Kira awoke surrounded by a dense fog. She reached her hand up, watching it disappear in the swirling white eddies. Her breath quickened. She bolted up from the cold ground beneath her and called out the name of the last person she remembered seeing. “Galen!”
“Kira,” his voice responded to her left.
She crawled toward it, unable to see more than a few inches in front of her. The metallic taste of panic filled her mouth even though her mind reassured her she wasn’t alone in this void. “Please keep talking so I can find you.”
His voice ended in a grunt as she collided with something firm. A pair of hands grabbed her arms, pulling her back toward the ground. They tightened around her. The urge to break free overwhelmed her until the sound of soothing words filled her ears.
“Kira, I have you.”
Immediately, she remembered when he’d held her after one of her visions, and her pulse slowed in time to the steady beat vibrating through his chest. The familiar scent of his leather jerkin filled her with peace. She dug her fingers into the sturdy material and tucked her head under his chin. “Thank the goddess you’re here.”
“I was just thinking the same thing, although I’m curious to know where here is.” He ran his fingers through her hair, combing out the ever present tangles. “And I’m wondering why you disobeyed my orders.”
Anger burned her cheeks, and she pushed off of him. “If you’re going to lecture me for saving the ritual—”
“I wasn’t going to lecture you.” He caught her hand and pulled her back to him. “But I still want to know why you put yourself in harm’s way when I took every precaution to ensure your safety.”
“Because I finally understood what the vision meant. Don’t be cross with me—it’s a good thing Ranealya and I arrived when we did to stop Elisus.”
Galen squeezed his arms around her again. One glimpse into his mind showed the barely contained rage toward the high elf simmering within it. But Galen would never allow it to break free. Instead, his mood changed into something darker. “I’m sorry you were forced to become part of this.”
“Because we all knew the ritual would cost us our lives. It was a price we were willing to pay to save the others.” He trailed his fingers along her cheek, lifting her chin up so his face appeared through the fog inches away from hers. “I never wanted you to have to make the same sacrifice.”
“But I was willing to make it.” She clasped his hand in her own and gently kissed him. “Don’t you understand? I’d rather be here with you than anywhere else.”
He murmured something in Elvish. She caught the word Ruheshi before his lips captured hers.
She yielded to him, savoring the way his mouth teased hers, the way her body fit so perfectly with his, the way his hands instinctively reached for the laces of her dress. For a few brief moments, she forgot about everything that had occurred that day—the battle, the fire, the death, the pain. Right now, she was in his arms, and everything was perfect.
“Hello,” a voice shouted from the void.
Kira jumped, ending the kiss before whoever it was stumbled upon them with her dress already half-undone. For the first time since awakening, she was thankful for the dense fog.
Galen moved in front of her, shielding her from the person approaching them while she tightened her laces. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. “Who’s there?”
“Galen, is that you?” A dark figure lumbered toward them, but the tension eased from Galen’s shoulders. “Where the blast are we?”
As he came closer, Kira finally recognized the voice. Lohman, one of the humans who’d been part of the ritual.
Galen released his sword. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“You mean you don’t know everything?” The words came out more teasing than sarcastic, followed by a chuckle. “At least we’re still in this together. Have you seen any of the others?”
“Kira’s here.” He reached for her hand, holding it like he had when they cast the ritual.
“And thank Mariliel she showed up when she did. I thought we were done for until she stepped in.” He was close enough to where she could see the relief in his face. “I told Galen we should have used you, but he refused to even consider it.”
She looked up at Galen, silently asking why.
You practically died creating a new gate, and you want to know why I didn’t want you involved in this?, he answered in her mind.
She chewed her lip and turned away. He only wanted to protect her, but his concerns left her feeling as though he’d always see her as someone he needed to protect rather than an equal.
Lohman rubbed the back of his head, looking like he wanted to fill the silence that had lapsed among them. “Um, maybe we should look for the others. If we’re here, then they shouldn’t be too far away, right?”
“Good idea.” Galen continued to hold her hand as they followed Lohman deeper into the fog.
“Fergan?” Lohman called into the void, his voice echoing back with the same force. “Thoranus?”
“By Mariliel, are you trying to wake the dead?” Fergan replied from the distance.
A chill rippled through Kira. Were they all dead and caught in some dream of the afterlife?
Galen squeezed her hand, sending a slow stream of warmth up her arm. Does this feel like death?
She shook her head and continued toward the Highmounter. When they reached him, a gasp broke free from her lips. If it wasn’t for the reddish tinge in his hair, she could have sworn she was looking at Arlisle rather than his father.
Fergan stretched, moving with the power and grace of the warrior he must have been more than two decades before. “Ach, that feels good to not have me knee pain me for once.”
But Lohman look less relieved. The color drained from his face until he almost blended in with the fog. “What kind of magic is this?”
“An ancient and powerful kind,” Thoranus replied from a few feet away. “One that comes from the goddess Elios herself.”
Orin and Fairlin stood behind him, completing the group of casters and looking much like they had before the ritual.
“So Fergan gets to be young again and the rest of us don’t?” Lohman’s pacing matched the impatience in his voice. “Where are we? What happened? And don’t you dare give me some ‘this is the work of the goddess’ explanation?”
“Would you have me explain it in another way?” Thoranus answered.
A golden light filtered through the fog, growing warmer with each second until it chased away the chill that surrounded Kira. She blinked back as it became brighter. A dark shadow moved in front of it. At first, she thought it was like the black blobs she always saw when staring at the sun for too long, but it came closer, taking the shape of a woman.
“You call on my magic,” she said, her voice resonating with power, “yet you have little faith in my abilities, Lohman. Why is that?”
Kira’s jaw dropped when the woman came into view. Her golden hair shimmered with its own light, and her face was the definition of Elvish perfection. When she saw Galen and Thoranus kneel before her, she knew this had to be the goddess Elios herself and went down on one knee.
“I—I—” Lohman struggled for words before bowing his head.
Kira watched Elios through her lashes, unsure if she should regard the deity’s presence with fear or joy. A gentle smile from the goddess eased her hesitation and calmed her fluttering pulse.
“You used my tears to create a boundary that would protect your people, and behold, look at your work.” Elios swept away the fog with her arm.
They stood on the top of a tall peak towering over a green valley to the west. A wall of mountains stretched as far as she could see to the north and south. In the distance, Kira saw the second gate where the women and children waited for the Resistance soldiers who survived the battle to join them. Behind her on the other side of the ridge, she saw the remnants of the Elgean army marching back east toward Dromore.
Galen drew in a deep breath beside her. “It worked.”
The others seemed as awestruck as Kira was. She remembered little of the ritual other than the blue and green magic that swirled around them. But somehow, during all that, they’d created a mountain range that divided the land in half.
“Very good.” Fairlin stretched out his wings. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to return to my queen.”
The fog closed in on them so quickly, Kira stumbled into Galen to keep from losing him. The only light that pierced the swirling clouds was the one that emanated from Elios.
“You’ll not be returning to Sylvania or Queen Mab.” Although the goddess’s words were calm, they also dared anyone to challenge her. “You all wanted a barrier that would keep Anilayus and his descendants from destroying the other races—a barrier that provided both physical and magical protection. I have given you the physical part. It is up to all of you to provide the magical part.”
“But some of us are mortal.” Fergan ran his hand through his hair much like Arlisle did when he was trying to find the best way to say something. “How can we provide protection when we canna live forever?”
“You seven risked everything to protect your people, and in return, I have granted you all immortality so long as you continue to do so.” Elios walked in front of them like a general inspecting her troops. “I’ve given you the ability to control who crosses the divide you created. If you deem them worthy of passing, they will be shown the way to the other side.”
She pointed to a pass through the mountains that appeared below them.
“If you deem them unworthy,” she paused, allowing the fog to conceal the pass she’d just shown them, “then they will wander through the mist for the rest of their days.”
Kira shuddered as she tried to imagine condemning someone to die that way.
“As the guardians of the divide, this will now be your home,” Elios continued. “Time has no meaning here. You will stay just as you are, never knowing age or death. You can cross great distances with just a wish, traveling from the icy north to the shores of the Endless Sea in seconds. But you can never leave.”
Kira felt no remorse with the goddess’s decree, but the pain that tightened the faces of those that left family behind tore at her heart. How must it feel to live forever while your loved ones grew old and died?
Master Tyrrus’s words echoed in her mind. You are mortal, and you will eventually grow old and die. Galen, on the other hand, is immortal. Even when the dust that was once your body is scattered to the wind, he will be as you see him now. She glanced at her husband and wondered if he would have felt the same pain as he watched her wither away.
He met her gaze and nodded, the solemn set of his lips telling her of how he’d agonized over that idea.
Fergan swallowed hard as though his fate were a cup of strong whiskey. “Then so be it. I will take watch of the northern reaches, so I can glance on Highmounte from time to time.”
The fog swirled around him, surrounding him until he vanished.
“I prefer the warmth and sunshine of my homeland in Darvingnon, so I’ll take the southern end of the divide.” Lohman faded from view like Fergan did, presumably travelling to where the mountains met the sea.
One by one, the other three chose the realm of the mountains they preferred to watch over, leaving just Kira and Galen alone with the goddess. Her throat choked up as Elios looked to her. “Please, I only wish to stay with my husband.”
The goddess smiled. “I have no intention of separating Ruheshi, especially considering how hard Mariliel and I worked to bring you two together.”
Kira’s chest tightened. “You brought us together?” Why would two goddesses be concerned about someone as insignificant as her?
“Do you find that so hard to believe?” Elios reached out and lifted Kira’s chin. “Galen has told you the tale of the Ruheshi. You are the other half of his soul, trapped in a human body, but every step of your life has been choreographed to bring you to this point. Mariliel gave you your visions, and I solved the problem of your mortal body.”
“I ended up here because of you?”
“You ended up here because of the choices you made. You could have chosen to ignore your visions. You could have stayed in Dromore instead of following your Master. You could have stayed at the gate instead of stepping into the ritual.” Elios stepped back. “We gods rarely interfere unless needed. Instead, we give you opportunities—gifts—to use as you travel along your life’s path.”
She now understood Arlisle’s habit of pausing before he spoke. So many emotions tumbled inside her, she feared what may come out of her mouth when she opened it. “Then I am grateful to be here,” she said at last.
“And I am grateful that you found a way to keep us together.” Galen wrapped his arm around her, but there was something missing in his embrace that left her feeling like he was miles away instead of next to her. “Home is where she is.”
Elios tilted her head to the side. “And yet you are still troubled.”
Of course he would be worried about his sister. The last thing she remembered was Ranealya being thrown from the circle.
Elios waved her hand, parting the fog once again to reveal a moonlit field. Kira’s stomach lurched as the scene flew toward them. Even though the ground remained solid beneath her feet, indicating she never left the mountain peak, she watched as though she were standing mere feet away from the couple sitting in the center of the field.
Ranealya, looking as she did the day Kira first met her, cradled Gregor in her arms. She rocked his unconscious form in her arms while chanting something in Elvish.
Galen jerked forward. “Nyelle, don’t!”
The fog closed in on them once again, and Galen stumbled on the loose rocks, reminding them of the sacrifice they’d made. They could watch their loved ones, but they were trapped here. He glared at Elios once he regained his footing. “I have to stop her.”
“Why?” the goddess asked innocently.
“Because if someone finds out that she cast the Judahrae, she’ll be executed.”
Galen’s brows drew together. “Doesn’t it anger you when one of your children sacrifices their immortality?”
“Do I look angry?” A bemused smile lingered in her features. “I told Ranealya I would end her miserable existence today, and I have. She is no longer cursed, no longer alone. If she chooses to sacrifice her immortality to be with the one she loves, then what harm is there in that? Surely, you would have done the same.”
He closed his eyes and nodded, his hand squeezing Kira’s. “Yes, I would have.”
“Then do not worry about your sister. I’m not finished with her yet.”
A halo of light surrounded Elios, growing brighter until it completely enveloped her. When it faded, she was gone.
Despite the thick fog, the air trembled with magic in the goddess’s wake. Kira reached out to grab hold of it, only to be left with a tingle in her fingers. “Do you feel it, too?” she asked.
Galen nodded, still staring out into the void.
“I wonder if we can do that.” She turned in the other direction toward the Elgeus and pictured the crowded streets of Dromore in her mind. The scene rushed toward her as the fog parted to reveal Mistress Love laughing with a customer while she refilled his mug. It was so real, Kira almost believed she was there until someone walked straight through her. The distraction pulled her from the spell, and the fog swirled back into place.
Galen’s breath warmed her cheek. “How did you do that?”
“I just thought of a place, and it appeared. You try it.”
His thoughts lay on the other side of the mountains. Scenes of people they knew flashed in front of them, from Jaius resting on a riverbank beside Arlisle to a huddled Elisus pressing a bloody cloth over his missing eye.
“At least we can feel like we’re still part of the outside world, even if we can’t leave these mountains,” he said at last.
Kira nodded. “And we still have plenty of things to do for now.”
“Shelter would be nice. Perhaps a fire. And then, once we’re warm and cozy…” She grinned as she ran her fingers along his jaw, letting her mind fill with images of nights spent in his arms for the rest of eternity.