Chapter Four (Fires in the Hearth)

By Darrell Walker

"Sir Aerinn."

Aerinn turned to the servant who had run up to him in the hall. "What is it?"

"The Lady Cassandra requests your company, my lord."

Aerinn sighed. He'd been avoiding Cassandra for the past couple of days. She'd seemed rather upset about the core incident and even more displeased at his lack of answers. He had decided out of sight, out of mind would be his best tactic. Now she wanted to see him. "Thank you," Aerinn dismissed the servant, who left to perform other duties. He wandered the Resonant's halls, his brain turning in circles.

Leaving the freehold hadn't turned out to be as simple an affair as Aerinn had hoped. It seemed they were still going to hold him to their stupid year-and-a-day. Aerinn had tried to explain to them that the human mind was undoubtedly quicker than it had been 600 years ago. His reasonable suggestion that they consider renovating the out-dated system had been met with sputtering outrage. Cassandra had driven him from her presence, her face hot with indignation.

After that Aerinn hadn’t dared bring up the subject of leaving. He continued to learn the history of House Fiona, which Aerinn found ironic because Fiona was a Seelie House. He also continued training with Marcus and was learning hand-to-hand combat from a fellow named Ren. Next week he would begin his riding lessons. He enjoyed learning swordplay and etiquette; it was the nights he dreaded. He could never be sure what night she would call and what night she would not. But the call always came, eventually. And Aerinn was forced to lay in the arms of a woman he found mouth-wateringly beautiful, and whom he loved and despised with all his heart. It was a complex relationship, Aerinn knew that. But that didn't make dealing with it any easier.

"Cassandra?" Aerinn called through the door. He knocked again."Come in. It's open." At her words the door slid open with a soft hiss. Aerinn stepped inside her suite, the subtle smell of myrrh filling the air, and beneath that, her smell. Aerinn breathed deeply despite himself and felt tension ease from his joints. Cassandra breezed into the room even before the door had finished sealing. She was dressed in a long gown of dark green, her hair piled high on her head in delicate ringlets and curls. Aerinn's eyes traveled the length of her body. He wanted to slap himself, but he couldn't help it. She was beautiful.

"Oh Aerinn, you brought that thing again?" Cassandra gestured at the sword contemptuously.

Aerinn shrugged. "It helps me remember who and what I am."

Cassandra laughed. "I doubt that you should need such a reminder within a freehold powerful as this one. Beware Bedlam, Aerinn."

Aerinn flinched at the echo of the Dragon's words. Had she heard?

Cassandra took his arm and steered him towards the kitchen. "I've had the servants bring up some Italian, Aerinn." She smiled at him beautifully.

"Thanks, Cassandra. You shouldn't have done that," Aerinn mumbled. Why was she being so nice to him?

"And," Cassandra continued, waggling her finger at him for interrupting, "I have a couple bottles of wine chilled."

Aerinn didn't talk much through the meal. He'd been under a great deal of stress lately, and his appetite had suffered for it. But the food the servants had prepared was more than perfect, and he found himself making a bit of a pig of himself. Cassandra seemed to find the whole thing amusing, though Aerinn wasn't sure if she was laughing at his wolfish appetite or his flushes of embarrassment.

She chatted on pleasantly in the way of sidhe women, while he shoveled manicotti into his mouth. The wine was excellent--a white that Aerinn was pretty sure was a Chardonnay. He thought about asking Cassandra but decided he'd enjoy his silence while he could. Cassandra seldom tolerated one-sided conversations for long.

Aerinn was finishing off his fourth piece of rhubarb pie before he finally worked up the nerve to speak what was on his mind. "Cassandra, there's something I've been wanting to ask you."

Cassandra looked at him, suddenly all seriousness. "What is it, Aerinn?"

Aerinn took a deep breath. "I've been having dreams. About a woman. They started a few months before my chrysalis. She seems very familiar to me, and I think I may have sworn Oath to her in the past."

"Is this a sidhe woman?"

"No, she's human, but I'm sure she's real. And the dreams, they all seem to be telling me to find her." Aerinn swallowed, tried to sound convincing, "So what I'm asking is your blessing to embark on a Quest to search for her."

Cassandra smiled tightly. "You know the rules, Aerinn. You must complete your training, and then you must pass the Rite of Fior. Nobility must be earned; it is not just given away. Since you've seemingly proved yourself more than adequately in the past, the Fior is little more than a formality. But it still must be observed. Besides, you may learn more of this woman from your Saining ritual."

Aerinn sighed. He'd known his chances were slim, but he'd hoped....

"At any rate," Cassandra continued, rising from the table and coming over to stand beside his chair, "I certainly am not going to let you leave, so you can find a woman to replace me." Her fingers wound through his hair, caressing his scalp possessively. "Come to bed, Aerinn, it's late."

Aerinn followed her to the bedroom, the glamour behind her words removing any thoughts of refusal from his mind. Moments later he joined her, wrapping himself around her warm body. He breathed in her heady scent, trailing his lips down the side of her throat. As her hot kisses traveled his body, and the passion rose to burn all else away, the face of the woman of his dream flashed into Aerinn's mind. She seemed to be watching, and Aerinn felt as if a knife were entering his heart as the lone tear trickled down her face.

"My pet Prince," Cassandra whispered into his ear, her voice raspy from passion, "why would you ever wish to leave?"

Aerinn moaned in his sleep, rolled over--the sheets twining around him, entangling him.

Fire swept through Gary, a pyrotechnic shockwave of destruction. Buildings blasted to dust, pedestrians vaporized into clouds of steam. Horrible screams and cries rent the air as dozens of horrid avian reptiles circled over the doomed city. Aerinn fought on a hill covered with the bodies of the dead. Fae, he saw, all of them.

Knights on all sides of him were cut down by sidhe in dark armor. Their enemies fought fiercely, with the passion of those who live for the kill. Each scream was a personal triumph. Aerinn heard a blood-curdling scream cut through the clamor of battle, and worse yet, the tortured soul was screaming his name. Aerinn whipped his head about, frantically searching for the owner of the horrible cry. Finally he saw her at the top of the hill.

"Selene," he moaned. Indeed it was her, held captive by an arrogantly beautiful sidhe. He held an iron dagger to her delicate throat. "No!" Aerinn screamed, running up the slope as fast as he could. But it was too late. The sidhe smiled savagely at Aerinn as he slowly drew the cold iron edge against Selene's throat. Selene's eyes bulged as her life-blood geysered from her throat. Aerinn's stomach contorted in horror. He watched the life fade from her eyes as her body dropped to the ground.

"You're next, Aerinn," the sidhe threatened, his voice sounding strangely metallic.

"You son of a bitch!" Aerinn seethed and charged the sidhe. The air around him suddenly seemed like gelatin, he couldn't move. He was being swept away from the sidhe, the murderer. In desperation Aerinn tried to make out the symbol of the sidhe's House on his breast plate, but he was too far away.

Aerinn thrashed awake. He shivered. His body was covered in sweat, and Cassandra had commandeered the few blankets he hadn't thrown off. He got out of bed and stumbled to the wash stand, splashed cool water on his face. His reflection in the mirror looked haggard, dark circles shadowing his eyes. He had to get out of here.

Three days passed.

Cassandra tossed and turned in her sleep. Because she was alone, no one heard the soft moans of terror escaping her parted lips.

"My dear," the sidhe duke murmured, "why do you tremble so?" Cassandra tried to pull away from the man's touch, but her body was paralyzed with fear. The man smiled, a cold smile that never reached his eyes. "You have nothing to fear from me, my dear. I would never hurt a hair on your pretty little head." His hand reached out, stroked her cheek. His touch was as cool as the grave, seeming even more cold for it should have been warm. "Malaggar, please." Cassandra's voice quavered. Her voice never quavered, except when she was in the presence of this man. Her eyes stared about wildly, looking for escape. She was in a dimly-lit room with no obvious exits. A fire burned in the mammoth stone fireplace, logs crackling like the breaking of bones. Women lounged about the room on silken pillows. They were beautiful, every one. They were works of art, oiled skin gleaming in the firelight. They wore clothing that was barely decent, enticing the imagination, teasing the mind with what little wasn't revealed. As Malaggar's eyes crawled over her body, Cassandra started to feel nauseous. Surely he wouldn't do that to one of the sidhe.... She looked closer at the women, and breathed a sigh of relief. They were all human.

"Come now, Cassandra. You've never been one to beg." Malaggar smiled. "Besides, we don't have time for that now. We have business to discuss."

Cassandra felt her cheeks heat at his innuendo. How dare he? "What business is that--your Grace?" Inwardly Cassandra breathed a sigh of relief. She'd almost forgotten his strict adherence to titles, at least in reference to himself.

"I am visiting you at your residence. I shall arrive in a fortnight. I trust you will have a suitable reception for me."

Cassandra struggled to push words through her tightening throat. "Of course, your Grace. No expense will be spared."

Malaggar smiled lasciviously. "Good." He traced a finger along her jaw. "I expect your hospitality will be as enjoyable as it always has been in the past."

Cassandra awoke, barely stifling the scream in her throat. She squeezed shut her eyes, trying to vanish the vision of Malaggar's lecherous grin.

Aerinn sat cross-legged on the floor, his sword naked on his legs. The light of two single candles, one white, one black, gave a golden glow to his pale skin. His eyes were shut with concentration. He was as unaware of the candles as he was of the feeling of the cold chimerical steel against his legs. In his mind's eye a single flame burned, flickering slightly as if in a breeze. Aerinn calmly watched the few stray thoughts as they floated through his mind. Amber. Was she alright? What about his parents? Had they given up looking for him?

Aerinn grunted, began his concentration anew. He'd found it so hard to stay focused lately. Finally, his mind cleared, devoid of thought. He floated within his body....up... Carefully Aerinn began directing a small flow of glamour into the sword on his lap.

Images began to form. They were hazy, like an old movie. People, places, feelings. Aerinn pressed his lips together in frustration, almost losing his concentration. He was in a hall of some kind. There were beautiful tapestries on the wall, but every time he tried to look at one, it became indistinct. Voices floated through the hall, ethereal voices he could not understand....

Aerinn sighed, opened his eyes. It hadn't worked. The Mists were too strong. No matter how hard he tried, he could remember nothing more of his faerie past than his name, his House, and some scattered images. He sighed again, struggled to his feet. He must have been sitting there longer than he had thought. The candles had burned to stubs, and his muscles were cramped from sitting in the same position for so long. He said a word, and the rest of the candles and lamps in the room lit of their own accord. Aerinn held up his blade, watched the candle-light gleam against its surface. Soulguider it was called. Aerinn snorted. A lot of help it was.

Aerinn jumped as the doors to his chambers flew open. Cassandra rushed in, then stopped, a look of shock on her face. Aerinn watched, fascinated, as her face turned scarlet; he'd never seen her blush before. He felt the breeze from the open doors, shivered; and then it was his turn to blush, furiously. He'd forgotten he was naked. Aerinn briefly considered grabbing something to cover himself, but there was nothing handy.

Cassandra turned and hastily shut the doors. Aerinn had given up the thought of covering himself. She'd seen it all before, and he sure as hell wasn't going to scurry. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to knock?" he demanded as she turned back to face him, then stopped. Tear-tracks ran down her face She'd been crying. Cassandra never cried; at least he'd never seen it. He had been so surprised by her entrance and embarrassment, he hadn't even noticed.

Aerinn cleared the space between them in four long strides, dropping his sword, and took her into his arms. She leaned against him, clutching to him tightly. "Cassandra, what is it?" Aerinn asked, genuine concern in his voice. She didn't answer him, just began sobbing into his shoulder. Aerinn was at a loss. The woman made no sense. She shifted between bullying him and humoring him, beating him and caressing him, insulting him and kissing him. And now this. He felt as if the room was spinning. He needed to sit down. "Maybe we should sit," he offered, and led her to a low couch set against the wall. She sat down gratefully, still holding to him tight.

"You shouldn't drop your sword like that, Aerinn," she mumbled half-heartedly, then began sobbing anew.

Aerinn held her, stroked her back, not knowing what else to do. "What is it, Cassandra? What has happened."

"Cassandra pulled away from him a little, dried her eyes with a delicate hand, and began trying to put some semblance of order to her dark auburn hair. "I had a bad dream," she mumbled, eyes lowered.

"A bad dream? What kind of dream?"

Cassandra sighed. "I don't want to talk about it, Aerinn. It was too horrible." She raised her eyes, held his. "I didn't want to be alone."

"That's completely understandable," Aerinn said soothingly. A dream? She was this upset over a dream? Aerinn looked at her. She was definitely upset, that much was certain. Not even Cassandra was that good of an actor. She was frightened. Aerinn couldn't understand it. He'd seen her brow-beat knights twice his size into humble submission with nothing more than the tone of her voice.

Suddenly, Aerinn's train of thought just stopped. He was suddenly aware of how nice her silk night-gown felt against his skin. He coughed slightly, tried to move away from her, and instantly felt a strong pang of guilt. Cassandra flinched, a hurt look entering her eyes. "Oh honey, I'm sorry..." he wrapped his arms tighter around her, tried to ignore the feel of her warmth, her softness....

"Thank you, Aerinn." She smiled up at him, the tears already drying on her cheeks.

Aerinn brushed the few that were left away, smiled back reassuringly. "That's my job, Cassandra. I'm your pet knight, remember?" Aerinn instantly regretted the words; maybe it would've been alright if he could have kept the bitterness out of his voice.

Cassandra disentangled herself from his embrace, put a few inches between them. "You hate me don't you?" she asked softly.

The look on her face cut Aerinn straight to his soul. He hadn't meant it to sound like that. "No, I don't, Cassandra. I don't hate you. I...I don't know how I feel about you, but....I know I don't hate you."

Cassandra smiled sadly, cupped his chin in her hand. "I've treated you badly, haven't I?" she asked, regret strong in her voice.

Aerinn shrugged. "Well, you could be a little nicer...."

"I'm sorry, Aerinn. I just don't handle stress very well. I don't mean to hurt you."

Aerinn looked at her a long moment, tried to sort through his feelings. Finally, he sighed. Fuck it. He'd been fighting this so long, he'd forgotten why he was fighting it in the first place. "You know, Cassandra, there are other ways to alleviate stress without resorting to violence." He almost laughed as her eyebrows raised in elegant surprise.

"And what ways are those, my Prince?"

Aerinn smiled, leaned forward, and kissed her. At first she didn't respond. Then her arm came up around his neck; she pulled herself closer, very close. Aerinn gasped as she returned his kiss. She'd never been like this before. She was...loving. Aerinn pulled away, looking at her with wide eyes. She smiled at him shyly. What the hell was going on?

"Aerinn," she said softly, not meeting his eyes, "I'm going to start treating you better. I promise." Aerinn felt his eyes widen. "And I'm not going to hit you anymore. Ever."

Aerinn smiled. "Good, because I like you much better like this."

She smiled, kissed him lightly. "And I won't whip you, either."

Aerinn managed what he thought was a very good look of disappointment. "I kind of liked the whip, Cassandra."

Cassandra laughed, looking at him with amazement. Aerinn laughed with her. It felt good to laugh with her. "Really?" she asked, a dangerous gleam in her eyes.

Aerinn shook his head.

"I didn't think so." Cassandra leaned forward again, and kissed Aerinn soundly, leaning hard against him.

Aerinn didn't mind when her weight became too much and he had to lay back on the couch. He didn't mind at all.

A band of sidhe warriors camped along a Silver Path within the Far Dreaming, the realm of dreams, a reminder of Arcadia--the lost home of the fae. A large bonfire lit their faces and the surrounding trees. Overhead twin planets hung in the sky, glowing with a green luminescence. Not far from the fire, a huge tent of brightly colored green silk sprawled across the Silver Path itself.

The knights around the fire paused in their tale-telling as a woman's screams cut through the still night. Not one looked towards the tent. They knew better. Almost immediately, the knight standing within the ring of his fellows resumed his tale, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the woman's tortured wails.

The story was interrupted again as the flap of the tent was thrown back, and a woman stumbled out, falling to the ground. Malaggar nodded to his knights then resealed the tent, leaving the woman lying on the grass.. "Who's turn is it?" the storyteller asked, not able to keep the fear from his voice.

"Not yours, coward!" one of the older knights said scornfully. He stood, gathered himself, and walked to the woman laying on a heap in front of the tent. He squatted down before her, looked back to his fellows. The few that were watching looked away. He returned his attention to the woman, rolled her over....

Her chest had been ripped open by...something--something very hot by the way the wound was cauterized. A human would have been dead, but this woman was no more human than he was. She looked up to him, her eyes glassy, and a look of regret crossed her face. The Knight looked down into her eyes, and his hardened heart felt a rare emotion--pity. He lay down carefully on top of her.

She groaned with pain as he settled his weight on her. He nuzzled her ear a moment. "I forgive you," he whispered softly, his lips brushing her cool, delicate ear. Suddenly her arms clamped around him with surprising strength, squeezing his rib-cage so he couldn't draw a breath. He cried out as pain lanced through his neck, then moaned softly, pressing his body against hers with his fading strength. Ecstasy coursed through him, and he gave himself wholly to the woman's deadly kiss, his life fading as she drank deeply.

As the darkness took him, he thought he heard her whisper, "If only I could forgive myself..."

The Resonant was silent with the stillness of sleep. Monitors flickered lazily in the dimly-lit hallways. Within the depths of the freehold, the Core throbbed, stolidly sending waves of Glamour coursing through the construct.

Aerinn shifted slightly in his sleep, rubbing up against Cassandra who was curled up next to him. Her eyes opened slightly, her vision thick from sleepiness. She heard him breathing deeply and took his hand in her own, tracing her fingers over his. She looked at his face, relaxed in the flickering candlelight. She watched his eyelids as they twitched, wondering what he was dreaming.

Aerinn sat his horse, Whitegold, with the ease and comfort of one long used to the saddle. He looked over a rolling landscape of prairie grasses. The land was a mixture of dead brown leaves from the last season and the living green of new growth. A cool spring breeze roughed his long golden hair, carrying with it the scent of damp earth. The early-morning sun, already more than halfway along its climb to the top of the sky, gleamed off Aerinn's silvery armor--the reflective plates bending the sparkling light in all directions. A long, flowing cloak of deep purple stirred against Aerinn's back in the breeze. Whitegold snorted, stamped a foot. Aerinn could feel the powerful muscles between his legs tensing. He patted the horse reassuringly--understanding its distress. He wasn't exactly calm himself.

Aerinn fingered the hilt of his sword, sheathed on the side of his saddle, reassuring himself it was close by. He tightened his grip as a horse and rider crested the next hill. The horse was a black stallion--huge and powerful. The knight on its back wore glistening black armor of plate and mail. Aerinn could barely make out his House's emblem on the horses barding--a black harp crafted from a scorpion's tail. Aerinn's lips tightened into a grim line.

"Is he who you expected, my Prince?"

Aerinn turned towards the low, rumbling voice and smiled at his friend. "It is, Da’din. It is."

The troll was huge, even for a troll. His forearms were almost as thick as Aerinn's thighs. Da’din had sworn an Oath to protect Aerinn. At the time he had not realized Aerinn was a Prince of a Noble House. Aerinn still felt guilty about that. He often wondered had Da’din known what he was getting himself into, would he have sworn the Oath? Probably. The only virtue Da’din possessed a greater helping of than honor and loyalty was courage. "Who is he?" the troll asked, pitching his voice so the approaching knight would not hear.

Aerinn looked back towards the sidhe as he closed the distance at a canter. A long, black tail of hair streamed back from the knight's head. Even from this distance Aerinn could already make out the man's cold, arrogant beauty. "His name is Malaggar," Aerinn replied softly, speaking from the side of his mouth so he could keep his eyes on the approaching knight. "He is the Prince of an obscure unseelie House. Our swords have crossed before, as they shall again today."

The troll blinked at Aerinn. "My Prince," Da’din said slowly, carefully, "he looks dangerous."

Aerinn looked at the troll, his friend. "He is dangerous, Da’din. He represents everything we fight against." He clasped his friend's arm. "Do not worry. Some have used the word dangerous to describe me as well."

The troll grumbled, not happy, but there wasn't much he could do. "What shall I tell the men?" he finally asked, giving in.

Aerinn turned in his saddle to look back at the army spread out in the lowland behind him. The host of sidhe and troll warriors was ready for travel. Each man and woman was armed and armored and stood, vigilant, next to his or her mount. Aerinn felt the unique feeling of a thousand eyes looking into his. Aerinn smiled a little to himself. An army. His army. It was small, numbering barely more than five hundred knights, but Aerinn knew each knight personally, had sparred with each. And most importantly, he trusted each and every man and woman down there with his life. Their loyalties were to his father the King and to House Fiona and the kingdom of Westenmor. But first and foremost, their loyalty was to him.

Aerinn looked to his bannerman, nodded. As the young sidhe began pulling down House Fiona's flag, Aerinn said, "They can watch, Da’din. This concerns them too."

"What has he done, Aerinn?"

Aerinn looked his Oathmate in the eye. "He destroys Glamour, Da’din. You will see."

Da’din's eyes widened suddenly with understanding. "The Circle sent you after him, didn't they?"

Aerinn nodded. "Originally. But now it's become personal." He stopped as the Prince finally reached the summit of the hill, reigning his horse in and bowing low in his saddle to Aerinn. He ignored the troll and bannerman.

"Greetings, Prince Aerinn. I thought I might find you here. Marching home are you?"

Aerinn returned the bow marginally, seated upon his warhorse. Malaggar's eyes narrowed at the slight. Good, Aerinn thought, I want him off-balance. "Greetings, Prince Malaggar. Indeed, as you have said, I am returning to my homeland after a tiresome campaign in the Swamps of Bregdan. I am pleased that you agreed to meet with me."

Malaggar bowed again. "It was my pleasure," he said sibilantly.

Aerinn frowned, in no mood for the man's antics. "It saved me the trouble of having to drag you in behind my horse like the mangy dog you are."

Malaggar's face colored with rage. "How dare you?" he hissed. "They'll make anyone a Prince these days!" Malaggar snorted. "You're barely a wilder, I'll wager!"

Aerinn drew himself, instantly defensive. "I've been wilder for two seasons now," he said angrily and instantly regretted it, seeing the look of satisfaction of Malaggar's face.

"Two seasons? That long?" he asked sarcastically. "Who is she, if you don't mind my asking? Is she actually nobility, or just some commoner whore you dazed with your magic?"

Arbingsol flashed in Aerinn's hand, the shining blade sliding from its sheath in a fluid motion. Malaggar's blade was out an instant later, the sunlight seeming to lose strength when striking its dull surface. Malaggar's sword looked like nothing so much as dried blood. Malaggar laughed loudly, though his eyes flickered over Arbingsol warily, trying to judge the magics it contained. "Now you will fight me?" he asked incredulously.

Aerinn glanced at his bannerman, motioned him forward. The sidhe walked up to the three other men. He stood at rigid attention. At Aerinn's nod, he reached up, unfurled the banner. The flag fell slowly, unfolding its silky length as it slid down the pole. Malaggar's eyes widened when he saw the image patterned into the rich silk: A sidhe knight standing over a sleeping child, sword in hand, as unthinkable, torch-bearing horrors closed in from all sides. Malaggar's eyes met Aerinn's, and he could not hide his fear.

Da’din stepped up to the knight, reaching out his hand to grasp the horse’s bridle. "Highness, if you would please dismount."

Malaggar's eyebrows nearly climbed into his dark hair with indignation. "Who is this commoner who dares to command me?"

Aerinn moved Whitegold closer, placed a hand on Da’din's shoulder. Even through the thick leather armor, he could feel the troll's muscles tighten with anger. "Da’din is a knight, sworn to me. He, also, is a Defender of the Dream."

Malaggar narrowed his eyes. "Those fools would never allow a commoner into the Order."

Da’din pulled back his cloak, revealing the emblem emblazoned on his left arm-greave: the knight protecting the sleeping child.

Aerinn continued, "Malaggar, you know the forms as well as I. You may go with us willingly and face your punishment--"

"And what will that be?" Malaggar interrupted.

"The Circle has decided you would best profit from an ordeal of a humbling nature. You will be clothed in human flesh. You will walk the Earth for the duration of a mortal lifetime."

Malaggar shook his head. "That is unacceptable." He smiled wickedly. "I believe, however, that I have an alternative..."

"That is right," Aerinn said smoothly. "If you do not come willingly, I am to deal with you as I see fit."

"Well, I will not go quietly," Malaggar said softly, "so you're going to have to kill me."

Aerinn nodded. "If that is your choice." He dismounted gracefully. Da’din took Whitegold's lead-reign and led him away from where the battle was to take place.

Malaggar's eyes widened as rank upon rank of sidhe warriors spilled onto the hilltop, bunching together so everyone could find a place. "Is your whole army going to witness your defeat, Aerinn?"

The men grumbled angrily amongst themselves to hear their Prince spoken to in such a way. Aerinn quieted them with an outstretched hand. "You say much, I have observed, but you do little."

Malaggar reddened, Aerinn's soft tone infuriating him. "I remember when you were nothing more than a mote in your mother's imagination as she pleased herself in the dark, awaiting the sound of my horse's steps!" he spat venomously.

Aerinn answered the insult with flashing steel. He lunged forward, driving Arbingsol's point toward Malaggar's stomach. The dark knight saw the attack, blocked it aside with his own blade. He jabbed with his mailed fist, catching Aerinn under the nose.

Aerinn stumbled back, blood spraying over his face. He wiped his eyes, trying to see through the tears, trying to ignore the numbing tingling in his face. Malaggar came at him, blade slicing at Aerinn, wanting his blood. Aerinn parried, Arbingsol sending each strike harmlessly off to the side. Aerinn gave ground, working the blade into a rhythm, feeling out Malaggar's defenses.

Da’din watched the duel uneasily. Lightning flashed as the two powerful faerie blades struck again and again. The clashing of blades was matched only by the occasional clang as a strike penetrated a combatant's defenses and glanced off his armor. Da’din looked at the spear in his hand, ready to toss it to his Prince if he needed it. It was a formidable spear, the weapon of choice of a Defender of the Dream. It had been awarded to Aerinn during his swearing-in ceremony. The weapon lengthened and shortened according to its master's desire. It functioned equally well as a spear, javelin, lance, or pike and was heavily enchanted besides.

Aerinn pounded at Malaggar, trying desperately to find a hole in the man's defenses. Sweat streamed down his face. Glamour gathered around him as he spun on one heel, slicing his blade through a sweeping arc. Malaggar avoided losing his head only by diving to the ground. He rolled to one side, regaining his feet gracefully. Aerinn smiled to himself as the battle-cantrip activated. Malaggar came back at him, his fury redoubling, but this time Aerinn was ready. Subtle feelings tickled his mind. Aerinn had long ago learned to trust his instincts. As the glamour whispered to him of Malaggar's intentions, Aerinn reacted, driving his sharp steel at the sidhe’s vulnerable skin.

Malaggar backed off, his blade raised in guard position. "You know The Game of Swords." he said, referring to an ancient faerie art that only those among the nobility had the time or inclination to learn. He shook his head. "Perhaps I have underestimated you...." Malaggar grew thoughtful for a moment, then looked back to Aerinn. "It would seem we are evenly matched. We will continue this at a later date, Prince Aerinn. You can be sure of that."

"You're not going anywhere, Malaggar!" Aerinn vowed, raising his blade once more.

Malaggar chuckled. "Before I leave, there's one thing I want to tell you." Malaggar faded away, losing color and then substance. Aerinn knew better than to strike at him--he was already gone. As he faded, his last words floated over the prairie.

"I have not forgotten Selene...."

Aerinn woke abruptly, sitting straight up in his bed. He was covered in sweat, and the sheets were damp beneath him. Cassandra mumbled in her sleep, snaked an arm around his waist and was still once more. Aerinn breathed a few shaky breaths. He'd had an army. He looked down at Cassandra's sleeping form. The candlelight accentuated her delicate cheekbones. She was beautiful. Aerinn smiled softly, saying softly to himself, "I think sleeping with this beautiful woman every night is going to my head!"

Aerinn gently woke Cassandra, wanting to tell her of his dream, his fancy of leading an army. Though his heart was light, and he hoped Cassandra would awake in a tender mood, part of him shivered as a chill swept through his soul. And the words echoed in his memory.

"I have not forgotten Selene...."

Aerinn awoke later that morning, rubbing his eyes sleepily. A lone beam of golden sunlight warmed his face from a part in the draperies. He looked over to the depression in the bed where Cassandra had lain. He stroked the sheet with his hand, smoothing out the wrinkles. It was still warm. She hadn't been gone long.

Aerinn got out of bed, stretching as his skin burst into goose bumps in the chilly morning air. Cassandra had left the window open again. Aerinn pulled the drapes the rest of the way back and stepped out onto the balcony. The rich, green lawn of the Resonant spread out before him more than forty feet below before ending at a shimmering curtain of light, rippling through the colors of the spectrum. Aerinn knew what lay beyond that wall, and he was glad he couldn't see it. He'd always hated cities, and Gary wasn't the best of the ones he'd been to.

Aerinn went back inside and sat at the small table in the corner of his bedroom. He tore open a fresh loaf of bread and picked up the jar of apple butter Cassandra had left open for him. He smiled to himself as he spread a generous helping on the still-warm bread. Cassandra was so good to him. He would have to pick her some flowers today.

Aerinn roamed the freehold aimlessly, letting his footsteps lead him. He absently admired the paintings and tapestries on the wall, alternating with view screens, his mind on his current situation. Things with Cassandra had definitely become much more enjoyable. He thought he might be falling in love with her. She certainly was beautiful, and there was no denying the way she made him feel when they were alone together. Aerinn still wasn't sure how deep those feelings ran, or if they were even anything more than sexual, but he thought he knew himself well enough not to worry about which part of his anatomy was making the decisions.

Then there was the matter of his family. Aerinn found it took more and more of an effort to remember them, and it was the same with Amber. He wasn't sure if it was Cassandra's doing or just an ambient effect of spending all of one's time in a freehold. The voice in the portal had warned him of Bedlam. Maybe this was the first sign. Aerinn thought about that for a bit, growing increasingly uncomfortable with wondering whether or not he was going insane. Certainly many sane people would never accept things that were now a part of his daily life.

To turn from such unpleasant thoughts, Aerinn's mind seized on its favorite topic--Selene. Aerinn sighed at the turn his thoughts were taking, but didn't resist. Yes, he had to think about Selene. Was she real or just a figment of his imagination? Aerinn was pretty sure of the answer to that question. The dreams were very vivid and persistent and internally consistent. Plus he'd started dreaming of her before his Chrysalis, so it couldn't be Bedlam. Could it? Aerinn wondered if a sidhe had ever awakened straight into Bedlam. He would have to ask Cassandra.

As his thoughts turned to Cassandra once more, Aerinn turned a corner and realized where he was. He smiled wryly to himself, admonishing himself silently that he really shouldn't be surprised where his steps had taken him. He walked down the hall towards Cassandra's door, realizing too late that he'd forgotten to pick some flowers.

The door slid open almost silently at Aerinn's approach. Cassandra had programmed it to give him immediate access. Aerinn straightened his clothes as he entered, a silly grin lighting his face. She wasn't in the sitting room, so he had a chance to check his hair in the mirror before going into the bedroom. It was a good thing he checked. The wind in the courtyard had blown it every which way. He straightened it impatiently, smiling to himself. He hoped Cassandra was in bed.

Aerinn had not known Cassandra's chambers were so soundproof. Before the door to her room had completely opened he could hear a man's voice, then the sound of someone being hit with an open hand. Cassandra cried out.

Aerinn yanked Soulguider from its sheath as he shouldered into the still-opening door. "Cassandra!"

He looked before him, horrified. A man Aerinn didn't recognize had mounted Cassandra and had her face shoved against the headboard, her hands lashed behind her. The man turned toward Aerinn as he barged in, his eyes widening in surprise.

Rage exploded in Aerinn like boiling magma. He leveled his sword, the tip a mere inch from the surprised man's face. He was beyond speech as the fire raged through his veins, but his blade was steady, and his mind observed from a cold distance. Frantically his eyes scanned Cassandra's body, looking for bruises, welts, marks of any kind. If this man had hurt her... He noted the handprint on her bottom.

The man blanched as he saw his death in Aerinn’s eyes.

Cassandra screamed, "Aerinn!"

Aerinn's eyes leaped to her face, and froze. He did not see fear, or relief, or even anger or outrage. Cassandra's face was a mask of guilt.

The rage that had so quickly overwhelmed him vanished in an instant, leaving Aerinn empty and shaking. The sword dropped from his numb hands, hitting the thick carpet with a dull thud. Aerinn's skin tingled; he was numb all over. His brain had frozen. His eyes locked on hers, burning her expression into his memory.

He looked to the man, who'd managed to cover himself with a sheet while Aerinn's attention had been on Cassandra. He memorized her lover's features, agonized over the differences. He was human, tall, broad-shouldered with curling dark hair and blue eyes. A part of Aerinn's mind taunted him, "It was the eyes; she wanted you for the eyes..." He backed away. Away from him, away from her, away from the smell that filled the room so he could hardly breathe. He recognized part of it, and knew the other for what it was.

"Aerinn..." Cassandra's voice was choked. Why should she be crying? Aerinn backed from the room, letting the door close silently. He stood there a moment, his heart pounding, his brain going in circles. Why had she done this to him?

It wasn't even noon...

Aerinn stumbled into the hallway, turned and ran. He rounded the corner and slammed into a stone wall, bouncing and landing hard on his bottom. Aerinn grunted as the breath was knocked out of him.

"Watch where you're going, boy!" a snarling voice spat. Aerinn looked up into the face of a very angry sidhe, who's face burned almost as red as his hair.

"I--I'm sorry," he managed to gasp.

"What's going on?" demanded a harsh voice. "Get out of my way, you imbeciles!"

The red-haired sidhe moved aside. Aerinn saw now that the man was part of an escort of some kind. He and the other sidhe in the group all wore dark plate armor. Aerinn climbed slowly to his feet, noticing another pair of legs coming before him.

"Who the hell do you think you are to get in the way of my escort?!" the owner of the legs demanded angrily.

Aerinn finished standing and raised his eyes to the man's arrogantly beautiful face. He felt his stomach clench with hatred as he recognized the face of the man in his dream. That horrible man who had threatened Selene.

Malaggar's face registered shock, draining of blood. "You!" he hissed. The man's hand shot out, grabbing Aerinn by his tunic, lifting him like a babe. Aerinn dangled in the sidhe's grasp a brief instant before he was slammed against the corridor wall. His head exploded in colors at the impact, his ribs shattering against the hard stone.

"At last we meet again, Prince Moonwater!" the man sneered, his voice cutting through the roaring in Aerinn’s ears. Aerinn couldn't see well enough to notice his expression.

Aerinn groaned with agony, unable to draw breath for the pain. Vaguely he was aware of the sound of a knife being drawn, and then an edge being pressed to his neck. Even above the pain, Aerinn felt an ache soak into his body and knew the blade to be cold iron. He'd learned enough to know that iron could destroy his faerie soul utterly, leaving nothing surviving to enjoy an afterlife.

"I shall enjoy killing you!" Malaggar snarled, flecking spittle into Aerinn’s ear.

Aerinn groaned, surprised he had the air to do that. Selene's face swam in front of his darkening eyes. Oh Selene, an ancient and almost-forgotten part of himself prayed, I'm so sorry...


Cassandra's scream caught both men's attention. Malaggar looked from his hated rival's glassy eyes.

"Malaggar, let him go this instant!" Cassandra strode up to where Malaggar stood, Aerinn, hanging limply in his hand, was still pressed hard against the corridor wall.

"Good morning, my Lady," Malaggar said pleasantly. "I hope my early arrival hasn't caught you unprepared. You didn't tell me you had such a treat awaiting me."

"I said let him go!" Cassandra enunciated each word, her hand grabbing the arm with the dagger.

Malaggar swung with his free hand, catching Cassandra in the chest and sending her flying against the other wall. She hit the wall with a thud and slid to the floor, her eyes losing focus. "Who the fuck do you think you are ordering me? I out-rank you, you bitch!" Malaggar shouted, enraged by her insolence.

"You are a guest in my freehold, Your Grace," Cassandra said shakily, climbing to her feet, "and Aerinn is my guest. I will not allow him to be harmed."

"And just what are you going to do about it?" Malaggar raised his eyebrows, looking meaningfully at the six armed sidhe watching with hands on weapons.

Aerinn gasped for air, and nearly passed out from the pain. He was sure at least one of his lungs were punctured. Selene...his mind cried out silently. He looked to Cassandra, saw the look on her face and knew she was thinking for all she was worth. It didn't look like this time she would be crafty enough.

Cassandra sighed. "I'm not going to do anything about it, Malaggar. You're right. You outrank me, you're more powerful than I, and I can't stop you."

Aerinn almost whimpered. He'd hoped she would at least try. He remembered the man in her bedchamber. He supposed he was lucky she'd even made a show of resistance. She probably felt she owed him that at least.

Malaggar smiled sarcastically. "Thank you for your permission, my Lady. Don't worry. I can make the part of him you like best into a nice little key chain for you."

Aerinn felt the blade begin to slide against his skin of his neck, then pause as Cassandra said, way too casually, "Of course, that's not really Prince Aerinn Moonwater."

Malaggar looked at her, suspicion igniting in his eyes. "What do you mean, this isn't Aerinn Moonwater?" He pointed his finger at her. "I've hated this man for centuries; I know who he is!"

"Oh, he's Aerinn Moonwater. There's no doubt about that," Cassandra replied calmly, smoothing her nightdress, "but he isn't the Aerinn Moonwater you know and...hate."

Malaggar snorted.

"You don't believe me? Look at him. Look at him! Does he look like the Prince you faced on the battlefield countless times? Does he look like the man who brought you, on your knees, before the Circle of Seven not once, but three times for punishment?" Cassandra faced him, head held high, emanating the commanding power of the sidhe in all her glory.

Malaggar punched her, shattering her nose. Blood sprayed across Cassandra's face as she slammed back into the wall behind her and crumpled to a heap on the floor. "God-damned sidhe bitches. Never did care for them," he muttered, shaking his hand. He turned his attention back to Aerinn, noticed the man was almost unconscious, and surely was delirious, from the pain. He opened his other hand, watched in disgust as the man's knees buckled and he slid down the wall to the floor. "She's right, though," he mused, studying Aerinn’s still body. "You're not even a shadow of the man I once knew. Killing you here, now, would bring me no pleasure." He spat, making sure to hit Aerinn in the face.

Aerinn tried to concentrate on what was going on, but everything seemed farther and farther away. His body screamed in pain as his brain begged for release. He held on to consciousness with his fingernails.

Malaggar paced, fuming. Finally, he slammed his fists together, bent down, and hauled Aerinn to his feet. "I can't have you passing out on me, my Prince," he said with mock compassion. "I want to be sure you hear what I have to say." He slapped Aerinn--again and again, harder and harder.

Aerinn gasped as the healing glamour charged through him. He'd been healed before, but it had never been painful. Now it felt as though someone had replaced the blood in his veins with acid. Aerinn fell to his knees, groaning, his tortured mind floundering under the continual onslaught of pain.

"Get up!" Malaggar hauled the now semi-lucid Aerinn to his feet. He moved his face very close to Aerinn's, so close their noses touched. "I will give you time to train for our duel, Aerinn," he hissed, flecking Aerinn’s face with spittle. "You always were a coward, so I'll give you some incentive to face me. If I know you at all, and I think I do, you're looking for your human whore." Malaggar smiled as he saw the fear fill Aerinn's eyes. There was one certain way to make a noble of House Fiona feel that particular emotion, and Malaggar had learned it a long, long time ago. "You, my friend," Malaggar’s lips twisted the word, making it an antithesis of its true meaning, "are no longer a Prince, but I, in some areas of the Dreaming, am. I don't think it will be difficult for me to find your precious lover before you do." Malaggar's gloating smile held no humor, only desire for vengeance. "I will make you pay for what you did to me. And I will make your woman pay too. She and I, we will be awaiting your arrival, my Prince!"

With that Malaggar threw Aerinn against the wall again, letting him fall to the ground. Then he kicked him once for good measure. He didn't want any residual effects of his healing cantrip remaining. "Aufwiedersehen, Aerinn. Apologize to Cassandra for the brevity of my stay, will you?"

Malaggar waited a moment for a response, but Aerinn had lost consciousness.

Lord Aerinn Moonwater, Defender of the Dream, was in a nightmare. That was the only word to describe it. Two small armies of the fae met one another in bitter battle. Sidhe fought sidhe and troll fought troll. Aerinn's men fought desperately, trying to preserve the life of their lord's love.

The warriors were arranged in a rough circle, Aerinn and his men trying to push through Malaggar's forces to reach the man and his prisoner within. Malaggar's bonfire seemed to mock them from the center's circle, promising warmth and security in a night that was cold with bitter loss.

"Give it up Aerinn!" the dark sidhe spat over the din of clashing blades and the screams of the wounded and the dying. "She's mine!" he shouted. "As you can see, she desires no one as much as she desires me!" To illustrate his words, Malaggar grabbed a dazed and disheveled Selene by the front of her dress and kissed her roughly.

Da’din, fighting by his soulbrother's side, saw the fire flare in Aerinn's eyes. The Fiona sidhe cried out his turmoil as he savagely disemboweled one of Malaggar's knights, the razor-sharp steel of his fae blade cutting through the other sidhe's mail like a thin slice of cheese. The man fell with a gurgled scream, hot blood bubbling from his mouth, steaming in the frosty night air.

Aerinn didn't even notice the man's death; his eyes were on Selene. "Let her go, Malaggar!" he screamed, his voice twisted beyond recognition by pain and rage. "Have you no honor? Would you take a woman who desires nothing more than to be rid of your foul presence?!" he challenged, wanting the man in his bare hands.

Malaggar's face turned a blotchy white in the firelight. "How dare you?" he spat. Selene took the opportunity of his distraction to wrench herself from the man's grasp. Malaggar swore profusely and kicked her savagely with his boot. The woman gasped loudly as his foot hit her floating ribs and lay on the ground, writhing and groaning, gasping for air like a fish out of water. "You are right, Lord Aerinn," he called out to his embattled foe, "she is not worthy of me! See how she rolls on the ground like a gluttonous pig!" He accented his words with another hard kick to Selene's side. The woman had no breath left to scream, but her eyes widened in pain, and her mouth opened silently, gasping for air. A strangled groan escaped her lips.

Da’din dropped to his knee and swung his massive troll sword, liberating five sidhe of their legs with one stroke. He cursed fluently as he regained his footing, parrying a strike from one warrior as another warrior bounced harmlessly off his shoulder plate. "You are a coward, Malaggar!" His booming voice carried easily over the clamor of battle. "Why don't you try that with someone more your equal? You would be too easily destroyed by me, but I am sure Lord Aerinn would be more than willing to rid that pretty body of yours of that disgusting excuse for a soul!"

Selene clawed the dirt with her hands, trying to pull herself away from her captor, but her strength had left her. Malaggar grabbed her by her hair and yanked her roughly to her feet. Selene whimpered with pain, her vision growing dark at the edges.

"Insolence!" Malaggar screamed, spittle flying from his lips. "Enough! No woman is worth such insults! Surely not a human woman!" He wrapped a strong arm around Selene, crushing her to his chest, as he pulled out a long slender dagger with his other hand. The blade gleamed in the firelight. "Sir Aerinn," he called, "I wouldn't want you to miss this."

Aerinn's sword pierced a troll's breast plate, piercing his heart and exploding out of his back. Aerinn kicked the dead troll off his blade with a booted foot, sent the fae flying to land on his back in the dust. "Selene!" he screamed. Soulguider flashed in the flickering firelight like burning moonlight, and troll and sidhe fell like grain, their souls sent back to the dreaming from whence they came.

Malaggar watched the man fight, letting his warriors die. He smiled to himself, pleased that he could arose such passion in a man. "How you fight, Lord Aerinn!" he shouted out. "It would appear I now know how to motivate you! Perhaps now you will be worthy of crossing blades with!"

Da’din fought in a fury at his lord's side, desperate to rescue the lady from the fate he saw before her. "You swine, Malaggar!" he screamed over the din. "You know you could never beat Aerinn in honorable combat!"

Aerinn fought desperately, but his opponents seemed unending. Soulguider throbbed in his hands, screaming for the blood of its enemies, its blue fire casting Aerinn's grim face in eerie, flickering shadows. The blue flames flickered, reflected within his blood-spattered armor. His normal mode of thought had been replaced by a primal beast. His eyes were only for Selene, held in that monster's grasp, a blade of sharp steel held to her slender throat. Aerinn could see her gasping for breath, could see her lips calling out to him silently. Her eyes held his, pleading that he save her from the terror she'd been enduring at the man's hands. Aerinn fought harder, his limbs empowered by battle cantrips. He called out to the gods, and a Quicksilver seized his tiring limbs. The sidhe lord erupted, his sword moving faster than the eye could see, and fae after fae returned to the Dreaming.

Beside him, Da’din warred, his blade dark with the blood of faerie Nobility. He fought like a man mad, cutting with his sword, holding the massive weapon in one strong hand as he lashed out with his other fist, shattering the delicate faces of the sidhe.

But it wasn't enough. Malaggar laughed at their efforts. Oh, they were winning, and his men were dropping like flies, but he still had time to enact revenge against this man who had ruined his plans more times than he could count. "You should know me better by now, Aerinn!" he taunted. "Do you not realize you waste your strength? For if I cannot have this woman, surely no other man will!" He grabbed Selene by her hair, pulled her head back. "Look upon your love one more time, my lord, for surely you will never see her in this life again!" He pulled the dagger back, saw Aerinn's eyes transfixed on its glittering length of death. "Such is the end of 'True Love'!" he said with a mocking laugh and brought the blade forward with a snap, sinking it to the hilt in Selene's soft neck, so its point drove through both arteries and emerged from the other side, stabbing out of her pure white skin like a parasitic larva.

Selene screamed then, a gurgling scream that too quickly faded to silence.

Aerinn's vision was replaced by a red haze. He drove forward, slicing blindly with his sword. He took many hits, for he didn't even try to fend of his enemies’ blows. He felt nothing, except for an imaginary dagger piercing his neck and another, much more real, driving deep into his heart.

Da’din was one step behind, trying to protect his frenzied friend, cutting down those who tried to take him from behind.

Aerinn broke into the center of the circle, the silent dead and moaning wounded littering the ground behind him, but it was too late. With a flash of light, Malaggar and the body of Aerinn’s love were gone.

"Selene!" Aerinn screamed, his passion tearing his voice into a strangled exclamation of the death of hope...

Aerinn stood, numb. His sword dropped from his hand as Da’din and the rest of his companions finished off those not wise enough to flee. His eyes transfixed on the pool of blood where Malaggar had stood. He stumbled forward, fell to his knees. His hand reached out, on its own seemingly, for conscious thought was beyond him. He touched his fingers to the already cooling lifeblood of his one True Love. Tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks, dripping off his jaw to spatter in the dust and to mix with the blood that was so like that flowing through his own veins. He brought his fingers to his lips. Her blood burned his tongue and mind, and he felt his heart die.

Behind him, Da’din the Guardian stood helpless. He watched as his friend fell face-down on the ground and buried his face in the pool of blood that was already being absorbed by the thirsty earth.

When the punishment of the Dreaming hit him--the backlash of his failed Oaths to Selene--Aerinn didn't even notice.

Mertisha, Cassandra's healer, delicately removed her fingers from Sir Aerinn's face. The glamour of her Heatherbalm cantrip was already fading from the air. The cantrip had worked--he was healed But Mertisha was worried to see his face still tight, the muscles of his body still clenched. Usually a healing left the person relaxed, in a healing sleep. What was going on?

Aerinn regained consciousness slowly, so slowly he was not sure when his eyes opened, only that he gradually became aware of lying in a bed in a dark room. His room, he realized with some effort. What had happened?

Slowly the memories came back, both of what had transpired in the hall and in his dream. "Malaggar," he whispered. "Selene..."

Then more memories returned. Memories of his betrayal, betrayal by yet another who he thought loved him. " could you?" he whispered.

He sat up weakly, swung his feet over the side of the bed. He could only stand by leaning on the sturdy oak bedpost. He stood, wavering, waiting for the room to stop spinning.

He fell as the floor shook beneath him. He had almost regained his feet when he was knocked down again. "That isn't me," he muttered. Alarmed, he staggered to the closet set by the window. He pulled out his armor and sword. "What the hell is going on?" he wondered as the freehold trembled yet again.

A few minutes later Aerinn was moving down the hall as fast as he could manage, leaning on the wall for support. Following a tickling in his mind, he had brought everything important to him after he'd managed to don his armor, carrying it all in a sack slung over his shoulder. He headed first to Cassandra's room, trying to avoid the fae hurrying through the halls. It seemed every person in the Resonant was in a hurry to get somewhere. He considered asking one of them, but he was too out of sorts. He needed to speak to Cassandra.

Her chambers were empty. He could still catch a faint odor of musk. Unless her betrayal of his last morning was an everyday thing, it was still the same day. He could tell by the smell of the breeze coming through her open window that it was late evening and not early morning. So he'd been out about twelve hours, he decided.

He went next to the command room, but found it deserted as well. "What the hell is going on?" he wondered again out loud.

"The Resonant is falling, Sir Aerinn." Aerinn turned at the voice. He hadn't heard Marcus enter. Aerinn realized he was more upset than he had thought not to have noticed the man's entrance.

"What do you mean? Where's Cassandra?"

"War has broken out in the streets. Yes, right in front of the freehold," he spoke in answer to the questions in Aerinn's eyes. "We kept it from here as long as we could, but the gangs have grown too strong, and our influence is just too weak."

"A gang war?" Aerinn asked incredulously. "Why would that cause the freehold to fall?" As if to accentuate his words, the freehold shook again, even harder. Now that Aerinn concentrated, he could sense the glamour of the place fluctuating wildly, but on a steady decline, as it was steadily destroyed by the banality around it.

Marcus shook his head, suddenly angry. "You're asking me to explain to you the banality of inner city violence? I don't have time for this. The freehold's dead, Aerinn. It happens. We're all evacuating, and I suggest you do the same. Unless you wish to stay here permanently!" he shouted, turned and strode toward the door.

"Wait!" Aerinn rushed up to him, caught his arm. "Where's Cassandra?" Marcus gave him a long, measuring look. "What is it, Marcus? Where is she?"

The knight sighed. "She's in the Core, Aerinn, but I don't think she'd appreciate you interrupting her." Marcus shook his head and left.

Aerinn wondered a moment, but the freehold shook with another tremor, bringing him from his thoughts. With a curse, he hurried to the lift-tube. Maybe he already was in Bedlam, he thought as the field of glamour sped him into the depths of the falling freehold. Surely the rest of the world seemed to be going insane.

Cassandra watched the fading balefire as it changed from a healthy, vibrant green to a sickly yellow. "Cassandra! What the hell is going on?" She looked up as Aerinn rushed into the Core.

"Aerinn!" She rushed over to him, hugged him fiercely. "Are you alright?" She felt him stiffen in her arms.

"That all depends on what you mean..." he said softly.

Cassandra sighed. "I'm so sorry, Aerinn, I never meant to hurt you--" She was interrupted by a severe tremor, the biggest yet, and the structure groaned around them. The heaving floor threw her against Aerinn's chest. The man was still weak and fell before her, and they were both on the ground.

"Are you alright?" she asked, easing off of him.

"I'm fine," he answered picking himself up and then helping her. "We've got to get out of here." He pointed to the walls and to the widening cracks spider webbing their surfaces. Dust and masonry fell in small pieces from the ceiling far above them.

Cassandra shook her head. "No. You go, Aerinn. I'm staying."

Aerinn looked at her incredulously. "Are you crazy? This place is falling down around our ears!"

"I know, Aerinn," she said soothingly, running her hands over his chest, "but this is my home, and I'm not leaving."

Aerinn opened his mouth to argue, but he knew that look in her eyes. He sighed. "Then I'm staying with you."

Cassandra swallowed. "No, you're not. You have a Quest to begin, or have you forgotten?"

Aerinn shook his head stubbornly. "I'll not leave you. Either you're coming with me, or I'm staying." He motioned to the Gateway. "Does that thing still work?"

Cassandra pressed her lips together angrily, but managed to hold onto her temper. "Yes, it works, Aerinn. I've been down here feeding the fading glamour of the Resonant into it, so it would be ready for your journey. I sent a page to find you, but I guess you found me first." Aerinn started to say something, but she forestalled him with a finger to his lips. "Aerinn, we have different paths to walk, you and I. This is my freehold, and I'll not leave it. Go. Find your True Love. I hope she takes better care of you than I have." By the end, tears glistened in her eyes.

Aerinn hugged her as he felt stinging tears in his own eyes. "Don't.. Cassandra, we can work this out."

She shook her head. "Maybe we could have, once, but that is not to be. You must go soon. The Gateway will not remain open much longer."

Aerinn took a deep breath, let it out, sighing softly, then nodded. "If that is your wish..."

"It is. Oh Aerinn, I'm sorry," she wailed.

Aerinn took her chin gently in his hand. "We all make mistakes, Cassandra. I forgive you." He kissed her deeply and felt her arms wrap tightly around him. He leaned against her slightly, using her strength.

After long moments, Cassandra broke the kiss. She smiled into Aerinn's blue eyes. "It's too bad we don't have more time," she murmured. "I still feel bad about what happened."

Aerinn squeezed her. "We will," he said. With that he dropped to his knees before her, pulling out his sword. He sliced his hand with the blade, squeezed it into a tight fist. As his blood dripped onto the floor of the Core he said, "I, Sir Aerinn Moonwater, Defender of the Dream," she blinked at that, "swear oath to you, Cassandra Demones of House Eiluned before the Dreaming within this falling freehold that I shall return for you. Before one lunar year has gone by, I will return to this place and find you in whatever form you wear. If you still live and have fallen from the Dream, I will breathe the life of glamour into you once more. This I swear to do, lest the Dreaming take the breath from my body." Aerinn was a little surprised at how easily the words to the Oath came to his lips. He’d never made an Oath before, or at least, not in this lifetime.

Cassandra's eyes filled with tears. She took Aerinn's head in her hands and hugged him close, pressing his face into her stomach. She kissed his hair. "Thank you, Aerinn. My fate is in your hands." She smiled softly as he looked up into her eyes, bent down to kiss him tenderly. "Now go. Please. You don't have much time. I have put some things for you beside the Gateway."

Aerinn stood, took her in his arms, and kissed her one more time. "I will not forget you, Cassandra. And I will return. I promise." Cassandra nodded, smiled at him bravely. Aerinn gazed upon her, committing her features to memory. Then he turned, walked toward the Gateway, sheathing his sword as he went. He found a large bundle by the arch of stone. "What is this?"

"Food for your journey. I see you brought everything else you need."

Aerinn smiled a little. "I had a feeling. Where am I going?" he asked.

"I’m not sure," Cassandra said. "It’s not winter, so I cannot select the destination. You could wind up anywhere" She hugged Aerinn. "You’ll just have to trust Dán to guide your steps."

Aerinn nodded, smiled. "I’ll be alright, Cassandra. That seems the perfect way to begin my Quest."

Cassandra touched the archway, and the runes within the stone glowed with glamour. Aerinn felt the trod open as the Gateway filled with multicolored light. He turned to Cassandra. "Thank you. For everything."

Cassandra smiled through her tears, steeled her failing heart. "Don't forget what you've learned here, Aerinn. And godspeed on your Quest." She kissed him again, losing herself in his warmth, and then he was gone.

Aerinn for some reason was not surprised to see a majestic white stallion awaiting him on the other side of the Gateway. He smiled at the emblem of House Fiona on the saddle blanket. "Hello, boy," he said softly, patting the horse's flank as he tied Cassandra's bundle behind the saddle.

The horse looked back at him, snorted, blowing warm air that smelled of spring into Aerinn’s face. Aerinn smiled, stroking the horse’s velvety muzzle affectionately. "You sure do seem familiar to me, old friend," he says softly.

Aerinn sat the saddle of the horse he'd already decided to call Whitegold and watched the light in the Gateway fade. He was in a forest, stretching in all directions. The trees all appeared to be Linden trees. He smiled at that. His route along the trod was obvious. Some of the trees appeared to be made of silver rather than wood, and they all formed a line that stretched into the distance. "The silver path," Aerinn murmured to himself in awe. He had studied the Far Dreaming, but he had never been there. He smiled, breathing deeply of the clean forest air. It smelled of autumn.

Aerinn heeled Whitegold's flanks, and empowered the horse with a Quicksilver. Whitegold thundered down the Trod like the wind as the Gateway shattered behind them with a booming explosion.

"Goodbye Cassandra," Aerinn whispered to himself, the roaring wind of Whitegold’s glamour-enhanced gallop drowning out his words. "I will return for you." Whitegold snorted and Aerinn patted the horse's neck, turned his eyes to the trod in front of him, his Quest, and the future.

the end of the beginning...