Birth of the Raven

 

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Prologue

It was a nightmare. He was living his worst nightmare.

Kurt Halis, a tall, blond man of twenty-seven years, stood shaking as he looked down at what surrounded him. Five dead men. For a moment, his mind was consumed with shock at this nighttime attack before realizing that this had only been a distraction. Immediately, he rushed to a nearby room… where a force collided straight into him. His first response was to embrace the girl… then shove her back to give her a look over, a coldness overwhelm him as he realized that her silk night chemise was now splattered with blood. “Are you hurt? Did they-”

She shook her head, the girl with emerald eyes and raven hair. This was his charge, Alyssa, a maiden of the family Morgana, the sovereign family of the Khaled Regime. “No. I'm unharmed. This-” She looked to her chemise nervously before looking behind her, Kurt’s eyes following hers. “The blood is his.” A man lay near her bed, in a pool of blood and next to a bloodied sword.

Kurt took Alyssa back in his arms, his eyes still locked on the corpse, realizing this death was at the hands of an adolescent girl. Yet as disturbed as he was to see a her innocence lost, he wasn’t blind to another's presence in the room. On instinct, Kurt pushed the girl behind him, brandishing his blade. Until his sword hand was forced down as the girl shrieked. He realized why as his senses caught up a moment later.

“What are you doing here? You know her chambers are forbidden to you.”

“Then you should not have denied me a chance to speak with her during the celebrations.” Gannen Azeal, the young man did not speak his words with defiance customary for an heir of a Khaled family – the lords of the Regime. Instead, he stood trembling. “She is my betrothed whom I have not seen in months and you think we would not try to find a way to speak to one another?”

“That's no excuse," Kurt snarled even as he reluctantly sheathed his blade. "She's thirteen years old. You've no right in her bedchambers. I'm sure her father would be thrilled to hear of this." The younger man's face fell even as his eyes remained locked with Kurt's, but the soldier's concern had shifted as he turned back to Alyssa. “Get dressed and hurry. We have to make for your parents and sisters.”

“Stop antagonizing Gannen. If he had not come, what worse situation might I be in?” Alyssa grumbled, a glare in her eyes, looking more like her defiant young self. Alyssa Morgana was no ordinary child. Not only because her father was the ruler of this land, but as she had no brother, Alyssa was named the High Heiress of a land of severe patriarchal ideologies, Alyssa had learned to possess an attitude of ferocity and resilience. The reasons were troublesome, but the result? Prying the small sword from the carcass and cleaning the blood from the steel, Kurt mused how if Alyssa was not such a creature, he would not have been able to gift her such a blade this past day.

If only this attack had not happened following her bornday celebrations.

When Alyssa had finished dressing, Kurt as well had to hastily prepare himself as he had left his room with only the concern for his charge’s safety. Once they were dressed with swords at their sides and Alyssa held a scarlet tiger cub in her arms – her father’s bornday gift to her – they made their way through the palace’s east wing, the private residences. For a time, the short trudge was quiet, but only for a time.

Soon, the clatter of conflict could be heard. Alyssa was the first to react, giving a cry and gripping tightly on his arm, her nails digging deep. However, Kurt barely noticed the pain as he saw what stood before them. He knew the stories, believed them even… but seeing was something else. He couldn’t blame the girl for her fright at the sight nor her reluctance to approach. Of course, could one blame a child for refusing to run into her father’s blood-soaked arms?

“Thank Navar you are still here,” the black-haired man exclaimed breathlessly, seemingly oblivious to his daughter’s reluctance to approach. Although her reluctance didn’t last long as she eventually made the slow approach, causing the man to drop his sword to take the girl in a fast embrace. He still held the girl even as he looked to Kurt. “Thank you for bringing her here. We feared we were too late-”

“Don’t. Her safety is my job… so you can focus on your youngest,” Kurt said, trying to keep his voice steady, but the crack felt evident. Not to the father though as he turned to his daughter; there were more pressing matters. Still… Kurt could hardly banish his fears. Not while, this man, the Prime Lord, normally had emerald green eyes like Alyssa. Except for a moment ago, when they were entirely black. It was… inhuman.

Such was not how Kurt wished to think of the man. Prime Lord Mephistas Morgana was the ruler of the Khaleds. Like his peers, the man was of an imposing height and fair-skinned, with the black hair and green eyes common among Morgana blood members. Yet he was nothing like the rest of his cruel, selfish peers. Mephistas cherished nothing more than his wife and three daughters, holding pride in Alyssa as his heir. Such pride was why he trusted his daughter with the cub she now held.

“Come now, your sisters ought to be ready-” Mephistas said, turning his daughter towards the door at his back. Immediately, a shrill gasp sounded and Alyssa bound inside. Kurt didn’t need to see to know how eager the girl was to see her mother.

“Oh, my Little Raven… are you all right?! You are not hurt, are you?” questioned the woman – Premiere Lady Ceilana Daruhnel Morgana. While Alyssa’s darker skin was like her mother’s, Ceila’s eyes were warm brown and hair dark blond. Though Alyssa’s petite stature was a conundrum as both her parents were towering creatures, both over six feet. In fact, Kurt knew none as tall as the Prime Lord… aside from himself.

“No, Mama. I am fine,” Alyssa said with a small shake of her head before looking to her blood smeared clothes. She gulped. “But Mama, I killed someone. There were men, trying to drag me out of my room and… Gannen helped me. If Gannen had not-”

The utterance of Gannen’s name caused Ceila’s mouth to twitch and her arm to tighten around her daughter. “Thank you, Gannen. We are in your debt,” she said in a clearly forced voice, even as a glare narrowed in Mephistas’s eyes, now realizing that Gannen was present and why.

“She is my betrothed, your Highness,” Gannen said with a low bow, “but my closest friend, foremost. I could never ignore a threat towards her livelihood.”

“And you understand that her best chance now is to leave the realm,” Ceila said, her words sparking Alyssa’s eyes to widen and the girl to plea otherwise. But the girl’s pleas were ignored by everyone here. Even Gannen only nodded.

“I understand. Here, she is in the grasp of danger,” the young man said softly, his gaze low. “But beyond the Agreilian Range, the risk will diminish. I cannot argue.”

“But I would!” Alyssa cried out as her mother turned to Mephistas as he helped with the sling set across his wife’s chest to carry their youngest, the three-month-old girl, Dahlia; as all three daughters, Dahlia’s skin was bronze, but for both younger girls, they had dark blond hair as well. “Mama! I’m the High Heiress! I belong here! I can’t-”

“There is no time to argue,” Mephistas interrupted sternly as hetook the hands of his middle daughter, the eight-year-old Lily, and Alyssa, leading them both to the balcony. “Look outside, Alyssa. The city is ablaze and the courtyard is consumed by a fray. Tonight is not the end. There will be continued conflict, future battles, matters that will force my attention away from you and your sisters. This is not a risk I can take, Alyssa. So I ask you to understand why you cannot as well.”

“By leaving all that I have ever known? By leaving you?” Alyssa questioned before glancing back to Gannen. “Would… would my betrothed be allowed to leave-” Her words were cut short, but not by her father.

“Lyssa, I cannot,” Gannen said, taking her hand. “Until I am your husband, I am still the heir of the Chief Councilor, the left hand of your father. Our duty is to stand with your family, protect what is yours. If I cannot do that, I do not deserve you, Lyssa.”

Alyssa gave no argument, but threw herself at the Khaled heir before anyone could react. Their lips had barely locked before her father tore her away. Kurt felt the same unease he saw on the parents’ faces, but he also felt his heart drop in seeing the tears fall from the heiress’s eyes while her betrothed bowed his head, taking her hand in hold and touching her fingers to his lips. But when the young man took his leave, that’s when Kurt felt his blood run cold once more, this time by the shrill cries Alyssa gave.

#

There was nothing easy about the trip. Not for Ava. A week ago, the Valeen Territories was struck uneasily by the collapse of Trecher’s Pass – the solitary route through the Agreilian mountain range between the Territories and the Regime, the two prominent nations of Derelior. In truth, the pass’s destruction made no sense; the Khaleds were the strongest of Derelior’s Mystics and their military force outnumbered the entire Valeen populace. The Regime needed no such defensive strategy, yet no Valeen leader knew the cause of the collapse. However a message had been received of someone that might have the answer… but was in need of healing few could provide.

“You don’t need to do this,” Norus Daern, her husband had said a week ago, the night they set about to leave. “Let Renesse go. This is his responsibility, not yours.”

“This is a responsibility of any capable Valeen,” she had argued, continuing with the packing for the two-week long journey. “And Renesse has Sanctuary Valley to oversee. Who can he leave his duties to? No, I have to go.”

“You shouldn’t have to. Not after everything Kurt did to you!”

The outburst had come as a shock to Ava. Through their seven-year marriage, not once had Norus spoken disdainful of the man… despite how Kurt had wronged Ava in the past. That was when she had realized the strain her husband was under.

“My love,” she had said, taking her husband’s hands, “This is your bond brother. How can I refuse him aid? I can’t do that to you. And you know what position he served. Norus, I have to know how my bond sister and her daughters fare.”

The fear for the Regime’s Premiere Lady was a real concern as Ceilana was not a native of the Regime, but was raised among the Valeen. Her marriage had been part of a peace treaty between the two nations, but the Khaleds abhorred defying tradition. The assimilation of a Valeen into the Khaled castes was one such defiance. The proclamation of a High Heiress was another. If conflict raged in the Regime, Ceilana and her daughters might very well be in danger and while Kurt would visit, he’d never abandon his charge in the midst of chaos. Ava had to know why he was here now.

Her husband’s accompaniment on this trip came as no surprise. Another joined them, Kurt’s half-sister Helyne Farren. Though Ava held a fondness for the younger woman, she did not approve of Helyne’s insistence to join. Not when the woman had a three-month-old infant, Thira, back home. While Ava could see what compelled Helyne to join, the thought of abandoning such a young child…

“I still don’t believe it,” Helyne murmured after reaching the vigil outpost of Trecher’s Pass. While the Daern couple had dismounted, Helyne remained atop her horse, staring towards the Pass, now closed off by the collapse of boulders and rubble. “How could this happen? Wouldn’t there have been signs if this was natural? Does Kurt really know what caused this when no one else does?”

“The commander here thinks so, but he doesn’t know for certain,” Norus said, having handed off his and his wife’s horses to the stable boys. A man with cream brown skin, hazel eyes, and honey brown hair that was always a tussled mess, but missing the lopsided grin that Ava had come to adore. His lighthearted nature always comforted her, always completed her as her personality was as dissimilar to his as their appearance – herself having pale skin, platinum blond curls, and steel gray eyes. But this day, she did not have such. This was not a day anyone could regard blithely.

“Why not?” Helyne asked.

Her husband ignored his bond sister, speaking to the stable boy instead, bringing a sigh to Ava’s lips as she turned to the younger woman. “The watch commander only heard Kurt once possibly speak of knowledge regarding the collapse, but in passing as…” She gulped as she looked back to her husband then to Helyne. “He fell unconscious soon after arriving here. I’m not sure if he has woken since.”

A look of horror crossed Helyne’s dark brown eyes before she leaped from her horse, gathering her knapsack and rushing deeper into the complex without another word. With her dark eyes, black hair, and sunkissed skin, Helyne looked little like her brother save for strong angles of their face and towering heights; Ava stood near six feet, but Helyne surpassed such height.

“She should wait for the watch commander,” Norus sighed, having given the stable boys instructions of delivering their things to their accommodations.

“We did refuse to tell her how badly off her brother might be. Let her go,” Ava said as the couple began to make their way out of the stable. Though they did not get far as they found Helyne arguing with a man. However, as the couple regarded each other with confusion, the man took notice of them. He was a middle-aged man, with deep lines crossing his face and the straight posture common among the guard forces. He patted a hand on Helyne’s shoulder as he began to move past her, but the attempt only seemed to infuriate the younger woman all the more.

“Look, I don’t care what you say, but I need to see my brother-”

“I warned that you won’t like what you see,” the man said, turning from Helyne to the Daerns, a smile forced onto his lips as he reached a hand out. “Guardsman Daern, I’m Commander Progil. I must admit, I’m surprised to see you here.”

“I understand,” Norus said as he shook Progil’s hand. “It’s a visit that should be made by Phares after all.”

“And how is your father?”

“Worrying over the dealings with the city governors over this situation. Same as Headmaster Renesse. My wife and I came in their stead,” Norus said as he turned to Ava. “Might I introduce Ava Harkes Daern, head caretaker of the Sanctuary and ward of Renesse. She is, in fact, the best healer of the Valley, which you did request for.”

The middle-aged man nodded, smiling as he reached a hand out to Ava. “I admit that I had hoped to have the chance to meet the current headmaster of the Sanctuary, although I’m hardly disappointed. You are the woman everyone says will succeed him.”

“That’s hardly definitive,” Ava said with a polite smile as she shook his hand. “Please. You informed us of Kurt Halis’s ill condition. He should be seen to.”

“Yes, yes. He’s in our clinic ward,” Progil said, beckoning them to follow, Helyne falling into step next to Norus. “I must warn you, his condition has continued to worsen. We informed you of his sudden loss of consciousness. He had woken, but he would pass out as abruptly again. He stopped waking two days ago. That’s when the screaming began. His sleep has been troubled during his stay and we’ve known he’s in severe pain, but these anguished cries are new. And they’re only getting worse.”

“And do you have any idea what is afflicting him? Specifically?”

Progil shook his head. “The healers could discern nothing. They say that it’s a Dark Arts curse that afflicts him and this affliction is like a poison, but that’s not uncommon. The only specific we have is the information that this was the cause of one of the Councilor families, the brother of one of the Councilors. It’s why we requested the best of the healers at your disposal.”

That news sent a chill through Ava’s bones. A Councilor family member? After the sovereign family, the Councilors were the strongest of all Mystics in Derelior. Their bloodlines were the oldest and purest while all Valeen Mystics were the Khaleds’ bastards, bloodlines diluted by the commonborn. Including Ava. She looked to her husband then Helyne, the sinking of regret in the pit of her stomach before turning back to Progil. “A Councilor Khaled? Kurt may be beyond any aid at the hands of the Valeen.”

Rather than express shock or press insistence, Progil only gave a sullen nod. “Even Halis stated that it may be too late for him. He actually made no request for healing, but rather only that those within your family should come and be introduced.”

“Introduced? To who?” Helyne queried even as she had already begun pressing Ava towards the clinic, now in sight.

“His charges,” Ava murmured before swiftly bursting into a run for the clinic, ignoring Progil’s cries for her to halt. She didn’t. Not until nearly running into one of the attendants here, though she paused only long enough to be redirected to Kurt’s room. Not that it was necessary as it took little time for the cries to fill the halls and beckon her to the correct room. For a moment, all Ava did was stand in the doorway, catching her breath. That was when she realized who she saw. Not the man thrashing in bed, but the young girl, standing just arm’s length from the bed. Without a thought, Ava rushed in, throwing her arms around the child, muttering over and over, “Thank Navar you are well.” Until the girl had shoved her back with a look of confusion and worry.

“Who are you to approach and touch me?” The adolescent girl snapped as she pulled away. Her voice was not filled with outrage, but fear like that in her shaking eyes. “You said ‘thank Navar’. Does that mean you… you’re not here to harm Kurt or myself?”

“Of course not,” Ava said, trying to hide her shock as she reached a hand out to Alyssa, aware that this was the daughter of her bond sister. The child looked little like the mother, but Ava had long heard how Alyssa looked similar to her father. “Alyssa, you’re safe here. No Valeen would dare harm you. Not the daughter of Ceila Daruhnel. Your mother is important to us as we know this period of peace was of her influence. She is the best hope for our existence. Her… and yourself.”

“Myself? Though I have never set foot in the land? Do you not regard Mama as a traitor? The Khaleds say my father is one. The Khaleds feel the Valeen are the enemy and Papa married one. Do you not feel the same about the Khaleds?”

“We fear the Khaleds, that is true. Our livelihoods are at their mercy, but your father has shown himself to be a good man. I won’t condemn a good man.”

“Like Kurt. You will not ignore his suffering, will you?” Alyssa asked, turning her gaze back to the pained man. “He is only hurt because of me. I did not heed him and he had to protect myself… and my sisters. Now… I fear we may lose him.”

“I am here to try to heal him, Alyssa, but… I may not be strong enough,” Ava said softly as she glanced towards the door, seeing the others – Progil, Norus, and Helyne – there. She then squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “You might not want to be here for this. The healing process is not always easy for those in great pain.”

“I can’t leave him,” Alyssa murmured. “He’s suffering because he wouldn’t leave my side. How can I not do the same?”

“By remembering that Kurt didn’t risk his life so that you spend your time living in regret,” Norus said in a gentle voice as he entered, a smile forced on his lips. “Besides, Kurt’s going to be fine. We just need to let Ava work in peace and with our faith.”

The girl didn’t move, just gave Ava and long, hard look before whispering, “Why would you try to save him? How do I know I can trust you?”

Ava swallowed, taking the adolescent’s hands into her own. “Alyssa, no matter what words I give to you, I’m sure you would only trust Kurt’s words and I wouldn’t blame you. But… Norus and Helyne-” she gestured a hand to each as she spoke “-they are the siblings of Kurt. Myself… I was raised alongside your mother. Ceila was my sister who helped me acclimate to life at the Sanctuary.”

Alyssa looked over the visitors once more, the confusion clear in her eyes, but she gave no argument. Only nodded and turned to Norus. “Kurt told me that I have to talk the Valeen about what’s happening and Progil said to wait until someone from the Sanctuary came, that you can do more than he can. So… I guess it is time I talk.”

“Only if it’s easier for you,” Norus said, his easy grin returning to his lips as Ava stood. “Kurt’s going to be just fine, all right? Don’t think otherwise.” He then moved to his wife, granting her a chaste kiss and whispering, “You’ll be fine if I leave?”

She nodded. “I’ll be fine. I just need to talk with Progil. Go on.”

Norus returned the nod before scooting Alyssa out of the room. The child went willingly, but with vexed eyes on Kurt. It caused a swelling of guilt in Ava’s heart, but she reminded herself that she still had every chance to alleviate the girl’s worries… and the concerns of others. “Are you certain you want to remain, Helyne?” she questioned looking to the black-haired woman shifting from one foot to the other nervously.

“I’m not leaving his side. I can handle whatever happens.”

“All right. I need you to help me lash him to the bed,” Ava said just as she turned to Progil. “I need constraint belts. His trashing and screams will get worse… whether or not I can actually heal him. And I can’t be disturbed through the process.”

Progil was quick to heed Ava, leaving the two women to watch Kurt flail about in pain in their silence. Then Helyne softly murmured, “You are going to try your best, right? You don’t hold his past stupidity against him that much… do you?”

“I don’t,” Ava said calmly as she took hold of Helyne’s hand. “We’ve all lived lives we regret and I’m not about to bring pain to the lives that care for him. Like you and Norus. Besides… I don’t imagine failing Kurt would help us taking the girls in.”

“Thank you,” was all Helyne whispered as Progil returned with the constraints. They set about with the preparations before Ava began to ease her mind while standing at Kurt’s beside. “Navar strengthen you,” Helyne said softly before Ava’s eyes fell shut and the healer entered the void.

All sensations were blocked from her perception, none of her senses heeding what could distract her, allowing her to focus solely on the life force in need of aid. Though she existed in a void, it was not empty as she could feel an aura of cold. Holding her hands over where the cold emanated, a hazy image akin to a blue flame took form in the shape of a man. The deteriorating condition was evident in how the flame burned weakly. Yet still, his aura told her nothing of what ailed him.

Murmuring a soft prayer to Navar in her task of healing, Ava fell to the reliance of the abilities that flowed through her veins. In this state, she could see them within her – small sparks of blue. She urged them to linger in her fingers and along her palm as she let her hands hover over the length of the fiery image. In moments, the ‘flame’ image fading and replaced by an intricate weaving of lines of gold ‘light.’ She studied the lines, the ‘map’ of Kurt’s life energy, seeking to find the issue. It didn’t take long.

Poisonous green ‘vines’ were spread throughout, wrapping around several of the ‘energy veins,’ leaking ‘light’ of the same venomous color into these veins.

However, as Ava began to untangle the ‘green vines,’ they instead took to trying to latch onto her own life energy. While it brought a sense of alarm to her mind, it also made her task in ‘incinerating’ the ‘parasitic vines’ slightly easier. Though hardly enough to reduce the strain of the concentration or to keep up with the gathered speed of these ‘vines’ in their attack on the man. The faster she worked, the faster this curse attacked. The work was draining, leaving Ava unable to believe that she could accomplish the task. Yet even as she felt her legs too weak to hold her up, she persisted. A sudden anger filled her, the thought of this man had risked his life to protect the daughters of her sister and this was the cruelty to befell him. That one didn’t care about the lives his loss would affect, and dealt him a curse that would render the task of healing near impossible… but Ava was never one to cave in to surrender.

Not until the last of the ‘vines’ burned away and Ava found herself falling to the floor, Helyne gathering her up with a cry. Ava did not answer, however. Only smiled to hear only silence from Kurt, but still feel his aura only now it was burning stronger…

#

There was no ease to be had for Alyssa. Even if she couldn’t hear Kurt’s screams as they happened, they still rang in her ears. It was her fault and now… she had taken the coward’s way out, leaving his side.

“You must hear it all the time, but… you really do remind me of your father.”

Biting her lip, Alyssa looked up from the ignored sweet cakes and milk the outpost crew had left at the table of the healer’s lounge, cleared out to give the heiress privacy with the visitor Norus. Well, at least the cakes were ignored by her. Norus seemed to be enjoying the treats. She had to smile. She was so accustomed to males that were serious and tough… or cruel. But in the short time she knew this man, he wasn’t like that. It made Alyssa smile. “Truly? What makes you say that?”

The man’s smile grew wide before he took another bite from the sweet cake in his hand. “Aside from the hair, eyes, even the angles of your face? Well, it has to do with the look of concern in your eyes. When I met the man, I always saw the similar concern he had for your mother, worrying over her. I take it Kurt’s important to you?”

The young heiress gave a small nod, her hand continuing to run along the back of the scarlet tiger cub in her lap. Nica slept, but the warm, furry creature still provided the adolescent girl with a sense of comfort. “He is. Papa assigned him to watch over me when I had to attend the patrician academy. I do not think any of us expected it, but Kurt became my most trusted companion and friend. He has always been there for me.”

The brown-skinned, brunette man gave a nod, still smiling. “He can be the most aggravating sort, but he is fiercely loyal. Glad he’s not doing a job of angering you.”

Now Alyssa felt the grin on her lips. “Oh, he does. And I make him mad as well. But…” She looked towards the door as her shoulders dropped. “But we only dod so to tease each other. Now… I don’t know if I’ll ever get to make him mad again…”

“Alyssa… you will.” Norus moved from where he sat to kneel next to Alyssa, taking her small hand into his and squeezing. “Kurt is as stubborn as they come and so is my wife, not to mention she’s one of the best healers of the Territories. Kurt is going to be fine. I doubt he’ll let himself die before you ascend to the throne. He tells me how you are a persistent bugger, fierce in spirit, but with a kind heart and it’ll be quite the day when you ascend to the throne.” The brunette man spoke with an encouraging smile, but it gave Alyssa little comfort, not as she came to understood the reason for the revolt.

“I… I don’t know if I can ascend and reign after my father,” she said in barely a whisper, hugging Nica to her chest. “The adults wouldn’t tell me, but I heard them talk when they thought I was sleeping. They think that attack happened because… because I’m not like other Khaled maidens.” She bit her lip as she tried to hold back the tears, taking a few deep breathes before continuing. “Do you know of the Grand Council? How there are six of the most powerful Khaleds that make up the council? The Councilors are to counter the Prime Lord if he acts beyond his duties. And Papa has done so many times. Marrying Mama, bettering the lives and prosperity of the commonborn… naming a daughter as his heir. The Councilors only permitted my position as High Heiress because they hope that one of their sons could reign through me as my husband. Except… Mama and Papa didn’t raise me to be submissive and compliant and they don’t think the Councilors are willing to wait until I’m an eighteen anymore.”

She could see the color had drained from the man’s face. Kurt and her mother had warned her; the Valeen weren’t so… jaded to the atrocities that were commonplace in the Regime, that innocence could still be retained far into adulthood. Though in the Regime, innocence was lost often during childhood.

 “That’s… I knew the Khaleds weren’t pleased with your father, but I hadn’t thought…” He shook his head, steadying his voice before saying, “I hate to prod, but… is there anything important that the Valeen might need to know? If we need to prepare for an invasion? Perhaps which family? Did you know the man that attacked Kurt?”

“She might know the colors, but not the face. A Shadow Commander rarely, well… steps out of the shadows. It’s kind of in the name.”

Though weak and ragged, the voice that interrupted the conversation was unmistakable. Though she paused to careful set down Nica, Alyssa then immediately barreled right into the interrupter. A move she regretted as it was met with a pained hiss and groan. She pulled back, looking up with worry before she was swiftly pulled back into an embrace, a familiar, strong one that she had been without for days now.

“I did not think you could be up so soon,” Alyssa said, head resting against his chest, not caring of the sweaty musk that still clung to his clothes. “You should rest-”

“I’ve been asleep long enough and you need to get further west,” Kurt muttered before turning to Norus. “Wish we were seeing each other under better circumstances.”

“Don’t we all?” Norus said with a sort of half smile as he stood and moved forward, clapping a hand onto Kurt’s shoulder. “But you will be staying, right? I know you want the girls to head for the Sanctuary. It is the safest place for them. So you’ll be joining as well, won’t you? Not running off…”

“Run off?” Alyssa cried out, turning back to Kurt and not caring the pain he had just endured and began to pound her fists against his chest. “You can’t leave! You can’t! Mama and Papa told you-”

“To get you girls to safety,” Kurt said without raising his voice as he swiftly took hold of her by her wrists, her struggle hardly causing any difficulty for him. “And I have. Norus here will bring you to Sanctuary, it’s safe for you. But I shouldn’t-”

“Fuck that,” Norus bit out, surprising both Kurt and Alyssa. “If this is about your past mistakes, you know we’ve had worse at the Sanctuary. And after risking your life for these girls… no one will say a word against your presence.”

“They can’t know,” Kurt said, swiftly shaking his head, an arm going around Alyssa’s shoulders and holding her close. “We can’t let it get out where and who the girls are. The Khaleds will know where they’ll go, but I’d rather there not be those that can point them the way if possible.”

“No Valeen would allow themselves to give up the girls. We need continued leadership in the Regime that is sympathetic to our existence and the High Heiress is our best bet,” Norus said softly, gesturing the two back to the table. Once they were all seated and the door was closed, Norus continued. “So… you think an invasion is possible, likely? Who started the uprising? Who attacked you?”

“With the ruin of Trecher’s Pass, infiltrations are more likely. Especially if there is a coup of sorts happening. They’ll be busy with that development, but the still need Alyssa to make their efforts legitimate by their own beliefs. I don’t doubt they’d come for her.” Kurt reached over and took Alyssa’s hand, but his gaze was fixed on Norus. “As for who it was… who else could be worse? The Vairne family-”

Once more, the color drained from Norus’s face as his eyes grew wide. “Their province is the closest to the borders. If they-”

“It will be months before Vairne can establish even a small team and get them into the Territories. Fortunately for us, the Vairnes do prefer smaller task forces to obvious onslaught, not to mention that he’ll have too much on his hand dealing with the Rhyds and Ceila. After all… how else did Trecher’s Pass collapse?”

“You’re saying those two were able to? But… how?”

Alyssa gulped at Norus’s disbelief, looking over to Kurt, watching him carefully. His gaze was as cold and hard as the ice color of his eyes giving away nothing. How? He saw the same thing she had. How was he not shaking like she felt she was?

“There’s things I’ve seen, Norus. Things I would consider… unbelievable. The Khaleds have more power than we realize. We’re just lucky that the Morgana family is the strongest bloodline…” He stopped, his gaze turned to Alyssa before shaking his head. “Could I… could I have a word with Aly privately? We haven’t had a chance to talk since the final run through the Pass.”

Norus nodded as he stood, moving around the table to clap a hand on the blonde’s shoulder again. “I hope you’ve spoken with you sister and Ava… is she-”

“She passed out from the effort to heal me,” Kurt said in a morose voice. “I spoke with Lyn. A little, but I do need to speak with Aly. The last time I saw her, I almost died.”

“All right, but have some time for your family later. A lot of us were in a panic.”

“Please… I don’t need to feel regret in living,” Kurt said with a groan. Then he sighed. “But it is good to be able to see all of you again. And… I owe your wife. She’s the last person that should have had to save my life.”

“You’re right. You do owe her,” Norus said with a smirk before he left the heiress and her guardian in a tense silence that needed broken once the two had their privacy.

“You didn’t tell him. You saw it too. What Papa is… what I am. Why didn’t you-”

“Because it’s one thing to believe in far off deities, angels, and demons, but for any one of them could have offspring? It’s against Valeen beliefs. It’s blasphemy.” The hardness of his speech with Norus was gone now, soft and mournful now as he spoke with only Alyssa. He opened up his arms, a gesture for comfort and she accepted. He was back, he was alive… he was all she had left now. “Look, I don’t care what we saw. I don’t care if it is all true. Your father is a good man and you might be a pain, but you have the same good heart. You’re not evil. But if the others knew you are indeed descended from demons… that’s how they’d see you. You’re more than that.”

She gripped tightly onto Kurt’s tunic, biting her lips to stem the tears once more. Oh, she knew, she had learned. How many strikes along her knuckles had she received as the Khaled bloodlines were drilled into her head… along with their claimed demon ancestors. She never believed all that. Thought it was just tales to scare others, to make themselves seem superior. And her parents hardly enforced the Khaled’s religion, Rae’khel, her mother instead teaching her the ways of the Valeen faith. Her father only instructed her that the rituals of the Rae’khel religion were important to know as the ruler of the Regime, but even he didn’t worship the demons. But seeing her father the night of her bornday and that day at the pass… with large black feathered wings and black eyes. She never wanted to believe it was possible, but what else was it?

“Look, I know this is something we’ll need to talk about, but right now…” He released her, only to fall on his knee before her, his hands firmly gripping her shoulders as he looked her in the eye with a graveness that terrified her. “Alyssa, I know this is going to be hard for you, but these people you’re going to be with, they’re family… your family. I know you only had your parents and sisters, but now… you’ll see you have much more than that. They’ll be better for you than I-”

“You’re not leaving me! You can’t!” she cried out, knocking a fist against his shoulder. “Papa and Mama trusted you! I trust you! You can’t-”

“Alyssa, stop.” He took her fist into his hand, unfurling her fingers, rubbing a thumb along the back of her hand as he continued holding her gaze. “Imp, listen. Please. I can’t stay at the Sanctuary. There’s too much bad blood between myself and the people there. I made a lot of mistakes, rotten mistakes and I don’t want people to associate myself with you. I don’t want my reputation ruining yours.”

“But… but you’re my friend. My… my only friend now. At least here. Please.” Breaking free of his hold, she threw her arms around his neck, clutching tightly. “I don’t care what others think of me. They’ve never thought well of me. But you… you’ve always assured me that I… that I am worthwhile, I am skilled. You’ve always been there for me, even when Mama and Papa couldn’t. Please. I don’t want that to change.”

“Alyssa, please… don’t ask this of me.” He pried her arms from around his neck, pulled back and cupped her jaw. “There’s no part of me that wants to leave you, but… I know how things will go. The hate that those of the Sanctuary have for me is going to make things hard because they’ll want me to deserve my right to stay here. I served in your father’s army, I’ve studied the tactics of the other families. I’ll need to help the whole of the Territories prepare. I won’t be able to spend a lot of time at the Sanctuary-”

“Then why can’t I go with you? Papa would take me on his trips between my study sessions. He said it was good for me to learn the land. Shouldn’t I do the same here? If what you’re saying is true and the people here look forward to my ascension… I should get to know them… shouldn’t I?”

Kurt grimaced. “You still have your training… and your sisters. They’re too young to be dragged around the Territories. You should stay with them. You’re all they have.”

“Then can’t you see why you can’t just leave me behind?! I thought you were my friend!” she snapped, knocking a fist into his shoulder again before throwing her arms around his neck, unable to hold back the tears now. “Please. You’re all I have. Lily and Lia… they’re too young to understand what just happened and Mama kept Lily sheltered so she wouldn’t be influenced by the Regime. Don’t leave. Please. I still need you.”

The man heaved a sigh, even as he continued to hold her close. “If only you weren’t my weakness. Fine.” He pulled away, taking hold of her by the shoulders and looking at her dead in the eye. “But you have a lot of training and instructions you still need to go through. I’ll speak with Renesse. He won’t like it, but… he’ll agree. You should get to know the land. I’ll keep training you with the sword, but when you’re at the Sanctuary, you need to focus on your Mystic training and you’ll have to learn it all over. The Dark Arts are forbidden here. Ava will have to be the one to instruct you. And don’t forget your academic studies. You’re not getting a pass on them. If you can do all that-”

“I can! I will!” she cried out just as she threw her arms around him once more, only this time not out of desperation, but with a smile. It was no true reconciliation, but at least… at least she would have Kurt to see her through.

 
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Chapter One

There was a rush of red and a terrible, fierce growl then all was still.

“I suggest you kneel and lay down your arms rather than try something foolish,” said the young woman that stood before the bandits. At her height of five foot four, she might not seem overly intimidating, but in her company was an adolescent scarlet tiger that pinned one of the four bandits to the ground, her bared fangs in the man’s face. Plenty intimidating. “Unless you are that foolish to tempt an attack of a scarlet tiger.”

“That… that can’t be no scarlet tiger!” cried out one of the standing bandits. “They… they’re supposed to have died out! That… that ain’t no tiger-”

“An… an illusion! It has to be!” said another bandit.

“Tell me, down there,” the woman said, turning to look at the bandit beneath the tiger, “does that feel like an illusion?” But the man gave no response, save a desperate cry just as the rest of the bandits rushed off, deeper into the forest. With a groan, she took off after them. Then, two of the men fell, bolts in their shoulders and legs. Their cries made the last bandit glance behind, his eyes growing large with the sight of his pursuer… before she dropped her shoulder and barreled into him. He fell, his pursuer now kneeling onto his chest, the tip of her blade at his neck.

“Dammit. I hate when they run. Why do they always run?” she grumbled, dragging the tied up bandit out of the woods, tying the rope to her saddle as the rest of the bandits were tied up to three other horses, their riders waiting.

“You do tend to drive terror into the souls of others, what with the brandishing of your sword and that tiger you have at your side,” one of the riders, her teammates, the other female said with a laugh. “Can you blame those that run?”

The swordswoman gave a grunt as she climbed onto her horse. “Haha… very amusing. Now let’s get a move on. We still have three days ride back to the Sanctuary.”

They started on their way, permitting their horses only at a slow pace that the bandits could keep a steady walk. At least as best they could in the company of an adolescent tiger, particularly as she found amusement in scaring the men.

“Nica, be nice,” her mistress said, digging out a string of jerky and tossing it over to the large cat who swiftly caught the piece in her mouth. She laughed, seeing the delight in the tiger’s chopping. After all, in the last five years, she had raised this creature, often fearful for the fate of the creature if Nica should ever act unruly. But her command over Nica was firm and her tiger was inherently well natured.

This was now the life of seventeen year old Alyssa. For the past five years, she and her sisters went by a false name, Dalen, for the same reason Alyssa’s hair was bleached a dark blond like her sisters: to hide their identities. They continued living at the Sanctuary, though Alyssa spent most her time traveling. Before her graduation near four months back, her travels had been with her bodyguard and mentor, Kurt, as he tended to the military preparations in various Valeen city-states. Now, she served in a peacekeeping unit, traversing about the Territories to deal with scattered troubles too minor or distant for city forces to deal with. At least she had the aid of friends, her teammates Miauhni Faedez, Gray Sharid, and Bral Jorrd.

Life among the Valeen had been a good one for Alyssa. In the Regime, her only family were her parents and sisters, small and close-knit, but the melancholy of the Regime ever weighed on her parents. That wasn’t the case in meeting her Valeen family. While none were her blood relatives, the Phares-Renesse clan were a lively bunch of mismatched individuals that accepted her as one of their own. The adults of the clan that still resided at the Sanctuary were raised by two respected former leaders of the establishment, Head Master Renesse and Captain Phares, the namesakes of the clan; Alyssa’s mother had been raised by Renesse, as Ava had been while Kurt, Norus, and Helyne had been in Phares’ care. And the family only grew with more children.

Still, it wasn’t just the family she gained, but the friends as well. Before, Alyssa only had one female playmate in her early youth and three male peers at the patrician academy she attended while everyone else thought it was fun to taunt the only girl of the academy. Now, Alyssa might as well have been a drop in a bucket of water. She wasn’t exactly the most well accepted after a few Dark Arts outbursts and considering she did have a tiger in her care, yet she found quite a few to call friends, even beyond those currently in her presence

Life was good here and Alyssa was grateful to experience this life. Still… she could never really accept that she belonged in this land. She lived a far better life among the Valeen than she ever experienced in the Regime, yet… how many others weren’t nearly as lucky? She had a responsibility, didn’t she? The Territories wasn’t where she belonged.

Then the scrape of a rough tongue interrupted her morose thoughts.

“Augh! Nica!” Alyssa cried out as her tiger continue to lick her face as she now relaxed on a hostel bed, her team having reached the nearest town. Nica did not relent however until Alyssa simply threw her arms around the cat’s head. It helped calm her, but… not enough. She was grateful for her familiar, but Nica was no replacement for her father’s embrace… or assuring words. Especially of late. Considering her dreams.

For much of her life, Alyssa hadn’t known to recall dreams frequently, but of the past two weeks, she had four nights intruded by dreams that made little sense to her. Not in the usual manner of dreams as strange, impossible situations. Instead, her dreams seemed… rather believable. Not that they were without a disturbing sense to them as every dream seemed to play out like she was witnessing a rather unpleasant life of another. Considering whoever she was observing was married at the age of thirteen, a mother when fifteen years of age, but worst, trained by her father to be a strategic warrior, but relegated to domestic duties by her husband’s command.

But why were these her dreams? Why now as her bornday approached? And who was there that could give her any answers? No one this side of Derelior.

“I’ll be eighteen soon, Nica,” she whispered as they continued to linger as they did, Nica’s jaw on her shoulder. “Not even two months more. I can’t stay here. I have to go back.” She pulled away, her hands holding the tiger’s head. “I hope you’re ready… as I hope I am.” In response, Nica was quick to lick her cheek again, only too eagerly.

If only she could expect such an answer from all that she relied on.

#

In all his days, the last sort of existence Kurt thought he would endure was the one of the domestic. He had tried to avoid it, with his departure from the Sanctuary, enlisting in the Majestic Army of the Regime. The thrill of adventure to serve under a war hero, seeing new lands and partaking of foreign experiences… right up until he was made the sovereign guardian of the High Heiress, little more than a glorified child minder. He thought it a horrible scenario… until he realized the girl in his care was as stubborn and restless as himself. He had underestimated the friend she would become as he tutored her in the ways of the blade and journeyed throughout the Territories… until she was a child no longer, on her own adventures… while he now watched over his nieces. At least, as Alyssa had been, these three girls were as eager to learn to fight.

“Looks like we have the next generation of warriors out practicing. But what else is to be expected of the Phares-Renesse clan?”

“Especially when you dump these kids on me,” Kurt responded, but with a smile as he turned from the training session with two five-year-old girls: his niece, Thira, and the youngest Morgana sister, Dahlia. The third girl in his care, a three-year-old that had been clinging to his back, now scrambled off as her father made his approach. Kurt continued to smile as he watched Norus lift little Eve into an embrace; she had the curls of her mother, but her colors as her father. It was a good sight to see, a relief really for the couple, to see them with a child after nine years of marriage.

“I do apologize for all these meetings of late, “Norus said, now standing next to Kurt. “If you’d rather, I’ll make sure to ask Lyn next time-”

“There’s no need for that. Not while she’s got another young one on her hands,” Kurt said as he gestured the older girls from the training area. “Besides… after seeing life in the Regime, I’d rather be able to see none of these girls grow up defenseless.”

“Always have to get morose about things, don’t you?” Norus said with a scoffed laugh, clapping a hand on Kurt’s shoulder before looking over each girl in their midst. “Now, you three… I do believe I promised you’d have a little jaunt at the farms today. Keltren told me that a new foal has been born today.” Both men laughed at the ensuing cheers and squeals… which left Kurt off guard for when Norus leaned in and whispered, “Oh, and the light of your life is finally back. Try not to look to excited.”

“The light of my… what the hell?!” Kurt snapped as he jerked back. “Stop referring to her as such! What’s wrong with you?” Unfortunately, his ire only worsened as Norus just let out a boisterous laugh. “You’re Captain of the Guard now, in charge of the safety of the Sanctuary residents. How is that keeping her safe?”

The brown-haired man just smirked with such a boyish charm, Kurt found himself in disbelief of this man could be so jovial yet hold the position that was now his. For the last two years, Norus had been an administrator of the Sanctuary. Like his wife. He was in charge of the Valley’s security and Ava, as the Head Mistress of the Sanctuary, was the general overseer. As if it was a surprise that the two were a good pairing.

“Oh, yes. You are just the worst sort of fiend,” Norus said, rolling his eyes before looking to his daughter, bouncing her in his arms, provoking her bubbly giggle. Then he was smirking back at Kurt. “You nearly died for the girl, set your life aside for her… and you intend to serve her until the day you die. So tell me how you’re a threat to her?”

“Maybe,” Kurt grumbled, crossing his arms and averting his glare. “Still… I can’t think of her like that. She’s Ceila’s girl. Her mother practically helped raise us.”

“It’s awkward, sure… but what family in the Sanctuary isn’t?” Norus said with a shrug. “After all, we bedded the same girl. I just ended up being the one hitched to her.”

Kurt gave a scoff. “How can you say that so nonchalantly?”

Norus just shrugged. “I just want to see you both happy and I get the feeling you’d both be happiest together. Certainly more than if she’s with some Khaled heir.”

“She’s just a good friend, Norus. She’s my charge. I don’t think of her like that.”

“Yes, you do. Your eyes light up every time you see her.” Norus said, shaking his head. Right before the squealing began, beckoning Kurt to watch as the girls made a quick dash after the approaching figure, pummeling her into the ground. It was hard for Kurt not to let the smile creep onto his lips even as he knew Norus would see and grin. But how could he not be happy and relieved to see Alyssa back, alive and well, smiling brightly as she greeted what had made up her family for the last five years.

“Well, aren’t you a greeting party? Someone might think you thought I was dead.”

“Not funny!” Dahlia cried out against her sister’s tease. Like their sister Lily, Dahlia resembled their mother more and more each day; however, she did share the emerald eyes of the Morgana family. All three girls were a stubborn, fiery sort, though both Alyssa and Dahlia were the more energetic in personality with such bright smiles. It was a good thing, to see that both girls could still find happiness. After everything they had lost, after everything his former apprentice had seen.

“Right there… that look,” Norus muttered in Kurt’s ear.

“Shut up.”

“So what’s going on now? I just got back-” Alyssa began, still embracing Dahlia.

“I was just about to take the girls out of Kurt’s hair, that’s all,” Norus said.

The smile quickly faded from Alyssa’s lips as her gaze turned from her sister to the guard. “Oh. Where to? Just back to your flat?”

“We’re going to play with the goats and see the baby horsey!” Dahlia cried out in response first, pulling on her sister’s hand. “Come with us, Lyssie! Come with us!”

“I…” Her gaze shifted from her sister to Kurt, a rather worried look in her eyes. He frowned, knowing she was worried about skipping on their usual chat after she returned. A habit of theirs to ease the man’s worried over her ventures.

“Go on,” he said with a forced smile. “You don’t need to hang around a decrepit.”

“Don’t call yourself that,” the heiress griped with a scowl before giving a sigh as she looked back to her sister. “Maybe… maybe another time, Lia.”

That didn’t go over well. “But you’re never here!” Dahlia shouted, her arms straight at her side, hands balled into fists. “You’re always away and it makes Lily madder and madder. She won’t play with me. You won’t play with me. Please!” The anger dissipated from the little girl’s attitude swiftly though as she threw her arms around her sister’s neck and saying with a whimper, “You’ll stay this time, right? Please. I miss you. No more missions. Please Lyssie…”

Again, Alyssa sighed but slowly gave a nod as she hugged her little sister tightly. “All right, Lia. I’ll stay. At least until my bornday.” She pulled back and cupped her sister’s jaw, meeting the younger’s gaze. “Is that all right?” Once Dahlia gave a small nod, Alyssa forced a smile on her lips. “Then I’ll stay, but you get going and have fun. I need to knock Kurt around the training field a bit.”

There was an obvious look of disappointment on Dahlia’s face. Whether it was because her sister wasn’t joining her or she was going to miss out on watching her sister spar, Kurt couldn’t say. But the little girl broke away from her sister and returned to Thira’s side, Norus taking that as his cue to head off with the girls. That left just Kurt and Alyssa to their own devices.

“I need a damn blade,” Alyssa snapped, none too patient as she grabbed a practice blade from a nearby rack then climbed over the fencing of one space. “Come on, now I’m pissed and you better help me work off the anger.”

“Why would you be angry? Your sister just wants you around,” Kurt said as he took a blunted blade as well and joined his former apprentice.

“Shut up. You put her up to it, didn’t you?” she said as she barely gave him a chance to ready himself as she sliced her blade at him. But he was aware of how rash she acted when angered and blocked her attack easily enough. “You know how hard it is for me to disappoint Lia of all people.”

“Hmm. You could try to mend things with Lily, you know.” She used an uppercut against him now, which he knocked aside easily and gained some ground.

She scoffed as she attacked again. “I’ve tried. She hates me and there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“She doesn’t hate you,” Kurt said with a sigh as he blocked her strike once more before shifting his momentum and taking the offensive now, almost tripping up his charge, causing her to stumble back to steady her footing. “She’s an adolescent girl feeling abandoned by her parents, with a nearly absent sister to look up to, while having to handle an overactive little sister. She just wants you to spend time with Dahlia and herself, be the big sister they need you to be.”

“I’m a field operative now, Kurt. There are missions I need to handle now.” She stood her ground well as she fended of his attacked, but he could see she was buckling.

“Aly, none of the other operatives work as often as your team. You can take off more time between missions. It’s not even good for you to be working this hard… unless you want to risk another mess during one of your missions.”

“Just had to bring that up again.” Another scoff and she lunged at him, her attack a fast barrage. “So you did put Dahlia up to it.”

“No, I did not. But everyone else in our little clan has been talking about your bornday. Dahlia has been talking nonstop about whether or not you’ll be here that day.”

“So all of you were in on this.” Her agitation was building, evident in the speed and strength of her attacks… but also sloppy. He was able to counter each one deftly.

“Alyssa… I’ve told you not to let your emotions cloud your judgement.”

“Shut up, you ass. I’m pissed and this isn’t life or death. Let me have this.” And to emphasize the state of her anger, Alyssa impulsively gave a swift kick into his shin. He hadn’t quite expected that, giving a pained grunt as he faltered. But he wasn’t quite off guard as she tried to make the move of setting her blade at his chest, but then she was the one taken aback as he swung his blade to knock hers from her grip. Then he grabbed the startled girl by the ankle and jerking her forward, making her fall onto her back and keeping her down as he set his blade at her neck.

“No matter the situation or the opponent you treat each match as life or death. You let yourself get too lenient during too many spars and you’ll get careless in the field.” He then carefully tapped his blade against her rib cage, on her left side, just under her breast. “You got careless once and you saw the consequences. You should have learned by now the importance of your practicing.”

“I wasn’t careless,” she muttered. “You know… you really are an ass sometimes.”

“Hmm. You’re the one that wanted a spar. Your sister wanted to spend time with you,” Kurt said with a shrug, pulling her onto her feet before returning their practice blades. “Come on… might as well get you fed.”

Her eyes lit up at the mention of food and was quick to trot after him. They stopped by the kitchens, grabbing a few shredded pork filled pastries before they headed their way for his flat in the staff apartments in this Sanctuary complex. Situated in a valley basin surrounded by vast mountains, Sanctuary Valley lived up to its name. For over five thousand years, this was the heart of the Valeen culture, since the days of the Shadow Massacres almost decimating the Valeen population. But while the Valley could support a thriving community, the Valeen populace eventually left, establishing city-states scattered throughout the land west of the Agreilian Range. Now, the Sanctuary operated as a refuge for orphans and other lost souls, in need of aid to get them back on their feet. Many remained to continue to help any incoming waifs, keep the Valley thriving, or aid in its protection. How could Kurt blame Alyssa for taking up such duties when she was raised among a mismatched family that took the Valley’s welfare to heart? Even Kurt, who had little love for his Valeen origins, continued to see to the betterment of the defenses throughout the Territories. He might not agree with the Valeen on many points of their culture, but they were still better than the Khaleds and did not deserve to endure another travesty.

Still, he was much happier when she was around. Just being assured that she was alive and well helped ease his mind… after three months ago, when a mission went awry and left Alyssa within an inch of her life. She was thankfully only a few days ride out from the Sanctuary, a ride he made with a more skilled Sanctuary healer to tend to her internal wounds and he spent three days at the heiress’s bedside, tormented with worry as she was still too weak to wake. Unfortunately, Alyssa didn’t seem to learn from the situation, but she was always the stubborn and persistent sort. Always…

“It’s been five years, Kurt,” she said after finishing her pork pastries, now sipping from her cup of tea – a spiced, black tea, her favorite – while she stood by the window. “I thought Mama and Papa would surely have settled the issues in the Regime by now, that they would have called us back. But… they haven’t even sent a message our way.”

“Your parents have been dealing with issues since their marriage began, Aly,” he said softly, sitting at his kitchen table with his own cup of tea. “The Khaleds prefer to stick to their traditions and your father challenges every one of them with your mother’s influence. It’s heresy to the Khaleds. There was always the chance this would happen. Especially when it began to be obvious that you’re not simply some pawn for use.”

Her green eyes were filled with sadness as she turned back to him. “But… we are going to go back eventually, right? At least, I have to. I’m eighteen in a month. By Regime law, I’m supposed to marry by the end of this year and won’t that calm things in the Regime? Unless…” She paused this time as she then fixed a glare onto the former soldier, suspicion in the manner she cocked her brow. “You know something.”

“How would I know what your parents have on their minds?”

“Don’t lie to me, Kurt,” Alyssa interrupted rather bitterly, storming back to the table, setting down her cup just before she started grinding her fists into the wood surface, a glare still fixed on Kurt. “I know the danger Lily and Lia was in five years ago… or if they return, how they could be used as well for a bid for power. So tell me the truth. Did my parents talk to you about Lily and Lia? And… and what about me?”

“You?” He blinked. “You’re the High Heiress. You’d have to return-”

“Answer me, Kurt,” she bit out harshly. “Mama was still young when she had me. Even now, she’s only in her forties. She could have another child.”

“Your father wouldn’t hear it. He was insisting against your mother’s desire to conceive Lia consider all the complications she’s prone to with her pregnancies.”

“Papa wouldn’t hear of a lot of things, but he’s never been good at saying no to his family. Stop stalling. Did my parents tell you that we’re not to return?”

He sighed, moving to stand before her, his hands moving hers from the table and carefully unfurling her tight fists. Then, softly, he said, “Your parents… they’re not certain they’re willing to risk the livelihoods of your sisters. And that… they might try for a son, Aly.” His words were immediately reacted to as she shoved against him, eyes wide and head shaking as a hand went to her mouth and she turned away from him. “Aly, you know that a brother of yours wouldn’t have to live a life of the restrictions that would be forced on you. Your parents just thought that this might be your chance to live a life of your own making. Alyssa-”

“They’d really get rid of us like this?!” Alyssa snapped, twisting on her heel to face Kurt before she collapsed with her back to the wall, her arms wrapped around her legs, face buried against her knees. He was cautious to approach and kneel by her side, resting a hand on hers as her shoulders shook. “Lia never even had a chance to get to know our parents. Why would they do this to us?”

“Because they only want what is best for you, Aly. You and your sisters,” he said as she picked her head up to look back to him. “You could live whatever life you want.”

“But the women of the Regime don’t have that right. You… you know I can’t.”

He nodded. “I know. Because I do believe no one is better suited to succeed your father more than yourself,” he said as his hand took hold of hers again, gritting his teeth a moment to force back a flood of emotions he had no right to feel. He meant what he told her. She ought to succeed as sovereign when her time came. He had no business in her life other than to serve at her side.

“You… you’ll be with me when I go back, right? You’ll want to, won’t you?”

He forced the smile to his lips, forcing himself to forget that when they returned, he’d have to watch her marry another. It was for the best, but still… Norus was only too right. This girl, this woman… she was growing into something more to him. But… he didn’t deserve her and that didn’t matter.

“Of course I do. I’ll always be there for you, Aly. My life will always be yours.”

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Chapter Two

With a week of this extended stay, Alyssa was beginning to feel the strain of stagnation.

Since first coming to the Sanctuary, her stay in the Valley typically only lasted for a few days at a time, not enough to grow restless. Both for her and Nica. Her familiar was still a wild animal that needed to roam the outdoors. Alyssa needed a wide, open world herself, the freedom to ride where she pleased as much as the thrill of a fight. It kept her from dwelling too much on… well, anything. Like these dreams…

She still didn’t understand what she was dreaming. This woman, barely Alyssa’s own age, raising children while insisting with her father of the failing… war campaigns? Was this some dream to face her fears? To be relegated to merely bear and raise her husband’s heir, repressed from her right to reign only to see her sovereignty fall? But that wasn’t possible, was it? Besides… though Alyssa wanted to prove herself a capable leader, she had no mind for strategy. Not like this woman. What was going on?

“Aly… you all right?”

Shaking out of her rumination, Alyssa turned around to face her friend, Miauhni Faedez. Alyssa had seen many attractive females through her life, but Mia seemed to be the prettiest with her pale skin and kind face, framed by her luscious curls of deep chocolate brown that matched her eyes. She was a water fae summoner and healer, fitting her personality. Mia was always concerned about her friends, especially when catching them in morose thoughts. “Are you still bothered with how it ended with Gray?”

Alyssa blinked again before looking back. She had been watching some of the male residents of the Valley train and Gray was among them. She wasn’t sure if that had been why she watched, as she was merely resting after a training session with Kurt, but she knew why Mia would think that. Though Alyssa kept it from the adults in the Phares-Renesse clan, she and Gray had been having a sordid affair for a little over a year now. At least until a month ago. Mia and the rest of Alyssa’ friends had known about the affair and the nasty break up that followed.

“Aly, if you still love him-”

“It wasn’t love,” Alyssa said with a sigh as she moved to replace her practice blade. “I was just… thinking after a spar. Now was there something else? Or…”

“Aly… it’s midday. Eat.” With that, Mia grabbed Alyssa’s hand and began to practically drag her out of the training fields and over to the complex’s cafeteria, where they met up with Leanne Stayl and Reia Pavryl, two other friends of theirs.

Leanne and Reia also served as operatives on their own team. Among the four, the stout girl, Leanne, was the oldest at nineteen years and the tallest, standing five foot eight. Her appearance was typical for a Derelian native with dirty blond hair, brown eyes, fair skin, and plain face. While her mother possessed Mystic abilities, Leanne had no similar predispositions, instead honing her skill in archery. Such a fact did not go unnoticed as Leanne’s mother was the current Head Caretaker of the Sanctuary.

The redheaded, eighteen-year-old Reia, however, had inherited her Mystic abilities from her Khaled father. Like most of the Mystic charges of the Sanctuary, Reia was a bastard, but rather than growing up without her father, the man had instead been part of her life. She only came to the Sanctuary that she might train in relative safety as she was a target for her father’s rivals. As despite her having red-gold hair and blue-grey eyes, Reia was cream brown in skin, denoting her First Valeen heritage; the First Valeen were forced into servitude to the Khaleds and the notion that one might ascend to a higher status was blasphemous. For Reia’s sake, she needed to be able to defend herself before she made her return. At least that was the plan… until Trecher’s collapse.

“Where was she?” Reia asked once they were all seated at a table.

“You know Aly and her incessant need to train.”

Reia gave a scoff as they partook rations of venison stew and bread. “You should probably acquire the same habit. I saw the scar from that burn Alyssa got two missions back. The healing was some shoddy work.”

“You’re not even the healer on your team!”

“Stop picking fights, Reia,” Leanne said with a groan while Alyssa could only chuckle. She knew very well that in the Regime, she could hardly have such a conversation. Most females weren’t trained in Mystics or combat, expected only to serve as wives and mothers with only domestic skills in their repertoire if even the chance of a trade could be had. Her friends would all be terrible in the Regime.

“I’m not picking a fight,” Reia said, glaring at Leanne before looking over both Mia and Alyssa. “So… how’s the break treating you two? Enjoying the forced relaxation?”

“I should say I am… but I’m not,” Alyssa groaned, slopping her stew around the bowl. “Lia’s happy I’m here, but… Lily? She’s constantly snapping at me, always complaining… and I have to endure this for a month? I need to get out of here. Like go to Valvus. It’s only half a day’s ride away.”

“You have your run with Nica today. Won’t that be helpful at all?” Mia asked.

“It will, yes,” Alyssa said with a nod, but looked down to hide the disappointment on her face. Unlike her friends, she was still seventeen, prohibited from leaving the Valley without a legal adult. Even for a day.

“Still… it wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Leanne spoke up. “We’ve all been busy with our missions. Some leisure time in Valvus would be nice.”

While Leanne’s words eased Alyssa’s mind, her delight didn’t last as she watched more and more residents enter the cafeteria. Alyssa couldn’t help but worry. Some of them were the men Alyssa had absently watched. She could deal with Gray during the missions, but after…

She rushed though her meal, her nerves shaking as she told the others she was going to start getting Nica ready. She thought it was best to leave before she saw Gray arrive. Not that it did her any good as, of course, she ran into Gray as he entered.

“What are you in a rush for?” Gray Sharid questioned, pulling her outside and staring her down. The twenty-one-year-old man stood six foot two, a rather handsome specimen with gold hair and dark blue eyes… along with the fair skin and angular facial structure that was gave away his nature as a Khaled bastard… as most Valeen Mystics were. However, while Mia’s focus was in healing and support, Gray’s was combat oriented… and his disposition was markedly aggressive. Particularly since Alyssa ended their dalliance.

“Go on. I’ll catch up,” Gray told Bral as he fixed a narrowed gaze on Alyssa.

Not that Bral was exactly complying with the demand. “Look. You’re hungry, get something to eat. If she wants to talk, she’ll find you. Stop trying to force her to talk to you,” Bral Jorrd said. The last of her team, the crossbowman Bral was one of the first friends she made here at the Sanctuary as his father was an associate of the Phares-Renesse clan. Being an only child, Bral had taken to treating Alyssa like a younger sister. They had their jokes about that, considering he was as brown of skin and black haired, though his were tight curls; he had met Alyssa before she started bleaching her hair. Being twenty-three, six foot four, and of robust build, he fit the protective brother persona easily enough. She was grateful he cared, still…

“It’s fine,” she said, resting her hand on Bral’s arm. “Let Mia know I’ll be right with them soon.” He didn’t look to agree with her decision, but he made no argument and followed through. Unfortunately the moment he did, Gray continued with his own insistence, grabbing Alyssa by the wrist and just about yanked her around the building. “You’re still avoiding me, aren’t you?” he asked once away from the entrance to escape the crowd. “Even with the missions-”

“I just have a lot on my mind, Gray,” she said, leaning against the building. “And it’s Nica’s run today. She and I both get restless staying in the Valley for too long.”

“I know,” he said in a low voice, arm crossed as he stood next to her. “We used that as an excuse to get some… privacy. Nothing like a chase to get you in the mood-”

“Stop,” she said in a low, trembling voice, her eyes fixed on the ground. “It’s over, Gray. Why can’t you accept that? How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Then tell me why you want things ended,” he said, his voice surprisingly vulnerable, drawing Alyssa’s cautious attention back to him, catching the plea in his dark blue eyes. “I thought we were having fun together. Right up until you get distant and break things off with only the reasoning that you didn’t want this anymore-”

“I don’t and that should be enough reason.”

He heaved a sigh let his head drop. “At least tell me what I did wrong.”

With her own sigh, she moved to leave, having caught sight of Leanne and Reia standing near the entrance. “I’ve already told you what you did wrong. It’s not my fault that you don’t listen.” She didn’t wait for his response, instead turning to her friends and making their way to the stables for horses and Nica.

Her tiger wasn’t the only creature in Alyssa’s care. Alyssa’s mare Caelrae had been her steed on the flight from the rioting of Raldea, continuing to be her mount to this day. Caelrae was a fine horse, lean and white with a flowing mane, of the Peisconia breed, preferred among the Sovereign and Councilor castes of the Khaled ranks. Like Nica, her mare had also been a gift from her father and another point of contention at the Sanctuary as most that live here had next to nothing to their name. However with how often she and Kurt would take their leave for his advisory meetings, her ownership of a mount was a moot point. Besides, she needed a mount accustomed to her familiar. Caelrae was a brave creature around the scarlet tiger, never flinching in Nica’s presence and it was her nerve that steadied the boldness of other horses.

“Mia’s asking why she’s not accompanying us again. We can’t keep hiding this from her,” Reia said after the three of them had ridden into the southern valley forest, where Alyssa would bring Nica to run as the Valley populace avoided this area. The isolation served well also for Alyssa and her friends to speak regarding the Regime. “It’s going to be tough for the three of us and we could use her help as a healer.”

“And she’s the only one of us that has no means of defense.” They rode at a slow pace to keep Nica calm and until they were deeper into the forest where game was plentiful and intruders unlikely, she didn’t want to provoke the tiger into overeager activity. “I’m not putting that risk on her. We’ll have enough to worry about with just us.”

“Nice to know we can be the ones risked,” Reia muttered though Alyssa knew the redhead barely meant it. It was a difficult prospect to face, planning to rush into the fire, but… the Regime was where they both belonged. They had family there. They were both going to go back, no matter the risks. “But we should consider other options, Aly. You know what happens if we’re not ready for this.”

“I know,” Alyssa murmured as they made their way for the river, where she dismounted to unlatch Nica’s leash from Caelrae’s saddle. In response, the tiger gave her mistress a quick nuzzle before rushing deeper into the forest. Elation pushing through her veins, the heiress was just as quick to return to her horse as the three females gave chase after the scarlet tiger. It was hardly about keeping an eye on Nica but rather due to her familiar having a very social, playful nature and engaging in such with the tiger helped keep Nica both happy and docile.

Their run took them to a clearing by a bend in the river, where Nica lingered within the shallow waters for play and fishing. Here, Alyssa and her friends tied off their horses; this stop had become routine, allowing Alyssa the chance to speak freely about her heritage. Leanne and Reia were among the few in the Territories that knew of Alyssa’s position as the High Heiress. For Leanne, she had been allowed to know as their mothers had been good friends. Reia however, had been by chance. Before the rebellion, Reia and Alyssa’s fathers worked together over economic and political affairs, an association that had brought the two girls together in their childhood… until Reia had been sent to the Sanctuary. Reuniting, however, hadn’t been the best of scenarios as Reia quickly blamed Alyssa for being the reason she was cut off from her parents indefinitely. But five years had seen to the loss of that animosity.

“We’re still doing this, right? Returning to the Regime after your bornday?” Reia asked while lying on her stomach, arms folded before her.

“I’m doing it, yes. If you’re coming, that’s your choice” Alyssa returned, watching her familiar, the swordswoman being the only one of the three sitting upright. “There is no choice for me. I’m the High Heiress. I might have been sent away five years ago because I was too young to fight, but now? If I want to prove my worth in succession-”

“Are you really going to be able to? I thought the Regime is horribly repressive towards women,” Leanne said, her hands resting behind her head while lying back.

“But no self-respecting Khaled would dare violate religious mandates, especially regarding the Morganas,” Reia said. “They believe the Morganas are chosen by their deity and to actually attempt to overthrow the family would be to risk the ire of the demons and their chance at a decent reincarnation. Going by Rael’khel beliefs.”

“But… that makes no sense. How can they believe in that?” Leanne said.

“The Coastal Peoples believe in sea gods that demand tribute,” Reia bit out, “and the Valeen believe in a sky god that they say embodies love and justice… yet cruelty and suffering never seems to be lacking.”

While Leanne was quick to defend the Valeen belief, Alyssa merely sighed and kept her gaze on Nica. Religion was a confusing issue for her and one she rarely cared to dwell on. All her instruction growing up had been through the lens of Rael’khel and seeing her father the night of the riot… she knew there were truths to the belief, that the Khaleds were descendants of the demon hoard that followed Rael’deth, the fallen seraph that rebelled against the Valeen’s sky god, Navar. She understood the Valeen faith as well, from her mother. But life was better under Valeen teachings, Alyssa didn’t worship one or the other. What point was there? She wasn’t affected by gods or demons. Just people. Their prejudice, their greed… their compassion.

“It doesn’t matter,” Alyssa spoke up, interrupting her friends. “All that matter is what we intend to do and how we treat those around us. The Valeen at least try to help each other, but the Regime shuns the very thought.” She turned her back to her friends as she stood. “I don’t know if I’m worthy as the High Heiress, but I do know that if I’m not willing to try to make the Regime a better place, who will?” With her words, she made her way to the bank of the river, taking her boots off and rolling up her pant legs. But before she could wade into the water after her tiger, she felt a hand on her shoulder.

“We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree to this. We’re not letting you go at it alone,” Reia said with a reassuring smile.

“We’re with you, Aly. You can count on it,” Leanne added.

Alyssa found herself smiling with both her friends, certainly glad to have their friendship. Though she had another reason to smile as she stood… before kicking a wave of water at the two. As they shrieked, she laughed and ran for Nica, an act that only excited the tiger. And there they all were, carefree in their play, free of the world.

#

It had been five years since the Daerns’ living quarters had gone from an occupancy of two adults to accommodating for three young sisters. To say the change was a challenging adaptation for Ava Harkes Daern was an understatement; these girls were the daughters of one of the most headstrong, restless women Ava had ever known… and both older girls had taken to this new life with nothing less than disdain.

But that trial had passed while Ava carried Eve, upon which the sisters surprised her in their determination to help her. She came to learn was that both girls had endured five years of watching their mother suffer through complications to bear another child. The ordeal had affected them, bringing both Alyssa and Lily to cherish their sister Dahlia all the more… and abhorring such suffering. That was the moment of unison with Alyssa and Lily, a change that came at an opportune time as Ava had succeeded Renesse as Headmistress of the Sanctuary. Unfortunately though, as children approached adulthood, there was always some sort of tension…

“Amazing. She’s still here. I would have thought you would have run off by now.”

Alyssa gave a sigh as her chance to read with Dahlia was brought to a halt by the bitter remark from Lily as she returned to the living quarters. Though it hadn’t been the swordswoman to reply, but rather Ava. “Lily, we had discussed this. Please, don’t give into your hostility and take a moment to be grateful that your sister is here.”

But the anger in Lily’s blue-grey eyes made it clear there was no willingness to do so. Not as she tossed her bag to the floor and snapped, “I’m not eating here. I’ll be with my friends.” Then she left just as quickly, shoving past Kurt as he entered.

“Something I missed?” he asked, moving to stand behind the settle, where he took the moment to ruffle Alyssa’s hair – to the young woman’s aggravation – and then picked up Dahlia as she gave eager pleas. Five years, Ava had watched this man act affectionately towards the sisters as well as his nieces, yet still, she startled by the behavior; in their youth, he found nothing more annoying than children.

“Lily doesn’t seem to want to be around me,” Alyssa said as she stood. “Told you she hates me. There’s nothing I can do about her.”

“She’s just scared, Aly,” Ava said, setting down a bowl of noodles on the table. “Your parents haven’t been part of her life for five years now and even you have been gone a lot during that time. She’s just not coping very well with losing those to rely on.”

“She hasn’t lost me. Yet. But her attitude as it is isn’t helping,” Alyssa grumbled, picking up the plates of cooked fish fillets and string beans from the counters to set on the table. “Besides, what does she need to be scared about? She has the rest of you-”

“But she didn’t even know we existed five years ago. She was practically torn away from her family and thrown into the midst of strangers.” Ava looked to her own daughter as Eve was helped by her father in the setting of plates and utensils. The thought to endure life without her child now… even she knew she would not respond well to such an occurrence. How could a growing child endure such devastation with grace? “Don’t forget, Aly… even you endured difficulty in acclimating to your new life, but Kurt was always there for you. Lily does need you. Just be patient with her.”

Alyssa only gave a nod as they then took their seats. “I know she needs me, but… she needs our parents even more. We need to be a family again,” the heiress sad softly as she turned a sad gaze onto her youngest sister. “All of us need to be together.”

“You will be, Aly. Your parents fight so that you can be together again.”

Little else was said, even from younger girls, however, that surprised Ava little; Dahlia was always sensitive to her sisters’ dispositions as Eve was to Norus’s. But with the end of the meal, both girls began to plead that Alyssa read their bedtime story. Something of providence as the older adults had some concerns to discuss.

“How is she handling the rest from her missions?” Ava asked as they cleared the table and cleaned the dishes. “Ever since traveling with you for her apprenticeship, she hasn’t seemed to be at ease with staying in one place for too long.”

“She’s staying sharp in her skills to distract herself, but she’s still restless… and she’s contemplating something. I don’t like it,” Kurt said, arms crossed as he leaned against the counter. “She’s almost eighteen. Not only will she be old enough to leave the Valley and dismiss herself from my guard-”

“But to take up arms in the Regime as well,” Norus said, shaking his head. “You don’t really think she would, do you? If she does, Lily-”

“That’s the trouble,” Kurt said. “You heard her. She wants their family together again and Aly’s never been the patient or passive type. None of us expected this to last five years and she’s certainly wondering why her parents haven’t sent for her.”

“Should we try to stop her from returning?” Ava asked, drying her hands while she moved to sit back down, leaving Norus to dry the dishes. “She is High Heiress. Isn’t it Khaled tradition for the heirs to prove themselves in combat? It would help her, no?”

“Unfortunately, I imagine the Khaleds would rather her to return as subdued prey rather than with the pomp of a war victor,” Norus said, in a morose voice that surprised both blondes before he retreated to the couple’s bedchambers. His disappearance left both Ava and Kurt confused… until the guard returned, tossing a folder of papers onto to the table which Kurt cautiously picked up. “This report was delivered today. One operative team thought they encountered foreigners descending the Agreilian Range and took it upon themselves to track and observe these persons. They were most definitely Regime agents and -”

“And there’s no doubt about this description on the commander?” Kurt interrupted, pulling out one of the parchments, holding it out to Norus.

 “This man sounds familiar to you?”

“Familiar? The bastard was my commanding officer,” Kurt said with a bitter glare and disgust in his voice, continuing to scan the rest of the papers in his hand. “And the bastard has a taste for young girls. And because of the sick priorities of the Khaleds, he was able to get away with his tastes for so long,” Kurt added, mouth contorted into a snarl. “Five years ago, we thought we finally caught the bastard in a hole he couldn’t dig out of… but he did.” The man heaved a sigh as he dropped the papers to the table, his fists shoving into the wood surface while he held his head low. “We couldn’t figure out what happened to him. For him to resurface, in the Territories of all place… it chills me.”

Ava only turned to her husband, gripping his hand as they exchanged a horrified stare. What did one say? Not that they had much of a chance to speak as Alyssa left the children’s room. Norus was swift to gather up the papers before the young woman joined them. The tension surrounding the older adults hardly escaped her as her brow furrowed. “So… what is going on? You all look like you bit into something sour.”

“Just concerned over Lily. She still hasn’t returned,” Ava lied swiftly as she stood. “Perhaps we ought to look for her-”

“I probably shouldn’t accompany you. She wouldn’t be happy to see me-”

“She misses you every time you leave,” Kurt cut in. “She’s just a kid dealing with absent parents… and an absent sister. Don’t continue to be distant with her, no matter what. One day, she’ll realize her sister isn’t so absent as she thought.”

With a sigh, Alyssa nodded and both women began to leave the room. Though before Ava moved too far from hearing what the men said in hushed tones, Kurt spoke. His only words being, “Look, I need to be part of this. You know it.”

Ava looked back and watched as her husband gave a solemn nod… then everyone turned their gaze onto Alyssa as the heiress walked out of the room, oblivious to what had just happened.

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Chapter Three

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Chapter Four

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