Cestmir had been free of the Blue Assassins for three days. The citizens were no longer tormented by the threat of a legion of murderers watching their every move. A busy buzz had returned to the city as shops reopened, schools were filled, and vitality had been restored to the streets. As he walked with Kadir through the main roads of Cestmir. Cail took joy in seeing the wind of life breathed back into the Ivory City.
“You really intend to leave Kordon?” Kadir asked as they strolled through the streets.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Cail responded. His words were flooded with contrition. He so desperately wanted to return to Elona with Laney, to talk to her, to sit with her, to be in her presence. “The Sages of Pazia will continue their assault on me and those surrounding me until I find a way to kill them.”
Cail stopped a short distance away from the fountain by the city’s gates. Laney was standing by herself in front of the fountain, deeply gazing into the clear water. A cool breeze summoned tiny ripples on the surface, otherwise the fountain was serene. She hadn’t noticed Cail and Kadir’s arrival, so Kadir whispered to Cail, “Have you told her?”
“Not yet,” Cail whispered back. “I haven’t had the heart to.”
“You will though, won’t you?”
“Yes. I suppose there will be no better time than now.” Kadir nodded and headed back into the city as Cail approached Laney. As he walked toward her, his mind froze. He had been consciously awaiting this moment for months, and now that it was finally upon him, he had no idea what to say, no idea what to do. Then she did exactly what Cail wished she hadn’t, she did what he was unprepared for. She turned around. Cail had so many things he could say to her. He could tell her that he was thrilled that she was awake, he could scold her for coming to Cestmir and endangering her own life, or he could tell her that he loved her. With everything that he could say, he was unable to say anything at all.
Her pale eyes were glazed with tears like a winter morning’s frost. Without saying anything, she flung herself into Cail’s arms, hugging him so tightly that it nearly squeezed the breath out of his lunges. With one side of her face pressed against Cail’s chest, she said, “I know I shouldn’t have come here, I know it was reckless, but I couldn’t help myself. It felt like the gods themselves brought me here.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Cail responded. He couldn’t bring himself to be angry with her. “You’re safe now. That’s all that matters.” Laney let go of Cail and cast a bright smile at him, a smile he had not seen in a long time, a smile he had almost forgotten.
“You’re right,” she said lightheartedly. “We’re both safe and now we can return to Elona.” Silence fell on Cail as he dreaded what he was about to tell her. The quietude was contagious and spread to Laney like a disease. She sensed what Cail was about to say, but her mind refused to accept the turn. “You are coming home, aren’t you?”
The words rested on his tongue, clinging to it like an iron chain. He managed to loosen the bond. “I can’t. Serafine needs me to help her return to her home, and I need her to help keep you, and everyone else in Kordon, safe. Evil will continue to peek its head if I don’t do this.”
“I won’t let you go, Cail!” Laney protested, distressed by Cail’s plan of action. “Not after all Kalil put this nation through. Kordon needs you.”
“If I don’t go with Serafine, enemies far worse than Kalil and Barok will surface and invade Kordon.”
“Cail, please don’t go,” Laney pleaded. Her voice shook. Cail could see she was on the verge of breaking into tears.
“This is something I must do,” Cail responded, sternly standing his ground. “Nothing is going to sway my mind. I have to do whatever it takes to stop the Sages of Pazia, to protect Kordon.”
Laney ran away, sobbing. Cail wanted to run after her, but he knew it would do no good. Nothing could change her mind and nothing could change his. He plopped onto the fountain, sitting on the smooth ivory marble. Cail dipped his fingers into the cool water and gently waved his hand around. The water grooved around his fingers, creating a soft current. His ears were soothed by the trickling sound. For just a moment, he had forgotten all about Laney, about the stress he was under, about the weight placed on his shoulders. Their first meeting wasn’t anything like he expected it to be. A glorious reunion filled with happiness and cheer was what he had envisioned in his mind, but reality was much different. In a way, he felt betrayed. Cail had fought valiantly to save Laney and bring her home, he stood by her side every day, waiting for her to wake up, he kept the faith that she would wake up one day. Now, she couldn’t respect his wishes, she couldn’t see what he was trying to do, she couldn’t see that he was trying to protect her. He lost control of his anger and pounded his fist into the water. Cold drops splashed onto his face and cooled his temper. With a sweep of his hand, Cail wiped the water off his face and onto his shirt. He looked up and noticed Serafine looking at him with a sly grin.
“That tends to happen when you try to punch water,” Serafine said with a gentle laugh. She sat down beside Cail. “Things didn’t go over smoothly with Laney?”
“You were listening?” Cail asked.
“Not intentionally. She wasn’t exactly whispering.” Serafine responded. Cail’s face reddened. He was embarrassed that his argument with Laney could be heard by anyone. “You don’t need to worry about her. She’ll come around in time.”
“I’m not sure. She seemed upset,” Cail said, his voice plagued with sadness.
“Trust me. She cares about you. Eventually she’ll see you’re trying to do the right thing.” Serafine rose to her feet and then turned toward Cail. “We have more pressing matters to attend to.”
Cail nodded and stood as well. Serafine walked away, wanting Cail to follow her, but before he did, he stared in the direction that Laney stormed off. The guilt of making her cry shrouded his mind. Part of Cail wanted to run after her, to ask for forgiveness, and to stay with her. It would be easier than what he was about to do. Staying with Laney would solve nothing. Cail thought to himself, and he was right. The Sages of Pazia had empowered Kalil and Barok, enemies he could overcome. How long would it take the Sages to find an enemy who was stronger than Cail? What if they could find an enemy who was powerful enough to trap Kordon in the next age of darkness? Would the immediate satisfaction of being by Laney’s side outweigh the agony that would soon follow? No. Cail knew he was making the right decision, and Laney would simply have to accept that.
“Are you coming or not?” Serafine yelled after realizing Cail was standing idly by the fountain. Cail snapped to his senses and darted to Serafine. Then they left Cestmir on Emey’s back, embarking on their newest venture to the Tower of the Sun.
“How could he do this to me?” Laney blurted out as she plopped onto a thickly cushioned sofa. Kadir and Beda, each sitting in their own luxurious chairs, said nothing during Laney’s outburst of emotion. On the brink of tears, she continued, “With Cail having saved Kordon, I thought he would come home and live a peaceful life. We could return to the days where there wasn’t a world outside of Elona.”
“Laney, those days ended when Cail found the staff in the forest,” Kadir interjected, rising from his chair. “Cail isn’t the same boy that you and I remember. He’s a warrior, a protector. Hiding in his home and pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist would bring his demise. If he hides, the world will find him.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?” Laney asked. She felt hopeless. Ever since she had gone with Cail into Elona’s forest, he had changed. Cail wasn’t the same friend she had grown up knowing. He felt distant from her now, but not for the reasons she expected. While it’s true that he was leaving, that wasn’t the reason she could feel a barrier between them. It was something hidden, something buried beneath the surface. There was no limit to what she would give to have him back.
“Cail risked his life for all of Kordon when he set out to kill Kalil,” Beda said, breaking her silence. “He sacrificed his own comfort and safety so that he could cement the safety of us all. In the same way, we can all do what we can to help Cail. He needs us just as much we need him.” Shame drenched Laney and drowned her selfishness. Cail had given up so much: his home, his family, his friends. What had Laney given back to him? Nothing except for impatience. She wanted to do something to help Cail, anything. What, though? She would be nothing but a crutch, a trap that Cail’s villains could use against him.
“I suppose you’re right,” Laney said to Kadir. “With Elona being safe now, I was hoping that Cail would come home and things would go back to normal.”
“Cail’s world is bigger than Elona now, Laney. I would love to have him at home as much as you would, but that’s something he simply cannot do right now.” Laney said nothing in response. Even though she didn’t want to admit it, she knew Kadir was right. Cail had left, he needed to leave, and there would be no telling when he would return. For the first time, she feared that Cail would never return, that he had been killed by his life. Kadir could see through Laney’s silence; it told him everything he needed to know. Still, he needed to hear it confirmed. He asked, “Laney, do you love Cail?”
Laney was taken back by the question. She was floored that Kadir would ask her. She answered, “Love is a complicated word.”
That wasn’t the answer Kadir was expecting. He didn’t even know how to respond to it. He knew the truth, he knew that her feelings weren’t as complicated as what she had just claimed.
As Emey sailed over the ocean of clouds, her feathers soaked in the warm sunlight. The bright yellow ball looked over Emey like a father looking over his child, offering serenity and peace of mind. Cail peered over the top of Emey’s head and looked out to the immense world of clouds surrounding him. Serafine, being too afraid to look beyond Emey’s wings, tightly clung to Cail and kept her eyes closed like a door. Cold air massaged Cail’s face and he could feel the pressure evaporating from his bones. He felt weightless, unattached to the world around him. For a moment, Cail felt like he was the one who was flying, not Emey. They had to land on several islands on the way, Emey wasn’t accustomed to the additional weight of a second person. The sun was sitting on the horizon by the time they reached the coast of Ijsbrandur. With their source of light waning, Cail decided it would be best to rest for the night. Before they did, he observed the land around him.
The last time he was on this island, it was the home to a foul race of monsters, the zuraks. They had all been killed off along with their leader, Kalil. Visions of the great battle between the zuraks and the Kordonians flashed into Cail’s mind. A plethora of brave men were lost that day, but not in vain; they had paved the way for Kordon to be a free nation, and free it was. The gruesome memories faded when Cail saw the state of the land. Once, Ijsbrandur was a desolate wasteland. Now, the ground was recovering. The dirt, which had been as course as the head of a hammer, was soft and moist, thin emerald blades were beginning to poke through the ground, and the foulness of the air had dissipated. Kalil’s evil had truly died; life was victorious.
“I’m glad we came here,” Cail said to Serafine. She returned an expression that displayed confusion. “I didn’t realize how badly Kalil had suffocated this island. With his death, there is new life.”
Serafine walked toward Cail and said to him, “You should be proud. The gods picked the right person to protect the Nation of the Skies.” The compliment carried immense weight. Serafine wasn’t one to pass out niceties with ease, so Cail knew what he had accomplished was special.
Cail sat on the soft dirt, leaning his back against Emey’s side. “You know quite a lot about my nation, but I know almost nothing about yours. What should I expect in Aithnen?”
“To be honest, it’s hard for me to say. A couple thousand years have passed since I left my home, since the Sages stole the Shadow Stone.” Serafine retrieved the violet rock from her pocket and held it in the palm of her hand. The surface glistened in the dusk sunlight, shining like a fine gem. “I’m just happy I was able to leave Aithnen before the ocean of clouds covered our land, or else you would never know of the land of fire.” Cail was glad as well. He couldn’t imagine living in a world that was trapped beneath a wall of clouds. Some of the people in Aithnen had never seen the sun, had never even known what the sun was.
“How old are you?” Cail asked, amazed that she had been in Kordon ever since Kalil’s rise to power.
“I’m just shy of three thousand years old,” Serafine answered. Cail was baffled by her claim; she didn’t look any older than he was at twenty years old. “The people living in Aithnen look the same as the people you know here in Kordon. The Ignacians, as we’re properly called, were gifted with prolonged lives. Some of our ancient kings lived to be over ten thousand years old. Every race of the world has a different gift.”
“What is the gift that was given to the Dragonfolk?” Cail asked, wanting to learn more about his people.
“How should I know? Kordon isn’t my home,” Serafine snapped back with a short temper. Her attitude was as hot as the fire she could summon. “Aithnen is a vast land, nothing like Kordon. There are no islands or open skies to fly over; it’s an extensive continent with an array of environments.”
Cail tried to imagine a world with an all-encompassing mass of land, but he couldn’t. No matter where his adventures in Kordon had taken him, he had always been surrounded by the clouds. He couldn’t envision a world where there was nothing but land surrounding him, land as far as the eye could see. In a way, it felt constricted. Kordon was a free nation, with open skies surrounding all the inhabitants. Emey could take him to wherever his heart desired. She could fly through the clouds like a fish swimming through the ocean. Then Cail remembered his childhood, the time when all he knew was the island of Elona. There were no other islands surrounding him, just an infinite universe of clouds.
“If the Tower of the Sun will take us to Aithnen, then why haven’t more Aithnenians come to Kordon?” Cail asked.
“Because a lot of Aithnenians don’t even know about the tower, and those who do know can’t enter it. You see, the Tower of the Sun will take us down into the Bodaway Volcano. The volcano is a vicious place, threatening death to those who are weak. Lava and fire fill the volcano like water fills a lake. Only those who possess control over the element of fire can transcend the jagged paths, which is why I can lead us through. Once we’ve made it out of the mountain, we’ll be awaited by the Ash Plateaus, a grueling trek through treacherous cliffs that extend far beyond the volcano’s reach. It will be a three-day venture, if fate treats us well. That will take us to my home, Kye. The city of Kye could be a nation on its own. Sadly, it’s a divided city; split amongst the rich and the poor. Those who hold the wealth care very little for the less fortunate citizens and they possess all the power over those who could strip them of their wealth.”
“How is that possible?” Cail asked, outraged by the injustice in Kye. “Is there no way to talk sense into them, to teach them to care for their brothers and sisters, to show them the joys of compassion?”
“I’m afraid not,” Serafine answered, saddened by the truth of it all. “The wealthy citizens of Kye find contentment and happiness in their riches, not in helping the poor. This frightens me. With the growth of the divide between the affluent and the impoverished, so grows the animosity between the two groups. When I left Kye, the city had yet to reach a state of hostility, but I fear that unless things change, that fate could become inevitable. The two sides are destined to clash.”
“Clash? Do you mean the city will be at war with itself?” Cail asked. Serafine only responded with a silent nod. “We have to do something! The city can’t be allowed to descend into chaos. Surely there’s something that can be done. Your father is the king, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is, but his powers are limited. You see, Aithnen was no stranger to tyrannies in its ancient history. Cruel kings who preyed on their citizens. Because of this, the kings of the four cities of Aithnen were stripped of many of their powers. Now, officials, who are elected by select groups of citizens, pass the laws of the land, which is why the rich have so much control; they control those who control the laws. Even though I don’t like this situation more than you do, it isn’t our top priority,” Serafine said, looking at the rock in her hand. The sun’s light had nearly vanished, so the Shadow Stone wasn’t shining as brightly as before. “Deep in the heart of the city there’s a temple that was home to this stone. We must return it to its rightful place if Kordon and Aithnen are to be united once again.” Cail knew of the temple. He had seen it before. Not in real life, but a dream. Caldir had taken Cail there and showed him the truth about the Shadow Stone; the truth that the Sages of Pazia had stolen it from Aithnen to curse the Domain of Fire, to trap them beneath a ceiling of clouds.
“If our upcoming expedition is anything like you say it is, we better get some rest for the night,” Cail said after a moment of sitting silently in his thoughts. Serafine agreed and she rested her head on the small bag she had packed for the journey.
Cail laid his head back against Emey’s soft side and slowly drifted into peaceful sleep. His rest was peaceful only for a short while, though. From the darkness of his unconsciousness Cail was taken to a dream not unfamiliar to him, the dream containing thousands of corpses lying on the ground. They weren’t the same people he had seen before. New faces laid before him. More people who had suffered, more people who had endured pain and agony, more people who had died. Then Cail the silhouette of someone who was not dead, standing in the distance. This person had the build of a man, a tall, strong one at that. As Cail approached, he realized that the person wasn’t a man at all, but the shadow of one; a dark outline of a treacherous warrior.
“You did well to save Cestmir,” the shadow said, Cail could feel the cold cruelty oozing from his voice. His words bit into Cail’s skin like the fangs of a snake, spreading poison and fear into his mind.
“You’re the Hidden King,” Cail said, piecing together the puzzle in his mind. “You unleashed the Blue Assassins on the Ivory City.”
“Very good,” the shadow replied, letting out a menacing chuckle.
“But, why? What do you have against Cestmir?” Cail inquired.
“It wasn’t Cestmir that I wanted, but you. I wanted you to see what I’m capable of, and now I’ve seen what you can do.”
“Then you should now see I’m no one to trifle with,” Cail said, trying to intimidate his unrecognizable opponent.
“Be careful, Cail,” the shadow said, then he strode even closer to Cail. He was a towering man, his chest level with the top of Cail’s head. “You shouldn’t make enemies when you could make friends. I think you could help me and I could help you.”
“You can help me?” Cail repeated, skeptical of the claim. The same being who was responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of citizens of Cestmir was supposed to be deliver on an empty promise? Despite his skepticism, Cail decided to hear what the Hidden King had to say. “What can you possibly do to help me?”
“Kye will welcome Serafine back with open arms; she is the King’s daughter, after all. You, on the other hand, are an outsider, an alien to Aithnen. The Ignacians can easily sense when a foreigner is amongst them, and they are less than hospitable, to say the least. I can offer you protection as you travel through the streets of Kye.”
“In exchange for what?” Cail asked, knowing there must be a catch.
“All I ask is that you aid me in the quest to rid Kye of all the corruption dwelling within. For too long, the less fortunate have suffered to the blessed. The time has come for justice to be served. That is what you want, isn’t it?” Cail couldn’t deny that he was tempted by the shadow’s offer. He did want there to be justice in Kye, he wanted to be a beacon of hope for all people, he wanted to end the corruption. Still, Cail remembered the suffering that the Hidden King had thrust upon the Cestmirians. Where was the justice in that?
“After everything you did to the innocent lives in Cestmir, there’s nothing you can tell me that I can trust,” Cail responded, staring into the dark face of the shadowed man. “You could just be using me to take the riches from the wealthy and give to you; to do your own selfish bidding.”
“Yes, I suppose I could,” the Hidden King acknowledged. Then he said, “However, once you see the state that Kye is in, it will be evident that I’m telling the truth.” Cail said nothing in response. He had a nagging fear that the Hidden King was right, that Kye was a much darker and crueler city than Cail had ever imagined. Perhaps it was possible that Cail would need protection, but at what cost? What would he have to do to prove his loyalty to the Hidden King? The shadow said to Cail, “Your venture to Kye will be a tenebrous and tumultuous one. You’ll have plenty of time to ponder over what I’ve offered to you. I want you to see the corruption of Kye for yourself. While you’re walking through the city streets, I want to you to think about the repression that has been instilled there and how easy it would be to reverse it if you simply trusted me. When the time is right, I will find you. Make sure you choose wisely.”
The Hidden King’s voice faded and the world around Cail darkened until he could no longer see his own hands. Cail could only hear the thoughts inside his own head, thoughts volleying back forth about what the right decision was. In the blinding darkness, he could find no illumination.
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