They broke through the trees around midday. As the forest began to thin, Pyralis was fully expecting to see the huge gray walls of Esmira looming above them. However, when they stepped out into the open, there was nothing. Well, not strictly nothing, but certainly not what he was looking for. They stood at the edge of a barren field.
“Where is it?” Cian asked.
Pyralis’s face suddenly felt very warm. “Um. Maybe we were going in the wrong direction.”
“I thought you said it was, and I quote, ‘definitely this way’?” Cian asked with a frown.
“I thought it was.” Pyralis stepped forward, farther into the field, but his hopes fell. There was nothing here, so there was no point in walking across the field. He’d only have to turn and walk back. They must have missed it somehow.
Turning, Pyralis looked along the tree-line. He knew it was just at the edge of the forest, because he had seen it from the Guardian’s tower and from the wall before he jumped. Far away, Pyralis saw the lake which he remembered from the tower as well. Esmira should be here, he knew it. But it wasn’t.
Feeling ashamed, Pyralis returned to his group. “Maybe we should just stop here for lunch.”
“I have a confession to make,” Pyralis blurted. Cian quieted as he and Nyx looked at the elf. “I, um, don’t quite know where Esmira is.” There was no reply to this revelation. “The Guardian told me to mark the path I took when I started off, but…Well, I forgot. And now, we apparently can’t find it. It must be enchanted or something,” he said despondently.
Pyralis hung his head, waiting for the inevitable rebuke. He waited for Cian to say he was disappointed in him. He waited for the Black Queen to look at him and let her eyes reveal that he had let them down.
None of that happened.
“It’s okay. We’ll find it,” Cian said. “Let’s just take a break. We can come up with something,” he said, pulling out one of their last loaves of bread. It was stale, but Pyralis didn’t care.
“You mean you’re…You’re not mad at me?” he asked, not quite believing it.
Cian gave a half shrug. “It’s hardly your fault. Besides, even if you had marked the path you took, what good would that have done us? We would have known where you started, but there is every chance we still wouldn’t be able to find Esmira,” he said logically. “At least we’re close.”
Pyralis felt a million pounds lighter. A grin spread across his face, and he felt a sudden surge of affection for Cian. He hadn’t expected the news to be taken so well. Sitting cross-legged on the ground with the others, Pyralis gnawed on his bread, thinking. The Guardian hadn’t said anything about any enchantments, but then again, he was being pretty cryptic.
Idly, Pyralis fingered his necklace and thought of his sister. He was so close to seeing her again, to keeping his promise to come back. He had so much to tell her. Pyralis could imagine Aethia crying when he told her the story of Kane, and leaning forward in excitement as he described their fight from the castle. He smiled absently and his fingers found the ring next to the leaf pendent. Pyralis slipped his finger into the cool metal, wondering where its counterpart was.
And suddenly it was there.
“Look! It’s there! Esmira, it’s right there!” Pyralis said, jumping up and pointing. He wretched his hand out of the ring to gesture for Cian and Nyx to come over, but Esmira disappeared.
“What are you-“
“It was right there…” Pyralis said in disbelief. Nyx gave him a concerned look. What had he been doing a minute ago… The ring. Pyralis slipped the ring back onto his finger and Esmira appeared again. “I can see it when I have the ring on,” he said excitedly.
“Let me see,” Cian said, coming over. He didn’t wait for Pyralis to take the necklace, off, but simply slipped it on his finger. Pyralis’s heart gave an involuntary flutter at Cian’s hand being so close to his chest. Pyralis told it to be quiet. It didn’t listen. Cian’s face was inches from Pyralis’s. Then, Cian gasped. “Those are some impressive walls.”
Pyralis nodded as Cian pulled away. “How are we going to get over?” Cian asked. “I don’t think I can climb with a sword, and there is no way I’m leaving it behind.”
Looking up at the wall, Pyralis said slowly, “How much do you trust me?”
Cian blinked. “Why?”
“Remember I said that I only learned the spells that seemed fun?” he asked. “Well flying was one of them. Of course, it’s only short distances, but I should be able to get up the wall.” Pyralis looked over at him. “The thing is, I’ve never tried casting a spell this difficult on another person before. I mean, in theory it should work…”
Cian thought about this for a moment before nodding. “Well, we don’t really have any other options. I trust you.”
Pyralis bit his lip. “Now to find out if I trust myself,” he muttered. “Would you mind leaving your armor? The lighter you are, the easier this will be.”
“But I can keep my sword?” Cian asked.
Pyralis nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Cian unstrapped his armor and let the heavy metal plates fall to the ground. Beneath them, he wore a simple black tunic and pants, much slimmer than the bulky armor. Pyralis could see the muscles beneath his shirt. He looked away.
“Okay, ready?” Pyralis asked as they stepped over to the edge of the wall. Pyralis had the ring on, so Cian was flying blind. Cian gave a stiff nod. Pyralis extended his arms, his palms facing Cian and incanted, “Vivinare ascendare olna esta calvacare.” Slowly, Pyralis guided his palms upwards and Cian rose off of the ground. He repeated the same string of words over and over again.
Cian was maybe ten feet up when the spell broke.
He came crashing to the ground, and Pyralis and Nyx ran over in horror. “Oh my- I’m so sorry! Cian, are you okay?” Pyralis asked, panic filling his chest.
Cian groaned, “I’m alright.”
Sliding a hand behind his back, Pyralis helped Cian into a sitting position. “Are you sure? I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that it could only go so far away from me.”
Waving a hand, Cian replied, “It’s okay. I’m alright. That’ll be sore in the morning, but I’m okay.”
Pyralis nodded in relief. “I think what we’re going to have to do is go in trips. I’ll fly with one of you up, then come back down for the other.” Cian and Nyx looked at him expectantly. “Do you still trust me?”
They nodded. Pyralis wouldn’t trust himself after this. They were either very brave or very desperate. “Okay…who first?”
Cian and Nyx looked at each other, and Nyx stepped forward. Cian nodded gratefully. “Not that I don’t trust you, Pyralis, but I think I’ll be glad for a few minutes to rest.”
Pyralis nodded, throat tight. “I understand.” He offered his hand to Nyx. She stepped forward and they embraced, her hands encircling his neck and holding on tightly. Pyralis put one arm behind her back and had the other facing the ground as he incanted again, “Vivinare ascendare olna esta calvacare.”
They rose, slowly at first, and then quicker as he started talking faster. Pyralis could see the edge of the wall coming up and slowed down, tilting his hand a little so that they were pushed onto the ledge. Pyralis balanced himself quickly, but Nyx teetered dangerously. Pyralis steadied her. “Stay still if you can,” he said. He took her hands and showed her the edge of the ledge, since she couldn’t see it. “That’s how much room you have. I’ll be back in a minute with Cian.”
Muttering the enchantment for gliding, Pyralis spread his arms and jumped off the wall, having a brief sense of deja vu. He landed easily and walked over to Cian. “Your turn,” he said, trying to force down his nervousness.
Cian nodded and stepped up. They embraced in the same way that Pyralis had with Nyx, and Pyralis was dearly hoping Cian couldn’t feel how fast his heart was beating or how warm he had just gotten. Stop it, he told himself. Whatever this was, it wasn’t the time.
They soared upwards, all the way to the edge of the wall where the Black Queen sat. Pyralis and Cian landed easily. Cian looked over Pyralis’s shoulder and his eyes grew wide. “Woah.”
“You can see it now?” Pyralis asked in surprise.
Cian nodded. “Yes. It’s…not what I was expecting.” Nyx nodded fervently in agreement. “It’s very gray.”
Pyralis shrugged. “No beauty, remember? The only spell that can help us get down is a gliding spell, so it’ll probably be best if we do the same thing. One at a time, you can hang onto my back.”
They nodded. Cian gestured for Nyx to go first and she grasped Pyralis’s shoulders. They glided down together, and Pyralis set her gently on the ground. She gave him a smile and a nod of thanks. After he flew back up and brought Cian down as well, Pyralis began to grow nervous. He was home, but he had no reason to expect that he’d be welcomed back.
It was only seconds before someone came around the corner, looking into the alley which led to the wall in front of which the trio were standing. Pyralis recognized the man as Heath, the blacksmith, but before he could call out, Heath had gone pale and hurried off. Pyralis frowned. After a moment, a woman passed, glancing down the alley. When she saw them there, she cried out, shielding her eyes and running off.
“I think they’re afraid of you,” Pyralis said to Nyx, cutting Cian off. He gave a weak chuckle. “I guess you’re too pretty.”
Nyx looked worried. She held her hands up helplessly, as if asking, What do I do?
Pyralis thought quickly. “Come with me. I know a spot where you can hide while I get you a disguise. Then we’ll go see the Guardian and take it from there.”
Nyx nodded gratefully, and she and Cian followed as Pyralis led the way, hugging the walls. They moved briskly, making their way around part of the city until the castle at the far end came into full view. There were people flowing in and out, but no one noticed as Pyralis and the others slipped around back into the little grove.
Pyralis held his breath as he rounded the last corner, hoping that he would find who he was looking for there. She was.
“Pyralis!” Aethia cried, flinging herself at him from the bench on which she sat. “Pyralis! You came back!”
Pyralis grinned into her hair as they hugged. “Aethia! I’ve missed you so much.”
Still smiling, Aethia pulled back and looked at him, then finally noticed the people following, watching curiously. Pyralis took Aethia’s hand and turned around, introducing, “Aethia, these are my friends, Sir Cian and Nyx, the Black Queen. Cian, Nyx, this is my sister Aethia.”
Something flickered over Cian’s face as he stepped forward and offered his hand politely. “It is a pleasure.”
Aethia blushed, “The pleasure is mine.” They shook hands, and Cian stepped back. Nyx took his place, silently offering her hand. They smiled at each other and shook. Pyralis didn’t say anything about her not speaking. This wasn’t the time.
“Aethia, do you have a cloak that Nyx could borrow?” Pyralis asked. “Her looks are making some people nervous.”
“Oh, of course. Give me just a moment,” she said, disappearing into the castle, her steps light and quick.
Pyralis turned to the others with a grin. “We’re almost there.”
Naida started walking in a random direction, trying not to look conspicuous. She kept her eyes on her feet as she walked, not making eye contact with anyone she passed. Shuffling her feet, she hoped her limp was hidden.
“Good morning!” she heard someone call, but didn’t know if it was directed at her. Naida ignored it and kept walking, her heart racing. What would they do if they found her, knowing she didn’t belong? What was this place?
A sharp cry from a woman a little ways down the street made Naida’s head snap up at last. The woman covered her eyes, then ran off, dropping one of the cloths she was carrying. She didn’t stop to pick it up. Naida frowned. She shouldn’t worry about it, she should keep walking. It wasn’t her place to pry, but still curiosity got the better of her.
Naida jogged forward, slowing just before she reached the alleyway where the woman had been looking. She peeked cautiously around the corner and then drew back, heart picking up speed. Blinking a few times, Naida looked again. Perhaps she had been imagining things. Maybe there was something in those cakes, or that water that was causing her to hallucinate. Peeking around the corner, there was no mistake.
It was the elf, the knight and a woman in black, all looking worried. The elf gestured for the others to follow and took off down the length of the wall. Naida didn’t think; the choice was clear. She took off after them, darting down the alley and looking around the corner. They seemed to be following the wall.
Naida sprinted from alley to alley, checking first to make sure they hadn’t turned around or stopped before running to the next one. She couldn’t believe that they were here. What were the odds? Even so, this left her with another dilemma: did she really want to kill Cian? It felt like the dread had settled upon her chest once more with its crushing weight. Before that moment, Naida hadn’t realized just how good the relief of having the decision taken out of her hands had felt.
The elf led the group around one last corner and they disappeared from view. Naida crept closer, keeping low. She heard voices, but couldn’t tell what they were saying. She waited a few moments, and they died down. Naida shuffled over to a large bush and peeked through its leaves.
The elf was leaning back on a bench, his eyes closed. His bow lay on the ground next to him. The woman in black stood awkwardly at one side of the clearing, a little separated from the group. She had a stick strapped to her back, and two daggers in her sash. The knight stood closest to Naida, with his back to her. His armor was gone, but his sword remained.
Now was the moment to decide. Naida had her mace. If she moved quickly, she could take them off guard and possibly even survive. She could kill them all and then escape back into the tunnels, maybe try to find a way out from there.
It all came down to whether or not she wanted to kill them.