The Strength of a Heart
It burned. Everything around her burned. Her skin cracked, ready to peel off. The magic was ten times stronger than anything she had felt during the past few years. That was how she knew she was home, but the thought confused her. It wasn’t supposed to hurt if she were home. Her world was beautiful and rare, due to its balance and kindness. She had loved living here once. So why did it hurt her now?
Through her closed eyelids, she could make out the shapes of the glowing bars surrounding her. Each of them threw hundreds of daggers through her body. But this was nothing compared to the fire stirring inside her. Her insides boiled. Waves of molten lava migrated from one limb to the other underneath her skin. The once golden vines, all of the magic paths at the base of her being, were corrupted, poisoned, dead.
It almost made the pain in her back bearable. The place her wings used to be, between her shoulder blades and connected to her spine, went through its own turmoil, preventing her from forgetting their loss. And not far from that, a foreign heart beat steadily, keeping the poison at bay and preserving her life. It made her want to claw at her chest and rip it out, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak, hear, or see.
Each time she felt a shadow hovering over her, she relived the events that had led to her disgrace. The horror, the terror, the pain. Locked inside her head, she screamed silently, trapped in this endless nightmare that was only going to end when her life did.
* * *
The bars glittered faintly in the morning light. Standing in front of them, Rafe stared at the shape curled up in a ball on a mattress on the floor. If he hadn’t known it was her, he wouldn’t have recognized her. Alise lay motionless, not recognizing anyone. Her hair was a knotted mess of black, brown, and red strands that fell over her face, half hiding it from sight. Ill-looking dark vines covered her ashen skin, trembling in place like a living tattoo.
The poison from the Mermaid’s bite, plus the extra magic reinforced in the bars of the golden cage were killing the Fairy. She hadn’t been fully conscious in days, which was preferable to the madness. The poison made her insane, and the magic sped up the process, both adding to the pain. The small whimpers that emerged from her pale lips stood as proof to that.
Each time Rafe looked at her, or thought about her, his heart ached inside his chest. Her heart. What had been the point of fighting all those monsters on the other side, switching their hearts, and crossing back over to their world with Gorem if she were going to die anyway? His heart kept her alive, but even that wouldn’t last forever.
At times, he was tempted to bear the burn of the bars and shove his arm through them with the blade to put an end to her misery. But he couldn’t do it. Just like he had confessed to Vale once, he was unable to hurt her. She was part of him, just like the heart that beat slower and slower inside her chest.
“She’s not going to last long, you know?” The voice coming from the next cage echoed his thoughts.
Rafe looked at the other Guardian and found nothing to say. Of course, he knew that. It had been the only thought on his mind for the past few days. Unfortunately, he still didn’t have a solution as they had been unable to find a cure.
“Look, it’s not like I don’t appreciate your daily visits,” Nate said, a dangerous smile reaching those dark blue eyes, “but I’m getting sick and tired of sitting here, watching her. She’s such a boring company. She doesn’t say anything.”
“I assure you, I appreciate your efforts to guard her and refrain from time jumping,” Rafe said, “something you shouldn’t do anyway because it’s what put you in there in the first place. Remember?”
Nate rolled his eyes at the reprimand. “The Council is made up of a bunch of idiots,” he muttered.
“Perhaps, but we still work for them.” Rafe tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. He wasn’t overly thrilled with the way the Council handled business, either, especially this one, but he had enough problems with Alise and didn’t need to worry about Nate, too. He needed to convince him to stay put and not stir up any more trouble. “They said they’d release you once we’re done with this mission, and we’ve brought Gorem in as requested. It should be over soon.” He failed to sound convincing enough.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nate said, running a hand through his black hair, and turned his gaze to the high ceiling. “From what I’ve heard, they’re in no hurry with the trial, and Gorem is eating Fairies on toast in his private quarters while she’s rotting in here.” He pointed at Alise. “Now where’s the fairness in that?”
Rafe gritted his teeth in an effort not to say what was on his mind. Damn right it wasn’t fair. The only reason he let her “rot” in there was because the golden cages kept her safe and out of Gorem’s reach. No spells could pass through the bars surrounding her, and he had Nate there to protect her from any other threat. Why Guardians weren’t stripped of their weapons when imprisoned, he didn’t know, but it came in handy in this particular situation. He couldn’t spend every second of every single day with her now that she wasn’t one of his tasks anymore, and he had other attributions to take care of, too, so the golden cages were the safest place for her to be in.
“I see you agree,” Nate said, and he wasn’t making a snide remark this time. He simply stated the truth.
Rafe didn’t bother to deny it. After centuries of working together, fighting side by side, they knew each other too well. “Stay put and don’t do anything stupid that might require them to extend the sentence, okay?”
“The way I recall it, last time I did something stupid, I saved your ass … twice.”
“You know what I mean.” Rafe gave him a pointed look. He didn’t have to say more. Nate had a big hand in saving not just Rafe and Vale, but Alise and Cassie, too. Unfortunately, the Council had found out about his escapes out of jail and wasn’t happy about his stunts. “Please … Vale and I are working on a plan. We just need a little more time.” And a lot of luck.
“Fine.” Nate crossed his arms upon his chest and made a grimace. “But you’d better not take too long ‘cause I’m getting madder than she is by staying here. Don’t be surprised if, one day, I take off and leave you to handle this mess by yourself.”
“I doubt that,” Rafe muttered, taking one last look at Alise.
The bright colors of the garden failed to make an impression on Rafe. He walked along the paths heading away from the castle, oblivious to the flowers that turned their heads as he passed. His thoughts were far away, anywhere but there, where Alise suffered a slow death. The daily trips to the palace to visit the golden cages were one of the hardest things he remembered ever doing. Nate’s whining didn’t help, either.
“Rafe!” Cassie had to call his name twice before he stopped and waited for the girl to catch up with him. Her sandal-clad small feet quickly covered the distance separating them. “I’m glad I found you.” She panted slightly and pulled on the veils forming her attire to straighten them.
Her pretty, grass-colored dress put more gold in the honey curls that barely reached her shoulders, but Rafe had a feeling she missed the comfort of a well-worn pair of jeans. Still, she had adopted the local fashion without protest after they had crossed over. She had come to defend her friend, doing her best to fit in and not be seen as an outsider. Despite all of her efforts, the Council was annoyed with her insistence to represent Alise.
“Have you seen her today? How is she?” Cassie asked. “They didn’t let me see her. They said she’s unresponsive, so there’s no point in going there.” She huffed, frustrated, and pushed the hair away from her face as she looked up at him. No one could resist that puppy dog look.
“The same.” Rafe lowered his gaze. This whole situation was his fault, or part of him believed so. He should have taken Alise to some other world where no one could find her. He should have never brought her back here. But old habits died hard, and his loyalty to the Council had come first. Now he knew better, but it was too late.
“That’s not good.” Cassie shook her head. “How long can she survive like this? It’s been a week.”
She’s not going to last long, Nate’s words echoed inside Rafe’s head. “Not long.”
Even an otherwise immortal Fairy couldn’t survive the poison of a Mermaid’s bite, especially not here where the magic flew freely, speeding up the process.
“Well, I have some good news,” Cassie said. “I just had a meeting with the Council, and they scheduled a hearing for tomorrow at noon. They want everyone involved to be present. You should be notified soon.”
Rafe glanced back at the palace. What were they planning now? They had no new proof. Fabian, the Wizard helping Gorem, was still gone, and there was nothing done officially to find him. The only victim still alive was too far gone to testify against his crimes. No wonder Gorem hadn’t tried escaping the palace. He could be vacationing there just as well.
“I guess they got tired of waiting for her to die,” Cassie said bitterly.
Rafe was surprised to hear Cassie speak his thoughts out loud. He didn’t comment because he still worked for them and he couldn’t afford any accusation of treason at the moment, but the look he gave her let her know he fully agreed. The Council hadn’t done anything to help heal Alise, although they claimed they were searching for a cure. So far, no luck.
“Your world is deceiving,” Cassie said as if it was somehow his fault. “It’s so full of colors, my eyes hurt, and I don’t recognize half the animals and plants, but it’s not much different than mine when you think about it. People still have their own agenda, and they don’t mind killing for it.”
“I told you it’s not perfect,” Rafe said. “All this—” he gestured around at the palace, the gardens, and the city lying beyond them, “—is for show. We like pretty things just as much as you do, only we can make them happen. But that isn’t the most important thing. We were once all the same. While we chose different paths in life, even after the millennia since our worlds separated, the basic human traits have prevailed. We love and hate just the same.”
“And kill and steal…” Cassie sighed.
“And honor and protect,” Rafe said, placing his hands on her upper arms and looking into her light brown eyes. Despite the critical situation, she couldn’t paint the entire world in the same colors. It wasn’t all bad, and while Alise’s heart kept beating, there was still hope. “We will protect her.” He had made the same promise while on the other side. He would live and die by it.
A storm of colors swirled in Cassie’s eyes, and she smiled. “I believe you,” she spoke softly. “You’d do anything for her.”
Rafe let go of her arms, making no attempt to deny it. He had never expressed his feelings out loud, not even to Alise, although they had always been boiling underneath the surface from the first moment he had seen her. Vale had noticed it first, and while he wasn’t thrilled about it, he had supported Rafe, knowing very well what he was going through. After all, Guardians mated for life.
Vale’s bright white uniform appeared at the end of the alley.
“Okay, I’ll leave you to work on your plan,” Cassie said. “I need to go and find out what the hearing entails so I won’t mess up, but keep me posted if you come up with anything.”
Rafe nodded and headed towards Vale. The carefully guarded look on that pale face put him on alert.
“Any news?” Rafe asked.
“Walk with me.” Vale led him to the vegetal maze, away from Cassie and any other potential witnesses. The green walls offered enough protection against eavesdropping.
“Well?” Rafe wasn’t in the mood for patience. With him stuck at the palace, supervising Gorem’s moves, which was a boring task since the man hardly ever left his private rooms, except when called to meet with the Council, Vale had been running around, searching for clues regarding the Mermaid’s bite cure. It looked like he might have found something, and Rafe wanted to know what. He could use some good news.
“I’ve heard something, but not about the cure,” Vale added quickly. “About Fabian … I think I know where he is.”
“That’s good.” Rafe nodded. “Another witness for the trial, except the hearing is tomorrow. Can we get to him in time?”
“Not for the hearing.” Vale shook his head, his long red locks dancing around his face. “You know that’s a sham, and it won’t help with Alise’s problem.”
He wasn’t telling Rafe anything new. Their priority was to cure her, then they could have the guilty parties get what they deserved. “So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that—” Vale took in a deep breath, “—we can’t wait for the Council to decide whether they want to save her or not. We can’t make Gorem talk, even if he knows the cure, as long as he’s under the Council’s supervision.” He made a face. “On the other hand, Fabian is fair game. And what better chance than to ask Gorem’s Wizard? After all, he orchestrated the whole thing. He’s our best shot, unless someone comes up with a cure out of the blue … and we can’t wait that long.”
Until then, they hadn’t known where to find him, and no other Wizard or Witch had been willing to work with them after what had happened to Lya. You blasted a Witch once, and the whole world knew about it. News traveled fast.
“So where is he?” Rafe asked.
“The Mists,” Vale said and shifted in place, looking uncomfortable. “He’s been hiding there all along, ever since he ran away.”
“The Mists,” Rafe muttered with a frown. He had hoped for something easier.
“Yeah, I know.” Vale sighed. “We’re not that popular there…”
“She promised to hang us next time we dared to cross over. I’d say that’s quite popular.” Rafe smirked. “Unless her guards dismember us first. We did kill half of them the last time we were there.”
Vale’s mouth twitched, but Rafe was proud of it. Killing half of the Lady of the Mists’ highly trained but stupid guards, was not a small deal. People still talked about it. It would put them into the history books as one of the best war legends ever.
“Let’s not dwell on past glories,” Vale said. “If we’re lucky and move quickly, we might get in and out before they notice.”
“We’re good, but we’re not that good,” Rafe said. “They’ll notice. And she won’t be happy.”
“Then we offer her a deal,” Vale said. “We rid her of a Wizard who has no business in her world. She might agree if it comes with no cost from her part. Actually, the offer should come from you. I’m not one of her favorite people at the moment.”
“Well, not everyone gets to bed her and betray her at the same time. It’s a matter of principle.” Rafe would have said more but didn’t, aware he would be pushing it. Vale still had remorse over that part. “Are you sure you want to go?” Rafe asked in all seriousness. He would understand if he didn’t.
Vale’s face remained grim. “It’s the right thing to do. Plus, we have some unfinished business.” The Fairy had been injured under their watch. No one easily got over that part—no one with a heart at least.
A smile teased the corners of Rafe’s lips. “You miss her.”
Vale glanced at him and then looked away. There was no need to answer. He did. He just didn’t want to talk about. That became clear when he changed the subject. “Why do I have to try and convince you when you’ve already made up your mind?”
“So I can blame it on you if it gets bad and we get caught?” Rafe smirked. “Okay.” He rolled his eyes and dropped it the way he always did when it came to the sensitive subject of Vale’s love life. “The good part is Fabian can’t create monsters over there because there’s not enough magic for that. He might summon a demon or two, but that’s all. We can handle it. We’re good to go.”
“What about the hearing?”
Rafe nodded. “After the hearing. We need time to prepare things anyway. I’m not leaving Alise there—” he nodded towards the palace, “—while we’re away. It’s too dangerous and I don’t know how long we’ll be gone.”
“Nate can protect her.”
“Nate has been locked up for too long. We need to get him out before he does something stupid, like escaping. We’re taking them both with us.”
“This is borderline crazy and screams high treason,” Vale said, but he didn’t look phased.
“It wouldn’t be us if it weren’t like that.” For the first time in days, Rafe grinned.