CHAPTER 34

Tears ran down Zephyr's face as his chest heaved, fighting for each and every breath. Derrick Brooks sprinted to Kim's side and leaned over the young wind rider for a moment. He shook his head slowly. "He's broken several ribs, and they've ruptured his lung. He pushed himself too hard, there's nothing we can do to save him now. All we can do it ease his passing."

"No!" Kim snapped. "We still need him! He's one of us! He… There's got to be a way. Come on, Zeph. Come on, please. Just hang on, all right?"

"I may be able to save him."

Kim whirled to see Sei with the other Unicorn Knights. The unicorns' coats no longer glittered, for they were stained with dirt and ash. They looked ready to collapse from exhaustion, and their riders were binding each other's wounds. Sei knelt opposite Kim and took Zephyr's hand in his. The elf prince brushed a gentle hand over Zephyr's sweat-soaked forehead, pushing a lock of sandy hair out of the way. "I know of a single spell with the power to cheat death. I can use it to save Zephyr."

Delphia placed her hand on the elf's shoulder. "Sei…"

Kim stared hard at him. "The cost for the spell must be enormous."

"It is. To take a life from Death, I must give it another in its place. My own. The cost of this spell is my own immortality. I will live out the rest of my days as a mortal, and when my time comes, and old age has ravaged me, I will pass away into the Void." Sei reached up and intertwined his fingers with Delphia's. "But a life like that is not without its benefits." Delphia bent down and gently kissed his forehead.

Kim's shoulders heaved with a sob. "Thank you…"

Sei muttered the opening incantation of the spell and his hands began to glow with silver light. He held them over Zephyr's body and closed his eyes. The light grew ever more radiant, until it was bright enough to sear the eyes of those present. Nick watched from a safe distance, fascinated as the light washed over Zephyr, slowly resetting his bones and closing his wounds. He stood spellbound until Evara bumped him gently with her nose.

"Rescalo is slipping away. He wants to see you."

Nick followed his partner to where the High King lay, stubbornly clinging to life. Michael cradled his head on his lap, and Lexa and Lucian knelt beside him. Rescalo held up the Silver Crown. "Nick… are you all right?"

"Don't," Nick murmured. "Necro, Rescalo, don't ask me that. I'm fine. But you… you died to save me."

"I've been cheating death for too long. I knew this was coming. I made a deal, you see. With the god of death. My life was forfeit many years ago, and I've spent the past year and a half on borrowed time. No." He winced and placed a hand on the gaping wound in his chest. "I did not have very long left; at least I was able to use my time to protect you." He shook the Silver Crown. "Take it back, Nick. You're the Custodian. It's time to pick a new High King."

Nick reverently took the circlet, replacing it on his swordbelt. Then, he placed his hands on Lexa and Lucian's shoulders. "Would you like us to give you a little time?" he managed to say. "To say… to say goodbye?" His voice broke, and the tears began to flow.

Lucian nodded solemnly. "Thank you, Nick. Yes, just a little while. We won't be long."

Michael eased Rescalo's head into Lexa's arms, and the twins waited until the fire mage and the archangel departed. Lexa shook her head slowly. "All this time. All this time, you were alive and with us, but you never said a thing."

"I had to. To protect you. No, that's not right." Rescalo let out a pained gasp. "I was a coward. I did it to protect myself. I'm sorry, so sorry."

Lucian held his older brother's hand. "We don't fault you. You don't need to apologize, we forgive you anyway."

Rescalo ran his knuckle along Lucian's cheekbone, brushing away a tear. "Th-Thank you. That's more than I… more than I deserve. I'm sorry, for all I put you through. For all I put… all I put Ureono and the world through."

Lexa and Lucian were weeping openly now. Rescalo grimaced. His wound was agony, but he knew he would be beyond pain before long. He stared up at his younger siblings, crying at their tears. "Do you remember the song that Mother used to sing to you when you were small? The lullaby?"

He hummed softly. "I will away to the hills and mountains, to the land by the river in my new built home. I am this land and this land is me, my home is in Rinshonan where I am free."

Lexa and Lucian sang through their tears, joining Rescalo for the second verse. "Over the hills and far away, I pray you'll return to me one day. Promise me you'll be home soon, guided by the light of the sun and the grace of the moon."

Rescalo cried out in pain, clutching his siblings' hands. His nails bit into their palms, but they did not mind. When he lurched into a sitting position, they held him close, offering what comfort they could. He hugged them back and his trembling subsided. "I can see them," he whispered. "Mother and Father. They're waiting for me."

"Tell them we miss them," Lexa sobbed.

"And we'll be together again, someday." Lucian added.

Rescalo nodded, his tears mixing with the blood and dirt on his face. "I love you both. I love you both so much." And then, the tension left his body. Lexa and Lucian laid their brother's corpse down. They held each other and cried until they had no tears left.

The Reversal camped on the plains around Domines that night as the living mourned the dead. Nick sat silently, staring into the campfire before him. He pulled his legs up close to his chest and wrapped his right arm around them, trying not to scratch at any of the bandages that were wrapped around his aching body. His left hand slowly rubbed the pommel of his scimitar.

So, you're really in there, brother?

The sword pulsed with warmth. Yes. Before I died, a piece of me was sealed into the blade. I have always been, and will always be with you.

Nick blinked back a fresh surge of tears. Thank you. He sighed. Why didn't you show yourself sooner?

I could not. I was weak. It was only in your hour of greatest need that I could summon the strength to show myself again. And even so, I may not be able to for a long while.

Can you at least talk to me?

Nick heard a low rumbling in his mind, and he very nearly lost all vestige of self-control. He had not realized how much he missed Flayme's gravelly voice. It strains me, but if you wish it, I will try.

I missed you, Flayme.

And I you. You cannot fathom how it pained me to know you were so close, and yet I could not reach you.

Nick thought back to when he knelt by Flayme as he died, knowing he was powerless to do anything to save the dragon. I think I might have an idea.

Flayme fell silent and Nick stared across the fire to where Skralsvon and Lyca were sitting. The were-panther had treated Nick with cold aloofness for the duration of their brief acquaintance, standing idly by while Skralsvon and Nick greeted each other after so long apart. Lyca had his head pillowed on Skralsvon's shoulder, and glanced up as the werewolf chieftain sighed.

"You can't believe she's gone, can you?"

Skralsvon shook his head. "By the moon, Kilani always seemed so… indomitable. Now that she's dead, I… I don't know how it could have happened."

Lyca made a soft noise. "I miss her too."

Nick sensed more than saw two bodies sit down next to him. He glanced to his right and inclined his head to Sin'rezo and Hurino, the captain of the Reversal's small Dwarven contingent. The elf scholar forced a smile. "I thought you might be with Retäv," he said. "The Aliterians are celebrating his coronation."

"I'm not in much of a celebratory mood," Nick replied. "Sitting through Xande's funeral was about all I could bear."

"Why do you think they're celebrating?" Sin'rezo challenged. "They're finding the light in the darkness, the change that can come from great despair."

"It's not that I'm not happy for Retäv. I am, really. But I'm so tired. And we lost so many. I guess I'm too shocked to do much of anything, same as everyone else. I'm still coming to terms with how many we lost, and I think a lot of other soldiers feel the same. Right now, we're too stunned to be alive to feel the loss of our friends. That will come tomorrow, after we've had time to let it sink in that they won't be coming back."

Sin'rezo patted the fire mage's hand. "Sometimes, grieving is healthy. We mourn to come to terms with the grief, and in time, we can move past it. We live on in the name of those who have fallen, carrying on their legacy."

"Enough of that talk!" Hurino muttered, taking a swig from his flagon of ale. He offered it to Nick, but the fire mage politely declined. Skralsvon raised his hand and Hurino passed him the cup. The werewolf tilted it back and drained it. The dwarf grinned as he opened another bottle. "So tell me, Blazingheart, how many did you take down today?"

"Enough," Nick replied with a sigh. "I'm weary of fighting."

"Weary of fighting!" Hurino cried. "Listen to yourself! The best innovation happens in times of war! Why, my people were never more productive than in the wars of the Dwarf Kings of old! How do you think you humans figured out the steam engines that power your precious airships? If it weren't for Oinstron the Graybeard—"

"And how," Sin'rezo interrupted, "did Oinstron the Graybeard meet his end? Was it in his hall, surrounded by his wives and children?"

"Well, you see…"

"No, if I remember my histories correctly, he was crushed by one of his tanks, was he not?"

"Yes, but…"

"Hurino, it is the fallacy of the civilized races that we need the threat of war to reach our fullest potential."

"You said 'our'," Hurino remarked. "Elves too?"

"Of course. My people developed very little in the centuries following the fall of Twilus, and it was only after we emerged from our exile in the Hidden Land that we began to consider new spells. I am not proud of it, but the elves are just as guilty of this flaw as humans, dwarves, centaurs or were-kin."

Hurino grunted, obviously satisfied. He rose with a groan, massaging his stocky legs. "Well then. We've had a long enough day, have we not? I'm going to go find myself a bed if it's all the same to you."

Sin'rezo flashed him a brief but very genuine smile. "Good night, my friend."

Hurino lurched off into the darkness of the camp, passing by Delphia and Sei on their way to the fire. The dwarf gave the elf prince a brief but polite bow before carrying on his way. The fortune teller and the elf sat down at the edge of the light, Delphia's hand on Sei's arm. Nick raised an eyebrow. "You look… different."

"Different?" Sei asked.

"Less… elven, I suppose," said the fire mage, struggling to find the words to explain. "There was an air about you before, something foreign. It isn't gone, not really, but it's less pronounced. You look… more like Retäv."

Sei smiled. "I look more like Retäv did when we left him in Casinoria, so long ago."

"What?"

Sin'rezo nodded. "Surely you've seen the change too, Nick. The burdens of command have changed Retäv. He carries himself differently now. He has grown to fit his new role."

Nick nodded as he came to understanding. There had been a new light in Retäv's eyes, a stronger edge in his voice, more purpose to his step. The titles he inherited from Xande did indeed suit him well. Sei laughed softly. "Strange to think that my brother and I have switched places so completely. When we first met, I was a prince and he nothing but a traveling warrior. And now, look at us. He is a lord and I am a mere knight."

"Not just a knight," Delphia said. "A Unicorn Knight."

Nick half-listened to their chatter as the night wore on. Other soldiers came and left their fire, talking for a time before moving on their way. The aches began to fade from his limbs as his eyelids drifted lower and lower. Sin'rezo's strong, steady arms caught Nick as he pitched backward. The elf scholar laid the fire mage out on the ground gently, brushing a hand over his eyelids.

"Sleep now, Nicotorex. Rest your tired body, for when the sun crests the eastern hills, it marks not just the dawning of a new day, but a new age as well. Sleep, and may your dreams be untroubled."

A smile touched Nick's lips. "Good night, Sin'rezo. Good night, Sei and Delphia. Good night, Skralsvon and Lyca."

"Good night, Nick. We shall see you in the morning." Sin'rezo smoothed the hair away from Nick's eyes and the fire mage felt his consciousness slip. He fell asleep watching the fire flicker as Skralsvon tossed on another piece of firewood. It would blaze against the darkness, standing vigil until the dawn.