The Gate shimmered. It looked like a sheet of rippling, molten glass filled with light. The smells and sounds of Phil's farm seemed close by, and for a moment Steve was tempted to step through the Gate himself, back to the place where everything was safe and familiar.
A faerie landed on his shoulder. She kissed him on the tip of his ear, and he was reminded of why he couldn't leave Arcadia. For certain, if he practiced, he could learn to disguise himself... but that wouldn't change who or what he really was.
The rumble of Morgan's motorcycle and the El Camino's engines drew the attention of curious faeries, who flitted through the trees, giggling. It was early morning, and the sun was just beginning to rise.
Steve smiled slightly at the sight of Emperor Phil, smoking a cigarette and still carrying around his rifle. Lord Celbrimor had given him an actual crown to replace the one he'd lost in the battle, a circlet made of real gold. Slappy and Tourettes heaved a wooden chest into the back of the El Camino, which was packed with as much as it could carry. The Great Wyrm had incinerated Phil's truck and Slappy's camper had lost two tires and run out of gas. It sat at the gates of Castle Celbrimor, a curious monument to the battle that had been fought there.
Though Lucrezia had broken her arm and some of the other members of Clan Havoc were still recovering from their wounds, everyone had survived. They seemed in high spirits as they prepared to return home. Steve suspected that it was because he'd insisted that they be properly rewarded with actual treasure, something none of them had ever seen before, except behind glass at a museum.
Steve had given his own mithril shirt to Alexi. Hraesughar had promised him armor from his horde, which he did not doubt would be even better than the suit he'd borrowed from Lord Celbrimor.
The old dragon stood off to the side. He watched the Gate as Steve say his goodbyes.
"Take care, buddy," Booger Joe gave him a hug.
Steve sighed, hugging Kit, Bryce, and even Morgan. He stopped at the foot of the Gate and watched them all pass through it. Then he turned to Alexi.
"Please tell me I'll see you again," Alexi whispered.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Steve replied.
Everyone else was already gone, back to the world of nine-to-five jobs, fast food, cars, and weekend games where battles were settled with dice or safe, padded weapons. As much as the thought of never seeing his mother again stung him, Steve was shocked by the sudden realization that Alexi's departure was tearing a huge, gaping hole in his heart. "I'll never forget you. Never. Not even if I live a thousand years."
"I love you, Steve," Alexi said. "Like in the stupidest, worst possible way."
"I know," Steve nodded.
The Gate closed between them.
Prince Sedryn fell to his knees. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He wiped his face on his cloak. He was alone, except for Hraesughar, and he wasn't going to pretend to be invincible. The old dragon nudged him.
"They are coming," he whispered. "It is time."
Horses and riders melted out of the mist. In the lead was Aeluin. Tarya was riding some distance behind him, with several soldiers in plate mail. They wore tabards Sedryn knew that he hadn't seen before. Of course, Arcadia was much larger than just the lands of the Sidhe. He'd seen very little of it so far, and there was much more for him to learn.
"Six of the Nine Clans await you, Lhug Naeremar," Aeluin bowed.
Sedryn slowly stood. He took the reins of his own horse and climbed into the saddle. It was as strange being part of the procession, guided by faeries and floating will-o-wisps. He remembered the first time he had seen Sidhe riders, how beautiful and ethereal they had appeared. A faerie landed on his shoulder and offered him a blackberry.
He smiled. The procession came to a stop at the gates of Castle Celbrimor.
Sedryn started to dismount, but Aeluin stopped him. Still riding, he entered the castle courtyard and stared out across the sea of faces, humans, orcs, Anim, and Sidhe, all eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of him. Although the Great Wyrm was dead, the war was not over. In many ways it had only just begun.
The air was suddenly filled with the sound of trumpets. The lords of the Three Clans bowed, and the gathered crowd did the same. Sedryn smiled at the sight of thebruised and bandaged Lhugryn all waiting with their bows and blades, looking as heroic as the knights of the round table.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" The herald called out. "The Clans of Arcadia have been called together. Five Clans have come."
"Six," Tarya corrected.
Steve smiled slightly. Tarya, Aeluin, several orcs, some of the Anim, and at least a dozen faeries were wearing sashes of red and gold. An old man that Steve did not recognize was also standing with them. He held something wrapped in white silk, and he had a strangely familiar smile on his face.
"The Great Clan Lhugaren," the old man announced. "Is restored. We swear fealty to Sedryn, son of Agarwaen."
"As does Clan Gwethrin," Lord Gwethrin nodded.
"Clan Dunhir does so swear," Lady Dunhir agreed.
"Clan Celbrimor declares fealty," Lord Celbrimor replied.
"On behalf of Clan Cadha, I do swear fealty," Bristletooth bowed.
"The Lhugryn swear fealty," Captain Elric nodded.
Several of the Anim shoved Geron Venn out of the crowd. He cleared his throat. "Anim do not normally swear fealty. Landless, we are. We mean nothing. But Clan Lhugaren is landless too. And perhaps for them, our nothing will become something. So, for what it is worth, we so swear."
One of the strangers in plate armor stepped forward. He placed his shield, with the charge of white owl on the ground. "The Great Clan Valen swears fealty to the rightful king of all Arcadia. The lords of the lands of Frost extend their welcome to the son of Elena. They hope he will visit his mother's home in the days to come, and that peace can be achieved throughout our realm."
"All of those present are in accord," the old man announced.
"Archwizard?" Lord Celbrimor turned to the old man. "Sedryn?"
"Come forward," the old man ordered. "Kneel."
Steve knelt down in front of the old man, but it was not until the stranger touched his shoulder that he realized his eyes did not match. One was yellow, and one was silver.
"Hraesughar?" He hissed.
Had the dragon taken human form? The Great Wyrm had masqueraded as Lord Dunhir from the very beginning, but could all dragons appear however they chose? If that was possible, he realized, there could be some truth to the rumors of Agarwaen's dragon blood. Did anyone else know? No one looked very nervous, which made him suspect that they did not realize that an ancient, somewhat insane dragon was pretending to be a wizard.
Or was Hraesugharactually the Archwizard? Maybe it wasn't a ruse at all. Such a profession seemed like a good way for an ancient and powerful dragon to hide from the Lhugryn, other dragons, and anyone else he wanted to avoid.
Hraesughar winked. "Sedryn Lhuagren, son of Agarwaen. You have the blessing of the Clans of Arcadia. They have placed their trust in you, and that is no small thing. They have also agreed that a change of colors is in order."
Hraesughar gestured to Lord Celbrimor, and in a sparkle of arcane light, the banners of the castle changed from Celbrimor's green elder tree to Clan Lhugaren's gold and red with the charge of a white dragon.
"Lhug Naeremar! Lhug Naeremar!" The orcs chanted.
Hraesughar silenced them. "No. Lhug Naeremar died on the battlefield with Ciwaldyr. If this man is brave enough to accept the fealty offered to him, he shall have a new title, one which he has earned through word and deed. Do you, Sedryn, swear to uphold the laws of Arcadia? Will you fight with honor to defend the weak, and rule always with wisdom and mercy?"
It was an enormous vow he was making, and Sedryn did not take such a thing lightly.
"I swear," he said.
Hraesughar placed a weight on his head. It was metal, but not at all cold, and he did not have to see it to know what it was.
"Then rise," he said. "King of Arcadia."