CHAPTER FOURTEEN





"Well, Christien and Starra are gone," Elaina said as she rejoined Adriana in their quarters. "Hopefully, we'll hear something soon."

Adriana nodded. "Thank you for allowing me to stay here," she said. "I'm sure they have enough to do at Shi'ar without worrying about looking after me."

“I appreciate the company," Elaina assured her. After a moment's hesitation, she continued. "May I give you a piece of advice?"

“Of course," Adriana said somewhat uncertainly.

"I was told this on my wedding day in Shi'ar," Elaina smiled. "The Aramis men aren't easy to live with."

After a moment, Adriana smiled. "I imagine not," she agreed.

“Artur is a good man," Elaina continued. "But he can be very irritating sometimes."

Adriana's fingers tapped on the table in front of her. "Is there a reason you're sharing this advice with me?" she asked.

“The two of you seemed to be getting very close," Elaina hesitated. "I don't think it's just because he felt responsible for you."

Adriana bristled. "Artur was not responsible for me," she pointed out. "I chose to do what was necessary."

"I didn't mean to anger you," Elaina apologized. "But I think there is something between the two of you."

Adriana stiffened. "I admire him a great deal," she finally answered. "But I'm not sure there is as much there as you might believe."

"What do you plan to do now?" Elaina changed the subject.

Adriana shrugged. "I'll make my way back to Dedresia once matters settle down in Shi'ar," she decided. "After that, I'm not sure."

"Well, while you're here, perhaps I can help you learn to get around," Elaina proposed.

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Christien hugged Gwen close and looked over her shoulder at Stefan. He saw Stefan's worried look and kissed Gwen's cheek. "How is he?" he asked.

"Not well." Gwen pulled back and gave Starra a smile. "Fawn and Rosslyn are doing their best, but he's not responding well."

"What is it?" Christien asked.

Gwen hesitated. "He was poisoned," she finally answered.

Christien exchanged a look with Stefan. "When?" he finally stammered. "When he went to Elhalyn after Rafael died?"

Gwen hesitated. "You should talk with Fawn," she proposed. "Rik's known for a while."

"He what?!" Starra half-shouted. "Why didn't he say something?"

"I don't know." Gwen looked startled at Starra's outburst. "I'll ask Fawn to speak with you."

"My apologies, Lady Gwen." Starra looked away. "I had no right..."

"Of course you do." Gwen tried to smile. "Artur bellowed the same thing." She gave Christien another hug then disappeared into the bedchamber.

Stefan walked over to the window and looked out. "I don't think it happened then," he said to Christien.

"You mean someone here poisoned him?" Christien looked at his brother in shock.

"We were attacked by someone from Shi'ar," Stefan coldly reminded him. "Why not?"

"Why only Rik?" Starra asked joining Stefan at the window.

"How do we know it's only Rik?" Stefan pointed out. "Maybe he’s just the first."

Christien shook his head. "We need to be sure the children aren't affected." He looked at Stefan. "What about the children? What do they know?"

"Gwen's only told them Rik isn't well," Stefan shrugged. "They don't know anything."

"I'd hate to believe that," Christien muttered. "They tend know a lot more than we think." He turned as the door opened. Fawn and Artur walked out closing the door behind him.

“He's not responding to treatment," Fawn began. "We've managed to stop the progression of the poison, but he's slowly being weakened."

"So you're giving up?" Stefan shouted.

Fawn raised a hand to stop Artur's angry response. “I do not give up. I’m very stubborn.” She turned to Artur. “I need a messenger to go to Dedresia. Ask that my husband, Evan, come here."

"He's a healer?" Christien asked.

“No." Fawn shook her head. "He has a great deal of power, however. I'm hoping it will augment the use of the Stone of Healing."

"I'll go to Dedresia," Starra volunteered starting for the door.

"Send Careen," Artur ordered.

"One can go to Dedresia and one to Elhalyn," Fawn interrupted firmly. "It doesn't matter who goes where. Just do it."

Starra nodded to Fawn and left.

"Can I see him?" Christien quietly asked Artur. When Artur nodded, he slipped past him barely noticing Artur taking Stefan's arm and leading him to the other side of the room. Gwen and a young woman looked up as he quietly closed the door behind him. "I just want to see him," he whispered.

Gwen sadly smiled and touched Rosslyn's arm. "This is Rosslyn," she said. "She came with Fawn."

Christien nodded in her direction. "Our thanks for your help," he automatically said.

Rosslyn gently smiled. She followed Gwen to the nearby window.

Christien awkwardly reached out and touched Rik's hand. He flinched as his fingers touched his brother's hot skin. ‘You’re not supposed to be like this. You’re supposed to be strong and healthy. I’m not ready to see you like this.’ Without a word to anyone, he quickly walked out.

Fawn quickly stepped aside as Christien almost ran into her. She smiled as Christien instinctively put a hand on her arm to steady her. She met his gaze evenly.

“Can you save him?" Christien quietly demanded.

"I don't know," Fawn admitted. "I'm going to try the only thing I can think of. But I have no idea if he'll survive the treatment....let alone recover."

Christien silently nodded and left. He paused in the hallway then slowly started towards the main staircase. He suddenly stopped when he saw his way blocked by all five children with Levi standing behind them. Christien forced a smile. "What are you doing out here?" he asked.

Paolo glanced at the others then took a deep breath. "Rangers don't lie, do they?" he asked.

Christien went down on one knee in front of them. "Only unless it's absolutely necessary," he admitted. When he saw Paolo's confused look, he explained. "If it meant protecting Mama, I'd lie," he explained.

"Are you going to lie to us?" Jaella demanded.

"What are you asking?" Christien asked with a heavy heart.

"What's wrong with Papa?" Cheyne asked.

Christien hesitated. "He's very ill," he slowly explained. "There are two healers with him and Elaina's on her way as well." He put a hand on Cheyne's shoulder. "It doesn't look good."

"You mean he's going to..." Shiloh gasped.

"We don't know for sure," Christien hurriedly interrupted. "The healers are doing all they can. And Rik's a stubborn man."

Shiloh took another deep breath. "What do we do?" he asked.

"Just what you have been doing." Christien tried to smile. "I promise I'll let you know what's going on."

"Ranger's promise?" Paolo pressed.

"Ranger's promise," Christien smiled. "Why don't you stay together in the playroom? That way, I'll know where you are."

"We will," Trainor promised.

Christien squeezed Paolo's shoulder. When Levi passed, he grabbed his arm. "If anyone tries to take any of them, you'd better stop them."

Levi's eyes widened. "I'll certainly do what I can," he indignantly replied. "But..."

"No excuses," Christien roughly ordered. "Scream, yell, blow a hole in the wall. You do whatever you have to in order to keep them all safe." He released the little mezle and walked away.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"I don't know who you are, but I demand to see Eldrin and whoever this Evan is." Starra stared at the magnificently arrayed man barring her way. Behind them lay one of the guards, crumpled and moaning in pain.

“You simply cannot just show up and assault people!" Hector reasonably pointed out. "Now, do you have an appointment?"

"An appointment?" Starra edged forward. "I'll appoint you..."

"What's the problem, Hector?"

Hector smiled over Starra's shoulder. "Odan!" he greeted. "Perhaps you can explain to this...person that she simply cannot invade our city and create such havoc!"

Odan studied Starra. "Yes, I've followed your progress," he wryly smiled. "You've left quite a few number of my men scattered across the city." He looked at Hector. "Why don't you find Eldrin and ask him to join us?"

"But who is she?" Hector loudly whispered to Odan.

"I'm Starra Kasdy Aramis!" Starra spun around facing Hector. "And, if what I've heard is correct, I'm Eldrin’s aunt! Now get him out here now! Along with the Evan person!"

"Well, why didn't you say so?" Hector petulantly sniffed. "You will keep her here, won't you, Odan?" He smiled when Odan nodded.

Starra started forward only to see Hector disappear.

"I wouldn't challenge him like that," Odan advised. "He's a very powerful wizard."

Starra carefully turned and studied Odan. "He could be a very dead wizard," she pointed out.

"How is Fawn?" Odan asked. "I'm her husband's brother."

"Fawn isn't the problem," Starra snapped. Then she turned to stare at Odan. "You're Careen's brother, too?" When he nodded, Starra frowned. "I'm Stefan's sister." The two studied each other with mutual consideration.

After a moment, Odan walked over and helped the guard to his feet. He spoke quietly to the man who glared at Starra then left them alone. “Hector is right,” Odan continued coming back to her. “You’d have accomplished your task much quicker if you’d...”

“Requested an appointment?” Starra interrupted.

“These are dangerous times,” Odan pointed out. “Do you bring everyone to Lord Rik who asks to see him?”

Starra shrugged. She started to reply when they heard voices down the hall.

“A very disagreeable person.” Hector’s voice echoed around them. “I’m not sure she shouldn’t be given a good talking to!”

Odan smiled wanly at Starra. “He’s not so bad when you get used to him,” he offered.

Starra glared at Odan then turned to see Hector and a young man coming towards them. The young man raised his hand to stop Hector’s words. “Starra?” he quietly asked.

“Eldrin,” Starra replied after a moment. “You’ve changed.”

“Changed?” Hector looked at Eldrin curiously. “From what?”

Eldrin smiled and shook his head. “Please find Evan and ask him to join us quickly,” he requested. “It’s very important.”

“Of course,” Hector smiled. “But you know he’s probably going to be very irritated.” He swung his arms in a wide arc and transformed into a rainbow. It hung in the air for a split second before shooting out the nearby window.

Eldrin grinned at Odan who masked his own smile at Starra’s gape of astonishment. “We’d better speak quickly,” he urged. “Hector’s right that Evan’s not going to like the interruption.”

“Fawn needs Evan.” Starra shook her head to regain her thoughts. “Rik’s not...” She paused seeing Eldrin’s expression. “Rik’s not responding to her treatments. She thinks Evan’s power can help.”

“I’d ask Hector to go as well but he’s far too chaotic for Fawn’s purposes,” Eldrin frowned. He seemed lost in thought then smiled gently at Odan. “You can go, Odan. I’m sure I can convince Evan not to attack Hector.”

Odan grunted. He nodded to Starra and walked away.

Eldrin walked to where Starra stood. “You’ve changed, too,” he murmured. “I hope you know Father’s proud of you.”

Starra stared at him in silence then looked away. “I take it you plan no claim on Shi’ar?” she finally said.

Eldrin sadly smiled. “No.” He took a deep breath. “My home is here.”

Starra glanced at him. “Rik said something about you not being able to return,” she prodded.

Eldrin curtly nodded. “Makes everything much simpler, don’t you agree?” he asked with a trace of bitterness.

Starra flushed. “I barely knew you before you disappeared,” she hissed. “How do you expect me to treat you now?”

“I’m sorry,” Eldrin sighed. “I’m worried about Father. I had no reason to take it out on you.”

“You apologize well,” Starra grinned after a moment. “Obviously, the Prophet taught you that.”

Eldrin slowly smiled. “It took a while to learn,” he admitted. He turned suddenly hearing Hector’s voice.

Starra glanced past Eldrin. The man with Hector looked angry enough to destroy him. He also resembled Careen a great deal.

“Is there something you wanted, Eldrin?” Evan’s voice grated. “If so, next time, please send someone who will deliver the message without nearly destroying several days’ work!” He glared at Hector.

“If you wanted your work protected, you should have raised barriers,” Hector patiently replied.

“I wasn’t expecting a rainbow to come through my window!” Evan shouted.

“Evan!” Eldrin shouted even louder. When Evan glared at him, he continued, “Fawn needs your assistance at Shi’ar. This is Starra Kasdy. She will escort you there.”

“Is Fawn safe?” Evan demanded his green eyes narrowing.

“Yes,” Starra nodded. “I’m not sure what she needs you for. I don’t understand healing.”

“But you’re not a healer,” Hector told Evan.

“I’m well aware of that,” Evan said through gritted teeth.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll still do your best,” Hector encouraged patting him on the shoulder.

“Shall we go now?” Starra quickly said. “Unless you need something to take with you?”

“No.” Evan gave Hector one last glare. “Let’s go.”

“Let me know what happens,” Eldrin found Starra’s eyes.

“I will,” Starra promised following Evan.

Eldrin glanced at Hector. “You really shouldn’t tease Evan like that,” he gently remonstrated. “One of these days, he’ll retaliate.”

“He would be a much more pleasant man if he’d learn to smile,” Hector confided. “But thank you for caring.” He beamed. “Do you think Benami is awake from his nap?”

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“You’ve got a great sense of balance,” Mikhail said admiringly. “Now it’s just a matter of practice.”

Elaina smiled to herself seeing Mikhail’s eyes running up and down Adriana’s figure. She idly wondered how Artur would react to such scrutiny.

Adriana’s fingers flexed around the width of the staff. “It feels very...awkward,” she admitted.

“It will until you’re used to it,” Mikhail assured her. He raised his own staff. “You’ll need to rely more on your other senses to warn you of an attack. The rest is skill and practice.” He quietly moved to his left.

“Mikhail?” Adriana asked suddenly aware of his silence. She turned her head from side to side.

Mikhail lowered his staff and gently rapped the knuckles of her left hand. Adriana jerked and nearly fell down trying to move away.

Mikhail stood silently watching as she regained her balance. He grinned at her expression of annoyance. Slowly she pushed a strand of pale blonde hair behind her ear. He reached out and tapped her left calf.

Adriana quickly swung her staff against his knocking it away.

“Very good,” Mikhail quietly said.

Adriana turned her head in his direction and jabbed with her staff.

Mikhail quickly moved back then closer to her.

Adriana’s eyes narrowed as she suddenly brought the butt end of her staff upwards.

Mikhail grunted as the end of the staff caught him in the stomach. His eyes widened as Adriana jabbed him again. “Very good.” he grunted as he quickly moved out of range. He rubbed his stomach. “I think you’ve got the idea.”

“Thank you, Mikahil,” Adriana coolly smiled. “I appreciate your time.”

“My pleasure,” Mikhail looked at Adriana with a wounded look. “That hurt,” he muttered. Then he grinned as he left.

“He seems like a nice man,” Adriana said as she and Elaina walked across the courtyard. “I didn’t really hurt him, did I?”

“Not as bad as Artur would have,” Elaina assured her. She laughed at Adriana’s confused expression. “I’ll have to explain about Mikhail sometime.” She glanced up in concern as the guards on the gate called out a warning before opening the gates. “It’s Careen,” Elaina said in alarm. She waited as Careen rode towards them.

Careen took quick notice of the staff in Adriana’s hands and grinned. “Elaina, they’ve asked that you come with me to Shi’ar,” she explained. She lowered her voice. “Lord Rik is not responding to Fawn’s treatment, and they need your skill with the Stone.”

“I’ll speak with Mikhail and come with you,” Elaina murmured. “Adriana, will you join us? You’re welcome to stay here if you wish.”

“I’ll come with you,” Adriana decided with a smile. “I wouldn’t want to bother Mikhail.”

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Christien gave his horse another pat as he closed the stall door. He hadn’t wanted to stay inside Shi’ar unable to help Rik. He certainly hadn’t wanted to spend time with the children who would ask questions he didn’t want to answer. He wanted to be with Elaina but knew she would go to Rik as soon as she arrived. So he’d come out to the stables and busied himself with the horses. He shivered, suddenly realizing the it was nearly dark.

“I always hated waiting.”

Christien spun around, automatically drawing his sword. He glared at Lucas who sat nonchalantly on a bale of hay.

“I’m not here to cause trouble,” Lucas assured him raising his hand. “I’m not even armed.” He smiled. “Besides, haven’t you learned by now that you can’t hurt me?”

“This isn’t a dream,” Christien pointed out taking a few steps closer.

“You’re one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met,” Lucas said with an admiring smile. “But I’m not here to talk about you.” He paused. “That comes later.”

“Why are you here?” Christien asked.

Lucas shrugged. “I understand your brother is dying,” he studied the tip of his boot. “I never had anything against Lord Rik. In fact, I would have preferred to be his friend and ally.”

Christien snorted. “That was never likely,” he answered.

Lucas shrugged. “Who knows?” he mused. “Anyway, I’ve come here to offer my help.”

“Your help!” Christien gave an ugly laugh.

“Well, I’m not the greatest healer,” Lucas admitted. “In fact, I don’t know anything about healing.” He looked up at Christien. “But I can save your brother’s life.”

“What are you talking about?” Christien demanded.

“It’s very simple,” Lucas leaned back folding his arms across his chest. “It’s my understanding that Lord Rik has been poisoned.”

“How did...” Christien began. “What do you mean, he’s been poisoned?” he continued.

“How did I know that?” Lucas smiled. “I have sources of information. Let’s not play games, Christien. He’s been poisoned.” When Christien glared at him, he smiled. “I can provide an antidote.”

“Assuming that you would provide an antidote, what makes you think I’d trust you enough to let Rik take it?” Christien reasoned.

Lucas flashed an easy smile. “Would you have a choice?” he asked. “Understand me, Christien.” He leaned forward and stared into Christien’s eyes. “I can save Rik.”

“All because you’d have preferred to be his ally?” Christien blinked and took a step backward.

Lucas shrugged. “I presume that won’t happen now,” he guessed. “Let’s just say that I never do anything without getting something in return.”

“Elaina.” Christien guessed shaking his head.

“You.” Lucas corrected him as he stood. “You look surprised.”

“Why?” Christien demanded.

“Because you’re an irritation to me,” Lucas coldly smiled. “Because you interest me.” He shrugged. “The reason doesn’t matter. Only your answer matters.”

Christien stared at him his fist gripping the hilt of his sword.

“Will you do it, Christien?” Lucas quietly asked. “Will you exchange yourself in return for your brother’s life?”

“You’re lying,” Christien accused. But he remembered Rik laughing while protecting him from both Stefan and Artur after he’d tried to ride Stefan’s horse...teaching him how to hold a sword...laughing when he’d tried to drain a mug of beer in one gulp...sometimes I pretended you were my son...

“Am I?” Lucas’s eyes narrowed. “Do you really think I’m lying?” He smiled again as he slowly faded from sight. “Don’t wait too long before deciding, Christien. Even I’m not omnipotent.”

-----------------------------------------------------------------

Careen saw Christien slowly walking across the courtyard. She saw Elaina hesitate. “Go on,” she urged. “They need you with Rik. Take Adriana with you. I’ll get Christien.”

Adriana glanced in her direction but allowed Careen to lead her into the castle.

Slowly Careen waited for Christien to join her. Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face.

“Is Elaina here?” Christien asked.

“On her way up to Rik’s chamber.” Careen moved to block his way.

“Not now, Careen,” Christien wearily shook his head. “I need to know about Rik.”

“So you can deal with Lucas?” Careen quietly asked as he passed her.

Christien froze and looked at her.

“I can sense him around you,” Careen coldly muttered. “Almost smell his scent.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “What did he promise? That he would cure Rik?”

“In exchange for me,” Christien slowly nodded.

“And you believed him?” Careen slowly turned to face him. “After everything he’s done? Everything he will do?”

“I don’t know!” Christien angrily demanded, “What if it were your brother, Careen?”

“Once it was my brother,” Careen coldly replied. She waved a hand in dismissal at his unspoken question. “Think, Christien. He could save Rik’s life but leave him paralyzed or mentally broken.” She shook her head. “It’s a poor offer.”

“Why me?” Christien mused. “You asked that yourself.”

Careen shrugged. “I suppose we’ll find out sooner or later,” she decided. “But we have another problem.” She waited for Christien to take a deep breath. “I sensed Lucas’ presence around you. It’s here as well.”

“In Shi’ar?!” Christien half-shouted.

“Be quiet!” Careen ordered glancing around. “What makes you think Shi’ar is inviolate? I swear, you and your brothers seem to think no one or nothing can touch this land!”

Christien angrily flushed. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Someone here poisoned Rik,” Careen pointed out. “Someone he obviously trusted.” When Christien reluctantly nodded in agreement, she continued. “Just as I sensed Lucas’ presence around you, I sensed it around someone else.”

“Who?” Christien demanded his hand curling around his sword.

“Devora,” Careen quietly answered.

“No,” Christien shook his head after a moment. “You’re...”

“I’m what?” Careen stepped closer, lowering her voice. She stared into Christien’s blue eyes. “Trying to throw suspicion on Devora because of Stefan? That I’m lying? Trying to turn you against Devora for my own reasons? Don’t be ridiculous! This is far more important!”

“I don’t believe it,” Christien shook his head.

“Then look for yourself,” Careen demanded. “You remember the sign I showed you? The sign sealing someone to the Jackal? Devora will have it if I’m right. And she’ll also have some sort of altar with the seal on it. That’s his entry to Shi’ar.”

“She and Stefan have separate chambers now,” Christien numbly replied.

“Go and look for yourself.” Careen stepped back suddenly very tired. “Go find your proof, Christien. If you dare.”

“Don’t challenge me, Careen,” Christien coldly replied turning away.

“Go and look.” Careen coldly repeated. “Then come and talk to me about whether I’m lying.”

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“Elaina, thank the Goddess you’re here!” Gwen hugged her closely.

“I’ll do all I can, Gwen,” Elaina promised.

They started to go into the bedchamber when the door was flung open. Starra and Evan walked in.

“This is Evan,” Starra introduced. “Evan, this is Lady Gwen.”

“Thank you for coming,” Gwen sadly smiled.

Evan nodded courteously then looked coldly at Stefan. “The pleasantries can wait until we’re finished, my lady,” he brusquely advised.

Starra shook her head as they entered the bedchamber.

“What’s wrong with you?” Stefan demanded.

“He didn’t use the gateways,” Starra rubbed her neck. “It was very...different.”

Stefan shrugged as Artur joined them. “How is he?” he quietly asked.

Artur scowled. “Barely breathing,” he muttered. “If this doesn’t work...”

“I’ll be outside,” Stefan suddenly pushed himself away from the wall. “I can’t do anything here.”

Starra glanced at Artur who barely nodded. “I’ll come with you,” she gratefully said.

They silently walked down the stairs to find Adriana sitting on the bottom step.

“Adriana!” Stefan greeted as she turned her head towards them. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“I came with Elaina,” Adriana slowly got to her feet. “I felt uncomfortable staying at Elhalyn without her.”

“We’re going outside to get some air,” Starra gently touched her arm. “Would you care to join us? Or I can take you to Artur.”

“I think I would prefer some air,” Adriana coolly replied moving away from Starra’s touch. “I’m sure Artur has more important things to do than play host for me.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Christien more than half-hoped Devora would answer his knock. But she didn’t call out to him from behind her chamber door. So he quietly opened the door and entered. He hesitantly looked around absurdly feeling like a child prying where he shouldn’t be. Slowly, he began searching the cluttered room. It looked like Devora had moved everything she owned into the two small chambers. Not for the first time, he felt a surge of anger towards both Careen and Stefan.

Not finding anything, he reluctantly entered Devora’s sleeping chamber. If possible, it was even more cluttered than before. As he began searching, he idly wondered if Devora would agree to move to Elhalyn. She would be company for Elaina, and it would put some distance between her and Stefan. Maybe the distance would...

Christien froze as he uncovered a small table. Crudely engraved on the table was the sign of the Jackal. He closed his eyes feeling his heart thump painfully in his chest. He opened his eyes silently praying the engraving would have disappeared. He quickly looked away when he saw the engraving was still on the table.

“What are you doing?” Devora shouted from behind him. She pushed Christien aside and recovered the table.

Christien backed to the window and took a deep breath. “Why, Devora?” he quietly asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Devora shouted. “How dare you come in here without my permission? This is the last place I can call my own!” She advanced on Christien. “Did you know he brought his whore here? Here!? Flaunting her in my face!”

“Careen came to see if she could help Rik,” Christien mumbled. He quickly backed away uneasy at her vehemence.

“They’ve fooled you, too, haven’t they?” Devora blinked back tears. “Are you supposed to take me away, Christien? Well, I won’t go! This is my home!”

“Devora,” Christien shook his head. “Where did you get that table?”

Devora glanced at the table behind her. “I don’t have to submit to this interrogation!” she shouted. She suddenly rushed past Christien and out of the chamber.

“Talk to me!” Christien yelled, following her.

Devora paused on the parapet outside the tower then turned to look at him. “Just leave me alone, Christien!” she shouted. “If you’re not going to help me then leave me alone!”

“Help you do what, Devora?” Christien quietly asked carefully walking closer. “With Stefan? I will. I promise.”

Devora shook her head. “You’re just saying that,” she accused. “I thought I could count on you! You always liked me!”

“I do,” Christien nodded. “But I need to know about that table, Devora. Who gave it to you?”

“It’s always been here,” Devora answered brushing away tears. “Christien, make her go away and never come back!”

“I’ll do what I can, I promise,” Christien said soothingly. “But you have to answer my question. Who put that symbol on the table?”

“She did,” Careen quietly said from behind Devora.

“Careen, go away!” Christien muttered keeping his eyes on Devora.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Careen quietly answered.

“I thought I could trust you!” Devora screamed at Christien.

“What did Lucas promise you, Devora?” Careen quietly asked. “That he would destroy me? That he would protect you?”

“Make her stop!” Devora put her hands over her ears.

“That’s enough, Careen!” Christien yelled.

“Is that what he promised, Devora?” Careen shouted.

“Yes!” Devora screamed looking at Careen. “Lucas will never betray me! Not like Stefan did!”

Careen slowly shook her head. “Lucas will offer anything to get what he wants.” She glanced at Christien. “Anything.” Then she looked back at Devora. “But he lies, Devora.”

“No!” Devora screamed. “Make her go away, Christien!”

“Careen, I said to stop,” Christien ordered.

“What did Lucas ask you to do, Devora?” Careen pressed. “What did he do to you?”

“He loved me!” Devora shouted defiantly. “If Stefan could take a lover, why shouldn’t I?” She glared at Christien. “None of you helped me! All of you betrayed me!”

“What did you do, Devora?” Christien asked in a shocked voice. “Did you poison Rik?”

“I had to,” Devora whispered. “You have to understand, Christien! Rik wasn’t helping me. He was allowing Stefan to be with his whore! Artur wouldn’t allow it. He’d make Stefan love me again.”

“I understand,” Christien closed his eyes for a second. Rangers don’t lie, do they? “I wish I had known. I’ll help you. I promise.”

Devora stared at him for a minute. “No,” she shook her head. “You let the two of them be together in Elhalyn.”

“I was wrong,” Christien took a step forward and held out his hand. “Let me help you now.”

“Lucas said you would tell me that,” Devora backed away. “He said you would lie to me.” She looked around. “Lucas! Lucas!”

“He won’t come,” Careen coldly told her. “He’s the greatest betrayer of them all, Devora.”

“No!” Devora kept looking around. She backed closer to the edge of the parapet.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

“What’s going on up there?” Stefan suddenly stopped looking up at his tower.

Starra shaded her eyes from the setting sun. “It’s Devora and Christien,” she identified.

“And Careen,” Stefan grimly added. He slowly started back towards the castle. “What’s going on up there?” he repeated, keeping his eyes on the parapet.

----------------------------------------------------------

“Devora, stop!” Christien yelled. “Be careful!”

“He promised to protect you, didn’t he?” Careen shouted. “His protection is a lie, Devora!”

“No, no,” Devora moaned. She looked at Christien. “I loved Stefan! Why couldn’t he still love me?” Before he could answer, she spun around looking at Careen. “This is all your fault! You should have stayed away!”

“Devora, come away from the edge!” Christien started towards her.

“You won’t have him again,” Devora hissed at Careen. Closing her eyes, she leaned backwards falling from the parapet.

“No!” Christien screamed trying to catch her. He felt her fingers brush his just as she disappeared over the edge. “Devora!”

“Devora!” Stefan roared, seeing his wife falling from the upper parapet. He began running to where she fell.

Starra grabbed Adriana’s arm, not hesitating to pull her along as she ran following Stefan.

Christien spun around seeing Careen walk close to him. “Why did you do that?” he demanded. He grabbed her upper arms and angrily shook her. “You could have stopped her with your magic! Couldn’t you?”

“She was sealed to the Jackal!” Careen hissed. She took a deep breath and got control of her temper. “This was cleaner than what would have happened to her. Neither the Jackal nor Lucas is understanding about failure.”

Christien angrily shoved her away and walked back inside. After a moment, Careen slowly followed.

Stefan pulled Devora into his arms, shaking her. After a moment Starra put a hand on his shoulder. Kneeling beside him, she quietly murmured, “She’s dead, Stefan.”

Adriana awkwardly stood close to them. She turned her head, hearing footsteps rapidly approach. She heard Christien yelling for the others to stay away. Then she heard him and someone else slowly approach.

Stefan, tears in his eyes, looked up. “Why, Careen?” he whispered. “Why?”

Careen stared coldly down at him for a second then looked at Christien.

Christien sank to his knees next to Stefan. “It was Devora,” he murmured. “She poisoned Rik.” He saw the disbelief in Stefan’s eyes. “Devora allied with Lucas. She had an altar to the Jackal in her bedchamber.”

“She wouldn’t hurt Rik.” Stefan shook his head pulling Devora against him. “She wouldn’t.”

“She listened to Lucas,” Careen quietly explained. “He convinced her that with Rik dead, Artur would make you return to her.”

“No.” Stefan shook his head. He slowly laid Devora on the ground and stood. After a moment, he raised his head. “You could have stopped her from jumping, Careen. I’ve seen what you can do. This is your fault.”

Christien suddenly stood as well. Even though he’d said the same thing to Careen, he didn’t like the look in his brother’s eyes. “Stefan, no,” he murmured putting hand on Stefan’s arm.

Stefan roughly shrugged Christien away. His hand flashed to the hilt of his sword.

Starra suddenly stood ready to intervene.

Careen quietly stared at Stefan. For several seconds they eyes each other in silence. Without looking away, she spoke. “I would deem it a favor, Adriana, if you would tell Evan I’ve returned to Dedresia.” She waited another couple of seconds then turned away.

Starra quickly stood in front of Stefan even though he made no movement to follow Careen.

“Careen,” Adriana gently called out.

Careen hesitated then stopped to allow Adriana to join her.

“He’s angry and grieving,” Adriana advised. “Give him time.”

“It’s always easier to blame the living rather than the dead,” Careen mockingly replied. “Concern yourself with your own affairs, Adriana.” Without another word, she walked towards the stables. Minutes later, she galloped through the open gates of Shi’ar.

-----------------------------------------------------------

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Evan muttered to his wife.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Fawn retorted. Then she smiled and gently squeezed his arm. Then she turned to the others. “Are you ready?”

“I suppose,” Elaina tried to smile. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m ready.”

“You have the greatest affinity for the Stone of Healing,” Fawn repeated. “Just concentrate on the Stone.”

Elaina closed her eyes and held the amethyst in the palm of her hands. She felt the Stone growing warmer sending waves of heat through her hands...her arms...through her chest....

Fawn gently reached out and put her hand over Elaina’s. She closed her eyes as well. Slowly the glow surrounding Elaina surrounded Fawn as well.

Gwen uneasily glanced at Rosslyn who nodded encouragingly.

Evan gently laid a hand on Fawn’s shoulder. The glow surrounding the two women covered his hand but nothing more.

“Elaina, put your hand on Rik.”

Elaina frowned as she heard Fawn’s voice in her mind. “Fawn?” she thought.

“Yes,” Fawn’s gentle voice replied. “Don’t struggle. The Stone with our combined magic and Evan’s strength is Rik’s only chance. Put your hand on Rik.”

Slowly Elaina’s hand moved forward until it lay on Rik’s chest.

“Gently, Evan,” Fawn mentally warned her husband. “There’s no need to show off.”

Elaina smiled as she saw what appeared to be Evan glaring at Fawn. “Are you in my mind?” she thought.

“Yes,” Fawn nodded. “But there is no time for explanations. Just relax.”

Elaina gasped as she felt a tingling through her body. Something akin to liquid fire moved quickly through her. She felt light-headed until she realized Fawn was standing next to her.

“Gently, Evan,” Fawn warned again. “Elaina’s not used to being linked like this.”

“Do you want to save the man or not?” Evan snapped. “You said we don’t have much time.”

Fawn turned and pierced her husband with a firm look. “Gently, Evan.”

Evan swallowed an angry response but nodded.

“I feel so...” Elaina whispered.

“That’s Evan’s power moving through you,” Fawn half-smiled. “He and I have linked before. It’s enhancing your natural healing ability and using the Stone to its full potential.” She gave Evan another warning look. “In time, perhaps, you will be able to use it this way.”

Elaina gasped as another bolt of heat struck her. She gritted her teeth and tried to focus on the Stone in her hand.

“That’s it,” Fawn smiled.

Gwen caught her breath as Rik started to breathe easier. She glanced at Rosslyn who placed her hand on Rik’s forehead. After a moment, she glanced at Evan. “Not much more,” she warned. “He’ll go into shock if he’s pushed.”

Evan seemed to absently nod. Then he closed his eyes and removed his hand from Fawn’s shoulder. He shook his head slightly as if to clear it.

Elaina gasped as the warmth inside her suddenly lessened. She heard Fawn mutter something uncomplimentary about her husband.

“Breathe deeply,” Fawn told her. “Count to ten and then open your eyes.” Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes and glared at Evan. “You could have warned us,” she accused.

“Rosslyn warned me he was close to going into shock,” Evan retorted. “I’m not a healer, Fawn.”

“Thank the Prophet,” Fawn muttered. She looked at Elaina with concern. “Open your eyes, Elaina. Look at me.”

Gwen gently squeezed Rik’s hand noticing he was not only breathing easier but that his color was better as well. “Is the poison gone?” she asked.

Rosslyn slowly nodded. “I would say it has been mostly neutralized,” she assured her. “As to the lingering effects, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Elaina slowly opened and closed her eyes feeling slightly chilled. She stared in wonderment at the Stone in her hand.

“You need to rest,” Fawn briskly advised her. “You’re going to be exhausted.” She looked at Evan. “Do you think you can help Elaina to her chamber?” she irritably asked.

“Of course,” Evan smiled in amusement at his wife’s irritation. “Do you need me to remain?”

Fawn glanced at Rosslyn then shook her head. “No, I think we can dispense with you,” she half-smiled. “I’ll stay until he’s completely out of danger,” she whispered.

Evan sighed. “And that would be when?” he muttered.

“A more days,” Fawn guessed. “I’d like to make sure he’s well on the way to recovering.” She smiled at his expression. “Be sure to tell Eldrin immediately.”

“Of course,” Evan sighed. He turned to Elaina. “Let me escort you to your chamber, Elaina.”

“Thank you, Evan,” Gwen reached out to touch his arm. She didn’t notice his sudden stiffening. “I owe you a great debt.”

Evan slowly smiled at her. “Lord Rik is a fortunate man,” he murmured. “There is no debt involved.” He gently moved away and held the door open for Elaina.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

“Where in the name of Anhur is everybody?” Artur barked as he walked down the stairs. He’d just left the children celebrating in the playroom. He saw Adriana sitting on the foot of the stairs.

“How is Rik?” Adriana asked slowly getting to her feet.

“He’ll recover,” Artur heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks to whatever the healers did.”

Adriana smiled slightly. “I’m not sure Evan would appreciate being included in that group,” she advised. “He believes healing is a very minor part of magic.”

Artur snorted. “I don’t care,” he told her. He looked around. “Where is everyone?”

Adriana hesitated then reached for his arm. Artur instinctively stepped closer so she could touch him. “There is a problem,” she began.

“What now?” Artur barked again. He saw Adriana’s indecision and frowned. “Well, what is it, Adriana? With Rik bedridden for who knows how long, I’m in charge of Shi’ar now.”

“Devora was the one who poisoned Rik,” Adriana quietly told him.

“What!” Artur stared at her in shock. Then he slowly shook his head. “I can’t believe that.”

“It’s true,” Adriana assured him slightly squeezing his arm. “She’s dead.”

Artur stared at her in silence. “Tell me,” he finally ordered.

Slowly Adriana told him what had happened. She felt his arm tensing until it felt like solid rock under her fingers.

“Where’s Stefan?” Artur finally asked.

“In the chapel with Devora,” Adriana said quietly. “At least that’s where he said he was taking her.” She hesitated. “Christien ordered everyone to be examined to see if anyone else bore the mark of the Jackal. Starra and someone named Dino are doing that.”

“Where’s Christien?” Artur asked.

“He was planning on burning the table Devora used as an altar.” Adriana slowly removed her hand only to have Artur take it in his.

“Come with me,” he suggested.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Christien stared into the fire as the table burned. He’d had the Priestess of the Lady Goddess bless the table before he began burning it. Then he’d sent her to the chapel where Stefan waited. Whether it was the blessing or not, the fire seemed to blaze hotter than he expected.

He only takes whatever power you give him.

No more, Christien silently vowed. You get nothing more, Lucas.

As if in reply to his silent promise, two pieces of cloth floated down from the night sky landing at Christien’s feet. After a moment, he leaned down and picked them up. Lying in his hand were the Ranger emblems that Josef and Duncan had worn when they left Elhalyn. Christien silently tossed them into the flames.

Turning around, he saw Artur talking with Starra. He held Adriana’s hand nodding as Starra reported to him. He slowly walked towards them a little surprised when Adriana turned her head in his direction. “How’s Rik?” he quietly asked.

“Better,” Artur nodded with a glance. “Just how well he’ll recover is debatable at this point.”

“Elaina is in your chambers,” Adriana quietly told him. “She’s exhausted and should sleep well into the morning.”

Christien nodded his thanks. “What do we do, Artur?” he asked.

“As soon as possible, you get back to Elhalyn,” Artur grimly replied. “I’m going to have to run things here for a while. We can’t count on either Rik or Stefan at this point.”

“I think Lucas might have the Stone of Greed,” Christien mentioned. “The one that Josef and Duncan were taking to Woodlands.”

Starra gave him a hard look. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “How could you know that?”

Christien hesitated.

Artur held up his hand. “I don’t want to know,” he ordered. “I’ve had my fill of magic tonight.”

Christien glanced apologetically at Adriana before he remembered she couldn’t see him. “I found their badges next to the fire,” he half-explained. “While I was burning the altar.”

Starra’s dark eyes narrowed. Then she curtly nodded and walked away.

“Go to bed, Christien,” Artur ordered. “As soon as you’ve talked with Elaina tomorrow, I need you back in Elhalyn.” When his brother walked away, Artur pinched the bridge of his nose. “I told him that I didn’t want to know.”

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Careen stood in the garden at Eldrin’s palace staring at the foaming waters of the fountain. Usually the water bubbled gently. But she idly used her magic to manipulate the water into a waterfall angrily cascading into the basin slightly below the ground. She was aware that both Odan and Evan were watching her quietly.

“If you have something to say, say it and be gone,” she finally ordered.

Odan glanced at Evan who stared at his sister’s back. “Want me to kill him?” he finally offered.

“For grieving over his dead wife?” Careen mockingly retorted. “Isn’t that a bit extreme? Even for us?” Even without looking, she felt Odan’s sudden stiffening. “Odan, you never were like the rest of us. Don’t try to be that way now.”

“It’s not like you to give up,” Evan pointed out. He shook his head at Odan’s silent warning. “I guess he didn’t mean that much to you after all. I suppose I won’t have to transform him into something vile.”

Careen glanced over her shoulder. “I’m not going to fight with you, Evan. So you can stop trying to goad me.”

“Then what are you going to do?” Evan quietly asked after a moment.

Careen turned to study the water again. This time, she created small flashes of light within the churning water. “Get ready for whatever comes,” she shrugged. “All the stones but the Diamond of Control have been found. It won’t be long. Lucas is pushing hard in Elhalyn and Shi’ar.”

“Why don’t you stay with Alyxa and me tonight?” Odan offered.

Careen closed her eyes briefly. “No pity, please, dear brothers,” she requested.

“It’s not pity,” Odan began.

“Pity, compassion, whatever you want to call it!” Careen snapped. “If I wanted to be blessed with your company, I’d seek it out!”

Odan put a hand on Evan’s arm. He saw the angry look in Evan’s eyes. “Whatever you want, Careen.” He pulled Evan back. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Evan shook off his brother’s hand as they walked away. “She’s acting like a child!” Evan snapped.

“She’s acting like a woman who’s lost her lover,” Odan gently pointed out.

Evan glared at him. “It’s still not like her,” he muttered. “I’m tempted to...”

“Don’t,” Odan cautioned. “It’s Careen’s business.” He relaxed when Evan finally nodded. “Besides, we’ll need Shi’ar to fight Lucas.”

Evan coldly smiled. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen Lucas,” he mused. “I’m looking forward to that.” He glanced back at the garden. “More and more.”

Careen studied the small flashing lights in the cascading water. Small electrical charges started flying between the flashing lights. Deep blue and green sparks mixed with brilliant red and orange flashes. The water violently churned until it shot high over her head. “Looks like you got what you wanted, Devora,” Careen furiously muttered.

The next morning, the fountain was found lying in three cracked pieces.



GO TO CHAPTER FIFTEEN



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