The Guild – Chapter 33 – Andrei

The tick thrums loudly in my ears and I almost mistake it for a headache. I press my free hand to my forehead, hoping to relieve the ache so I can get back to sleep, but my attempt is futile. The urge to jump is unbearable this time.

I crack my eye open, flinching with the pain that the morning light causes as it filters through the window and lands on my face. I try to lift my other hand to shield my eyes but it doesn’t budge. I roll my head over to see why it won’t move and realize it’s gone numb from being slept on by Kat. I move my other hand instead and wait for my eyes to adjust.

The memories of the night before come flooding back to me in a torrent. The tournament, the zombie fight, Morgana, a black spot where I don’t quite recall what happened, and then the bath. I grin to myself at that last memory; I don’t think I’ll find myself forgetting that one anytime soon.

The tick beats unevenly as I reminisce, prompting me to resume waking. I roll onto my side to look at Kat as she breathes softly in her sleep. Her expression is peaceful, hair dried in loose curls from going to bed damp after the bath. I feel a heat in my chest as I watch her sleeping and I try not to think about last night.

How does she have the power to make me feel this way? I reach my free hand out to stroke her hair over her shoulder. The action causes her to stir and I smile as her eyes flutter open, gazing at me.

“Morning,” I whisper.

Kat rubs her eye and yawns. “Is it morning already?”

“It is,” I continue to lay there, just watching. I am reluctant to move, not wanting to disturb the moment. Despite the insistent ticking, I feel strangely at peace.

She rolls over onto her back, stretching her arms above her head as her back arches up. “I guess we should get ready to go home. I wonder if they’ve noticed we were gone?” Her movement free’s my arm and I cringe as the feeling comes back into it. Pins and needles can be painful in the morning.

“Who?” I ask, I little distracted and confused. “Gone where?”

She tilts her head. “The Guild, Caroline, Kaede, Cliff… Who else?”

“Ohh,” I raise my eyebrows. I had completely forgotten about the others. I thought she meant the Guardians here and Arthur. My inner voice chuckles at my own stupidity. “I bet they’re worried sick. It’s been two weeks almost, right?”

Kat shrugs as she sits up. “I’ve disappeared for longer than that before.”

“Well,” I grin, “so have I, but I mean, we were on a mission and this time they were all waiting for us. Do you think they’d have called a search party? What if they’ve taken down -” I pause as I struggle to find the right pronoun to use for that freak of a guy Kaitlyn used to be friends with; nothing new comes to mind so I stick with, “him.”

Kat shakes her head. “Judging by the look on his face when he took off… I doubt he stopped running until he was far from that place. If they found where we were, they won’t find him.”

I frown at that likely scenario. We need a way to take him down and fast. Maybe, this time, we can get a team to corner him or something. I let the thought trail off as I notice Kat zoning, a dark expression on her face. I wonder curiously what she’s thinking about. When she doesn’t return I prop myself up on my elbow and gently shake her shoulder, calling her name.

“Kaitlyn? Earth to Kaitlyn!”

She blinks a few times, coming out of a daze. “Sorry,” she blushes with a little smile.

“You don’t have to apologize. What were you thinking about?” I ask, settling back against the headboard.

She grimaces. “You probably don’t want to know…”

“You don’t trust me to hold it together?” I ask, a little heartbroken, though, she’s probably right. Lately, I haven’t been able to hold myself together when it comes to things related to ‘him’ or Arthur and her.

She frowns with innocent wide eyes. “No, it’s not that. It’s just…” she trails off.

“Just what?” I prod.

“More violent than you might expect from me…” she mumbles as she turns away.

“I wouldn’t blame you,” I find myself saying, comforting her. “The things he did to you, I am surprised you haven’t acted sooner,” I frown, thinking about how placid she was when we first met, and it all makes sense. I should try not to say things like this maybe… we can’t change the past.

She stares at her palm for a moment, before raising her gaze and smiling at me. “Things are different now.”

I nod in agreement. “You’re right, they are. I shouldn’t say it like that.”

“Well, we can’t do anything about him from here,” she teases.

The tick thurms extra loud as she says this and I know that it is agreeing with her comment. I get the hint and throw the sheet off, placing my feet on the cold stone and standing. I look around for my clothes. “You’re right. We should get moving. We need to say goodbye and get back to our time. I think we’ve waited long enough.”

I throw on the wrinkly clothes with the intent to change in my own room in a moment. When I’ve fastened the belt I turn to face Kat, who is slipping into a simple dress. “So, besides the strange events that occurred while we were here, how do you like jumping?” I ask.

She frowns as she tugs at the fabric, trying to make it sit right. “Honestly, I don’t really remember the first time.”

“I mean, to the past,” I grin. I wouldn’t expect her to remember the jump itself.

“Oh,” she giggles. “It’s amazing. Like living in a fairytale.”

I smile, happy that the experience was somewhat memorable and left a good impression. “I’m glad. Maybe we can do it again sometime, when we aren’t in need of healing and stuff,” I shrug.

Her cheeks flush. “I’d like that. Especially the ‘not in need’ part.”

“Alright!” I laugh. “Well, I should, uhh… get some clean clothes. I’ll be back,” I say, moving towards the door. I look back as I pull it open and see a distressed look on her face. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I ask, a little worried. Then I clue in, she’s worried about Arthur. “Want to come with me?” I offer.

She nods quickly. Dashing over to the desk and grabbing a couple of leather bound books before following. Rhoan crawls out from under the bed and falls in line at her heels. I lead them over to my room, slipping in quietly and latching the door shut once we’re all inside. I rummage through a pile of clean tunics on my bed, left there after the tournament from the day before. I suppose the servants knew I would be back later to change. I find the same ceremonious over shirt from the first day and decide it’d be a nice touch for leaving.

It takes me only a few moments to change, but I feel her gaze on me as I do, blushing at the attention. I try to distract her with a question. “So, what were the books you grabbed?” I pull on the tunic over the white undershirt and fidget with the belt.

She looks confused. “The journals.”

My eyes grow wide as I remember the journal she gave me. “I completely forgot! I’m so sorry!”

She laughs. “I remembered, so it’s okay.”

I let out a relieved sigh. Once I’m dressed I strap on the rapier I got from the Guild and double check my room for any other possessions I might have forgotten about. Then I face Kat, arms wide and a smile on my face. “What do you think? Am I forgetting anything else?”

Her eyes trace over me carefully and she shakes her head. Glancing at the books in her arms, she chews her lip, “Maybe we should ask for a bag to carry these…”

“I suppose we could ask Merlin if he’s around. Then we could find Ceph and Elias,” I frown, wondering what we should do in regards to formality. “And, if you’re ok with it, we should formally say goodbye to the King and Queen, unless you want to just sneak away,” I wink, stepping close to her and wrapping my arms around her waist, pulling her close.

Her breath hitches and her face turns pink again. It’s so cute. “Tempting… I want to say goodbye to Merlin, and Eli… and Ceph too, I guess,” she smirks playfully.

“You guess? What’s that smirk for?” I say softly, chuckling as my hands make her self-conscious. It’s really cute. She shrugs one shoulder, looking away, but now I’m too curious to let that slide. “What? Are you still mad at him?” I ask incredulously.

“Mad? No… Not mad,” she pouts. “But I don’t think he likes me much since I was so mean to him…”

I frown, pushing her shoulders back so I can see her face. “Don’t say such ridiculous things. Ceph wouldn’t hate you for something that wasn’t entirely your fault. You were being magically influenced by Morgana. I wouldn’t superimpose your guilt onto him just yet. Let’s go get a bag and find them so you can see for yourself, OK?” She nods once, a skeptical pout on her lips.

“Come on,” I jest, twisting my hand into hers and pulling her towards the door. I make my way down the all too familiar hall to Merlin’s room. The door stands open a jar so I peak my head in to see if he’s there. I spy him hunched over the glass tubes, brewing a new potion. I push the door the rest of the way open and enter.

“Good morning Merlin. How are you?” I ask, pulling Kat in after me.

The older man lifts his head with a hum. “Ah, Andrei, Kaitlyn. I wasn’t sure you’d say goodbye before you left.”

I can’t believe he’d think so low of us to not say goodbye. I cross my arms, though he doesn’t see, being distracted by the bubbling over of a jar hanging above a candle. “We would never do such a low thing as to not say goodbye. Not after all the help you have given us. We wanted to thank you, and also,” I say, gesturing to Kaitlyn’s books, “we wanted to know where we might get a bag of sorts to carry these home,” I say.

Merlin glances over, his face scrunching up in thought. “A bag…? Hm… I suppose you can take one from that rack by the door. I can have a new one made later,” he turns back to the bottle. “I did not mean to offend. I simply thought after the events of yesterday evening, the pair of you were quite eager to leave as soon as possible.”

“We are, but I don’t like leaving without thanking you for your hospitality, and all the help you gave us in regards to healing and other things. I often don’t get the chance to say goodbye after a jump, that is until recently. I have been gaining more and more control lately and I hope I can start to make this a habit,” I gesture to Kat to get the bag. “Do you know where we might find Ceph and Elias? We want to thank them too,” I add.

“I put them in a room just around the corner, past the ones you were in,” he waves in the general direction. “I am glad I could help you two. Perhaps we will meet again one day.”

“I’d like that,” I say. I feel this trip had a different kind of agenda for us, but I find myself thinking about how it would be nice to spend a jump with Merlin, maybe when he’s not Arthur’s main attendant. I turn back to the door with a smile, taking one last look at the wizards cramped study. “Thanks for your advice too, I will try to remember it, when I get back to my time.”

“I hope you do,” Merlin turns, his gaze falls on Kaitlyn. He nods once, deep and slow with a slight smile. She mimics the motion, though looking a little confused. I wonder for a moment then slide out the door. I walk back down the hall.

“I didn’t realize they were the next room over,” I blush, hoping they couldn’t hear us last night. I reach the door and rap my knuckles on the back in a musical pattern to let them know I’m here. I hear a chair scrape and steps coming towards the door. I step back, waiting.

“Hello,” I hear Ceph’s deep voice as the door swings open. He is dressed, a loose, untied tunic hangs about his shoulders. I haven’t seen him so casually dressed before now. It takes me a bit by surprise. I spot Elias, still buried beneath the covers in the bed.  “Are you…” I hesitate, a bit confused, “sharing a room?”

Ceph looks at me with indifference. “Yes…” He says slowly, his ears turning bright red. “To save on rooms…” he stutters.

Kat snorts quietly, coughing to cover it up.

I look over my shoulder at her, one eyebrow raised. “Well, we’ll be leaving today, so feel free to take one of our rooms. It might be more comfortable,” I suggest. I feel like I’m left out of some sort of inside joke and I look back at Kat hoping to see her give it away. She’s a terrible liar.

She raises her hand to hide her smile as I frown. “What? What am I missing?” I ask them both. Ceph just turns a deeper shade of red. What’s he blushing for?

Kat clears her throat, struggling to keep a straight face as she leans in to whisper. “Andrei, I don’t think they want another room,” she stresses.

I shake my head. “Why wouldn’t they -” and I stop suddenly as the joke finally dawns on me. I’m stunned into silence, looking between Ceph and Kat, I feel a look of surprise on my face. “They’re… you’re… to-gether?” I ask, putting my pointer fingers together. Now it’s my turn to blush.

Kat covers her mouth with both hands, her whole body shaking as she holds in her laughter. A few tears well up in her eyes.

I don’t get why it’s so funny. “Am I the only one who didn’t know? Come on, stop laughing, it’s not that funny!” Ceph just slides back into the room, making room for Kat and me to enter.

“I’m sorry,” Kat continues to giggle. “I can’t believe you didn’t know.”

“Well, in my defense, it’s not like they disclosed that information. How was I supposed to know?” I ask her. I guess my voice is a little loud as Elias stirs in the bed. “How did you find out?”

Kat sighs as she shakes her head and steps into the room. “It doesn’t matter… You know now.”

“As you are well aware, in the past, our kind of… relationship is not acceptable. We try to be as discreet as possible. Kaitlyn, though, is very observant, I see. I should be concerned if you were able to tell,” Ceph says quietly, standing next to the table with a slouched posture.

Kat fidgets, staring down at the floor. “It’s hard to hide that level of adoration. Sometimes you just can’t help it. It’s not your fault,” she explains.

I watch as Ceph just stands there, looking at the ground. I see all the signs now, the lingering eyes, the gentle demeanor, the proper mannerisms all designed to shift the attention to something else. And obviously the blushing, but that’s just an in-the-moment give away. I feel a pang in my chest for their secret love. I can only imagine how hard it must be, originating from the past when that kind of thing was seen as wrong, and dirty.

Ceph glances at the bed as Eli yawns, finally waking up.

The redhead squints as he sits up, shirtless with sheets tangled around his waist. He looks around the room, confused with all the people present. “What’s going on?”

I look to Ceph, I don’t want to explain.

Ceph smiles at him, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly as Eli watches us with a confused look.

“They found out El. I’m a terrible liar,” he sighs with melancholy.

Eli’s brow creases. “I thought they already knew… Sis and I talked about it days ago,” he looks to me. “She didn’t tell you?”

I shake my head. Ceph visibly relaxes. “You mean, I didn’t give it away? You told her?” he asks.

Eli scratches his head. “Didn’t have to.”

“We have to be careful El. I know they are from the future, but what if it was someone else? Or the King? We’d never be allowed back here, whether we are Guardians or not,” he warns.

Eli raises an eyebrow. “Merlin doesn’t seem to care. Why would Arthur?”

The tension returns to Ceph’s posture. “He’s the King. His father would not approve, maybe he is the same.”

“His father is dead,” Eli replies bluntly. “Your opinions don’t matter when you’re dead.”

Ceph just shoots him a worried glance. I feel like this is a conversation they’ll continue later.

“Anyway, we came to, uhh…” I interject, “thank you for all your help training and stuff. We’re going to try heading back to our time.”

Eli’s eyes open wider. “You’re leaving already?”

“Yes,” Kat replies quickly. “We have unfinished business in our time. now that we’ve recovered, we should probably head back.”

“We’d like to get back and deal with things. We really appreciate all the help. We couldn’t have, well, you know, got stronger and learned more about our respective elements without you,” I turn to Ceph. “You may not make notes now, but I found notes in books back home, written with your name. So, maybe you will in the future. I could really use your clues, trying to teach myself more about time magic and all without a physical teacher.”

He looks at me and smiles. “I’ll do my best to leave you some crumbs. I guess you’re my first student.”

I smile back with thanks. “Maybe one day you can jump to our time. I really wish there was more time to learn from you,” I pause as the ticking in my ears presses harder.

“You shouldn’t suppress it, if it’s calling you to jump,” Ceph warns. I look up at him, surprised he can tell.

“Is that what this feeling is?” I chuckle. “I hope I don’t kill myself trying to learn how to manage this,” I joke.

His expression turns dark. “Don’t kid about it. There was a time mage who did just that. Time can be a dangerous magic if not used correctly. Be careful,” he says.

“I will. I’ll try,” I assure him.

“Good luck in the future, Sis. I can’t wait to see how we’ve both grown, next time we meet,” Eli grins.

Kat laughs. “You’ll have to visit us then. We have rooms designed to minimize collateral damage,” She pauses, lowering her voice sadly. “I hope you do.”

The moment feels a little too tender, so I cough awkwardly. “We would rather not disturb the King, but would you disagree if we left now, without saying anything to him?” I ask, just to be sure.

Ceph looks to Eli with a shrug. Eli shakes his head with indifference. “If you care for the formality, I’d say something. Otherwise, El and I can mention that you had pressing matters to attend to,” Ceph offers.

I look at Kat, watching her anxious expression. “We’d greatly appreciate that.”

“Goodbye Andrei, Kaitlyn, and Rhoan. It was a pleasure,” he nods. Eli waves from the bed as we turn for the door.

“Bye!” I call, stepping into the hall. “Man, it feels good to actually say goodbye,” I tell Kat as we walk back to her room. It is closer after all.

“I find goodbyes hard enough when in the same time. Knowing that they don’t exist in our time… makes it even sadder,” she muses quietly.

“It does, but that’s why it’s nice to say goodbye. I’ve rarely had that opportunity, you know, to properly end things. I always just jump in and out of their lives without warning. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

She smiles knowingly. “I can understand that. That said, I’m more than ready to say goodbye to this place.”

I know what she means. Despite it being the Camelot of legends, I have had my share of medieval times for a while.

We stand in her room, the mid-morning light casting a warm ray on us. It’s hot on my back, like being on the beach in Hawaii. Her hair seems to glow alive like real flames in the sun’s light. It’s stunning, I can hardly look at anything else. She smiles up at me, waiting. I nervously step towards her.

“I’m not exactly sure how we did this last time. You pushed me to jump with you. Ceph mentioned something about maintaining contact. Are you ready?” I ask her, reaching out a hand.

She reaches up, wrapping her arms around my neck, resting her head under my chin as she presses her body against mine. I feel a tingling sensation as she hugs me close. “Absolutely,” she mumbles. I can’t help but smile.

I release the pressure of the constant ticking and watch as the blue sparks leap across my arms and around us both. I squeeze her tightly against me, holding her for dear life as we are flung backward off the ground.

The ribbons of time return, a mirage of colours flashing around us as we gently tumble towards nothing. I look around, trying to determine our time. Kaitlyn remains still in my arms, I feel her breath on my neck and I get goosebumps on my skin. I look up and catch sight of the ribbon that glows a bit more brightly than the others. I feel like that’s the one. I raise one hand towards it, hugging Kaitlyn with the other as I grasp the time.

I feel a jolt as the ribbon yanks me towards it and we are flung back into our own time. I stumble backward as gravity suddenly returns to us and struggle to maintain my grip on Kaitlyn at the same time. I fall back, landing hard on my butt, Kaitlyn on top. Lights flash before my eyes with the pain and when I look at Kaitlyn, she seems different. I see black hair framing her face, a face that isn’t quite her’s, and ruby red lipstick.

I blink, trying to dispel the pain and the strange image. I look again, and she’s just herself, red curls hanging from her unmade face, brow creased with worry.

I smile back. “All, good. You?”

She nods. “I’m fine… How are you feeling?”

I smile through my cringe. “I might have a bruise, other than that, I’m good.” I lie.

She hums with a frown, before getting to her feet. Her eyes scan the room, like a hawk searching for a mouse. “Doesn’t look like anyone has been here for a while,” she observes.

I look around, seeing what she sees. “You’re right,” I stand up, brushing my pants off. “Think we can get out of this cell then? Seeing as we’re stuck on the inside?” I ask, walking over to the bars and leaning against them. They swing open and I stumble out of the cell. “That was easy. Wow,” I chuckle with surprise.

Kat rolls her eyes and snickers. “Great work, Sherlock. Though, maybe next time we should be a little more wary of potential traps.”

I grin at her from outside the cell, resting my hands on my hips. “Nah, it’s all good,” I make a mental note of her suggestion though. It seems smarter than stumbling into a magic laid trap.

“So, what’s the plan? If he’s not here, how do you think we get out of here? Also, where is here?” I ask. I turn as I hear heavy steps echo down the hall. I gasp in shock as I recognize the hulking shape of Cliff barreling towards us. Kat ducks back into the cell just as Cliff makes connect, squeezing the life out of me. I feel my spine crack and I can’t breathe.

“Wow! You really are here!” he booms. I wait for him to let me go before gasping for air, coughing and rubbing my back. Someone needs to teach him how to greet guests, seriously!

“What are you doing here?” Kat asks with a suspicious tone.

“We traced the transportation spell from the office building you entered! We managed to locate this place as the delivery end of that spell. We’ve been taking turns, my crew and I, watching for your safe return, as per Kaede’s tip that you’d probably return to the place you left from.”

“How’d he know where we left from?” I ask, wheezing, still a little dazed.

“He said he tracked the GPS signal on Kaitlyn phone. We found her phone down the hall in a disturbingly decorated cell. I have to say, I don’t much like this guys style. A little kinky for me,” he shakes his head.

I try not to think about what the cell down the hall looks like, thanking God for Kaede’s tech brains. If it weren’t for him, would Cliff have found this place at all? I wonder.

“But you two, you look well and healthy! This makes me very happy! We have been worried sick! Caroline won’t stop insisting we involve the headmistress. It is difficult to calm her down,” he continues.

“She was right,” Kaitlyn replies seriously. “You should have.”

His eyes look between us before he responds. “I had to be sure before I involved her. You weren’t the only ones in these cells. We found another while we were waiting for your safe return,” he says darkly.

“We almost didn’t have one,” she mutters, her eyes tracing the dark stains splashed across the concrete floor. “Where is this other person?” I frown at the seriousness of her tone, not following her gaze, but choosing to remain fixed on Cliff’s expression.

“Down the hall. I’ve informed the Headmistress of the events leading up to now after we discovered the girl,” he says, turning and beckoning us to follow him. “The Headmistress said to find out if the girl was friend or foe, but so far, she hasn’t said a word… well, until just now. I don’t know how she knew you’d returned.”

I freeze in my tracks when my eyes fall on the skeletal figure sitting the cell. Food boxes litter the floor around her, but their contents lay untouched. I can hardly tell if she really is a girl or not. I take a step back as Kaitlyn bravely steps towards her.

Did he do this? Did ‘he’ do this to her? My mind races against my will, and I have to force it not jump to conclusions as I listen and watch carefully from the hallway. As I wait, I notice it, like Kaitlyn taught me on the first day we met. I see the aura, the faint glow of light around the figure in the cell and I know instantly, she has magic.

By Kayla West

The Guild – Chapter 32 – Kaitlyn

Kill him.

The voice rings in my mind. I can’t breathe.

“Kaitlyn? Is that you?” Andrei whispers again, still holding off my last swing. Blood trickles down his palm, dripping onto Arthur’s pale cheek. When I look at Arthur, the uncontrollable rage fills my chest again.

Kill him. Kill the king.

A woman’s voice screams in my mind, and for the first time, I realize it’s not my own. It’s never been my own. I meet Andrei’s bulging brown eyes. What am I doing? I don’t want to kill anyone. My hands tremble in the gauntlets. I stumble back, sword slipping out of my grip and into the sand.

“I’m sorry…” I gasp. I can barely find my voice. I stand at the king’s feet, and Andrei crouches at his head. That whole fight feels like a dream. Why did I feel so much hatred for this man I barely know?

“What are you doing?” Andrei asks quietly.

I hesitate. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean? How do you not know?” He presses, standing up. He lowers his sword but doesn’t drop it, blood drips from his left hand and onto the sand.

I look around at the utterly stunned crowd. Merlin, Eli, and Ceph all stand at the edge of the ring, ready to intervene, worry painted across their faces. It’s hard to see much through the eye slits, but as I scan the sea of faces, a figure in the crowd catches my eye. Her energy, among the jaw-smacked peasants, draws my eye, but the blood-red cloak catches my attention.

Hair the colour of midnight cascades out from under her hood, her porcelain skin a stark contrast. Her eyes sparkle like a cloudless sky, as cold as ice. She watches me, disgust on her doll-like features. I recognize her from my dreams first, but as she disappears into the crowd her name rings in my mind.

Morgana.

I can’t believe I didn’t realize it sooner. It’s so clear, in retrospect. The confidence, the man-hating, the utter loathing and desire to murder Arthur. I feel like a fool. No, worse… a puppet. Again. Stupid stupid stupid Kaitlyn. I clench my fists, as well as one can, wearing metal gloves. She almost got her wish too. That’s the worst part. What would I have done if Andrei hadn’t stepped in? What if I had accidentally killed him?

Andrei… He stands next to Arthur, helping the king get his bearings. He watches me from his peripheral. The fear in his eyes hurts more than any wound. Of all the people in the world, past and present, he’s the one I never wanted to see in fear of me. My eyes sting and my lips tremble.

“Whatever you do, don’t take off that helmet, not yet at least,” Andrei warns. What? Why not? I open my mouth to form words when I feel the ground shake. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman screams.

Suddenly it seems we have bigger problems. The dirt to my left starts to rise in a mound. We watch it, confused, until the ground breaks and a hand pokes through. Flesh hangs off the bones as it grips the dirt and starts to pull more of itself out. All around us, more figures start to rise. I guess she had a backup plan.

“Oh crap,” I hiss. The spectators around us start to scatter in a panic as undead crawl out of the ground all around us. The knights in the wings start to rally, grabbing their weapons as they charge into the arena. Andrei chops at one near him that’s already halfway out of the ground.

I notice a hand creeping over to my discarded sword. “Kat!” A voice calls out. I try to follow it but it’s hard to see. “Hold out your hand.” I recognize the voice and obey. A sword materializes in my fist.

“Thanks,” I mutter, before hacking at the undead nearby.

“Kaede would have a field day with this. Where the heck did these come from anyway?” Andrei shouts as he cuts his way closer to me. “You don’t think…” he hesitates.

“It’s Morgana!” I yell as I chop off one of the undead’s heads.

Andrei frowns. “How do you know that?”

I consider my words carefully. “I… saw her.”

“Where?”  he looks around frantically.

“She was in the crowd,” I reply, though when I check the area, she’s nowhere to be seen in the mass of bodies. “She’s gone now.”

“We have to find her!” Andrei decides. “There’s no other way to stop this!” More dead seem to crawl out from under our feet. It seems like there’s no end to them. “What did she look like?”

“Red cloak, black hair, pale skin. Just like in the stories. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it sooner…” I grumble. I need to fix this, fast. She can’t be far, to keep the spell going. I make a path toward the exit. We won’t find her in here. Andrei follows, hacking at zombies as he goes.

Outside the arena, people are running in all directions. I can barely see where I’m going. I need to get out of this armor, but who knows where Merlin is to use his magic to remove it quickly. I’ll have to improvise. “Hold on a sec,” I fidget with the helmet, trying to pull it off.

“Not here!” Andrei snaps, as he grabs my arm. He pulls me into a nearby tent, luckily unoccupied. He starts to tug at the leather buckles holding one of my gauntlets in place.

“Stop, get back,” I brush him off. “That’ll take too long.” I get a grip on the helmet and yank it off. Some of my hair gets caught and I wince as it pulls. I hate helmets.

“You can’t do it alone, that’ll take longer!” He argues. I blink at him, incredulous.

“Says who?” I hold out my arm, the one he’d been trying to untie. I focus on the leather buckle holding the metal together. It ignites and quickly turns to ash. The glove clatters to the floor, leaving my hand free. I do the same to the other one, burning off the armor piece by piece. The whole thing takes less than a minute.

I feel a thousand times lighter, standing in slightly scorched pants and a loose shirt. “You were saying?” I say smugly.

He gawks at me. “I guess that works.”

“Okay, so… If you’re a crazy sorceress, where would you hide…” I muse, stepping over the armor as I leave the tent.

“The castle?” Andrei suggests.

I look up at the towering spires. I can almost feel her watching. “The castle,” I agree, as I grip Rhoan’s hilt tighter. I charge toward the gate, cutting a swathe through the undead army. Andrei keeps up at my side as we try to help the fleeing citizens on our way. I catch sight of Eli and Ceph somewhere in the courtyard, directing people to shelter while keeping the hordes at bay.

As we burst through the main doors, the castle is eerily quiet. We creep down the hall cautiously, but it seems the undead haven’t yet breached the walls. Interesting. Some sources did mention she wanted to take Camelot for herself. It makes sense she wouldn’t want to destroy the castle.

“Maybe she’s not here after all,” Andrei muses, relaxing his posture.

I shake my head. “She’s here. I’d bet anything.” Up ahead, I spot the oversized double doors of the throne room. They almost seem to call to me. I don’t hesitate to pull them open. Inside, the room is unnaturally cold, even for me. I feel goosebumps rise on my arms. Still, I enter.

Standing at the base of the dais, looking up at the pair of Thrones, is a slim figure wearing that same blood-red cloak. She doesn’t react to our entry. I approach slowly, sword in hand, Andrei following close at my side. He glances at me, curious and unsure.

“You disappoint me, Kaitlyn,” the woman’s voice seems to fill the whole hall. “I thought us two of a kind, you and I. We could do great things together.” She turns slowly, her blue eyes fixing on me. I freeze. So much for the element of surprise.

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re not together then, isn’t it!” Andrei snaps.

Morgana’s eyes shift to regard him. If looks could kill… “Not yet,” she replies, words like daggers.

“You’re mistaken there,” Andrei sneers.

Her eyes trace over him then move back to me. “You let a weak little man speak for you?”

“He’s not weak,” I retort, finding my voice. “And he happens to be right.”

Morgana sighs. “You are naive,” she walks along the length of the dais to the right, closer to me. “You have great power. I sensed it the moment you appeared here,” she muses. “I reached out to you then, but you were weak. Do you recall?”

Andrei shoots me a questioning look. “What’s she on about?”

I drop my gaze. “I kept having this weird dream… It was just a dream. It hardly seemed worth mentioning at the time.”

“Kaitlyn… Your dreams, they usually tell us things. You should’ve told me!”  I glance at him from the side. He looks hurt and angry. Really, like he’s been honest with his problems…

“You had enough to worry about,” I mutter. I don’t want to call him out in front of a crazy witch.

“What good would it do, to confide in a mage without his powers?” Morgana taunts. “What good are you, boy?”

Andrei’s head snaps towards her, a mixed expression of shock and fear on his face. Damn. So much for keeping up appearances.

“What would you know?” I demand, trying to reclaim her attention.

“Yea,” Andrei interjects. “You’re just a second-rate witch who can’t even kill the king, no matter how many times you try.” I shoot him a glare. Why would he taunt her like that? That’s just asking for trouble. I start to say something but I’m too late as Morgana flicks her wrist and he goes flying into the wall to our left, sword clattering to the floor as he lands in a heap.

“Andrei!” I gasp, as I start to run toward him.

“Ah-ah!” Morgana snaps. I hesitate, glancing back. She holds her hand out toward his motionless form. “It’s time for the ladies to chat, without an insolent man interrupting.”

I stare into her icy eyes, weighing my options. “Rhoan, go to Andrei,” I command.

“You need a weapon,” he protests.

“A sword won’t do me much good here,” I scoff. “Go.” The sword slips out of my hand and lands on the floor as a cat. He takes off toward Andrei as I raise my palms toward her. “Talk.”

Her eyes follow Rhoan, one brow arches. “Interesting pet you have.”

“Get to the point,” I grit my teeth.

“Alright. This,” She gestures to the thrones, “rightfully belongs to me. If you help me reclaim what’s mine, I will reward you with anything your heart desires.”

I tilt my head. “What if what my heart desires is your head on a plate?”

Morgana laughs a strangely melodic sound. “Such big words, for such a small girl. I see into your heart. If you desired such a thing I would already be dead, would I not?”

I gulp. Honestly, I’m not sure I could take her on if half the stories of her power are true. “Maybe,” I reply weakly.

“Tell me, do you care for my brother?” She asks simply. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you, with those wandering eyes of his.”

I bite back a gag. “My feelings don’t matter. Arthur has a destiny, and it’s not my place to change that.”

In the corner of my eye, I see Andrei stir, his hand rises to his head. I internally sigh with relief. Morgana sees it too, and I see her arms tense. This time I’m ready. I fling darts of fire at her as fast as I can, cutting her concentration. She dodges the fire, leaving Andrei untouched.

“You are making a mistake,” she warns, “I don’t have to be your enemy.”

“If you see what my heart desires, as you say,” I storm toward her, “then you’d know that attacking him makes you my enemy.”

“Kaitlyn, no!” Andrei shouts, as he comes to his senses. It’s too late.

My forearms burst into flame as I charge at the sorceress. She deflects my punches with localised force fields. She reaches under her cloak with one hand, maintaining a barrier with the other. I catch a glimpse of metal before I feel a burning sensation across my stomach. The floor is splattered with red, but I don’t have time to worry about that now.

“Cancel the spell on the town and leave,” I demand. “Or I’ll be forced to stop you.”

“Brave words,” Morgana muses, “for such a coward.”

“I’m the coward?” I scoff. “Aren’t you the one who was using me to fight her battles for her?”

The sorceress’s expression darkens. “If you refuse to join me, then you and your precious companion will die here. Choose wisely.”

“I choose option three,” I sneer.

An unrecognizable blur moves past me, rushing into Morgana. Blood splashes across the stone floor. Morgana stumbles back, clutching her left arm to her chest, the sleeve of her black dress torn open. Her blue eyes grow wide as Andrei appears between us, rapier in hand and murder in his eyes. I gasp, and my arms return to normal in an instant. Did he suddenly get his magic back?

“What? Didn’t think this option was available?” He smirks, holding the rapier to her throat. “Thanks for the wake-up call. It’s just what I needed to think straight.” The sorceress’s eyes narrow as they follow the blade from her neck up to his face. She doesn’t exactly look afraid.

“Oh my… am I interrupting?” Another voice cuts through the tension.

I frown, turning to look behind me. A certain white-haired man saunters up and stops beside me. “Aevraig?” I gawk in disbelief.

“Forgive me,” he shrugs. “I couldn’t help wondering where you two had run off to.”

“Where do you think we’d run during a zombie invasion? Honestly.” Andrei rolls his eyes.

Aevraig smirks. “Apparently, into the proverbial lion’s den. A little reckless, don’t you think?”

Morgana clears her throat. “And who are you?”

“Not who,” he holds up a finger, looking at her with a sly grin. “What.”

She raises an eyebrow. “What are you?”

“Just some white-haired guy who thinks he’s a lizard. Don’t worry about this Aivrig or whatever you’re called. I got this,” Andrei scoffs. I press my lips into a thin line and scratch my head. Oh man, is he in for a surprise.

“A lizard? How rude!” Aevraig gasps.

Andrei mutters under his breath. “I wish guys would stop hitting on my girl. Is that too hard to have in the past?”

Morgana studies Andrei and Aevraig, confused. I can hardly believe that’s what he’s thinking about, faced with one of the most dangerous women in history. “Is this really the time to be worried about that?” I whisper, exasperated.

“Hitting on her?” Aevraig bellows a laugh, “Kaitlyn could very well be my great, great grandchild for all I know! That would be quite inappropriate.”

“Like anyone would know,” Andrei rolls his eyes.

“Looking out for my kin is not the same as flirting, child,” Aevraig states, annoyed. “However, that is not the issue here. Morgana, is it? I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave our lovely little town. Oh, and take your ghouls with you.”

Morgana looks him up and down. “And if I refuse?”

“I will simply have to convince you,” Aevraig shrugs.

“Then convince me.”

“Very well.” Aevraig steps back. His body distorts, stretching out in all directions. His face contorts horribly as the snout and teeth grow. The massive throne room is barely big enough to contain his bulk without knocking out the walls or ceiling, though he has to keep his wings pulled in tightly. The dragon growls, though, at this point, I assume neither of them understands what he’s saying.

“He says, ‘are you convinced?’,” I translate. Her eyes dart wildly between me and the dragon behind me. “He won’t ask again.”

“Soo… he really is a dragon…” Andrei muses aloud.

I roll my eyes. “Did you think I would really lie about that?”

“I didn’t think you were serious!”

I balk. “Why would I joke about someone being a dragon?!”

“Children, focus,” Aevraig grunts.

I blush, “Uh… Right,” I turn to Morgana. “You have two options here,” I mock her earlier ultimatum.

She takes a long moment, studying the three of us. Finally, she seems resolved. “I will return.”

“I have no doubt,” I nod thoughtfully. After all, that’s what’s written. She backs away from Andrei’s blade, and her figure slowly fades into the shadows in the corner of the room.

Andrei dashes at her fading image. “No! She’s getting away!”

“That’s the idea,” I reply simply, studying him. “You and I both know her story isn’t over yet.” Rhoan returns to my shoulder.

“How do we know she took the zombies with her?” He challenges.

“We go outside and look,” I shrug. “Or find a window at least. Even if she didn’t, the spell will fade when she’s out of range.”

Andrei nods, “Oh… Right.”

“Terrible business, that,” Aevraig yawns. I turn to see him in human form again. “Sibling rivalry, I mean, such a shame.”

I stare at him, baffled. Sibling rivalry? I think it’s a little more than that… I shake my head and brush past him, heading for the door. The windows in here are too high up for us to be able to see anything.

In the hall, I move to the closest window and push it open. I can see the courtyard. The people wander out of the shelters, lifeless shells of the undead lay motionless across the grounds. I guess breaking the spell doesn’t get rid of the corpses. That’s not going to be fun to clean up.

“Well, that’s a bit gross. Kaede would love this though,” Andrei says, standing next to me looking out at the town. “You were pretty brave in there.”

“I didn’t feel brave,” I sigh, as I look up to meet his gaze. “But I couldn’t just do nothing. She was going to kill you.”

“Oh, is that what happened?” He scratches his head. “I don’t remember parts of it…”

“Of course you don’t. You were unconscious,” I roll my eyes. As his hand comes away from his head, his fingers are red. I catch his arm to get a better look. “You’re bleeding,” I gasp, panic rising in my throat. It’s not his hand that’s injured.

He looks at his hand, “I guess you’re right.”

“Let me see.” I reach up to move his damp, messy hair. He leans forward, bracing his good hand on the window ledge. Just above his temple on the left side, I find a gash along his hairline. Blood has soaked into his hair and it’s hard to tell where the injury is. That, with the memory loss, doesn’t bode well. “Are you dizzy?” I ask.

“A bit, yea,” he responds.

I bite the inside of my lip. “We need to find Merlin. Come on.” I grab his hand and drag him down the hall.

“Wait, why? Can’t you heal me?” He stumbles, tripping over his feet.

I pause, glancing back with concern. “Don’t you remember what happens when I heal? I would never use that on a head wound.”

“Oh… right. Could you at least slow down?”

I blush, dropping my gaze. “Sorry.” I try to let him set the pace, but I’m anxious. I don’t know how serious his wound might be. I’m vaguely aware of Aevraig following along behind us. I hold onto Andrei with both hands as we make our way down the stairs into the courtyard. He’s still pretty unsteady.

“Sis!” Eli shouts. I look up as we get to the bottom to see he and Ceph jogging toward us. “What happened? Why are you bleeding?”

“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “Andrei got hit in the head pretty hard. Have you seen Merlin?” I glance around the yard, hoping to spot the old man.

“He’s pretty busy helping the injured at the arena. I could maybe take a look though,” Ceph offers.

“It’s here,” I move his hair aside to show the bloody mess.

“Oww, careful,”  Andrei whines.

Ceph looks at me, briefly pausing before he touches a hand to Andrei’s temple. “Hmm… Doesn’t look too bad. What have you been feeling, any dizziness? Memory loss?”

Andrei looks at him with a glazed expression. “Uhh, yea. I’m a bit dizzy and apparently I don’t remember how I got hit,” he mumbles.

“That would be the wall you flew into,” I mutter.

Ceph nods. “Alright, maybe you should take a seat. I’ll do my best.” He leads Andrei back to the stairs and helps him sit down, and takes either side of Andrei’s head in his hands. I stand next to Eli, arms crossed, watching anxiously.

“I will check in on our mutual friend,” Aevraig leans down to whisper to me. I nod as he walks away.  Andrei’s head glows between Ceph’s hands for several seconds. The wound closes, and he seems to relax a bit.

Ceph takes a step back and glances at me. “He should rest for a bit. I may have healed the wound but he might still be dizzy. We can handle the cleanup. Is anyone else in need of a healing?” He asks, looking down at my shirt.

“No, thank you. I’ll take him back to our room.” I avoid his intense gaze. I remember how I acted the past several days, and I can barely look in his direction without being overwhelmed with shame.

“Are you sure? Your shirt… it’s bloody,” he points out bluntly.

I feel my cheeks flush. “Uh… well… yes… it’s just a scratch.”

He gives me a knowing smile. “Don’t be like that. I just want to help. May I see?”

I hesitate. I guess it wouldn’t hurt. “Um… okay.” I pull the bottom of my shirt up to just under my breasts.

Ceph leans down, studying the wound before placing a hand tenderly on my stomach. With a brief light, the wound is healed. He stands up straight with a grin, “How does that feel? Anything else?”

I shake my head. “No, that’s all she managed to do before…” I hesitate. “Aevraig scared her off. Thank you.”

“Wait? What about me? I even cut her arm! Or are you suffering from memory loss too?” Andrei stands in defense.

I chuckle. “Yes. You did. I’m sorry.”

Andrei frowns. “You don’t have to apologize, I was joking.”

“Oh…” I nibble my lip. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

“Sis, you feeling okay?” Eli pipes up. “You’re acting… weird.”

I tip my head. “Am I?”

“Yes…  you seem different,” Ceph narrows his eyes in suspicion.

“No, this is how she normally is,” Andrei interjects. “Usually she’s not so confrontational.”

I pick at my nails as the pair focus their gazes on me again. “I apologize for that. It seems I was… under the influence of someone else. I failed to recognize it in time.”

Ceph cocks an eyebrow, clearly a bit confused. Andrei holds nothing back. “Morgana somehow infiltrated her dreams. I think maybe it was affecting her mood.”

“I see,” Ceph nods, thumbing his chin. “Well, we should get back to helping, remember to rest,” he points firmly at Andrei.

“Right.” I move to his side and hook my arm around his. “Shall we?” Andrei smiles and nods. I lead him through the castle, back to my room. He sits on the edge of the bed. “Wait here,” I instruct as I head back out the door. I track down a servant and get a bowl of warm water with a couple of clean cloths.

I place the bowl on the table by the bed, soaking one of the cloths thoroughly. “Hold still,” I perch on the bed next to him, moving his hair aside as I gently wipe away the drying blood. Rhoan leaps off my shoulder and moves to the other side of the bed, curling up on a pillow.

“That feels nice,” Andrei hums.

I can’t help but smile at the content expression on his face. “Good. You deserve it, after such a long day” I rinse out the cloth and continue.

“You were amazing back there, facing Morgana. You looked so… confident. It suited you,” He says wistfully.

“’Confident’ isn’t exactly the word I would use,” I laugh. “But thanks.”

“Well, whatever happened, that smack to the wall fixed whatever was blocking my magic,” he finally admits. “I’m somewhat grateful… somewhat.”

I pause for a moment, lowering the cloth. “You could have told me…” I whisper sadly.

He lowers his chin, like a scolded child. “I… didn’t want to worry you. I wasn’t sure why, well… that’s not true either.” He pauses for a long moment, eyes flicking about the room as he tries to think of what to say. “I was upset about what happened back in our time. I was afraid that going back would… I dunno, get worse so I was unconsciously stopping time, and my magic, avoiding the future. I didn’t want to see you get hurt like that, or not at all. It was awful, Kat. It tore me to bits being forced to watch and not being able to do anything to stop it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner… I thought it’d just go away on its own,” he rambles.

I snicker under my breath. “I guess Ceph did listen to me after all.”

“Hmm?” Andrei looks up, confused.

I smirk playfully, “You’re not exactly the greatest liar, you know. I knew something was up, but I figured you wouldn’t tell me. I asked Ceph to talk to you instead.”

“What? That’s like… spying!” he jests.

“He never actually told me what you talked about, and I didn’t ask. I just thought maybe he’d be able to help you,” I shrug.

“Well, your hunch was right. Thanks.” He reaches a hand for my cheek, his fingertips resting on my jaw and tugging ever so slightly. I follow his gesture, leaning in to meet him as he presses his lips to mine. My heart flutters as though it was the first time all over again.

My face feels like it’s on fire when he pulls away. I rinse the cloth and silently go back to wiping the blood off of his head. Once I’m satisfied, he lays down. I curl up next to him, resting my head on his shoulder. His arm wraps around my back and his hand rests on my hip. We stay that way for a while, neither one saying a word.

A knock on the door breaks our peaceful bubble. Whoever it is doesn’t bother waiting for a response. I sit up, a little on edge, but it turns out it’s only Merlin. The elder mage assesses the two of us with a suspicious eye.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” Merlin hums.

“We’re resting,” I snap, embarrassed.

He nods. “Ah, good. I understand Andrei suffered head trauma?” Merlin approaches Andrei’s side of the bed. “How are you feeling now?”

“Pretty good, thanks to Kaitlyn’s exceptional nursing skills,” he jokes.

I nudge his arm. “Right, because Ceph’s healing had nothing to do with it.”

Merlin chuckles. “You seem to be back to normal. Think you two could come and give us a hand with the rest of the clean up?”

Andrei looks at me and gives me a wry smile. “I think we should be okay to help now,” he props himself up, waiting for me.

I climb out of the bed and glance down at myself. “Uh… you guys go ahead. I need to change.”

“Oh okay,” Andrei follows Merlin out the door.

I wait for the door to close before moving toward the dresser. The pants are probably a good idea to keep if I’m going to haul bodies, so I search the drawers for another shirt. I find mostly dresses and other frilly things. Finally, I find a simple shirt and pull off the bloody one. Underneath, I’m wearing a medieval version of a bra, which isn’t great but it does the job. I pick up the clean shirt, turning it over to find the bottom edge.

The angry hiss of a cat breaks my train of thought. I turn to see what Rhoan is doing, but I find something blocking my view. Specifically, the chest of a man, barely contained in his low-cut shirt. I gasp, stumbling back into the dresser, holding the shirt over my chest.

“You are quite… exquisite,” the husky voice sends a shiver down my spine as I meet his bright blue eyes. “The way you moved on the battlefield… I’ve never seen anything like it. I knew I had to have you then.”

I stare at the face of the king twisted with lust. I feel sick and paralyzed at the same time. He can’t be serious. I shake my head stiffly. This isn’t happening…

“Do not refuse me,” he leans down, grabbing onto the dresser on either side of me, pinning me down. “The children we could produce… we could start a dynasty to last for centuries. Imagine it! I will shower you with everything you could possibly dream of!”

I lean as far back as I’m physically capable. I nearly killed him, and now he wants to make babies with me? What’s wrong with this guy? “No, I can’t stay here. I don’t want to!” my voice cracks as I protest.

Arthur slams his fist on the dresser. I jump. His eyes burn. “You will not deny me!” he growls, grabbing my shoulders hard. I gasp. Before I can complain or respond, his lips are on mine. It’s sloppy and uncomfortable, and I squirm to break away.

Then, he’s gone. I hear a bang and, as my eyes adjust, I see the king slumped in the corner of the room. Between us, a huge wolf stands, teeth bared. The king’s face drains of colour as he scrambles to stand up.

“Kat, get out of here,” Rhoan instructs. No need to tell me twice. I run for the door, clutching the shirt over my chest.

“Wait!” Arthur shouts. I don’t hesitate, yanking the door open.

As I sprint down the hall, I somehow get the shirt over my head. I don’t stop running, eyes stinging, heart pounding, and lungs burning. Finally, just outside the arena, through blurry vision I spot Andrei. He turns as he notices me, confused. I run right into him, nearly knocking him over as I bury my face in his chest and cling to the back of his shirt.

“Kaitlyn? What’s wrong? You look…” His voice falters. “What happened?” He asks, voice turning serious. His arms wrap around my back tightly.

I try to put the words together, but I can’t even bring myself to speak it. The most I can manage is a weepy “I want to go home.”

“What? Why? I thought…” He stops and I feel his hand grip my shoulders gently, pushing me away so he can see my face. “What’s brought this on so suddenly? You can tell me, can’t you?”

My mouth refuses to form the words. I can’t even look at his face. I feel like I’ve betrayed him somehow. I feel dirty and disgusted just thinking about what might have happened. The wolf pads up next to us, startling Andrei for a moment.

“I’m sorry I didn’t react immediately, Kat. I didn’t expect him to be so… aggressive,” Rhoan growls.

“Who was aggressive. Rhoan, what happened?” I feel his hands tense in anger. Eli, Ceph, and Merlin wander closer, intrigued by the commotion.

The wolf looks up at Andrei, then at me. I nod. “Arthur snuck into Kat’s room after you left.”

Andrei stares at him, unmoving. Then his voice cuts the silence sharply, “That… Bastard! I don’t care if he’s destined or not, I’m going to kill him!” His grip disappears as he moves around me, storming toward the castle.

“Don’t!” I rush to cut him off, grabbing onto his shirt. “You can’t alter time. We can just leave!”

“I don’t care about that. He crossed a line and I’m going to show him what it means to piss me off.” He looks into my eyes and I feel the rage smoldering in his gaze. He tries to pull away but I hold on, trying to hold him in place.

“Hey, whoa, there’s no need to kill anyone!” Eli runs over, blocking his warpath with hands held up in peace.

“Yes. Eli is right. Why don’t you let us handle the king?” Ceph offers, standing next to his partner. “I’m sure we can reach a peaceful settlement.”

Merlin rests a hand on Andrei’s shoulder, which makes him jump. He shakes his head slowly, gritting his teeth in frustration. The last time I saw that expression, Logan was holding a knife to my throat.

“Andrei, look at me,” I beg. “Let them handle it. Stay here with me. Don’t leave me. Please?”

“But…” He hesitates. “Kaitlyn, he violated you. In my mind, that’s unforgivable…” he whispers to me hoarsely.

“It’s not a death sentence,” I reason.

His eyes search mine intently and in a moment I see the anger fade to regret. “Fine.”

“Let’s finish here, while they handle it. We can get cleaned up, and leave first thing in the morning. Okay?” I try to smile.

“You sure? You’re okay with that? I won’t let you out of my sight, I swear,” he promises, dead serious.

I nod once. “Between you and Rhoan, I think I can make it through one more night.”

“I’ll hang back with these two. You go ahead, Ceph.” Eli claps Ceph on the shoulder. Ceph and Merlin head off toward the castle. Eli rests his hands on his hips. “Alright, so we’ve gathered most of the bodies. Just gotta do a final sweep of the area and then light ‘em up.”

I follow his line of sight to a huge mound of rotting bodies. I shudder and gag. I’m a little surprised I’m not used to the sight, but I guess it’s a little different when the bodies are human. Andrei and I wander around the tournament grounds, while Eli checks the courtyard. Rhoan sniffs out a couple bodies under some rubble and we reluctantly load them onto a stained stretcher to add them to the pile.

“Alright, care to help me, Sis?” Eli winks, standing in front of the mound.

It takes me a moment to realize what he means. When he holds up his hands, wiggling his fingers, I clue in. I step up beside him, raising my arms. It takes me longer than usual, but I manage to push all the thoughts from my mind as I channel the magic through my palms. It takes quite a while for all of the bodies to ignite, and we have to add more every few minutes just to keep it burning. The stench burns my nose and my eyes sting. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to smell anything else again. I’d rather have a skunk spray directly up my nose.

Over two hours go by before we’re finally left with a pile of ash. I’m exhausted, nauseous, and covered in soot. “Yea… I’m officially over the whole medieval thing,” I muse aloud, looking down at myself. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’d like to go over to that lake and go for a nice swim.”

Eli frowns. “You could just have the servants bring a bath to your room.”

I meet his curious brown eyes and shudder again. “No thanks…”

“It’ll be freezing, you’ll get hypothermia,” Andrei says.

I shrug. “Probably not… but you might,” I purse my lips. “I guess that’s not a good idea.”

“I don’t know about you, but the private bath in your room sounds like a great idea,” Andrei smirks.

I raise an eyebrow and blush. “Well… when you put it that way…”

“That settles it then!” Eli bellows. “Let’s head back.”

I ask Alice to have the bath brought for us, and within the hour it’s hauled into my room. They set it up by the fireplace. I bolt the door once the servants leave. Andrei stands next to the big metal tub, reaching in to test the water. I walk over, stopping in front of him. He looks down at me with those sweet puppy eyes. I slide my hands under the bottom of his shirt and lift it up over his head, with a little help.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Andrei asks, brushing a loose hair out of my face. “We don’t have to do anything tonight. Today was … a little hectic. I’d understand.”

I slide my palms up his chest, and around his neck. I pull him down as I stand on my toes to reach his lips. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to be lost in him. He wraps his arms tightly around my back, kissing me hard. We help each other out of our sooty clothes, and I step into the steaming water.

Andrei hesitates, so I grab his hand and pull on his arm. He climbs in, hissing at the temperature as I push him to sit. I pick up one of the cloths left by the servants, dip it into the water, and start to wash his chest, still exposed above the water.

He runs his hands through my hair, pulling it out of the bun. “You don’t need to do that,” he purrs, leaning in for another kiss.

I reluctantly let him break away. “I want to,” I mumble back, as I run the cloth down his arm.

He turns his head, watching the cloth move down his arm. His hair hangs in front of his eyes, barely covering his sensual glance. I feel his other hand run up my neck and into my hair. I drag the cloth up over his shoulder, down his chest. My arm disappears into the water as I run the cloth along his stomach. I look up at his face through my lashes as I reach farther down.

His eyes widen in shock and his face splits into a smile. “You’re crazy, you know that,” he breathes softly. His hand cups my cheek and he tilts my chin gently up so he can kiss my lips.

I smile against his lips, breaking away and resting my forehead against his. “Only with you.”

By Krystyna Yates

The Guild – Chapter 31 – Andrei

Ceph’s mood is still dark, despite Kaitlyn’s apology. She’s not the best at admitting her faults, but maybe I’m the only one that knows that. I look over at Kaitlyn, talking to Eli about something. I see him chuckle and I wish I could hear what they were saying. Instead, I try to distract Ceph with a question of my own to get his mind off things. I tap him on the shoulder to get his attention.

He looks up at me without moving his head.

“Umm, why don’t we do some training of our own?” I ask, hoping he’ll take the bait.

He doesn’t respond right away, still staring at Eli and Kaitlyn by the water. He stares at them, unblinking until he nods with a longing look toward the two. It’s strange, the way he looks at them, or is it just Eli? I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions.

We walk along the tree line away from the others. The lapping water soothes the tension that seems to comes off Ceph in waves.

“I’m sorry if I have offended your girlfriend,” He says. “She is talented and strong and I admire her for that. I only wanted her to teach mine how to be more familiar with his fire.”

I look up from the sandy beach as he speaks, he’s shaken up and his guard is down. “You mean Eli?” I say.

I watch as his face turns a shade of red. “Y-yes,” he stammers.

I chuckle, “It’s ok. I understand.” His jaw clenches and I see he’s at a loss for words. “Kaitlyn is good at what she does, she’s good at a lot of things, actually, but she’s usually soft-spoken and doesn’t speak up. Even with me. To be honest, we only just started dating,” I explain. I still can’t believe it’s only been maybe two or three weeks since we met. So much has happened in such a short time. I can’t wrap my head around it.

“You’ve only just met? You are able to talk sense into her very well. I commend you for that. Fire is hard to handle. When Elias and I first met, we didn’t get along well, until…” he trails off. “Well, until we got to know each other better,” he finishes.

“You guys almost act like brothers sometimes or best friends. It’s great! Sort of like how my roommate, Kaede and I were, before I moved to the Guild,” I compare.

He chuckles and stops when we reach a rocky section of the beach. Ceph bends down and picks up a rock from the beach, rolling it over in his hands. “Time, it can be harsh on some, and kind to others, but knowing how to use that to your advantage can help you overcome most hardships. As time mages, we can manipulate time and see others times as if it were part of our own. We are less likely to be defined by our original time because of our ability. We must learn to see time objectively. Although the world around us ages, the people in it rarely do so. They often make the same mistakes, forgetting those of the past and ridiculing those who are different,” he says, staring at the stone.

His words are deep, I still wonder what he had to endure to learn that. I feel like I’m taking the easy way out.

“Have you thought about your block? Have you been meditating?” he asks, dropping the stone in a clatter.

“I’ve tried, honestly, but… It seems I still cannot let go. The tick is gone and I’m worried as hell,” worried is an understatement. It’s been eating away at my brain for the past few days, hindering my sleep at times. I seem to only forget it when I’m training for the tournament, losing myself in the drills or when I’m sleeping with Kat. I have this anxious feeling in my gut and I get a pang in my chest. I’ve never felt so alone, even surrounded by friends like Ceph and Kaitlyn.

“Hmm,” he ponders, rubbing his chin. “Well, if you are unable to perform magic, perhaps I can still show you until you are again able to. I want you to try this one day. Just like we can speed up the time of an object, we can slow down the passage of time on an object or space around us. Watch closely.” He swipes his hand in front of him and I don’t see anything, at first. Suddenly the sounds around us slow and the water on the end of the beach slows as it heads for the rocky beach.

The little waves slowly creep towards us, like waves of syrup or molasses. The water outside of the affected area continues to shift and pulse at regular time. I notice the air next, filled with dust shifting slowly around us like that found in an abandoned dusty farm building on a breezeless day. The movement of air also feels slower, lightly brushing up against my arm, hardly noticeable but for the slight buffeting, I feel against the hairs on my arms.

“You’ve created a time bubble?” I ask in disbelief.

“Yes. This is a circumference of space where the time is slower. Anything entering it is slower than regular time, including ourselves. It will feel normal to us. You might notice your pulse is also slower,” he points out.

I focus on the beating of my heart and freeze. “That’s freaky!” I say. It’s almost like I have no pulse at all.

“To people on the outside, it might appear as if we are not moving at all. Time to them looks different than to us within the bubble. This is different than speeding up your time to make you move faster. That is easier, more an impulse move. Where, in a dire situation, slowing down the time is just as helpful, if not more so, as it confuses the enemy into thinking you are not moving when in reality you’ve given yourself more time to think and react. Not to mention, once they enter the space they are at a disadvantage because their actions will slow down. In a sense, it is like we have moved faster by slowing down our own time because we can set ourselves to e\anticipate their reactions as they enter our time-space.”

“I see,” it seems it would be quite a useful skill. Especially in combat. “How do you invoke it?”

He smiles, faintly. “You must desire it to slow down, focus on the ticks, the movements and pull them back from moving forward at the regular steady beat. With practice, you can affect a larger space. It can be taxing, though, to slow too much space. I wish I could have you practice now, but it seems you are still unable to,” he comments regretfully.

I hang my head in shame. I’m hung up on protecting Kaitlyn that I can’t seem to let myself use magic. What a waste of a trip to the past.

“The tournament is tomorrow,” I hear Ceph say, calling me out of my thoughts.

“Yes. I think I’m ready,” I say, holding up a fist.

He smiles warmly. “Good. Eli and I will be there to watch. We may accompany Kaitlyn, though she might not want to sit next to me.”

“Thanks! I want to prove to her I am capable of winning the tournament and be her knight. I want to give her the winning flag.” I don’t know why it excites me so much, but I guess part of the reason is, back in this time, winning for the lady was part of the game and giving her that ribbon was a gesture of your feelings for her. “I want to see her smile when I pass it to her.” I find myself saying out loud.

He laughs aloud. “That’s quite the goal, you’ll have to win every match in order to do that, even against King Arthur, who is known to compete in his own tournaments. He has magnificent skill with a blade, be warned,” he says.

“Well, I may not have much experience with the blades of this time, but when I went to France in the 17th Century, I was one of the Musketeers!” I say excitedly.

Ceph’s eyes widen slightly, he must know about them then. “I have heard of them. They are revered for their skill with the blade too. Well, maybe you are a good match. The blades are different but the skills transferable. I wish you luck. At least I can vouch that you cannot cheat on anyone with your magic,” he grins.

I frown in response, though. “I wish it was there. Even if I wouldn’t use it in the tournament, It would be a comfort to know I had it at my disposal.”

“It is tempting to use, and easy to forget your morals while in combat, though it’s good to hear you say that. Well, you need your rest before the big day. Let’s head into town and grab some mead, shall we?” He invites, releasing time.

~*~

I wake up in a panic, nearly jumping out of bed. I look around my room, yes, my room, and realize it’s the tournament day. My head is a little foggy from the night of drinking mead with Ceph and the other tavern-goers. I don’t remember returning to my room last night either. I dash to the window to gauge the time, worried that I’m late. I look out over the grounds and sigh in relief, the sun is still only rising. I wash my face in the basin and change out of my sweaty clothes.

I throw on a clean tunic I find at the end of my bed. Though wrinkly, it’s better than yesterdays shirt. I run my fingers through my hair as the door opens and a servant walks in with a tray of breakfast.

“My lord, your breakfast,” He says, placing it on the table with barely a sound. I feel all jittery with anticipation as I sit at the table. I eat much to quickly and by the time I’m done, another servant has arrived to take me to the preparation tent.

“My lord, you’re armour and equipment are ready in the tent on the grounds. When you are ready, I can take you down to the grounds to prepare,” He offers with a bow.

I thank him for the notice, but there’s something I wish to do before I head down. I tell him I’ll be right back as I dash down the hall and stop at Kaitlyn’s door. I raise my hand to knock, pausing before I make contact. Would she be up? There is still a couple of hours before the tournament ceremony begins. I hesitate, thinking to turn back when I hear a pair of voices from inside. I can’t make out what they’re saying.

I sigh in relief and knock on the door. The voices stop and I announce my presence. “Kaitlyn, ummm, it’s Andrei. May I come in?” I ask, nervously.

The door opens, revealing a slightly pudgy, round-faced blonde girl. At first, I’m shocked, thinking Kaitlyn gained weight overnight. Then I spot Kat in the back sitting at the vanity, hair half braided and sigh in relief.

“Umm, may I speak to Kaitlyn please?” I ask the servant girl. Servants still make me nervous. I don’t like that they can know everything that’s going on.

“Of course, my lord,” The girl bows as she opens the door wider, stepping to the side to let me in.

I walk in, approaching Kaitlyn. I kneel beside her chair and smile, resting my hand on her arm. “Good morning M’lady. Did you sleep well?” I ask.

She smirks coyly. “It was a little lonely, I’ll admit. How about you? Seems you had quite a night,” She nods to the girl at the door. The servant leaves, closing the door behind her.

I chuckle half-heartedly. “Yea, I don’t remember much of that. Some pre-tournament celebration I guess.” I shrug. “I wanted to see you before I head off to the grounds, for good luck!” I say, stretching up to kiss her lips.

She presses her palm against my cheek as she returns the kiss. “Try not to get killed out there. Remember what I said about vengeance,” she teases.

I pull away from her in mock shock. “Me? Killed? Never. What did you say about vengeance? I might have forgotten that lecture,” I tease back, wrapping my hands around hers and rubbing it gently. I lace my fingers between hers.

“I said,” she twirls a lock of my hair with her free hand, “that I would have to burn this whole kingdom down… and I’m a little worried that I just might be able to too,” she muses. “Besides, then I’d be stuck here.”

“Oh, that…” I remember with a frown. “Well, if it came down to a death match, I supposed I would be allowed to cheat then wouldn’t I?” I smile half-heartedly, hoping it doesn’t show her that I couldn’t possibly cheat with my block. I haven’t really spoken to her about it… yet.

Her expression darkens and she looks at me with sad eyes. “Could you, really?”

I look at her, giving her my most confident smile. I’m not ready to tell her yet. Maybe after the tournament. “I wouldn’t leave you stranded here alone,” I tell her. “I would cheat if it looked like someone might kill me. But I doubt there’s a knight in this kingdom that could. I’m the Great Andrei!” I shout, standing up and holding my arms at my waist like a grand statue. “Best swordsman to ever live in the…” I count the centuries on my fingers, “next fifteen centuries!” I grin like Zack Effron, flashing her my teeth. Hide the worry, Andrei. Hide the worry.

She stares up at me, her face unreadable. She sighs, turning to the mirror. “I hope you’re right. I’ll be watching.”

I drop my arms. “You don’t need to worry, Kat. I’m going to win this thing, and I’m going to be the knight to give you that ribbon. You’ll see,” I smile. I hate that I have to run, but I know it’s time. “I’ll see you in the stands?” I ask, stepping towards the door.

“Good luck,” she smiles, waving.

I wave back, leaving her room. My servant waits outside to take me down to the grounds. “Ok, I’m ready now.”

“Yes, my lord,” he leads me outside to a green tent. A chill wind blows through the tournament grounds, fluttering the tent flaps as it passes through. I wrap my arms around myself to keep out the cold. Maybe the armour will help to block the wind.

He draws the flap back and motions for me to enter. The Inside is much warmer than outside and I see the armour laid out on a table. Another servant waits inside, ready to assist in the dressing. It takes a good thirty minutes to completely assemble the armour. Once I’m ready, I step out of the tent and follow my servant to the presentation grounds. We weave through the tents of the various other knights of the realm and I feel a ball of excitement form in my gut as I anticipate the fight.

We turn a corner and I stop suddenly in my tracks. I notice Kaitlyn, red hair braided into a tight bun and a simple but beautiful dress, not bulky like the other ladies I see walking about the grounds, and without a shawl. I see others watching her with wide eyes, turning to talk as they pass. It’s surprising to see, considering it’s late November, and cold out. The cloudy sky looks like it could break open at any moment into a flurry of snow. But they don’t know that she has a natural heat to keep her warm. I smile, deciding I will show her the armour.

I clank over to her, my servant frantically dashes to my side as I turn away from him. I go to call her name when I notice her attention on another approaching her. I stop and watch, not recognizing the man that steps up to her. He wears fine grey clothing, decorated at the cuffs and collar with lace. He’s tall, nearly six feet maybe, and his hair is long and white. He places a firm hand on her shoulder in a familiar manner and I suddenly tense, wanting to push him away from her. Why would she let another touch her so… friendly? I stop myself in my thought tracks. When did I get so possessive of her?

She appears to be annoyed until he speaks and I see her eyes widen in shock and recognition. Does she know this weird looking man? I frown beneath my armour, anger stewing in my chest. I approach with vigor, glaring at the mans hand in disgust.

“Excuse me,” I seeth in my armour, reaching an armoured hand out to grab him, “but I do believe it’s not customary to lay hands upon another knights maiden. Am I mistaken?” I ask, placing my hand on his and pulling it away.

He turns to face me with a smile, long white hair framing his long, angular face. I study him hard until I notice his eyes, a brilliant silver colour, look down at me with intrigue. His smile splits into a grin. I’m put off by the familiar expression. Who is this guy?

“My mistake,” he bows slightly. “You must be Andrei,” he says.

I frown, letting go of his hand and trying to put mine on my hips. “Yea, I am. And you are?” I ask, dropping the proper language.

Kaitlyn coughs, her face red. “Andrei, this is Aevraig… I met him yesterday… morning… with Merlin.” Someone forgot to mention anything about this to me…

“Albeit,” the man adds, “My appearance was somewhat… different at the time.”

“Yesterday?” I ask. “You met with this man yesterday? I thought you said you met with a dragon?” I say offensively.

She stares at me with a blank face it’s as if she’s trying to process her response. I glare back, still lost. The moment stretches uncomfortably, and I can’t figure out why she won’t answer my question.

She looks at the servant behind me. “Would you excuse us for a moment?” My servant bobs his head and takes several steps away until he is out of earshot.

The strange man leans down toward Kaitlyn, his silver gaze fixed on me with amusement, “A little slow on the uptake, isn’t he?”

Kat sighs, “Andrei, this is Aevraig,” she repeats. “Aevraig is the dragon I met yesterday.”

I scrunch my nose with a frown. “So… You’re telling me this man… is a dragon?” I look at him and raise a skeptical eyebrow.

The man claps, his face lighting up. “Ah! The tin can has a brain after all!”

“Shut up,” Kat snaps at him as my own eyes glare daggers. “You’re not nearly as intimidating as a human.”

I don’t like him… insulting my intelligence like that. “Just because I’ve never seen a dragon in human form before doesn’t mean I’m dumb, lizard,” I fume in the amour.

The man bows his head. “Apologies. Kaitlyn speaks highly of you. Forgive me if I’m a little biased about your appearance. I admit I don’t spend much time getting to know many knights before I eat them,” he smiles pleasantly. Kaitlyn rolls her eyes.

“Well then, you’ll be happy to know I don’t plan on skewering you today or any day,” I say from beneath my helm, though I do want to poke him and see if, in human form, he’s any less vulnerable than in his dragon form.

Just then, a trumpet blares over the grounds, summing the knights to the ceremony. I give the dragon man one last look before smiling at Kat. “I can’t wait for you to see the tournament,” I grin happily. “Just you watch. I’m gonna win this thing.” I give her my signature wink before turning and locating my servant who rushes in front of me to lead me to the ceremony.

He stops before a large wooden stand which has been erected for the purpose of today’s tournament. In the centre of the stands in a raised dais with two thrones and a slightly smaller chair on either side. I see the Queen, Guinevere already standing before her throne, beside her, Arthur’s chair sits empty. Before I have time to see more, my servant gestures for me to enter the grounds and stand in the line with the rest of the gathering knights for introductions. I trot into the arena, stopping at the end of the row.

When we’re all lined up I gaze straight ahead, watching as the dais is filled. I now see Merlin to the right of the King’s throne, and beside him sits Ceph and Eli. On Guinevere’s left is Kaitlyn, and next to her, the dragon in human form, Aevraig. Once everyone is seated and the stands filled with spectators dressed in their thick winter cloaks the trumpets fanfare and the King steps up to the dais, seemingly from out of nowhere.

“Lords, ladies, and citizens from across the kingdom! I welcome you to this tournament, in honor of my very special guests.” He gestures to his right and then left. “The festivities begin now! Let us show them what our great kingdom has to offer!”

To be honest, I feel a little deflated after his speech, It wasn’t very inspiring and he seems to have forgotten I exist… I follow the crowd of knights out of the arena to stand before a board where the painted flags of each knight have been hung, displaying the proceedings of the tournament.

I’m a little confused when I look up at the board as I don’t know what flag represents me until my servant points at a painted flag with an hourglass on it. I look at it for a moment, then smile. It suits me, being a time mage and all. I realize I’m up first and my adrenaline starts to pump.

The speaker announces the other knight first, calling him into the arena.

“From the North, Sir Gladsworth!! He shouts and the people cheer wildly. The knight, Sir Gladsworth, steps into the arena and lifts an arm to wave to the people. He’s tall, and his armour gleams, despite the lack of sun. As the crowd settles down I wait eagerly for my introduction.

“And from a faraway land, visiting Camelot for the first time, Sir Hanganu!” He shouts, mispronouncing my last name without a care. The crowd is less enthusiastic about a knight they don’t know, which kind of hurts my pride, but I hope to change that. I smile at the crowds, waving my hand enthusiastically. We are motioned to take out stances as I lower my visor.

“Let the match begin!” The speaker announces.

We take our stances, swords raised at the ready.

A gong is sounded and Sir Gladsworth rushes at me. He is strong, forcing me back a couple of steps as I block his sword. So this will be a match of strength then? I brace my sword with my hand, forcing his sword away and prepare to spin around, out of the defense.

I hear him curse beneath his visor as I complete the maneuver and wave at the audience, all before he manages to turn around to face me. I am a sucker for flare.

I dodge his next blow and land a tap on his shoulder before he can re-adjust his stance to block me. I’m faster than he anticipated, which is to my advantage. The match doesn’t last much longer. I land two more blows to his back and take the chance to glance up at Kat smirking in the stands before I land a final blow to his shoulder, causing him to drop his sword in the dirt and grab his armour where I struck hard.

“And the winner is, Hanganu!!” The announcer shouts over the surprised cheers of the crowd. Sir Gladsworth exits the arena with a pout of dissatisfaction.

The tournament continues, pairs of knights from both trees of contestants duel in an epic display of skill and endurance. I can’t help but admire each knight for his trademark style in the arena. Soon enough, in the second round of fighting, I find myself paired with a more dexterous knight from the Eastern lands of Camelot. It’s nearly midday but the sun is hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. Despite the cold though, I find myself sweating as I parry the Eastern knight and try to fend off his blows.

He dances around me in an elaborate display, like those birds Caroline used to talk about after class. I can’t recall their names, but it was pretty cool that a bird would dance for its mate. I imagine myself as, a little to my dismay, the female contestant to this knight bird, testing his reach and attempting to knock him off balance. I play hard to get, not letting him beat me, he won’t win my heart today.

I land a striking blow to his knee, knocking off his knee guard with a triumphant shout! He growls at me from his visor and tries to swipe his sword at my own knee – a payback move. I anticipate the action though and leap out of the way just in time. I take him out with a final swing, making contact with his breastplate. The announcer calls the match and the crowd cheers joyously! They seem to like the new kid! I chuckle, leaving the arena as the next pair line up.

My servant runs up to me as I watch the next knight jab the others visor clean off in a flourishing display. He pulls me away and motions for me to follow.

“Where are you taking me? I want to see the match?”

“Sir, it’s the noon hour. Your next match isn’t for another six rounds. You should eat something now,” he gestures to a food tent laden with food.

“Alright, can’t argue with that.” He helps me out of my upper armour and I munch on some food while watching the board of knights still in the match. A squire moves the painted shields around, making the new matches for each round. The board is clearing up as the defeated knights leave the tournament. My own shield crawls upwards on the board towards the finals.

I watch him move a new shield to the rightmost tree of contestants, opposite mine. It has an interesting design, and I watch, intrigued as it’s placed for a match in the early afternoon. The shield bears a painted bird wreathed in flames. A Phoenix. It’s a common legend, although I wasn’t aware that it dated as far back as Camelot. I take a mental note to research that when I get home.

When my lunch if done, I make my way back to the arena and continue to watch. As I approached the field I see a short knight facing off with another. I glance at the board and realize it’s the knight with the firebird. I watch, entranced with the shorter knights movements. They are precise and accurate, not wasting any effort on flare. He fights well. I smile, hoping to face off with him in the finals. He clips the other knight several times, dodging his blows with skill.

When he wins, he neither regards the crowd nor lifts his visor. He approaches my end of the arena and I give him a smile. “Wow, amazing footwork out there. Congratulations on the win!” I extend a hand to shake but he ignores me, walking right past without removing his helm.

“Well, that’s rude,” I mutter under my breath. I watch him trot off to the tents. Well, looks like I’ll just have to make him acknowledge me when I face him in the ring. I take it as a personal challenge to meet him with the sword.

The pairings continue for another hour before I’m called again to the ring. It’s the semifinal round, to determine who will be the final contenders. It looks like I’m paired with the King himself. I scratch my head before putting on my helmet. Man, this kind of sucks. How am I going to face that firebird knight if I have to take down the King first? The crowd, I don’t think will be pleased.

I set the helmet into place and jog off to the arena. Time to show Kaytlin what I’m made of. The announcer calls Arthur Pendragon first, to my disappointment. The crowd erupts into cheers, the spectators waving pennants with the Pendragon stitched onto them. My hands suddenly feel hot. He calls me next and the crowd’s reaction diminishes significantly. I don’t even have their favour. I spot a few peasant girls who look to be my age pressed against the stands, waving wildly to me. At least I have their attention. I lift my visor and give them a wink.

Arthur and I take our stances. We raise our swords and before I can even take a full breath, he charges towards me. I sidestep, but he matches my movements easily. Our swords clang as I deflect a strike. I watch his movements closely, trying to find his weaknesses, but Arthur, I have to admit, is a pretty solid knight.

He manages to deceive me, scoring a hit on my elbow. He pulls away, throwing up his arms to the crowd as they roar with excitement. He points his fingers at Kaitlyn and I see her cover her face with her hand. Jerk.

I barely give him time to turn around before I’m onto him with my blade. We dance in the dirt, following the motions I learned from fencing. I feel like I’m in France again, one with the blade. My arm-work seems to be overwhelming for his defense and I score a hit on his wrist. Now’s my chance to look for Kaitlyn’s reaction.

I look up to the dais, lifting my visor to see her more clearly. She smiles sweetly, clapping. I give her my best wink before preparing to face Arthur again, but he’s already moving and I manage to block him just in time before he can knock me to the ground. I spin around, knee in the dirt, scoring another hit on his shin guard as I roll out of the way. The crowd boos but I don’t care.

Arthur and I are able to prevent another hit on each other for much longer than any of the other knights so far. Another twenty minutes go by before he scores on my left side, which I accidentally left wide open. I’m beginning to tire, and I see that he too is starting to lag. As the duel wares on, I start to wonder if I should take this match or not. I only need one more hit, but the crowd doesn’t seem to have me in their favours. Is it selfish of me to want to win this for Kaitlyn? To prove I can win without cheating? I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities to show her I don’t need my magic to win. Heck, this whole time I haven’t had it, and I seem to be winning.

I parry, barely distracted as I glance to Kaitlyn in the stands. She’s leaning forward, seemingly entranced. Her fiery hair even tied back in that bun, blazes bright. I really wish I could show her I’m strong enough to protect her.

I feel a pang in my heart and suddenly Ceph’s words come into my head.

As a Guardian, and as a woman of the future, she is more than capable of holding her own.’

Maybe I’ve been looking at this from the wrong perspective. When I first met Kaitlyn, she was strong, and talented in combat, but socially inept. Now, she’s more confident and headstrong. Maybe it’s because we’ve been able to show her she doesn’t need… him anymore. I don’t really know, but the result is the same. She can probably protect herself better than I ever could. Proving it here isn’t going to help anything, it would just anger the crowds and destroy Arthur’s image in history as the greatest knight ever to exist, other than Lancelot.

“You are unconsciously stopping time…” Cephs words echo in my helmet.

Not only am I stopping time, I forgot… I can’t change time either. This is a jump to a historical period. I can’t win this tournament. Never in history has Arthur been beaten by another knight from a faraway realm. This would be too much of a time alteration. It could cause serious implications to history and our own future. I’ve let myself get carried away in proving my capabilities, and I’ve forgotten the joy of jumping into the past and witnessing history in its authentic state.

If I win this match, I will change history… I can’t do that.

I look up once more and see Kaitlyn watching intently. I frown behind my visor, as I force Arthur’s sword back and knock it from his grip. He barely manages to catch the hilt as I bring my own down. I see the action in slow motion, and I know if I continue to drop my blade, his won’t block it in time, and I will win. The stands fall silent as my sword arches downwards on a path towards Arthur’s shoulder. I know what I have to do, I just hate to do it, thanks to my own pride.

I shift my ankle, pushing my swing slightly off balance and my sword misses his shoulder, driving the tip into the dirt and giving him enough time to swing his sword up and land the final point on my breastplate.

The crowd jumps and cheers as I curse softly under my helmet. I’ll get over it… someday. Arthur stands up and holds his arms high. The people love him, even though it’s clear to me he’s the biggest player in all history.

I saunter out of the arena, looking up to Kaitlyn as I leave. I barely catch a glimpse of her as she stands up, rushing off the dais, her face serious. Have I made her angry? I don’t see how… I’ll have to ask when she comes down to see me. I walk towards my servants as they rush to me and help remove my gear. My hair hangs in wet ringlets and the air is freezing on my damp skin. They give me a dry shirt to change into. As I pull the clean shirt over my head I see the short knight walk briskly by me and into the arena. This ought to be good.

I make my way to the observation area where the other knights who’ve lost are gathered, watching with anticipation. There’s a half hour resting period between the final matches. When the time is up, the announcer calls Arthur, who takes a lap around the arena, waving and blowing kisses to his fans. The short knight is called by the name of Sir Halsey; interesting name. He walks into the arena with mixed reactions from the crowd but doesn’t even look up. He walks to the centre, draws his sword, and plants the tip in the dirt at his feet. His hands rest on the pommel and he seems to stare at Arthur, waiting for him to finish his show.

As the signal is given, Sir Halsey charges Arthur, moving impressively fast considering the weight of the armor. Arthur stumbles back with a shocked stance, blocking the first sword blow with his sheath still hanging off the end of his blade. Halsey swings again, and again, driving Arthur back several more steps. He appears to let up for a moment, and the King relaxes. The shorter knight ducks low, spinning with his blade, knocking the feet right out from under Arthur. He stands over the King, knocking his sword out of his hands, and then with the tip of his blade, he flicks the King’s helmet off. I lean over the railing in shock at what I’m seeing. Does this knight not have any regard for the fact that he’s a King?

I watch on as Arthur’s expression turns from one of shock to genuine fear as the knight steps over him, one foot firmly on either side of his chest. The short knight raises his arms, blade in both hands, pointed down at the King’s exposed face. I throw caution to the wind, grabbing a nearby knights sword and leap the fence. I rush in, knees sliding in the dirt to defend the King, shouting/

“Stop!!!!” I yell, bracing my blade with both hands as the knight’s sword collides with mine. I look up into the knight’s helmet, through the visor and glimpse a pair of bright orange eyes. “Kaitlyn?” I whisper with surprise. It can’t be…

 

By Kayla West

The Guild – Chapter 30 – Kaitlyn

My dreams fade as I open my eyes. The room is still dark, but I’m not tired anymore. I have this strange feeling I can’t place. I think I almost forgot how magic feels, but at the same time, it’s different. I slip out of bed, the cold stone sending goosebumps up my legs. They disappear just as quickly. In the wardrobe I find a long, sheer robe and pull it on, tying the string around my waist.

I creep over to the window and peek through the curtain. The sky at the horizon shimmers with colour, like a mirage. As I watch, the colours shift from dark blue, through shades of orange and yellow. I can’t remember a more beautiful sunrise. Though, when I turn my gaze to the figure in the bed, still sound asleep, the colours outside seem dull in comparison.

I run back to the bed and crawl across the covers. He lays on his back, the sheets tangled around his waist, leaving his chest exposed. His long chestnut hair spills across the pillows. I watch his peaceful expression for a moment, committing the image to memory. I gently place my palm on his chest, feeling the steady beat of his heart. I wonder why he seems so shy about his body; his muscles are well defined and lean. Though he has a number of pale marks on his skin. Old wounds, I assume. He mentions many of them in his journals. I think he should wear them with pride because unlike the scars I wore, his each tell a fantastic story.

He doesn’t react when I touch him. I lean down and press my lips to his. It takes a moment, but he stirs. I feel the beat of his heart stutter and quicken. He inhales deeply, stretching his arms out. They wrap around my back and he pulls me in close. He breaks away, buries his face in my hair and relaxes again.

“Good morning, Mr. Hero,” I giggle, turning my head up to touch my nose against his. “It’s time to wake up.”

He groans. “You’re lying. No waking up,” he squeezes tighter.

I laugh. “Yes waking up if you want to be a knight.”

He frowns, eyes still closed, thinking a moment. “What if I was a knight of the bed?”

I raise an eyebrow. “I don’t think they would approve of that in the tournament.”

“I guess you’re right,” he pouts, rubbing his face in my hair again. I leave a trail of kisses down his neck as I sit back up. I don’t really want him to leave, but we both have training to do.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you in full armor. That’ll be a first for you, won’t it?” I tease, tracing circles on his stomach. I notice goosebumps rising down his neck and smile.

“Maybe in steel armor, but not in full body,” he answers. “I had to wear padded armor in the Mongolian exploits, even as a horse boy. It was heavy and uncomfortable,” he complains, “but if I wear armor, you won’t be able to see my winning smile when I take down my opponent…” he flashes me a grin and I swear I almost see it sparkle.

I can’t help laughing. “The helmets have a visor you can lift. Even if they didn’t, I think I could picture it.”

“What about my flowing locks?” he protests jokingly, reaching a hand up to fling a lock out of his face in a dramatic wave.

I roll my eyes. “They might get cut off if you don’t wear the helmet. Though, I suppose if your opponent has good aim, they might be able to take your head clean off without cutting a single hair,” I wink and watch his expression shift to outrage.

“That’s awful! You think I’d let them remove my head?!”

I shrug, trying to keep a straight face. “If you’re stubborn enough to forgo a helmet, it would be hard not to. Assuming your opponent has any sense,” I scrunch my nose. “Of course, you’re not that reckless, right? Cause, I don’t want to have to burn down the whole kingdom to avenge you…”

His eyes light up, “Can you… Is it back?” I hold out my hand, palm up. A little flame springs up. I was a little unsure, but the relief that washes over his face is worth the sacrifice of drinking that vile potion. “You’d do that for me?” he jokes, eyes narrowing.

“Of course,” I feign offense. “If one of those knights so much as scratches your pretty face, I’ll boil them in their tin can suit,” I vow dramatically as I caress his cheek. I don’t really mean it… Probably.

He laughs unexpectedly hard. “You know, I would like to see that if that ever happened,” He sighs and smiles. “I guess I should get going,” he squeezes me again before untangling himself from the sheets. I admire him shamelessly as he collects his clothes off the floor. If I wasn’t sure he’d pass out from exhaustion, I’d pull him back into bed for one more time before he leaves…

He stops at the door, glancing back at me with his brown eyes. They seem to linger, longingly. Then he dashes back, leaning over the bed, pulling me toward the edge as he kisses me hard. Satisfied, he heads out, pausing as he steps through the doorway to wave with a cute little smile. I’m left dazed with a flutter in my chest. How does he do that?

    ***

    Alice brings me breakfast and helps me get dressed. I eat quickly, and as soon as she’s gone with the empty dishes, I head down the hall. In the little laboratory. I find Merlin examining some liquid in a vial. His back is to me as I walk in.

“You seem to be feeling better,” he muses without turning.

I narrow my eyes. “How do you know? I haven’t even said anything.”

He chuckles. “Aside from the obvious fact that you’re up and walking around, I could sense your power before you even reached my door.”

“What?” I gasp.

He turns, his sharp hazel eyes tracing over my figure. He hums and nods. “You are stronger than I predicted.”

I pout, looking away. I wish that was a surprise. I notice a cat on the cot, watching me. “Rhoan? What are you doing in here?”

“I came here last night, for a little peace and quiet,” he responds bluntly.

I blush. “Fair enough…”

Merlin snickers, “So, what brings you to me today, if you’re back to full health?”

I stand a little straighter. “We have an agreement, remember?”

He crosses his arms. “Yes… Shall we go now?” I nod. “Very well. Give me a moment.”

I wait by the door as he puts a few things in a pouch. Rhoan climbs up onto my shoulder, and Merlin leads the way through the castle to the hidden entrance I’m told we came through when we first arrived. The fields around the town bustle with life. The tournament grounds are nearly complete, though we’re too far to see much. The elder mage steers away from the activity, into the forest.

“Not a fan of horses?” I ask, uncomfortable with the silence.

“They’re not a fan of me,” he responds simply. “We aren’t going too far. Besides, weren’t you the one who broke her ankle yesterday on a horse, and vowed not to ride another?” my mouth pops open to protest, but he’s not wrong. I clench my jaw and resign myself to the awkward silence.

The brush starts to thin out as we get closer to a mountain. The trees grow further apart until they too stop. The base of the mountain opens like a gaping mouth, waiting to swallow unsuspecting trespassers. I wonder what lays beyond, as I risk a glance at the old man. His expression is neutral and doesn’t give away any clues.

He walks right into the maw of the mountain.  I jog to keep up as the darkness nearly swallows us. I’m about to ask if it’s safe to create fire to light the way when I bump into his back.

“We’re here,” Merlin states, though I have no idea where here is.

The darkness moves. I freeze. One by one, torches spring to life around the cave. I flinch, and my jaw drops. The cavern is nearly a perfect circle, just big enough to comfortably fit the massive dragon that sits in front of us. Its scales shimmer like pearls in the light. It’s not quite as big as the matriarchs on the Guild island, but I still feel like an ant.

“Welcome,” the dragon grunts. “This must be the young Guardian you spoke of. Your name is Kaitlyn, correct?”

“Ye- wait…” I study Merlin with suspicion. “Did Ceph tell you I have dragon blood?”

Merlin smirks, “he didn’t need to, though he did. I knew as soon as you opened your eyes.” I frown. He chuckles, “No human has amber eyes like yours. It was quite obvious.”

I blink, “if you knew… Why didn’t you say anything?”

He scratches his beard, “would you have answered honestly?”

I think about it and shrug. “Probably not… So, wait, does that mean you also…?”

“Yes,” he nods. “I have dragon in my bloodline. This dragon, to be specific.” He gestures toward the white dragon.

“Oh…” I stare up at the creature. I never thought I’d get to meet a dragon outside the colony on our island.

“You may call me Aevraig,” The huge head bows slightly. “I understand you’ve only recently awoken as a Guardian.”

“I… Yes,” I stutter.

“You will need instruction,” The dragon muses, “The other Guardian can teach you some techniques, but you have also come into your blood. He cannot help you there.”

I gawk at its unchanging face, “What does that mean? Help me with what?”

“To tame the dragon blood,” Merlin answers, “You have an interesting combination of dragon traits mixed with Guardian ability. I have not seen anything like it before.”

“Nor have I,” the dragon concurs.

“So… What then?” I ask, hesitantly.

Merlin shrugs and waves his arm. “You asked for a safe place to practice your magic. Aevraig can watch over and guide you.”

I gulp. “R-really? You’re not too busy with… dragon stuff?”

The dragon huffs. “Not at all. It has been some time since I had a pupil.”

“Alright, it’s settled then,” Merlin claps. “I’m needed back at the castle, but I’ll come collect you in a few hours, Kaitlyn.”

“Okay…” I mumble.

When we’re alone, the dragon hums. “To start, I suggest you remove your clothes.”

I flinch. “Wha… Oh… Yea I guess that’s a good point,” I start to peel off the top layer of my dress, “but, where can I put it?”

“Outside would be safest,” Aevraig answers.

“I’ll take it out for you,” Rhoan offers. I fold up the dress and undergarments, and Rhoan shifts into a monkey so he can carry it.

Standing in front of a dragon, stark naked, I feel both self-conscious and strangely comfortable. I wonder how Andrei would feel if he knew. Does it count if Aevraig isn’t human? I mean, it’s not like it’s sexual. It’s just easier to practice with fire if you don’t have to worry about burning up your clothes…

“Now, I want you to unleash your power. Do not hold back.”

I raise my brows. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Aevraig grunts. “As I understand it, you have been weakened for many days. You must be itching to find out what you can do now. Am I wrong?”

“No…” I admit reluctantly. From the moment I woke up this morning, the fire has been begging to be unleashed. “Alright. Here goes.”

I glance around the cave. It’s just me and the dragon. There’s nothing to damage, no one who could get hurt. I let my eyes close and take a deep breath. Okay, let’s see what you’ve got, Guardian dragon girl.

The tingling starts in my palms, and spreads down my fingers, up the back of my hands, up along my wrists. I open my eyes, raising my arms. The fire crawls along my skin, consuming my flesh and leaving a fiery shape of my hands. I should be afraid, right? I pass my right hand right through my left, the flames merge and intensify for a moment. I feel them, separate but together at the same time. It continues to rise, spreading up to my shoulders and across my chest. I lean my head back as the sensation climbs up my neck, and along my cheeks.

I feel almost as though time moves in slow motion. As my toes disappear, I feel complete. I look around the cave with new eyes. For the first time in my life, I’m not afraid. Nothing can touch me. Nothing can hurt me. Not Arthur. Not this dragon. Not Logan. The fire is me. I am the fire.

I  run my fingers through my hair – only it’s not really hair anymore. It’s the same length, but it flows around my shoulders with a life all its own. I thrust my arm out. A pillar of flame shoots across the open space, splattering against the solid rock. When I close my fist, the molten rock drips onto the cave floor, and my lips curl up into a fiery grin.

“Quite impressive.” The voice of the dragon breaks my trance. “I have not met a mage nor Guardian able to take such a form at will. You are truly one of a kind, young Kaitlyn.”

“So everyone keeps telling me,” my voice sounds hollo, and otherworldly. I kinda like it.

“Indeed,” the huge head tilts. “Be wary of staying in this form for too long. It is no doubt quite taxing.”

I hate that he’s right. I feel it draining my energy already, though I realize I have quite a bit more than I used to. Okay, maybe full body is a little much. Can I control it? I scrunch my face as I command the flame to recede. It does, albeit reluctantly. It crawls back up my legs first, and down my head. When it reaches my elbows, I tell it to stop. It obeys. I hold my fire hands, palms up, and create an arch between them. I shape the energy into a ball. I grab the fire like puddy, stretching and squishing it. I know I couldn’t do that before.

“You’re a natural,” the dragon chuckles. “Perhaps you won’t need much instruction after all.”

“I’ve spent my entire life trying to control my power – to keep it hidden. I am always terrified that I will lose control, and hurt the people around me,” I muse. playing with the fire. “Maybe I was wrong all along.”

“Ah, yes,” it nods. “Fear is a powerful thing. Even more dangerous than fire itself.”

I stare into my palm, a new sense of peace falling over me. “I’m done letting fear control me.”

    ***

     I found my way back before Merlin returned. There isn’t much the old dragon can teach me, so I decided to find Eli. As I pass the training, I can’t resist checking in on Andrei first. Even though he’s covered head to toe in steel, my gaze is drawn to his aura. He fights against a man about the same height, and seems to be holding up pretty well. I smile as I watch.

The men in the courtyard stand around the training grounds, all dressed in their plate armor, helmets held under one arm. Squires hover behind them waiting for their next order. Four pairs spar in the middle, and the spectators shout from the sidelines. I slide in between two men, startling them.

The man standing at the head of the training field shouts, and the men stop fighting. They start to move toward the sides as eight others move in to take their place. Andrei drives his blade into the sand, pulls his helmet off, and shakes his hair out like he’s on some sort of TV commercial. I roll my eyes, his gaze lands on me and a grin spreads across his handsome, stubbly face. The captain yells at him to get moving, so he grabs the sword and half jogs toward me.

“Hey! You made it for training?” he smirks. “What’d you do all morning without me?”

I narrow my eyes at the implication. “I went for a walk in the woods with Merlin, and met a dragon.”

“What?” his eyes bulge. “Don’t knights still hunt those down in this era?” he glances around at all the knights, leaning down to whisper as he leads me away from the group. “You shouldn’t say that so loud.”

I raise an eyebrow and tilt my head. “I’m not worried about that. Ordinary men can’t kill dragons. That would be silly.”

“Well, how do you think they almost go extinct, other than those dragons we saw at the Guild?” he asks cockily.

“Extinct?” I laugh. “They’re not extinct.”

He scoffs. “How can they coexist with humans? I don’t see dragons flying around Toronto.”

“Of course not,” I cross my arms. “They take human form in population centers.”

He stops, stunned. “They can take human form?” he shakes his head with a smirk. “Like I’d believe that. Can’t be true.”

I gawk at him. “Uh… If it can’t be true, how exactly do you think they breed with humans sometimes?” I’m a little worried about his answer. “How else would humans with dragon blood be born?”

“I don’t know, magic eggs? I’m not a biologist.”

“Oh my god, Andrei,” I cover my face in my hands.

“Maybe they’re like salmon and leave their eggs in a river. How would I know?!”

I can’t help laughing. “Okay, let me get this straight; You think human men go to a river to masturbate onto a magical egg, and wait for a baby to hatch? That’s more believable than a dragon shapeshifting into a human form and having sex?”

“It could be! That’s how they got this bird in New Zealand to breed. Caroline wouldn’t shut up about it,” he reasons defiantly. I bite my lip, pressing my fist against my mouth as I stare up at him in disbelief. I can’t even tell if he’s serious anymore. “Besides that point, if humans can’t,” he makes air quotes, “kill a dragon, then why do they hide? Hmm?”

“A walking tin can with a stick won’t kill a dragon, but heavy artillery will do the job,” I retort bluntly. “The same reason that we hide on the island. In our time, technology is just as dangerous as magic.”

“Well, then, are you saying there are dragons walking among us and we don’t even know it?” he frowns. “How do we know Rhoans not a dragon?”

“I think I would know if I were,” Rhoan grumbles.

I sigh. “Andrei, with everything you’ve seen, is this really such a surprise?”

Andrei glares at the little mouse on my shoulder. “Yes, yes it is.”

“Well… maybe when we get home. I can ask one of the ones on the island to show you,” I pause. “Though, I’m pretty sure I didn’t hatch from an egg in a river…”

“How would you know? You were a baby!” he grins.

I roll my eyes. Now we’re just going in circles. “Anyway… Have you seen Eli today in the training?”

“Eli? No, I don’t think so,” he glances back at the knights.

“Okay,” I purse my lips. “I wonder where else he hangs out. Maybe I’ll check with the old man.”

“I haven’t seen Ceph or Eli all day, though the captain said he was planning on dropping by later.”

“Which one?” I ask wearily.

“Eli. Ceph doesn’t do the sword thing,” he shrugs.

Thank the gods for that. “Alright, maybe I’ll just wait around here then,” I smile.

“I mean, I wouldn’t mind,” he smirks. “Maybe you can see what a real knight is made of.”

Arrogance? I retort mentally. I hold my smile and choke back my sarcasm. “I can hardly wait.”

He glances over his shoulder again. “All these guys do is gloat all day about how they can take down dragons and stuff… I doubt they could knock a person off their horse.”

A devilish grin finds its way onto my lips. “I wonder how they would fare if we put that to the test… Do you think they would be that brave then?”

He roars with laughter. “That would be fun to see. I think we should.”

“If only I could turn into a dragon…” I muse wistfully. Well, I guess turning into pure fire would also be pretty scary. That’d work too…

“No,” Rhoan snaps suddenly. “Don’t even think about doing whatever you’re thinking about doing.”

“I wasn’t gonna… probably…” I mutter. “You’re no fun.”

    ***

    The lake stretches out in front of me, the water lapping at the sand as though reaching for my feet. The afternoon sun makes the crystal waters glisten like a thousand diamonds. Birds sing in the trees around me, the wind whispering to the leaves. These elements are beautiful. They sustain life, existing in peace with each other. I always thought ‘I would give anything to have any one of those instead’. But, back then, I never thought to look up.

The sun; giant ball of fire that hangs in the vastness above. Without it, plants couldn’t grow, couldn’t produce the oxygen we breathe. It’s as essential as the other three core elements. I understand that now. I close my eyes as I revel in the feel of its rays on my skin. I’m wearing fitted leather pants, lace up leather boots, and a loose cotton shirt. Alice was even kind enough to put my hair up in a tight braid to keep it out of the way.

“You know, Sis, you shouldn’t look directly at the sun,” a voice teases. Their feet crunch on the sand.

I turn to the redhead with a smile. “You’re late.”

Eli chuckles. “Sorry. I had to convince the guards to let me borrow some training swords,” he holds up two swords, tucked into their scabbards. I glance behind him. Andrei and Ceph stand under the canopy at the edge of the forest. “The masculine look suits you,” he adds with a wink.

“You have no idea how relieved I am to wear pants again,” I laugh as I take one of the swords. It’s pretty heavy, but no more than I expected. “Rhoan, go watch with Andrei.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather use me as your weapon?” Rhoan hesitates.

“That would be an unfair advantage,” I scold. The mouse hops off my shoulder, landing as a cat, and moves to stand at the feet of Ceph. As I slowly pull it out of the scabbard, the metal glints in the sunlight.

“Hey, wait a second, I thought you were going to use training swords!” Andrei protests, “Those aren’t made of wood!”

I raise my brows and chuckle. “In my experience, wood doesn’t last long in a fire.”

Andrei pouts. “But…”

“Relax,” I toss the empty scabbard at his feet. “No one’s forcing you to watch,” I see Andrei’s lips move as he repeats what I just said with a mocking expression. I roll my eyes and laugh.

I move to stand across from Eli as I twirl the blade in my hand. I toss it between both hands, trying to get used to the weight. It feels like forever since we left the Guild. Nearly a week without much activity hasn’t done me much good. Eli takes a light-footed stance. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that we both like to move fast. His blade spins in his hand, his deep brown eyes fixed on me.

I tilt my head and grin. “There’s no need for training wheels,” I hold my sword out at the ready. With a thought, the blade erupts in flame. Eli nods, and his sword lights too.

He waits. As the seconds tick by, I grow bored. Alright, I guess I’ll just have to take the fight to him. I charge head on, but as I get close I drop. The sword swipes at his legs as I slide across the sand. He front flips with ease, spinning on his heel as he lands. I crouch with one hand buried in the sand. Eli smirks and swings the sword down at my head.

I bring my blade up to block his stroke, bracing the flat of the blade on my palm. Eli pushes hard, and my arms tremble with the strain of holding him off. I’m considering my options when I hear a faint snap. In the center of my sword, where the edge of his presses against it, a small crack appears in the steel. Well, shit. I guess the fire weakened it faster than I anticipated.

My heart starts to race. The breeze caresses my cheek, loose hair tickling my nose. This isn’t the end of the fight. I won’t lose to a man. I dive to the right, rolling into the tide as I narrowly avoid the momentum of his sword. It digs deep into the ground, melting sand into glass. As Eli pulls his blade free, I have time to get to my feet. My clothes are damp but I try to ignore it. I swing at him as soon as he’s got the sword free, and he barely manages to block in time. He stumbles back as I swing again and again.

His eyes narrow and he takes the offence. Instead of aiming for me, however, he aims for my blade where the crack has grown. Crap. It only takes two solid hits before the top half flies off and embeds in the sand. The flames die out, and I’m left with a useless hilt. I toss it away and my arms hover at my sides. I have another trick up my sleeve. Eli raises an eyebrow. I nod. He swings half-heartedly.

The blade stops in mid-swing. I grip onto it with both hands, the dull steel slices into my palms but only for a moment. The flesh of my hands fades into the orange-yellow marble of fire. The steel turns red, melting slowly until I snap it in three. I let the pieces fall into blobs on the ground between us and grin at my dumbfounded opponent.

“I thought using your magic in a duel was cheating?” Andrei calls from the side teasingly.

I roll my eyes. “Fighting fire with fire was kind of the idea here.”

“How did you…” Eli mutters, pointing at my hands.

“It seems she has more control over the fire than even you do, Eli,” Ceph muses thoughtfully, approaching us.

I stick my nose in the air. “Not really. I couldn’t do that before. I only figured that out this morning,” Ceph’s eyes widen and Andrei’s jaw drops. “What?” I frown.

“You also seem to learn quickly,” Ceph nods. “Eli, you need more practice,” he states, curt and cold.

“That’s not fair,” I glare at the bespectacled man. “It’s not his fault. It has nothing to do with practice.”

“It has everything to do with practice. Eli is a guardian. He’s been slacking. We need to keep up our training, even as a Guardian, in order to expand our capabilities and protect those around us,” he states in a scholarly manner.

I swing my arm out, my vision turns red for a moment. A bead of flame splashes against the tree beside Ceph. It’s so hard not to hate this guy. “Take that stick out of your ass, Ceph. What gives you the right to talk to him like that?”

Ceph moves in an all too familiar blur, looming over me with a shadow over his face. “I am not insulting him. I would never do that. You should learn to respect your elders. You’re acting like a child again, who can’t control her temper. You could hurt someone if you don’t learn how to reign that temper of yours,” he glances over at his companion, his expression softening. “Eli understands. It was not meant to belittle him in anyway. It was merely an observation.”

I clench my fists and grind my teeth. He has no idea what he’s talking about. For a moment, I’m overwhelmed with the instinct to incinerate him as he towers over me. I resist, tempting though it might be. I hate how my hands tremble. I hate that I’m afraid. Instead, I hold my ground, and glare up at the arrogant man.

“You can learn from each other. Perhaps you can teach him how you were able to achieve that form more quickly,” Ceph suggests.

“I didn’t achieve anything,” I growl, my voice nearly inaudible. “This is what the fire wants,” I hold out my hand as it becomes fire once again, “This is what it does, if I let it. I didn’t learn to make it happen, I learned to make it stop. You arrogant asshat. Just because you’re old, doesn’t mean you know everything.”

“I am not that old!” he mumbles. “I understand that it comes naturally to you, but how would you teach that to another? Every skill has a method, whether you are conscious of it or not. If you were to break it down, how would you explain it?” he tries to stay calm.

I tear my eyes away, glaring into the forest to my right. He’s not getting it. “How could you possibly understand, when you won’t even listen?” I heave a sigh, heading off toward the treeline. “Forget it.”

“What did I say? This is a learning session. Why is her temper so unruly? This is not for my benefit, it is for yours!” Ceph huffs, throwing his hands in the air.

“I think maybe you should have let me handle it then,” Eli claps Ceph’s shoulder.

Andrei jogs to catch up, Rhoan quick on his heels. “Hey, Kat, hold up,” he catches my arm. I stop and turn to face him. The heat behind my gaze dissipates when I see his face. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t do anything wrong.

Instead, I turn to look at the ground. “What?” I ask meekly.

“What’s got you in knots? You know Ceph has a weird way of wording things, but… I wouldn’t let him get to you. This is your training, after all,” he reasons.

“Is it?” I glance back at the men by the water. “He looks at me like some sort of experiment, rather than a person.”

“I think you’re seeing things. He likes to watch people train. If anything, I think he admires your strength and wants you to teach Eli. You should take that as a compliment. This isn’t like you, Kat,” he puts one finger under my chin, lifting my face until I’m looking into his eyes. “Don’t let his agenda worry you. Just focus on training your fire. It’s great that you have it back, and you seem to have all these new abilities! It’s a little overwhelming for me to watch! I’m jealous, so don’t let him get to you,” he smiles warmly with a modest shrug.

My resolve melts too quickly to catch it. How does he do that? I whisper. “I don’t know how to teach him that. It just happens, and he’s acting like it’s a science or something!”

“Time has a way of doing that, you know. Feeling the stages of change and growth. I think if you focused on the process of making it, and tried to see how you make it, you could figure out how you do it without thinking in order to teach it. Look how you got me to make a fire? Even if it was as small as a match?” he hums, tilting his head.

My eyes sting with frustration. I step closer, leaning against his chest, and burying my face in the crook of his neck. “How can I teach what I don’t understand?” His arms wrap around my shoulders, embracing me. When he speaks, I feel his neck vibrate, it’s soothing.

“I find that meditation often helps me find those kinds of answers. What if you meditate on it?” He tries to compromise. “You don’t have to think about it this moment. That’s not what Ceph was saying, but that’s something you should try thinking about when you’re alone, maybe?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been very good at that,” I sigh. As I inhale, the scent of him makes me feel at home. The anger from just moments ago seems like a distant memory. A voice in the back of my mind screams at me; how could I let a man affect me this way? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. When did I start to care? “I guess I’m just frustrated. Ceph acts like he’s got it all figured out, but really he has no idea.”

“He’s a good teacher Kat. If you give him a chance, he’s really good at helping me figure things out,” Andrei assures me, leaning his cheek against my hair.

“Well,” I mumble, kissing his neck lightly. “I guess, if you think so, I can give him another chance.”

“I’m glad. Come on, let’s get back to training. We should probably apologize to him before we start though,” he chuckles.

“We?” I lean back, raising an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I’m the asshole here. What did you do?”

“Well, you could do the talking,” he winks. I narrow my gaze as he turns to head back. I follow, taking a deep breath as we approach the pair by the water.

I gulp, and Andrei nods encouragingly. I step up to the two wary men. “Okay. I’ll… try it your way,” I reluctantly meet Ceph’s narrowed green eyes. “I’ll try to teach Eli.”

Ceph looks at Eli, who nods once. “I merely want you to try to focus on breaking down the actions you use to make yourself turn to fire. Try to… separate the thoughts and commands and see if you can describe the spell to Eli,” he explains.

I bite back the sarcasm that instinctively jumps to my lips. “Okay… Before I do that though,” I hesitate, dropping my gaze. I struggle to swallow my pride. “Would you mind…?” I hold out my bloody hands toward the elder time mage. I really would rather not have burn scars across my palms, but it stings horribly and I don’t want to wait until we get back to the castle.

Ceph sighs and takes my hands, holding them from the back with my palms turned upward. He’s surprisingly gently, and his palms are soft. Our hands are surrounded by a faint bluish light, the lines of the wound glowing until they close. As the light fades, I’m left with just dried blood.

“Thanks,” I mumble shyly. I quickly step back and kneel at the edge of the water to wash off the blood.

“I have to admit, that was a pretty reckless move, Sis, grabbing the sword like that. What if it was properly sharpened? You’d have lost your fingers!” Eli pouts, with childlike concern.

I laugh. “I wouldn’t have caught it with my bare hands if it was a real sword.”

The blood in the water spreads out like tendrils, floating toward the deeper waters. I watch, with mild interest, the way it mingles with the water. The tendrils shift and swirl, and for just a moment, a picture emerges. For just a split second, I swear the blood forms the figure of the woman, wearing the long red cape and hood from my dreams. I blink and it’s gone. I stare into the water in disbelief, long after the red has disappeared.

“Shall we get started?” Eli smiles. I look up to find we’re alone. Andrei and Ceph have moved back to the forest’s edge, with Rhoan following at Ceph’s feet.

I stand up, wiping my palms on my thighs. “Why do you put up with that guy?” I ask quietly, eyeing Ceph. “You guys are basically opposites,” I turn to the redhead, curious.

Eli smiles, resting his hands on his hips. His gaze falls on the brunette as he walks away. “He’s not so bad, once you get to know him.”

I study his expression. I’ve grown quite familiar with that look. “You love him.” I state, a little surprised at myself.

Eli blushes, and grins, “Is it that obvious?” I nod and snicker. He shrugs. “What can I say? He’s perfect, in my eyes.”

Seeing the way Eli looks at Ceph, I wonder if maybe I’m the one who’s crazy.

 

By Krystyna Yates