In the middle of a battlefield, surrounded by soldiers, I had never felt more alone. I dropped to my knees beside the bodies of Axxon and Rey, king of earth and king of water. They weren’t dead. But they weren’t wholly alive, either. The Emperor’s ally, Lady Ullagar, had ripped their souls from their bodies and sent them to the underworld. What remained were mere shells. And glinting mockingly on each chest, the Gems of Giera we’d worked so hard to find.
Vashri knelt to check on his friends. Fon gathered me into his arms. “We’ll get them back. I swear it.”
I nodded, pressing against his warm shoulder. I realised I was crying when his shirt grew damp. I pulled back. I was the guardian. I had my part to play in defeating the Stalwart Emperor and returning Charnrosa to peace. That didn’t include weeping.
Vashri got to his feet. “We need to reunite them with their souls.”
“We’ll have to follow them into the underworld,” I said.
The two kings shared a glance. Jaws tensed, and hands tightened into fists.
“We can get them back, can’t we?” The kings had visited the underworld before, they must know how to slip between our world and that one.
“We will.” Fon’s arm was warm around my shoulders.
“And we have to find somewhere safe for Axxon and Rey to … wait.” I glanced around. The soldiers leaving the battlefield to find their homes were no longer our enemies, but they were still untested strangers.
“Lady?” The soft voice made me spin. One of the soldiers stood close by, hands clasped. “Majesties?” His gaze skittered away from the kings, settling on me. “I’m sorry for your loss. Can I offer help, lady?”
The title of honour jarred. I wasn’t a lady. I was just Kyann. But I was also the guardian, companion of the legendary kings, and right now the three of us were all that stood between the Stalwart Emperor and the destruction of the Empire of Charnrosa.
“Thank you.” I cast a glance beyond my helper. The soldiers weren’t trained warriors, they had been coerced from their villages to fight for Lord Hullar and Lady Ullagar. Now there was no battle, they were turning away, back to their homes nestled in the forest on the horizon, or at the base of the mountains that marked the edge not only of the Ullagar lands, but of the Empire of Charnrosa itself.
“Who are you?” Fon assessed the newcomer. He had sandy hair and a face just starting to gain wrinkles. In his late thirties, I’d estimate – a father who wanted only to return to his family, and yet he had stopped to help us.
“My name is Arlo, sire. I was a farmer until Lady Ullagar forced me to fight.”
“Where is your home?” Vashri asked the practical question.
He pointed towards the mountain, and the cluster of roofs in the valley before it. “My village lies at the foot of the Old Man of Ullaglen.”
“Would it be safe for the kings of water and earth to rest there?” Vashri asked, indicating Rey and Axxon.
“The village would be honoured for the kings to stay within our boundary.” He turned and jammed his fingers into his mouth, uttering a long, piercing whistle. Several people who had been drifting away with the crowds made their way towards him. Arlo addressed them by name when they were close enough to hail. “Their majesties and the lady need our help. We must carry the fallen kings to the village.”
“They aren’t fallen.” I corrected Arlo quickly. If word of the kings was spreading around Charnrosa, I didn’t want faith in them to falter with reports of their deaths. “They are … sleeping.” My lips twisted at the word, although my smile was bitter. The kings had slumbered for five hundred years before waking to challenge the Stalwart Emperor. For more time to be wasted in sleep … well, they’d probably be as furious about the delay as I was.
“And we’ll carry them,” Fon said, edging forward and scooping Rey up, settling him over a shoulder. He turned. “Vashri?”
My sense of desolation lifted slightly: Fon had selected the lighter king and left Vashri to carry Axxon. King of earth, Axxon might as well be made of solid stone.
“Lead on,” Vashri said, shouldering his burden without complaint.
I snatched up the gems, pushing them into my pocket. They’d need those, and soon, I hoped.
When we reached Arlo’s village, we were greeted with caution which changed to enthusiasm as Arlo related the outcome of the battle. For the sake of the men safely returned to them, if nothing else, the villagers would have welcomed the kings.
Axxon and Rey were laid in the men’s hut, given places of honour close to the fire. I touched their throats and brows, reassuring myself that they still lived. They were afflicted by magic, not a mortal illness.
“We will take good care of them, lady, I swear by the goddess.” Two of the villagers stood beside the kings’ beds. I recognised one as the woman who had greeted Arlo: his wife, Otta. The other woman with her was the village’s healer, Syra.
“Thank you. I know you will. If you could spare a messenger, my sister Essa is at Baloa Castle. If you brought her here, she would share the burden of healing.”
Both women inclined their heads, taking no offence at my request to have someone else summoned to care for the kings. News of the kings and their purpose was so welcome in this corner of the Empire that my requests had the status of a divine command. “Certainly, lady. It will be done.”
She left, closing the door softly behind her.
“The faster we go, the sooner we’ll be back,” Fon said. His foot tapped with impatience.
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry.” I patted my pocket to ensure the gems were safely within: the Tears and Bones of Giera. The gems were imbued with the power of the goddess and had been given by her to the four kings centuries ago to ensure peace throughout the four warring kingdoms, which had united to create the Empire of Charnrosa. They were needed now to return peace to the Empire. And I would keep them safe until I could give them to Axxon and Rey. I could sense the power of them. My own strength lay in absorbing others’ magic, but the gems wouldn’t give up their power just for asking.
Then I checked that my slingshot was safe at my belt. I had a pocket full of stones to use for missiles. Fon was still wearing the sword he’d found at Castle Ullagar. I didn’t know what we’d find in the underworld, but I wanted to be at least as prepared as the kings. I rose and faced Fon and Vashri. “I’m ready. How do we get to the underworld?”
There was a silence I didn’t much like. It would surely take magic, but the kings had magic.
“We’ll need help,” Fon admitted.
Vashri met my eyes. “It’s not who, it’s what. And it might be a bumpy ride.” His gaze slid from me to Fon. “If you’re thinking the same thing I am.”
“I try never to think alike. But on this occasion, we probably are.”
“What are you planning?” I asked.
“We’ll show you.” Vashri caught my fingers and pulled me out of the hut.
“We need somewhere quiet,” Fon said, not being quiet in the least as he crashed through the village. “Away from everyone.”
“Yes,” Vashri agreed. “No need to cause alarm.”
“Why would people be alarmed?” I asked, although I started to think I knew. My heart thudded with anticipation that was equally fear and hope. We hurried past the fire, between the huts and past the goddess’s shrine set close by the entrance to the village.
“We already have a link to the underworld. We use that.” Fon stopped, leaning back against the hut that marked the edge of the village. On this side, we weren’t surrounded by forest. A rocky plain led straight to the foot of the mountain, the Old Man of Ullaglen.
“The gems,” I surmised. With them, the kings could command underworld creatures.
“That’s right,” Fon said as Vashri arrived to make up our three. “We summon our creatures and they will carry us to the underworld.”
My heart faltered. I wasn’t sure whether it was exhilaration or fear making it race. Carried to the underworld by a phoenix or a wyvern. What a tale I’d have to tell.
If I survived.