The Return

Neither of us can remember when she started sleeping in my chambers, in my bed. Only that one night, a few months after I had freed her, she had slipped under the covers with nary a word, and curled up against my side. I remember that first night like a still photograph: Auburn hair spilling across the pillow, her bare leg over mine.

All we have done is sleep, with no compulsion for more. It’s comfortable. Comforting in its routine, despite the unusualness of her schedule; every night like clockwork Rhea comes, both our duties done for the day. She sleeps, wakes at 2am to draw or walk or get some air on the balcony, then comes to bed again. Sometimes I join her when she wakes. Sometimes we talk of what troubles us.

I have never questioned why she started to join my bed, and she has never explained. Neither of us has felt the need; it feels the most natural thing in the world. Even on hot nights, our combined body heat adding to the sweat on our skin, we lie pressed together.

It’s 2am. We’re both awake, this time, merely lying in bed. I’m savoring my last night with her, before having to leave for the Academy. Despite graduating years ago, most of us have been called back. An evil is coming; we’ve all felt it. And when the Academy headmaster’s sister turns up, long-presumed dead, claiming to have been buried in ice, we all know that the academy will be the center of it all. Again.

I’m showing her a picture from an older time, one of the few happy memories from the Academy, her chin tucked into my shoulder from behind. Then, with a suddenness that chills, she pulls away. I turn to follow, facing her as she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. There’s things we must learn, and relearn, if we’re going to be ready. Especially against an unseen force where we don’t know what to expect.”

In the silence that follows, I add quietly. “I worry that I am woefully unprepared. I haven’t used magic in years. Not since the last battle. It hurt too much, angered me too much. I had hoped I would not have to again.”

She makes a small noise of understanding. I’ve always liked that about her; she doesn’t waste time on empty words. She understands, and knows that I know she does. “I’m scared for you,” she admits. “I did not know you then. But I have heard the stories of what you had to go through, to defeat him. And what will your kingdom do while you’re gone?”

I turn onto my back, staring at the ceiling also. “I’ve trained my Council well enough for them to run this place as I would. Thinking on it now, how important it has been for me to be replaceable as Queen, I wonder if I didn’t always know there’d be a time I’d have to leave my people.”

She reaches out and clutches my hand, our fingers intertwining. “So long as you come back.”

I squeeze gently, and we give way to what little sleep is left to us.

In the morning, the sun barely risen, I stand with my pack and stare at her sleeping form for a few moments longer. It remained unsaid last night, as most things between us do, how much I would miss her. How much, despite being no better a fighter or magician, she made me feel safe.

Tucking her in as she lies curled up on her side, I brush her hair back and press my lips to her cheek. She stirs, and I whisper, “I’ll be back soon.”

Nodding, eyes still closed, she whispers back, “You’d better.”

************

The Academy looks so different to how I remember it, it’s almost jarring. Of course, I didn’t expect them to rebuild it all to be exactly the same as before, but neither did I expect it to look so… modern. More like a college campus than the castle it once was.

As I stare at it, watching new students and old rush by, I try to examine how I feel. All I can sense is empty resignation at having to return. This place, once so important and special to me, now holds more bad memories than good. I do not mourn its changed architecture, but neither does the new look help me forget what went on here. The lives lost. The near-death experiences. And, as the small, childish part of me remembers, the friends and classmates who grew resentful of me despite themselves, associating me with all the terrible things I found myself at the center of. I couldn’t blame them.

And now it’s going to happen all over again. You know it will.

With a sigh, I shoulder my pack and walk into the throng, keeping my head down. A few do recognize me and greet me with enthusiasm, comfortably using my first name. I had forgotten how much I missed being on an equal footing with those around me. Here, royals and non- mixed freely; caste and status means nothing, only the bonds forged by learning to wield magic together.

I find myself starting to relax just a little. Evil cloud or no, it is nice to see old friends.

*************

I knew the headmaster loved his sister, but to not be suspicious of her return feels like folly.

Staring at her as she addresses the school, naming herself as personally taking over our continued education, I can’t help but feel a dark sense of foreboding.

Looking around me, however, it doesn’t seem that anyone else shares my concerns. Everyone else looks enthralled by her, and for good reason. Arla is beautiful in her green robes, hair pulled back and still as black as the day she disappeared. Only her face shows any signs of age, a few wrinkles lining the corners of her mouth and under her dark eyes. Despite not being very tall, she commands the room with ease. Too much ease. Who recovers that quickly from being missing, supposedly imprisoned in ice, for almost a decade?

Only Paige, the young professor who teaches healing, seems as unconvinced as I am. Our eyes meet from where she stands on the dais with the rest of the faculty. I glance at Arla, then back at her, asking a question. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly. Good. I have an ally after all.

***************

“This is an insane plan.” I glare at Paige, and she glares back defiantly.

While far younger than most of the faculty, she is still a few years older than me, and has not hesitated to use that marginally extra experience against me over the course of the past few months. “I’m sorry, but are you the one who spent their whole lives studying magic, including spending the last five years specifically on transformation? Moreover, do you have any better ideas, Your Majesty?”

That’s another thing she does. Refers to me by title when she feels I’m being particularly stubborn. “Positively queenly,” she once said. I nearly punched her, professor or not.

Despite it all, however, she has been an invaluable, being pretty much the only person in this entire academy who hasn’t fallen for Arla’s charm, who sees that there’s something sinister lurking beneath. And, much as I want to argue, I have to admit I have no better ideas for proving it.

I take a deep breath, exhaling long and slow. “Fine. Tell me why you think transforming me into a child is relevant. I’ll listen better this time.”

Paige nods, satisfied. “We’ve been taking turns following Arla for months, but she’s careful. Lord knows what she does when she enters the older parts of the academy. I’ve never been good at time magic, so neither of us have been able to follow her there.”

“I know all this.”

“Shut up and listen, I’m walking you through my logic,” Paige snaps.

I hold up my hands in surrender.

“As I was saying, neither of us can follow her there, but we know that every time she comes back something dark follows.”

I nod, encouraging her to go on. Even the others seem on edge after those visits, and we’ve all seen the shadows that flit across some of the classrooms during lessons.

I remember all too well the last time. The entire academy had shifted, students rushing out into the hallway in fear. I could see flashes of the old castle, fighting with the new. Professor Andrea, curls whipped back from her face and dark skin gleaming, turned on her sight. Her eyes shone like torchlights, and panicked students hushed in awe. I stared, too. It had been a long time since she had had to use it.

“The remnants of the old structure is trying to pull itself back into this time. It won’t succeed, but we need to find a section that is completely new and wait it out. Follow me!”

We had followed, walls shuddering and dust falling on us, dodging as debris fell from particularly nasty quakes. Andrea guided us into the auditorium of a new wing of the academy, and there we waited. But I could not settle. Something felt terribly wrong, something bad was going to happen. I had to speak.

“We can’t stay here. Andrea, I know your abilities, we have fought together, I trust it, but this still feels wrong.” I saw the faces of old schoolmates, their doubt creeping back in. Ten years ago all over again. I had raised my voice, then. “I KNOW, OKAY? I’M NOT TRYING TO MAKE THIS ABOUT ME. THIS ISN’T SOME ‘OH HARRY POTTER HAS TO BE THE CENTER OF IT ALL’ ROWLING-ESQUE DRAMA. I MEAN IT, WE NEED TO GET OUT.”

I ran out into the courtyard then, not caring anymore who followed. Let them perish. But they did follow, slow but steady. And just as the last of us had stepped foot onto the lawn, one final quake rippled across the entire academy, old and new, and the wing we were just in lay destroyed.

Not many people spoke to me after that. I couldn’t blame them. And still, no one suspected Arla as having had anything to do with it all. How could they be so blind?

I snap myself back to the present. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”

Paige sighs. “I was saying that what we DO know is she’s also been going into the villages to speak to the children. She claims it’s because she can no longer have any; the tortures that the Dark One put her through made sure of it. Which is terrible if true, but you and I know better.

“She needs them for something, and I just overheard her talking in the faculty lounge about wanting to arrange a field trip for the kids. Rent a bus, give them a tour of the academy, see which ones show a proclivity for magic. They all think it’s a marvelous idea, of course,” Paige comments in disgust. “But it does give us an opportunity. Those kids are in danger and we’re the only two that know it. If we can sneak you on board, you can figure out what she’s planning and protect them at the same time.”

I go over it in my mind. “…That. isn’t as insane as I initially assumed.”

She smirks, and I almost regret the compliment.

********************

I miss Rhea.

The thought pulses with a suddenness that aches, my heart echoing the throb. The feeling has been constant since I left, but the clarity of the emotion comes now that I know I am risking my life. For the good of the world, I argue to her disapproving stare in my mind’s eye. For you.

Powers are diminished in a transformed state. And when that transformed state happens to be a 12-year-old, I don’t have much by way of physical strength either. All I have, aside from weakened powers that won’t do much in a fight with Arla, is my knife, tucked into my boot and the charm on my wrist that blocks any spells.

So clambering onto this minibus with the other children, Arla sickeningly sweet in her cooing us aboard, I can’t help but wonder if it’ll work. If I can stop her from unleashing whatever she has been trying to for the past year.

Paige remains hidden, ready to follow us and seek help should I fail. Her skills with transformation are admittedly remarkable – I barely recognized myself in the mirror – but she is still only a healer, not a fighter. I wish we had taken the time to convince more people to join us, but it was too much of a risk. With so many under her charm, no one could be trusted.

I sit myself at the front, just behind the driver, and look around at the other children. There’s about 15 of us in all, varying ages from 8 to 12. They seem curious, but not necessarily excited. I wonder if they’ve been enchanted to make them more pliable, or if they’re simply trying to be polite to a strange old lady who wants to be nice to them. And where are their parents in all this? Are they all orphans?

“Now, children!” Arla calls, smiling gleefully at the front of the bus. “We’re going on an exciting adventure today. You’re all going to help me save my friend, using magic! Doesn’t that sound fun?”

My hair stands on end, because suddenly it all makes sense. That’s what she wants: to bring him back. She was never missing. She was mourning. Planning a resurrection, pulling the Dark One out of time. And that took sacrifice. My stomach roils. These kids are going straight to their deaths. How could she be willing to do this? When did she turn? Was she always on his side, or did the corruption slowly happen during the war?

It doesn’t matter. I have to stop her, now. If we’re going back to when the castle was whole, to when the Dark One reigned, Paige will not be able to follow, and I will not be able to find my way back. Damn time magic; the one thing I never got the chance to learn.

Stealth and the element of surprise are the only things I have in my favor. Arla is powerful; if I attack her outright I will be dead in seconds. But if I can cast a stunning spell before she has time to react…

I’m running out of time. The gates to the old courtyard are fast approaching. By now, Paige must realize where – and when – we’re going.

Arla’s eyes flick down to me, and she seats herself beside me. “I don’t remember you, little one,” she murmurs, suspicious. “Where did you come from?”

Now or never.

With all the force I can muster, I blast the stunning spell right at her face. She falls backward, knocked out. But I know it won’t be for long.

The children are getting unsettled. I was right, they had been enchanted, and now that Arla is unconscious the link is broken. Cries of “Where are we?” and “Where’s my mom?” start to echo.

I leap onto the seat and try to sound as adult as I can. I can’t undo the transformation spell without significantly draining my powers, and there’s no time to lose. The bus is still making its way towards the courtyard, the driver undeterred. His must have been a stronger spell. “Kids, please stay calm, okay? We’re gonna get you out of here and back home in no time!”

Without sparing too much of a glance backward, I crawl over the barrier to the front and shake the driver. “Pull over!” As expected, nothing. His eyes are glazed, hands tight on the steering wheel. I can’t move him.

I can see a shimmer in the horizon. The Dark One knows we’re coming, and he’s using whatever abilities he has to hold the time portal open. So Arla was never in control of that.

I growl in frustration and unsheathe my knife, grabbing the driver’s head and turning him to face me. Using everything I have, I channel my magic into him, “You will stop this car or, may God forgive me, I will slit your throat.” I don’t want to do it. But it’s one life in exchange for the world… Maybe I can revive him after.

No. No more sacrifices. Not again, not like last time. I give it everything I have, feeling it working through the spell Arla cast, sweat dripping.

“W-wha-“

“No time! Stop the fucking van!”

The brakes screech, but we’re still too close. The portal is pulling us in. “Reverse it!”

In the back, the children are screaming. I look back, “Hold on!”

The driver puts the bus in reverse and guns it backward, turning us around and rushing back towards main campus.

Barely made it.

I spend the rest of the ride sitting on Arla’s chest, my knife on her throat, struggling to stay conscious. She does not wake until we’re already on campus, and by then Paige is rushing forward with the cavalry. Arla is bound, the headmaster openly weeping when he realizes what she was trying to do.

The children clamber out and are rushed inside to be checked on, fed, and reunited with their parents.

I stay on the bus, too exhausted to move or speak. No one bothers me. Some are too ashamed of doubting me a second time. Some are too scared. I don’t mind. Outside is all chaos, and on the bus at least, things are quiet.

Then Paige is in front of me. She grabs my hand, pulling me along past the rush of students, medics, and professors. Clicking open a hidden door that leads to the private faculty housing, she pulls me in and frantically pushes the button for the elevator.

Only once we’re inside does she undo my transformation, and then she wraps her arms around me, sobbing. I hug her close.

****************

It’s not over. There’s much cleansing that the academy will need to eradicate the remnants of the Dark One’s influence, but my role is fulfilled.

I invite Paige to my kingdom one day. She and Rhea would like each other, I know that immediately. She smiles, and accepts.

Then I go home.

It’s late by the time I arrive, and I’m happy to see Rhea has continued to sleep in my bed while I’ve been away. I walk over to her side, touch her arm softly. “I’m back.”

Her eyes flutter open, and when she sees me, she clambers to her feet and hugs me tight, tucking my head into her shoulder. I hold on tighter, face burrowing into her hair.

Then, stepping back, I take her in. She’s wearing the same light nightdress she wore the first time she came to my room, all those months ago. The moonlight from the open balcony shines on her hair, glimmers in her eyes.

Wonderingly, I ask aloud, “Why have I never kissed you?”

Rhea blushes. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve seen her shy, flustered. But then she looks at me and smiles the warmest smile. “Because you wanted me to know I always had a choice. That I would never be forced again.”

I nod. “That was stupid. You already knew that.”

She laughs, pressing closer and cupping my face. “Yes, I did.”

I stare up at her. “So what do you choose now?”

“You.”

She kisses me, soft, and we fall into bed.

Read the prequel: The Academy.

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