It was still dark when Liam awoke, a thin layer of ice frosting his skin. His long, unkempt hair was frozen stiff. His joints groaned as he sat up. They all seemed to wake simultaneously. His eyes heavy and his body stiff, Liam picked up his heavy fur cloak from the ground and shook off the snow before clasping it back around his neck. When they stepped from the igloo he was hit with a blast of cold air. If inside the igloo it had been cold, the weather in the world outside was frigid. The ison had huddled together behind the snow structure, safe from the battering winds.
The clouds had cleared in the night, and for a while the Ridgewood Five rode beneath a clear sky. The stars above were foreign to them, a different night sky for a different land. For several hours they rode beneath the strange stars with nothing but the compass to guide them. But when the dawn broke the sun peeked at the horizon, banishing the dark blue of dusk with a dramatic fiery orange entry.
"The sun rises in the east," Durant noted, glancing at his compass. "Just as it does in Braime."
That gave Liam some comfort. Perhaps things were not so alien here after all.
The ice sparkled off the sun, shining white and blue in the daylight. Liam enjoyed feeling the sun against his skin, even if it did little to warm his body. Just as quickly as the sun rose, it seemed to set again, shrouding the snowy landscape in darkness. More of the day was spent in the dark than the light. Their breaths crystallized in the air before them, and for a while Liam watched that. The cold nipped at his ears and rubbed his cheeks red. Though her arms were wrapped around him, Claire provided Liam no warmth. No heat at all seemed to radiate from her body.
It was a strange thing, riding through the icy wasteland, seeing no trees or plants or animals. It looked very much like the sea. A great sea of snow.
Liam could not have said what hour it was when they dismounted for the night, but he trusted Durant's judge of time. Evlein built up his igloo again and they huddled inside. He tried to create a fire as well. It quickly died for lack of fuel, but not before melting a hole in the ceiling. Liam buried himself between Evlein and Claire beneath the heavy furs and subjected himself to another night of cold, uncomfortable sleep.
This was how the days passed for the next week. At least Liam thought it was a week; he couldn't not be sure after the first few days. They slept on soft beds of snow when they were tired, ate hard, frozen nuts and roots and bread when they were hungry, and sent up a wisp of steam when nature called. The ison were hardy creatures, and seemed content to meander for days on end, stopping only to drink up snow or leave steaming heaps of dung in the white snow. The third day was clear and bright like the first, but for the next three days the sky was covered by a heavy cloud. It was not as bad as the days to follow, however; a relentless storm buffeted them with harsh winds, and snow stung like tiny knives against their faces.
Waking up shivering never seemed to get easier. Listening to the wind howl beyond the thick snowy walls, Liam stretched to the dawn of the ninth day of their journey. At least he thought it was the ninth. It could have been the tenth, or it could have been the twentieth for all Liam knew. Time of day had lost all meaning on this expedition.
Liam pulled his cold, stiff body onto his ison and helped Claire up behind him. Risa and Evlein mounted up together, and Durant led them into the white, compass in hand. The wind wasn't so bad today, sparing the Ridgewood Five the sting of snow they had grown accustomed to. It blew up in gentle gusts around their legs. The heavy panting of the ison could be heard beneath the breeze, the creatures' red tongues lolling across their lips. It was quieter than the days before had been. Liam opened his mouth and filled the silence.
"Did you ever wonder why magickers have never taken over the world?"
Silence followed Liam's question. Nobody knew quite how to respond. Evlein was taken aback, and Durant rolled his eyes.
"Magickers are bound to a code," Durant said patiently.
"I know that, but even so, with the power magickers possess, a few rogue wizards could conquer the world!"
"You're giving them too much credit," Evlein said. "There aren't magickers powerful enough to take over an entire world. The Society would stop anyone who was out of line, anyhow."
"It still could happen," Liam argued. The ground groaned softly beneath them. "I'm just saying that there's really nothing stopping magickers from bending non-magic folk to their will."
Evlein rolled his eyes. "Are you really that concerned?" His ison groaned a throaty growl. "The whole reason the Society exists is to protect normal people from danger."
"Let's say for a moment there is a magicker in a place where the Society doesn't exist. Take the Mandra Isles," Liam said. "A Mandru wizard-"
Liam was cut short by a sharp crack from the ground. His eyes shot to the ground it creaked and snapped. The ison began to whimper and came to a halt, gingerly touching their paws to the unstable floor of ice beneath their feet. Liam exchanged looks with Risa and Durant then to Evlein. Durant put up a hand. "Steady," he breathed, his gaze falling to the snowy trap below. The ground groaned beneath their weight. "Turn around. Back the way we came. Slowly, now."
The ison started a long turn, whimpering all the while. Durant reined up as a loud crack startled his ison. It crouched low to the ground, growling. They hardly breathed for fear of disturbing the icy floor beneath them.
All at once the ground awoke beneath them, roaring and snapping as the ice began to give way. "Go!" Durant screamed, and the ison squealed as they broke into a run. Claire squeezed tight around Liam's belly as he clung to the reins for dear life, listening to the very floor disappear from under their feet. They lurched back and forth as their ison sprinted across the ice plane. There was deep, sharp cracking behind them, and wet cold splashing. "Liam! Father Durant!" Claire cried, and Liam turned. Behind them, Durant's ison trod on broken ice and crashed into the icy water beneath. Liam yanked the reins and turned their ison around. Durant emerged from the freezing water with a gasp as his ison flailed behind him. The ground exploded in front of Risa and Evlein, and their ison reared its legs. Evlein was thrown off its furry back as the floor gave away. The ison's rear legs went in with Evlein as it scrambled at the ice in front with its forepaws. It splashed and floundered, and finally climbed from the freezing pool as Liam leapt from his own ison and sprinted across the cold hard floor. Durant and Evlein flailed their arms in an attempt to stay above the chilling water. At the edge of the solid ice, Liam dropped to his stomach and reached his hand out toward his companions.
"To me! Durant, Evlein, to me!" Durant looked at Liam with eyes with wild blue eyes and began to swim toward him. He grabbed Evlein around the stomach as he dragged his way to Liam's outstretched hand. After what seemed an eternity of Durant towing them through the water, his fingers finally found Liam's, and the boy heaved them from their icy grip with all the strength he could muster. They all fell upon the hard ground together, a great wet mess. Panting, Liam listened for that terrible crackling sound, but heard nothing. The ice had settled, for now.
Durant and Evlein were shivering when Liam stood up. Risa ran to them, hot tears streaming down her face. Durant's ison had disappeared beneath the hard dark ice. The chattering of teeth was audible over the wisp of the wind. "We need to get them warmed," Risa said.
"We need a shelter," Liam agreed. The white ground was flat for miles all around. He knelt beside Evlein. "Can you make us one?"
The young magicker tried to speak, but it came out as a chattering flutter of his lips. Finally he just shook his head.
"We have to get them out of those clothes before they freeze to death," Risa said.
"And cover them back up with what? We've got nothing but a few sacks of thin burlap," Liam argued. "What can we do but push forward."
"Unless we can make it to the Dwarven halls, we'll all die," Liam said bitterly.
Risa pressed her head to closed fists in frustration. "There must be another way!"
"There is no other way. Unless you can conjure shelter like Evlein, or create fire to dry their clothes and warm their bodies."
Liam lifted Durant off the ground and threw his drenched arm over his shoulder. Risa knelt beside Evlein's shivering form. "Come on. We can't stop, or they're done for." Slowly Risa stood and pulled Evlein to his feet. He clung tight to his sister, nuzzling his face into her armpit. Liam helped lift Evlein onto their ison and Risa mounted up behind him. Liam went back to Durant, who clung to the coarse hair of the remaining ison. His teeth chattered sharply when he opened his mouth. "We- we won't make it. We don't have the- the compass. It's lost be-be-beneath the ice. Evlein will freeze…" the sayer was shivering so badly he nearly bit his tongue off as he talked.
"I'll get us there, don't you worry," Liam replied with all the confidence he could muster as he heaved Durant onto the ison. Liam grabbed the reins and pulled the ison along on foot. They gave the icy pond they had created a wide berth. The snow was up to Liam's knees, soaking through his fur boots. Soon his feet were frozen to the bone, and the wind picked up again.
The white landscape rolled across flat planes of slush and over hills of ice for what seemed all eternity. Liam shivered as he tugged the ison along. Risa softly spoke hopeful whispers into Evlein's ear. Liam looked up to Father Durant. The water that soaked his clothes and face had frozen to ice.
"Just a little bit farther, Durant," Liam pleaded. Durant slowly looked at him, with eyes as frozen over as the rest of his body. He gave a lifeless nod and looked forward into the white horizon. As Liam trudged on ahead, he could feel hot tears welling up in his eyes. This is not how it was supposed to be. Durant and Evlein deserved better fates than what the Immortals had handed them.
Liam heard a soft thud behind him and Claire cried out. He turned around and saw Durant in the snow, half buried beneath the white blanket. He dropped the reins and ran towards the sayer. "Durant!" Liam scooped the man in his arms. The tip of his nose was turning blue, and his teeth chattered wildly. Liam wanted to be calm and collected, as Durant had always been in time of crisis. He remembered how the sayer had been when Evlein had begun convulsing. When Liam tried to emulate it now, though, he just shivered harder.
A dark shadow fell upon Liam's forehead. He looked up to see the sun begin to slip behind the horizon. In a few minutes the land would be shrouded in total darkness, the sky covered in dark clouds. What can we do but push on? When Liam asked, no answer came to him. As the light danced away into night, their ison roared. Risa dropped from her ison suddenly. She pulled Evlein from the creature's hairy back and strode over to Liam. "Liam, I need you to make up a shelter. Dig it out from the snow, as deep as you can."
Liam watched her as she strode by him. "What? Why?"
"I have an idea. Claire, help Liam." Risa passed Claire and her ison and began to walk off.
"Where are you going?" Liam yelled after her.
Risa looked back and said with confidence, "To get some fuel." Then she was off, and soon the white swallowed her up.
"She's gone," Claire said, dropped from her mount.
"She's gone mad," Liam said hopelessly. Claire dropped to her knees and began to dig out a hole in the snow. Slowly Liam carried Evlein over and set his shivering body beside Durant. The boy was racked with shakes so violent Liam was worried Evlein may accidently strike him. His clothes were hard now, stiff as stone. Frozen fingers hung from his nose and his coat and his pants. He would not last much longer.
Liam set the sayer and the magicker close beneath the hair of the ison, then went to digging with Claire. They began to dig deep, then started a tunnel to keep out of the elements. It was big enough to fit the four of them when they hear Risa's voice on the wind.
Their heads perked up in unison. "We're here!" They yelled, and Risa followed their voices until she was upon them, her arms full of frozen ison dung.
"What is that?" Liam asked.
"Fuel," Risa said. "We can start a fire, and there should be enough here to keep it going for an hour or so. Once it gets started, we can use some of the supplies we have to sustain it."
"You want to use our supplies?" Liam said.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures. I'll not lose another family member. Not my baby brother."
They crawled into the tunnel, glad for the solace from the wind, cramped as it was. Risa tried to clear away an area in the tiny space for a fire as a question came to Liam's mind for which Risa did not have an answer. "How are we to start the fire?" He asked.
"I do not know," Risa said gravely.
It was then Evlein fell hard on his belly, his face before the fuel, and tried to speak. His teeth stopped chattering just long enough for him to mutter, "Pa…pa…palus."
The fuel was engulfed in flame, and it licked away at the dung like a hungry child at a feast. Though the fire was small, the heat was palpable in the small space and soon the walls began to melt. Soon the smoke filled the snow cave and poured out the entrance. He hoped they had dug deep enough that the roof did not collapse on them. Evlein and Durant huddled close to the fire like moths at a flame.
"We need to get them out of those wet furs," Claire said to Risa, and she was right. Their clothes were still thoroughly soaked. Liam and Claire went up above to give them more room as Risa stripped them of their frozen clothing. The sun was gone now, and the darkness that bathed the land was almost as striking as the silence. The wind had died, and now nothing stirred. They swam in a vast ocean of darkness.
"The darkness is suffocating," Claire said. "No stars, no moon, no light to show us the way. Where do we go from here? Oh, Liam, this is the last thing I ever wanted. I never should have brought any of you along with me. This was my journey to make."
"I would never have let you leave without me, Claire," Liam said to her. "And even now, I know I still would have made the same choice. I always will know that."
"But where do we go now? We've lost the compass, and we have no maps."
Liam shrugged. "I don't know." The darkness danced about them. Liam could feel it tickling his arms. It had been days since his fingers had known warmth.
"Liam, will you pray with me?"
"Of course," Liam answered softly. They bowed their heads together and for a while let the silence sweep over them. The quiet was absolute; never before had Liam heard something so definite. It might have been the surest thing on the planet.
"What do you say to the Immortals?" Claire asked Liam while he was contemplating the silence.
"A lot of stuff," he replied vaguely. "I ask them to watch over everyone in Ridgewood, and to take good care of you and Evlein and Durant and Risa. I thank them for the life I've led and for the skills they've given me. I thank them for my friends and my family. Sometimes I ask them for good fortune, like now."
"Do they answer you?" asked Claire.
"Sometimes. Not tonight, I guess."
"They've always answered me, in some way or another. I always thought I had a special connection with the Immortals. Now I know why," she said, spitting the words. Liam couldn't be sure what caused it, the cold on her lips or the bitterness in her heart. "I've always prayed for you, and my prayers have always been answered before."
"Thank you, Claire."
"Tonight I prayed that you make it to the halls safe and sound, and everyone else too. Do you think the Immortals hear our prayers?"
Liam shut his eyes. "I've always thought they were just too busy to look after everyone." Frost crusted his eyelashes, tickling at his senses. He shivered as a chill washed over him. Beside him, Claire gasped.
"Liam, look! Look at the sky!"
When Liam opened his eyes and looked up, he found a river of light dancing before him. The grey clouds had peeled away to reveal an open night sky, stars shimmering by the thousands. Above it all a cloak of a hundred hues draped across the heavens. It flowed and waved like a flag on a post, shades of blue and green streaking above their heads and weaving into the horizon. It lay in layers, one atop the other like blankets for a cold winter's night. A full moon smiled down on them, veiled in endless green dress. "The roads of the north," Claire whispered. "When one sees such beauty, how can you doubt the power of the Immortals?"
The land was bathed in was in a crisp clean white. The soft plains before them spread out like an endless ocean of calm waters. Together they stood, enveloped in the northern night.
"What is it?" Liam asked in scarcely more than a whisper, worried he might shatter the fragile beauty above him.
"It's a map. A map in the sky. The Angels have shown us the way," Claire said. Her voice was full and warm with joy. They heard a sharp breath behind them as Risa emerged from the tunnel. She stood there beside them, held beneath the spell of the mesmerizing light show.
The ceiling of the snow hole was melting away as Father Durant and Evlein, finally warm again, struggled into their dried clothes. The sight of the shimmering green sky lights took Durant's breath away as they climbed from the tunnel.
The Ridgewood Five followed the emerald path beneath the starry sky over great dunes of snow and immense fields of ice. Durant was saddled behind Risa as Evlein straddled the head of the ison. Liam felt warmth in his bones beneath the glittering ribbon, his spirits and hopes high. Claire squeezed her arms around his belly as their ison swaggered ever onward.
Flowing like a river, the great green seemed to move as they did, never leaving their side as their crossed the deep valleys and the powdery peaks of white. The stars were silver jewels on a curtain of cobalt. Despite the wearing cold, the night was almost peaceful. They came to the foot of a tall mountain. Slowly the ground sloped, a small ascent at first. As they trudged on it scaled up and up, higher and higher, the climb became ever steeper. Soon the ground began to slip beneath their feet, and the ison growled nervously. The snow gave way beneath them, and Liam's ison slid a body's length down the hill before regaining its balance. "The ison will never make it up this hill," Liam growled as he struggled with the reins.
"It will. We're close now. I can feel it," Claire whispered into his shoulder, her breath frosting in the clear night air. Liam drove the reluctant creature forward, slowing closing the ground between them and Risa's ison. Going slowed to a dead crawl as the ison took each stride deliberately. The animals were intimately aware of the delicate situation they were in. One misstep would send them tumbling down the slope. Liam watched with bated breath as each pace brought them closer to the hill's crest.
At the peak they looked beyond and found a mountain that scraped the sky. It was a sheet of grey that made the mountains of Braime look like little mounds of dirt. "That's it," Claire said, the joy palpable in her words.
The descent went much more quickly than the climb, but for the Ridgewood Five it could not go fast enough. As they neared the mountain they could see a hole in the white wall. It was the mouth of an immense tunnel, digging deep into the heart of the mountain. It reminded Liam of the cave he had found in the forest near Ridgewood, many months ago. When they arrived at the foot of the mountain they dismounted the ison and dove into the pitch black of the tunnel. It was so wide and so dark they could not see the walls on either side as they stumbled blindly into the gloom.
"Are you sure this is the way?" Liam said in the dark.
"Did you see any other entrances out there?" Evlein replied hoarsely.
"This is it. I know it. I can feel it," Claire said. After a while a small, dim light appeared at the end of the tunnel. They chased after it, and it grew until what seemed light a small dim light proved to be a dozen torches set on scones around an immense door that stretched to the cavern ceiling. The door was a marbled grey stone, lined with carved, rigid patterns. Faces, ancient faces, decorated the door.
The immense gateway swung open as they neared, pulled open by invisible arms. The ison growled nervously as the doors grated against the floor. Welcoming light poured through the expanding doorway, a soft inviting glow that melted their worries away. A breath of hot air made their numb limbs tingle. Liam had almost forgotten what it felt like to be warm and dry. They stumbled through the doorway, eager to enter the warm oasis before them.
Beyond the stone doors was the most magnificent hall any of the Ridgewood Five had ever stood in. The first thing Liam noticed as he slid off the ison and helped Claire down was the sound of crackling fires, but their eyes were distracted with the resplendence of the Dwarven hall. The cavernous gallery was larger than most farm fields, a thousand paces of milky stone. The whole of the chamber was made from this stone, as if the mountain had been built around the hall. The shimmer of a thousand candles and torches shone from every corner, to the high towering ceiling that seemed to stretch into the sky to the sconces that lined the walls. Further on tables ran the distance of the hall. Looking to the end of the chamber, Liam noticed them for the first time; like men, but smaller, and in many ways much larger. They were short and stocky, and many of them were fat, but they each had a great beard that flowed over their plated chests. They looked up at the Ridgewood Five from over their plates, overflowing with heaps of food. They sat at a table beside an enormous hearth at the far end of the hall, so far away they were but small figures in the distance. Together they stood as the Ridgewood Five walked to them, an action that took some ten minutes to complete.
"Welcome, child," said one of the men at the table. He had a great booming voice and stood at the head of the table. When they stood Liam saw their bearded heads barely reached his chest, but they were clad in splendid armor of gold and crimson. "I am Khur, the Dwarf Lord of the World. These are my brothers, and we welcome you to our halls."
"Lord Khur," Claire curtseyed. Durant and Evlein bowed and had a difficult time getting back up.
"Your companions are not well," Lord Khur noted. His eyes were like molten gold beneath his thick eyebrows.
"They fell through the ice on our trip here. It was not an easy one," Liam said.
"They shall be taken care of, dear boy." The Dwarf Lord motioned two fat fingers and a pair of Dwarves rushed forward. "You shall have food to fill your bellies, seats to rest your feet, and fire to warm your bottoms."
"Thank you, you majesty."
The golden halls passed surreally by as the Ridgewood Five were delivered to a long cushioned bench beside a hearth. They stripped off their outerwear and laid it beside the fire to dry. Then they sat and watched the boisterous activity of the hall. The Dwarves danced and waddled past, passing by as if they simply belonged there. Firelight danced off stone and steel and made the whole room glitter like a dream.
Durant and Evlein were given blankets and set beside the fire to warm themselves. The Dwarves provided them with fresh sets of warm robes. For a while they sat there, drinking in the surreal warmth and slowly coming to terms with what was happening. The Ridgewood Five were in the presence of gods, though most of the gods looked portly, like they had disregarded their duties and eaten enough for them and their mortal children both. Fat spilled over their leather belts or squeezed past their golden armor. From down the hall, Lord Khur called for them in a great booming voice.
"Child, come sup with us! Bring your company!"
Plates of gleaming gold were laid out for them. Stuffed chicken and veal still sizzled as they sat down. Platters of toasted manchet and pumpernickel breads and more cheeses Liam knew existed were arranged around the wide table in a circle around the meats. Bowls of fruit, fat strawberries and ripe apples, exotic yellow fruits that Durant called banans, oranges and tomatoes were set out before each member of their company. For a moment Liam forgot he was in the presence of Immortals and stuff his face, scarfing down anything that was in front of him just as quick as his fingers could grasp it. The food could not enter his mouth fast enough. The succulent meat melted on his tongue, and he washed it down with cool, sweet wine. He looked up for a drink and saw everyone else was doing the same thing. Everyone but Claire, who picked at her food patiently.
"Slow down there, boy, or it will come right back up. You've had a rough journey." Lord Khur smiled at them from beneath his wild white beard. It was braided with beads of gold and silken threads. Liam slowed, but just a bit. When they had eaten their fill, he spoke again. "Now, child, we must speak of things. Your coming here harkens the end of an ear, to fulfill the prophecy of the Fourth Age. But the prophecy also speaks of darkness growing, and we have felt no tremor. We have sensed no rift in the cages that holds the evil at bay. How is it you were brought here?"
"The Angel King Niphus came to us, my king. He spoke to us, and sent us to seek out the Giants, who in turn sent us to you."
"It is curious that I have sensed to disturbance." The Dwarf king stroked his bearded chin. "Yet it is true my siblings Niphus and Aedromina are wise and powerful beyond measure. I fear perhaps my Dwarves have grown complacent and gluttonous, and this has clouded our vision. I shall give you my blessing, then send you on to meet my brother Niphus the King of Angels."
He stood, and Claire stood with him. "Thank you, my lord. You are powerful infinitely powerful and humble."
"Not so, child. We have grown fat." Claire had to kneel so the Dwarf Lord could rest his fingers upon her temple. "But I have the good grace to realize it. There is hope yet." Lord Khur closed his eyes and spoke whispers in an ancient and musical language. Each word was like the note of a song as it slipped from his tongue, hardly loud enough to hear. Then he kissed Claire's forehead and opened his eyes. Claire gave a sudden gasp of air and panted, as if she had become suddenly short of breath. Khur gave a wide grin and shouted. It came so suddenly that they jumped when he called out. "Dolor!" He said in a great booming voice. "Come meet Claire, the one who will throw open the gates and reunite us with our ethereal brethren."
A broad, stocky Dwarf stepped forward from behind a pillar, clad from head to toe in hard green armor. His breastplate hung from his massive shoulders. It swaggered as he marched toward them. He bent a knee to Claire, who was a head and shoulders taller than him when he was standing.
"It is an honor, my lady. I am General Dolor. Rest assured, my lady, when the time comes that the darkness creeps back into the world, my army will be at your disposal, ready to lock away the evil once and for all."
At this point Liam was beyond comprehending what was going on. From the beginning he had not had a strong understanding of Claire's role in the Fourth Prophecy. As far as he knew, Claire was but a key that would open the mortal world to the Angels once again. He might have opened his mouth, but even Liam knew to keep his mouth shut in the presence of gods. Particularly when those gods wore massive warhammers on their backs.
"Your reassuring words warm my heart and do much to lighten the burden on my shoulders," Claire assured him. "And I promise that I will not fail you."
"I know you won't," Dolor replied. "I have but only met you, yet I know already that Niphus chose well. You will do great things."
"Stay and warm your bodies for a while, then I shall show you a great Dwarven secret," Lord Khur told the Ridgewood Five. It will make your return trip much easier."
With that they left the Five at the table. When the Dwarves had left, down into one of the thousands of antechambers, Liam decided to seek clarification. "What did the general mean, his army will be at Claire's disposal?"
Durant and Risa exchanged a glance, which irritated Liam. He had seen the exchange countless times before, when they silently discussed whether to disclose to him some secret that they kept.
"Claire is the chosen child of the Immortals, picked like it says in the Prophecy to unite the Immortals and rekindle their connection with the mortal world."
"I've heard that before. I want to hear everything. What exactly does the prophecy say? What is it you're hiding from me?"
"Did you think it was as simple as making three stops then heading home in time for the harvest?"
"I don't think anything. I've been left in the dark up until now and I want to know what's going on."
Claire hung her head and shut her eyes, and began to speak.
As ice around a pond on a winter morning
The Dark shall creep back into arms of glass
Chains shall break and the earth will quake with no warning
The light warming the day will not come to pass
But that which is broken will be wrought anew
With the heart of the child pure and true
And child shall guide father beneath the blue
And with the dark the night will pass
Everyone looked at Claire for a moment. Then Durant nodded.
"Yes. That is the Fourth Prophecy. So there you have it."
Liam shook his head. "I'm no closer to understanding what it all means than I was before!"
"It means it is the end." Claire's voice was sharp and shaking. "The 'arms of glass' are the mortals, weak and fragile. The light is the Immortals, and they will choose a child who will create a new barrier between the mortal and Immortal worlds."
"I got that too. That's what we're doing."
Claire nodded. "And in order to reconnect the Angels to the mortal world, the child must give her heart."
Liam shook his head. He did not understand. "What does that mean?"
"It means Claire must sacrifice her spirit to bridge the real and the ethereal worlds." Evlein's soft words were hardly more than a whisper. "When the worlds are reconnected, Claire's immortal soul will leave her mortal body."
"She'll die?" The words caught in his mouth even as he asked them aloud. Evlein nodded. Liam looked at Durant, then Risa, and their faces told him the same thing. He could not bring himself to look at Claire. "You all knew? Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"I didn't even want to bring you along," Durant said. "If Claire hadn't insisted you accompany us, you would still be in Ridgewood and we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"He is here nonetheless." Claire snapped at Durant like a whip. "Nothing is going to change that. Nor will anything change the fact that when this is all over, I won't be returning with you to Ridgewood. But this is what I want, Liam, I trust you to respect that."
"It's a lot…" Liam felt his throat tighten. "Is that why you haven't been the same since we left home?"
"The transformation has been a gradual process," Claire said in a soft, gentle voice. "Every night during these past months has gone by without sleep. My body no longer needs it. I no longer need a good night's rest, or food in my belly as a mortal does. It's already begun. It will all be over soon."
"Claire... I can't lose you," Liam's voice cracked as he felt tears tickle at his eyes. "Ever since we were children, it's always been you and me, for as long as I can remember. I can't do it…"
Claire took Liam's hands in hers. She had warmed them with the heat of the fire, and still they felt cold and hard in his. "You will make it though this. You are strong."
"No. I'm not this strong," Liam pulled away from her. From all of them. He stood from the table. "I can't go on any further. This is it. The rest of you can go on, and do what you must, but I can't journey with you knowing I'm escorting you to your death. When we leave, I will go my separate way."
"Liam!" They were up all at once, all except for Father Durant, who sat with a scowl on his face. "Liam, please don't," Claire pleaded. There were tears in her eyes.
"Claire, for the love you bear me, don't make me go through that. I'll not walk you to the executioner's block."
"Stop saying things like that!" Evlein cried. "Don't you think this has been hard enough on her?"
"It's been difficult for us all, Liam," Risa said. "This is something we must do. We all must do."
"No. Not me. I'm done," Liam said, turning away from them. He leaned against the wall, up beside the hearth and stared into the fire. Hot tears dripped down his face, burning his cheeks.
"Liam." When Claire said his name, it took all he had to retain his composure. Voices were
screaming within him. They were angry voices, devastated voices, broken voices, all trying to make their way out. He swallowed them and turned to look Claire in the eyes.
So he did. He looked into those bright blue eyes of hers, leaking from the corners with tears. Then he fell to his knees, and the sobs racked his body. Claire put his arms around him, and they cried a while together. It would not be the last time.