The next day passed in a blur of restfulness. But the day after, preparations for Alex’s sixteenth birthday began. Alex himself stayed well away from the crowds. I found him around midday sitting in a window seat halfway down the servants’ corridor, a book propped up on his knees, juggling a hot bun spread with fresh honey that he had just stolen from the kitchens.
“You know your not meant to eat those until the honey’s had time to soak into the bread,” I commented wondering if it was a trick of the light but Alex looked different from last night somehow.
Alex shrugged and finally deciding the bun was cool enough to hold, took a bite out of it.
I leant against the wall. “Not one for preparations?”
He shook his head and mumbled something unintelligible.
I raised both eyebrows. “What was that?”
Alex swallowed his mouthful with difficulty “I don’t like being the centre of attention,” he explained. “I prefer to be unnoticed.”
“Is that why you’re hiding halfway down the servants’ corridor,” I asked with a short laugh.
“Partly,” Alex replied. “It’s also the only place I can get some peace.”
I nodded to the book in his lap, ”What book is that?”
He held it up so I could see the cover.
“’The Tales and Legends of Alex the First’.” I nodded. “Interesting?”
Alex nodded happily, “Very, its kind of a shame he wasn’t a Ki’miri.”
I raised both eyebrows again. “Really.”
Alex nodded again. “You should read it sometime.” He opened the book and began to read. I shook my head and moved away towards the kitchen.
Brandon and Hawkeye had enjoyed a restful morning wandering round the extensive gardens in the lower levels of the fortress.
“It really is beautiful here.” Hawkeye commented, “I can’t see why Serah feared to come back.”
“I don’t think she feared coming back.” Brandon said, “I think she didn’t want to come back.”
“Why? She seemed to receive a warm welcome.”
“That’s true.” Brandon pointed out, “but didn’t the Queen seem a little… distracted last night.”
Hawkeye nodded, “I didn’t notice it before but now you mention it…” She stopped and shrugged “it might just be the shock of seeing a daughter she thought lost or she still might be suffering from the death of her husband.”
Brandon nodded, “your most likely right but I still can’t shake the felling that things here aren’t as peaceful as they seem.”
Hawkeye looked up at the sound of footsteps. The Queen came out from behind the bushes at the far end of the garden. She approached with a warm smile, “Good morning friends. Did you sleep well?”
Brandon bowed “Very well, thank you. The apartments are very comfortable.”
The Queen nodded, “I was wondering, have you seen Cassius or Dameon this morning.”
Hawkeye shook her head. “I haven’t seen them since breakfast. They left the kitchen with Serah when we entered. She probably knows where they are.”
The Queen nodded, reassured, “Probably. Please,” she gestured to the garden, “will you walk with me?”
Hawkeye and Brandon bowed, “Of course.”
Catarina had spent her morning exploring the crypts below the ground level of the fortress. Exploring a small passageway she had stumbled upon a small group of novice mages practicing their spellcraft. After offering a few pointers she was quickly accepted into their group and spent the next few hours learning about the basis and history of Ki’miri spellcraft.
“So, your belief is that the strength of your magic is connected to the strength of the land?” Catarina asked.
“That’s right.” Rahm nodded affirmative. He was short for a Ki’miri and stocky. Catarina believed he had some dwarf blood in him but knowing how prickly some Ki’miri were about their divided heritage she held her tongue. “We believe that the land and the sea is the source of all life on earth.” He informed her. He was one of the night apprentices, which explained his appearance; bright red eye’s, jet black hair and fur shoot through with white and white wings streaked with red. He was dressed in a black rode with one red and one white sleeve. “The Masters can tap into the Timestream and gain unlimited power but the Queen has forbidden this unless it is a matter of life and death.
“Why would she do that?” Catarina asked.
“Because taping into the Timestream is dangerous.” A new voice spoke up from the back of the room. A tall, hooded figure walked forward. As he passed through the ranks of novices they all dropped to their knees and bowed. The tall figure stopped in front of Catarina and Rahm. He lowered his hood and revealed a face that was lined with age. The hair had once been white but now a dirty greyand they eyes were so faded they seemed colourless.
Rahm dropped to his knees “Master Armin.”
“What did you mean by ‘dangerous’?“ Catarina asked.
“By tapping into the Timestream you are effectively tapping into the life force of every living thing on this planet.” Master Armin explained, “some races like the Thundercats have protection spell’s in place to negate the effects.”
“If you use too much or try too powerful a spell you can end up destroying yourself,” one of the other novices added. Catarina gave her an enquiring glace. She bowed her head. “My apologies, my name is Luka, one of the day apprentices.” She pushed her short white hair back from her face revealing light blue eyes. Her robe was white with one blue sleeve and one gold sleeve.
“What did you mean by ‘destroy yourself’”, Catarina asked.
“By tapping into the life force of all things you also tap in to your own. If the spell you cast is to powerful it will drain the life from you and so in light of this the Queen has ordered that the Timestream be tapped only as a last resort.” Master Armin turned to the students, “Do you mind if Catarina joins us for some training?” he asked.
The students all shook their heads. “Right lets see how the fire spells are progressing.”
Dameon and Cassius were in trouble. After saying goodbye to Serah at breakfast they had set off to the practice courts located on the eighth level of the citadel. They had arrived to find the courts fairly empty, with only two or three Ki’miri practicing archery at the far end. Cassius and Dameon had selected two short practice swords and started to practice.
“How long are we going to stay here?” Cassius asked blocking a lethal side cut.
“As long as Serah stays I stay,” Dameon replied blocking in his turn.
“Is it only me or does anyone else notice that things here aren’t as peaceful as they seem” Cassius asked spinning around to gain extra momentum for a backhand cut.
“Now that you mention it the Queen did seem slightly… distracted last night,” Dameon exclaimed. “Brandon mentioned that to me earlier.”
Suddenly Cassius noticed about five or six Ki’miri coming towards them, all of them carried short swords.
“That is not looking good,” Dameon muttered.
Cassius nodded at attacked with renewed fury.
“What are you doing?” Dameon cried desperately fending him off.
“Move over towards our other weapons,” Cassius directed. “We may need them in a few minutes.”
Dameon and Cassius fought their way over to their own weapons keeping an eye on the approaching Ki’miri. They arrived at the bench where they had left their weapons and throwing aside their practice swords picked up their other weapons. They turned around to see that the small group of Ki’miri had almost reached them.
”Can we help you?” Cassius asked, hands resting on the hilts of his throwing knives.
“You say the Queen seemed distracted?” the closest Ki’miri said.
“Yes,” Dameon replied. “Have you noticed it two?”
The Ki’miri inclined his head. “Yes. But now you know to much and we have to kill you.”
He made a hand gesture to his friends and they surrounded Cassius and Dameon.
“This is a mistake,” Dameon warned bringing his sword up in front of him.
“You have no idea who you’re dealing with,” Cassius cautioned finger’s tightening on his knives.
The Ki’miri facing them smiled, “Oh I think we do.” He attacked with out further warning and his friends followed his lead. Dameon blocked the cut and jabbed his sword forward. A small burst of lightning curled of the end and struck the leaders sword just above the hilt. The blade suddenly vaporised in an explosion of purple mist. The leading Ki’miri didn’t stop but pulled a small knife from his boot and continued the attack.
Cassius meanwhile had disarmed two of his opponents and was in the process of knocking the second one out.He caught his attackers arm and wrenched it forward. The Ki’miri stumbled forward and Cassius slammed him in the head with hilt of his knife.
Dameon blocked two swords at the same time and managed to disarm both his attackers with a powerful twist, sending both blades clattering to the floor. After five minutes of silent fighting only three attackers remained the other having either been knocked out or fled.The leader was still standing although he was now wielding a broadsword with a length to rival Brandon’s. Dameon was unable to get close enough to land any significant blows.
Cassius’s last two opponents were more skilled than the others. One blow had caught him high on the cheek and blood was now running down his face. Cassius caught one opponent on crossed blades and kicked him in the chest sending him tumbling backwards. The second one tacked him, sending him to the floor but Cassius, wolf instincts kicking in, rolled to his feet.
Dameon saw his chance and moved in, blade arcing down, scraping off the floor then moving up. It caught his opponent’s blade and sent it flying. He moved in, cramping the Ki’miri as it tried to reach its dagger. Dameon kneed it in the chest sending the Ki’miri staggering backwards and before it could recover he slammed the flat of his sword into the side of the Ki’miri’s head.
Cassius had succeeded in disarming both of his current opponents and was engaged in fierce close-range hand-to-hand combat. He blocked one Ki’miri’s blow at the same time ducking underneath the second one. He rolled away knocking one of his opponents to the floor. Cassius flipped to his feet, dodged a punch, grabbed the arm behind it and turning, spun around throwing the Ki’miri to the floor. Cassius and Dameon turned ready for another attack but none came. They slowly relaxed.
“What was that all about?” Cassius asked heavily, collecting his discarded knives.
Dameon shrugged bending quickly to pick up one of the fallen knives.He studied the hilt for a few moments before holding it out to Cassius. “What do you make of this?” Dameon asked.
Cassius took the knife from him and studied it. There was nothing unusual about it apart from a small symbol starched into the cross guard. A skull with red eyes and sharp, spiked teeth. Cassius gently ran a finger over the image.
“I know that symbol from somewhere,” Dameon muttered, “I’m sure of it”.
Cassius nodded. “I’ve seen it before. It’s the mark of the Cathrak clan. I saw it eight years ago.”
“But what’s it doing here?” Dameon asked.
“No idea,” Cassius replied, pushing it through his belt and shoving past him, “Let’s find Serah.”