know I don't have the power to do that!" Kirra said in a low, frustrated voice.

"And I'm telling you neither do we." Arévis said staunchly.

"See… You couldn't care less." Kirra lamented, her last defeated assertion. "Your heart is as cold as your magic. You could contend with the king, even Adish, or whoever decides the fate of my brother…"

Arévis' lips pursed slightly. "Please do not say that I have no care about Kaleb or the rest of you. He was very dear to me as a friend. If you think I did what I did out of anything but our best combined welfare, then there is nothing else to say to you… Convincing someone who has already made up their mind is pointless." At this, Arévis soared off, expecting her followers to drift behind her.

They all did.


Aithné could hear the whispers of Terran and Kirra behind her as they flew to the ever-nearer pass. She pretended that she couldn't hear both for their sake and her own.

"She's an unfeeling tyrant." Whispered Kirra furiously. "How do you explain her attitude towards leaving him?"

"She did it for us… We would not be alive if she hadn't." Terran said back with hesitation. It seemed he was trying harder to justify it to himself.

"That's not what I said. I was referring to her attitude. Perhaps I could understand it… Even if Kaleb and I didn't—" At this, she choked up a little, "d-didn't always see eye to eye… Perhaps I could understand it if I could see a shred of remorse in her detached, stone-like face. The only time I've seen her facial muscles even twitch was around Nevic." She finished bitterly.

" You know that's an exaggeration." Terran debated calmly. "She maintains such a demeanor in defense of our cause. It's a testament to her strength."

"Of course she's not weak. We'd be dead if she were weak. But I'll be damned if I'm going to accept that type of leadership. I might as well be serving Zebulun and Adish."

"Is that what you'd like? For Valeria's king to pretend to care for you? I'd much rather have neutrality than a farce like that." Terran defended.

Kirra shifted on Void as they swooped dangerously near to the mountainside. "I don't want a truth like that." She whispered solemnly, nodding towards the silvery figure of Sveta and Arévis.

"Better truth than lies." Aithné murmured.

"I'm staying because if there's a hope to save him or my kingdom… It's with her. That is the only reason." She paused for a moment before interjecting on herself, "I don't agree with her methods. She's terrible and uncaring… But if there's a way, if there's a hope… I can't pass it up." She finished quietly and resolutely.

Terran frowned and looked ahead. He had to know that Arévis wasn't really like that. He had to know that Kirra was being critical and dramatic because of her grief.

"We need a rest." Kirra spoke loudly.

"We cannot rest again." Arévis said firmly. "The army will be tracking every pass in all directions. If we hesitate, they will find us."

"The chances of that are entirely too slim to even worry about." Kirra scoffed. "They couldn't possibly know which direction we're headed in."

"They could if Kaleb told them." Arévis said quickly. "And we can't take chances."

Kirra huffed. "As if he would betray us."

"Torture is a powerful tool." Arévis retorted.

Silence.

Aithné couldn't blame her. She didn't like to contemplate that possibility either. Kaleb… Had it been a grave mistake to leave him behind?


Eventually, they did rest. After a day's travel, it had become increasingly more difficult to eat, drink and sleep while flying.

"I don't know how you did it, Terran…" Aithné rasped as they settled on a slanted slab of mountain. They were completely surrounded by rock and the evening blackness. Up here, it was colder and the air was thinner. It was not a pleasant state to be in.

"Let us keep our voices down." Arévis said softly. "This is already a bad idea…"

Right on cue, Kirra loudly announced that she was going to sleep. Yes, it makes sense to spite her now, Aithné thought dully. When we're in danger of being tracked and killed on the spot. Perhaps they'll even sneak up on us while we're sleeping. That thought did nothing to help ease her exhaustion.

"The first village we stop at… We should really invest in a tent." Terran said wearily, setting up blankets and plopping down with heaviness.

Arévis nodded. She was sitting near their equipment, picking at a slab of old, charred carniplume leaves. It probably wasn't still good.

Aithné was about to set up and nod off, but she stopped for a moment to look at her sister. She could see the strain wearing on her. Perhaps this was the only physical weakness she would allow herself (since making her face muscles twitch was obviously too much), but Arévis looked burned out. She hadn't bothered to put her hair back up, so it swayed, wispy and frazzled from travel. Her cheeks had some color from the wind whipping at them, but otherwise she was white and drawn, dark circles hanging ominous under her eyes. Her face was utterly blank as she stared at the night sky, very little stars twinkling from underneath the cloud cover. There was no orange glow from beyond the mountains anymore.

Columns of rock led off to a sparsely wooded path to the south, which is where she assumed they'd be headed after they slept. To Aridia… To the desert. What would await them there? Adish had control of the once-great empire. Even if they were to make it there safely, they couldn't assume that the kingdom had not already been warned about them. If that were the case, they were as good as dead. But if they didn't know about them or their powers, perhaps they'd be safe.

"We're going to have to disguise our magic in Aridia, aren't we?" Aithné mentioned.

"Yes. Adish has known about me for some amount of time. I'm certain he made sure his other kingdom was aware of me also."

"They probably won't suspect me at all." Aithné said somewhat cheerfully. "I look Aridian, don't I?"

"A very common strain. You should be safe there." Arévis confirmed.

"Do you want any company?" Aithné said hesitantly. It was hard to gauge whether Arévis wanted to be alone.

"Go to sleep, sister." Arévis said gently.

"Goodnight then." Aithné settled into a nest of blankets near Terran and lay down on her back. She closed her eyes, but sleep wouldn't come. She sighed inwardly. Exhausted, but with no desire to rest… It was a very uncomfortable paradox.

She found herself drifting off slightly a few good hours later. Perhaps her body had finally given in. Settling a little, Aithné breathed deeply and serenely. Sleep at last.

It was short-lived, of course. She found herself awoken by a great swoop of wings and a flash of black blocking the scarce starlight. A dagger of pure panic went through her chest and she almost choked. Aithné felt paralyzed. She didn't dare make a move before Arévis did… What if stealth was their only option? Escape would be cumbersome at a time like this. Perhaps the army hadn't seen them!

She watched as Arévis, still in her spot guarding the supplies, lazily flung an arrow of ice at the silent, dark figure. Immediately, the icicle shattered silently and crumbled in front of him.

Arévis stood quickly, unsheathing her sword. Their battle was eerily silent. The figure attempted to disarm her with a flick of his hand. She blocked with a sheet of defensive magic. The figure tensed and shook his head, laying his staff down on the ground.

Then Aithné spotted the dragon with red eyes and backward-facing horns.

She should have suspected that it was Nevic… He heart was beating at a ridiculously rapid rate as she waited for Arévis to act. Curled up in her blankets, they wouldn't suspect that she was awake.

"It's me…" Nevic barely whispered, his hands up. Zed reverted to his mid-form and rested patiently.

Arévis looked absolutely livid. She took a few steps toward him, her hand gripping the sword unyieldingly, the other hand balled into a fist.

Without saying a word, she gripped the collar of his cloak and dragged him towards the wooded pathway. Aithné lifted her head a little to watch as they ascended without a sound.

She couldn't ignore this! Aithné had to see what was happening… She divested herself of the blankets before she had a chance to stop herself and crept up the pathway, following the flickers of silver that reflected off Arévis' hair. She tiptoed as quietly as she could, weaving through trees and sticks on the ground.

Finally, the two night-enshrouded figures stopped. Aithné crouched behind a tree discreetly and watched nervously.

Arévis released him harshly. She did not look happy to see him in the least bit.

"You…" She seethed. "What are you doing here?"

He looked somewhat fazed by her sharpness. "I didn't think you'd be this hostile for no reason." He said a bit dejectedly.

"No reason?" She continued. "You've completed your part of the deal; we're done with you! We can't have you around now that your kingdom is hunting us so viciously. Your loyalty is severely compromised."

"I… Why can't you see that I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions?" He said angrily.

"What are you, then? A traitor to your own kingdom?" She scoffed. "Please. With your position of power? There's no way I can believe that."

"The allure of power is meaningless. Besides, I'm having fun with you and your friends." He attempted light-heartedness. Arévis was not pleased.

"Fun? Is this what our battle is about to you? You're this fickle because you're having a bit of fun?" She said incredulously.

His smile died. "No. I sympathize with your cause. You and Aithné did nothing to deserve such treatment. If anything, Zebulun will be the cause of his own destruction because of his presumptuousness. "

"What does this mean for your position in the future? Does this mean you're giving up everything—turning your back on your king for us? It's utterly ridiculous!" Arévis whisper-yelled.

"They will never know…" Nevic said, looking away slightly.

"I thought you were intelligent." Arévis spat. "How would you even begin to keep such a secret?"

"Is it because you just don't want my help? You're content to do things on your own—is that it?" Nevic said, his temper rising as well. "Why don't you just say so…"

"This has nothing to do with your feelings. Only a child would be so selfish. The farther we are from you, the safer we'll be. It's quite simple, Valerian." Arévis said.

"You didn't answer my question."

"Your help is not the problem. You're a great asset. You already know this." Arévis sighed.

"My loyalty… I'll give it up. I'll renounce my title as warlord and top mage. I don't need them… They're corrupt and vacant. It's a meaningless existence." It looked as if he were pleading now.

Arévis anger flared again. "You fool! That lessens your credibility by an even greater degree. I have no reason to believe you! Especially when I know you to be an excellent liar."

Nevic's face scrunched up. "When have I lied to you?"

"You lie by omission." Arévis reasoned, "Like about Zebulun being after me." She threw her hands up. "And who knows what else! Who knows if you've not been lying directly to my face this entire time?"

"How can you think that?" Nevic said softly, his eyes not leaving Arévis'.

"What would you do were you in my position?" Arévis said. It almost sounded like a plea in return, as if she wanted to believe him.

"I would gather all the help I could get. Especially someone as powerful as me…" He said without a pretense of modesty.

"As powerful as a seraph." She said.

His eyes widened. "You know?"

"Your mother told us, actually. Aithné and I are seraphs as well."

"I'm not surprised." Nevic said in awe.

"I'm sorry, but… after she freed us, that prince—whatever his name was—he… well, he killed her. I watched her burst into light. She's dead." Arévis said sadly.

She watched as Nevic's face filled with despair. "Did you retrieve it?"

She frowned slightly. "Retrieve what?"

"The knife! Did you kill him and take the knife?" He spoke urgently, growling.

"No… The army came in after him. We had to escape. The others are exhausted… grief-stricken." She said solemnly.

"What for? You've all made it out alive." He said with little tone in his voice now. Aithné felt a pang of regret at his suffering.

"Kaleb fell." She said disjointedly.

Nevic groaned in defeat. "I'm so sorry…" He whispered, pacing a little.

"You were almost convincing that time." Arévis said calmly.

"Damn it!" He nearly yelled. "Why won't you let me help you?"

"We had a deal. You agreed to let me kill you if you betrayed it." Arévis said, very business-like. She lifted her sword.

"Stop!" He said angrily. "Why are you being like this?" He looked exasperated.

"You're putting us all in danger for absolutely no reason… What is the point of this? Your reasoning is weak!" Arévis seemed to be at a loss, her face desperate one second, resolute the next. "There is no reason you should want to abandon your kingdom to help us, so give me the truth! Why is it that you're following us when I've told you to leave?" Arévis demanded, her voice not nearly as quiet as she was aiming for.

Nevic said nothing. His face was downcast, his arms at his sides in perfect stillness.

"If you stop fighting now, I'll kill you!" She puffed, distress apparent. "I will."

Nevic remained still and quiet.

"Give me one good reason I should keep you alive. You as good as betrayed us by doing this."

Still nothing.

"Fine, I hope you're ready…" She held her sword up slowly. Nevic looked her directly in the eyes, completely passive. She hesitated for a second. "Just… Just tell me why—" But Arévis didn't get to finish her sentence because Nevic had roughly taken hold of her shoulders and was kissing her with impetuous intensity.

Arévis seemed at a loss at first, making a small sound of surprise. The sword fell to the ground with a muted thud. Soon, she buried her fingers in his curly black locks, and kissed back hungrily, gripping with what Aithné assumed was a very painful, bruising force. He pulled her closer.

Aithné eyes popped, and she clamped a hand over her mouth so as not to utter any sound.

They were making very pleased noises now, small and content from Arévis, deep and growling from Nevic. His hands drifted up to caress her collarbone where one moved to rest at the juncture of her neck, the other at her jaw.

At this point, Aithné wanted desperately to not be here. Why had she followed them? Her curiosity had gotten the better of her. This was a very useful piece of information unfolding before her, but she didn't know if this was something they were going to share with the others. If not, she'd be holding onto a very unpleasant burden involving Arévis' decision-making and Nevic's loyalty. How could she be certain of either now? Arévis was clearly suspicious of Nevic… But the answer seemed obvious. He wasn't betraying his kingdom because he sympathized with their cause (though she hoped that might be part of it), but because he obviously had feelings for Arévis.

Aithné smiled slightly. Was it true, what Nevic said about power? That he honestly had no desire for it? Was this really more important to him?

Even more pressing, in an act that held undeniable implications, he had disobeyed his king's orders to escort them to Valeria safely. He had retrieved them from Garak's dungeons and did not hand them over to the Valerian army. Lately, he was offering help after abandoning his kingdom. He knew they were headed to Aridia, which is probably how he found them, and he had no intent of bringing them back to Adish.

Maybe now that Arévis and Nevic were open about their feelings, Arévis wouldn't be so cruel to him for sacrificing so much. Yes, she had to harbor suspicions to keep them safe, but it seemed rather petty at this point. Arévis must know that now. They would head to Aridia, and with the help of Nevic's charisma, they could possibly gain an army to help them in their cause.

What they really needed to find was a kingdom that truly hated Adish's rule… Hopefully Aridia would be begrudged over their personal god's abandonment. Perhaps they could find more with aspirations of freedom as well.

"This?" Arévis gasped between heavy kisses. "This… is your great… defense?"

She didn't sound too unimpressed to be honest. Nevic made a noise that sounded like, "Mmhmm."

Aithné crept very sneakily away from the entangled figures to run out the wooded pathway. She doubted they'd be aware of anything but each other anyway.

Once back, she ripped her covers up and bound them around her fiercely. They hadn't known she was there… She had escaped in secret. She could feel her heart rate going down now. She breathed easily.

Except that her small ruckus had awoken a very sleepy-looking Terran.

"Eh? What's going on…?" His sleep-thickened voice asked.

"Couldn't sleep." Aithné said nervously. "I heard noises."

Terran sat up properly, his hair sticking up wildly. Aithné suppressed the urge to mock him playfully.

"Where's Arévis?" Terran said with mild curiosity.

"I don't know…" Aithné lied very unconvincingly. It was a good thing his senses weren't back to full force yet.

"Whoa!" He jolted and stared at Zed curled up silently, watching him with his red, ember-like eyes.

"Isn't that… Nevic's dragon?" Aithné said in her best impression of surprise.

"Yeah… Yeah, I think it is." Terran looked around, a bit disoriented still. "Nevic must be here!" He said excitedly.

"Maybe that's where Arévis is. They're probably talking business." Aithné said. It seemed more convincing that time, she thought.

"Probably! I'm so excited!" His tone sobered. "At least we get someone back."

"Yeah…" Aithné said.

"Should we go find them?" He asked hopefully.

"No… We should sleep. They'll let it be known in the morning." She said pensively, pushing him back into the blankets. He hummed in agreement.

She turned her back to him and curled up. This time, the exhaustion was enough to let her drift off.


Nevic stood in the center of their gathering, his hands folded in front of him. In the early hours of the morning, the group had awoken and gathered their things, only to be met by a very solid Nevic standing in front of them. Only Kirra was surprised.

"How did you find us?" Kirra demanded.

"This is the only pass to Aridia." Nevic said calmly.

"How did you catch up to us?" Terran asked in friendly disbelief.

"From what I've heard, you've accomplished such a feat yourself, Terran." Nevic smiled.

"That's right…" Terran scratched the back of his head sleepily.

"No more delays. We need to be leaving." Arévis said, in a rush.

"Why didn't you wake us last night so we could all discuss it?" Kirra asked harshly.

"It was you who asked for rest above all others, Kirra. Would it not have been discourteous to deny you your peace?" Arévis said in a diplomatic tone.

"I suppose, but…" Kirra spluttered. "You've said yourself that he's dangerous. Why keep him here now?"

Aithné thought that was a good point.

Arévis looked at Nevic fleetingly and took a deep breath. "He'll be a necessary asset in Aridia. It would be safer to leave him here, but more beneficial if he accompanies us. He has skills that I cannot claim mastery in to employ on the masses. If he continues to serve a purpose, and as outnumbered as he is… I will have to put aside my suspicions for now."

Aithné was impressed. Not a single mention of their secret rendezvous last night.

"This means we can all be friends now!" Terran nearly jumped for joy. He even ran up to Nevic and shook his hand furiously. Nevic pulled him into a hug instead. Aithné smiled. Kirra glared at Arévis unflinchingly. Arévis maintained her characteristic blankness and hopped on Sveta.

"There's a small chance that he's a traitor." Sveta said candidly. "But you're right about his powerlessness. There are two seraphs against one if it comes down to it."

Aithné blushed a little. She didn't know if her power was great enough, even doubled, to stop someone like Nevic. She had been told she could stop an army with her magic, but she had yet to test that in reality. She couldn't have empty faith in her own abilities if she hadn't reached such a plateau yet. She had to be content that Arévis would be his equal, and that Aithné could tip the scales slightly.

"I hope you like the desert." Nevic said, hopping on Zed.

"I hope so too…" Arévis said absently. "Have you been there before?"

Nevic avoided Arévis' gaze and watched the others get ready. "Yes, I've been there."

They barely seemed different at all. Arévis no longer was angry, and Nevic no longer seemed desperate… Besides that, they were simply acting vacant and a little awkward. Aithné supposed it wasn't that surprising—after all, they had always been interested in one another. The only difference that was somewhat noticeable was that instead of trying to deny it, they were instead trying to hide it.

Aithné watched as Kirra hopped onto Void and arranged his pack on the side. She still had Kaleb's belongings. What would she do with them?

"I can carry that for you." Nevic said sympathetically. "If it would make you feel any better."

Kirra looked up at him with big, sad eyes—her brother's eyes.

"Yes, please." She said, her voice wavering. Nevic took the bag and secured it to Zed.

"Is there anywhere we can stop for water before we go?" Arévis asked Nevic stiffly.

He hesitated slightly. "Uh… Well, yes. A small town at the edge of the mountain range."

"And we can get the tents we were talking about, right?" Terran asked.

"I'm sure we can manage that." Arévis said. "We're running out of crystals, so we must buy cheap…"

"Don't worry." Nevic said reassuringly, soaring into the sky. "I have plenty of crystals."

Arévis looked displeased, despite the good news. Aithné frowned slightly. Perhaps Arévis was still trying to assert the groups' independence. That was an impossible task now. Though they were no longer ignorant and powerless, Nevic still had a much greater knowledge of their surroundings—both political and geographical. It was highly possible that they could manage on their own, but Aithné was resolute about Nevic being a powerful asset. Arévis couldn't deny it now after hers and Nevic's conversation last night.

Maybe it was unavoidable. They were indebted to Nevic like no other; it seemed only natural that he should lead the way now. Maybe that's why Arévis resented him, above even her suspicions. Were they powerless without him? Did they need him to stay alive?

He was their only guide on this harsh journey—their only friend who had bothered to reach out to them. If only for the time being, did this make him their greatest sympathizer? Perhaps this was better than they thought: a Valerian warlord at their mercy, completely loyal and smitten with Arévis. With a shudder, Aithné thought, Was that something a Valerian king might think? Nevic was not just a pawn to them. He was a friend and a guide.

"We should have special quarters in the castle when we reach Aridia. My allegiance with the queen should get us any accommodations we need." Nevic said fluidly.

"Of course." Arévis said tiredly. She seemed to sigh slightly before sitting up straight on Sveta.

"Finally!" Terran called from behind Aithné. "We're going to eat good food again!"

Aithné rolled her eyes. "We just had a feast the other night."

"Yeah… But it was coupled with the stress of imprisonment, torture and certain death. It's not good for digestion." Terran said in a completely serious tone.

Nevic laughed genially.

Aithné thought then that the desert couldn't be that bad. Maybe there'd be something there that reminded her of home. She closed her eyes and felt the morning wind brush across the layers of dirt on her skin and clothes. At least there'll be books, she thought, and possibly a hot bath.

She watched as Kirra looked back one last time, bowing her head sadly. A pang of despair went through Aithné's chest as she thought again of Kaleb's fate. It would not have been for nothing, of that she was certain.

In Aridia, a new hope lay ahead of them for the first time in a long while. Now, she had necessity and purpose driving her—a great contrast to the entropic confusion they had stumbled through in their endless journey. She felt determined in that moment; there was no stopping the force that was herself, Arévis and Nevic. It seemed that there actually was a hope for them yet. With that thought, she was satisfied to fly through the murky skies towards the burning sand and sun, still not knowing (and would she ever?) what awaited her.


The end. Until next book... What did you think? Any input is good.