I woke up in the early hours of the morning, when the sun was on the verge of rising over the horizon, and the sunlight began melting the upper layers of snow and frost that had accumulated over my blanket. Having found myself in strange places before, I wasn’t surprised by what I was seeing. What did surprise me was something that I couldn’t see.
Or more specifically, someone.
His side of the blanket was still warm so he hadn’t been gone long. I decided to search for him but just as I prepared to blast off the mountain, I caught a delicious smell wafting through the air. I followed it, and found Kai sitting in a cave, tending to a fire with a pot over it.
“Good morning darling, I hope you’ll forgive me for the Spartan breakfast I’ve prepared, but finding the others is our top priority for now,” he said, stirring the pot with a large wooden spoon.
“No, not at all,” I replied, sitting myself down on a rock beside the fire. “Any idea where they are, yet?”
“I’m afraid not. We’ll just have to follow the ring for now,” he said. “And here you go. Some hot soup to drive away the cold!” He poured some soup into a bowl and handed it to me.
Driving away the cold huh… I thought, staring into the bowl.
The soup was clear enough for me to stare back at myself. Kai ate his soup quickly, and I snuck a few glances at him as he guzzled it all down. Some of it dripped off his chin before splattering on the ground. He wiped his mouth and cleaned the pot, before turning to see me holding onto a cold bowl of soup.
I met his gaze, and held it for a while. A cold gust of wind blew out the fire, scattering its ashes and embers. He looked away first, resigned to the fact that he couldn’t paint over last night with a smile and a bowl of soup.
“Fine, everything I said last night was true,” he said. “I love you. Always have, always will. But we need to get a move on if we want to save the others.”
Honest and straight to the point. Perfect.
I nodded, downed the soup and walked up to him. I stood close enough that his warm breath washed over my face. I handed him the bowl, turned and walked out of the cave. At the cave’s mouth, I looked back and saw his surprised face.
“No time for mushy stuff,” I said, smiling. “Let’s go.”
He blinked and caught up to me. We climbed down the mountain as fast as we could, not stopping for anything. We didn’t kiss or hug along the way. In fact, it was almost like last night had never happened at all.
Almost. We still ended up holding hands, after all.
We raced along the winding mountain trails and dirt roads. The Earth Kingdom didn’t have much in the way of infrastructure despite the plentiful slave labor they possessed. We passed scores of mines and factories full of slaves, but we couldn’t stop to save them all. However, we did make sure to knock out as many of the owners and cut as many chains as we could.
By the time we reached the capital, Fugard, rumors of a strange wind that attacked mines and factories, had already begun spreading among the nobility. The National Guard had already been dispatched to guard the major mines, and we even ran into a few of them but brushed them aside easily.
It was nighttime when we jumped over the crumbling walls of Fugard and faded into the shadows of the commercial district. The shops were closed and boarded up; the entire city having gone to sleep due to the curfew imposed by the government. Not even slaves were allowed outside this late at night. Nevertheless, a few hunched shadows huddled together in the dark alleyways and secluded corners of the streets.
Sewage overflowed out of the open-drains lining the streets in the slum we passed through on our way up to the palace. There were no guards here so more people scurried about along the unlit dirt roads and crumbling stone pathways. A group of grimy street urchins flinched as we approached but we were gone before they peeked out of the garbage pile they were scavenging. We heard them pounce on the pile of apples we’d thrown out of our Storage, but didn’t have the time to go back.
The ring was vibrating with startling frequency, making Kai and I incredibly nervous. Kai claimed both Lily and Zoe seemed to be close together so they’d probably be fine, but I could tell that he wasn’t telling me everything. Whatever it was, it must be serious.
We scaled the inner walls of the city and dropped into the noble’s district. The curfew was in place here too and it was more strictly enforced than in the slums. Guards lined the streets, patrolling corners, and rotating between shifts. However, sometimes a hand would appear from a window and drop some money and a note in the hands of an awaiting guard, who would then go deliver it to another house.
The streets here were more brightly lit so a few guards managed to catch a glimpse of us as we raced across the rooftops. However, the ring was vibrating so furiously that we gave up all pretense of subtlety and whizzed across the city as fast as we could. Alarm bells chimed, shouts of confusion erupted across the city, but we ignored all of it as we climbed the walls of the palace and jumped across into the tower through a window.
The ring had led us to the tower but now we were stuck. Should we go further up or descend the stairs below? Time was running out, so with a quick exchange of nods, Kai flew up the stairs while I ran down as fast as I could.
The stairs seemed to go on forever. I surmised that I should have passed the door long ago but I didn’t even come across another window. The flickering torchlight was my only guide as I plunged deeper and deeper into the earth. The walls echoed the buzz of the ring vibrating on my finger. This didn’t mean that I was getting closer; it meant that the other ring was being pressured by an immense amount of magic.
Kai had told me about this on the way. The rings were built with the ability to guard their wearer against magic, but that protection wouldn’t last forever. For the rings to be reacting like this, Lily and Zoe had to be in a lot of trouble.
Up ahead, a small doorway appeared at last. I burst through the door but had to squint as the bright lights overwhelmed my eyes. Blinking rapidly, I quickly recovered just in time to furrow my brows in confusion.
The walls were crude, craggy rocks, with signs suggesting that the place had been dug out by magic. The floor was covered in runes and symbols, arranged in a circle with sparkling gemstones embedded in seemingly random places. Mana flowed around the gemstones, funneled into the magic formation, and ultimately ended up in the center of the room.
There, a tall woman in drab, brown robes stood over a couple of stones. She was bombarding them with insane amounts of mana, but the stones seemed to be able to absorb whatever the woman threw at them. All they did, was vibrate intensely.
“Aia?” said the woman, ceasing her onslaught on the rings.
“Opal,” I said, wheezing heavily. “Where did you get those?”
“Nice to see you too, sis,” she said, somewhat dryly. “And those rocks were delivered to me a day ago. We weren’t able to refine them at the factory and the nobles couldn’t seem to do it either, so they sent them to me.” She tied up her hair and wiped the sweat off her forehead. “Haven’t been able to dent the blasted things. Good thing you’re here. Maybe two goddesses can –”
“Where!” I shouted, interrupting her. “Where did you find those rings? Where are the people who were wearing them?”
She was taken aback by the ferocity of my tone but nonetheless answered.
“I don’t know about any rings, but if you’re talking about these gemstones then I have no idea who had them at first. They were probably found in some mine, or on the ground somewhere. I’d try to trace it back to the slaves who found them, but they wouldn’t remember it. They go through tons of rocks every day.”
I stood dumbfounded for a moment. The rings were here but Lily and Zoe were nowhere to be found. How could that be? Where could they have gone? Surely the only way the rings would come off is if they’d taken them off themselves, but why would they do that?
“I feel like I’m missing something here, sis. Why are you here anyway? Haven’t seen you in a long time. You haven’t been to any of our meetings for centuries. I thought you hated the rest of us,” she said. “Listen, the next conclave’s in a few weeks. Make sure to drop by, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, absentmindedly. There were more pressing concerns on my mind.
How will I find them now? Are they hurt? Are they in danger? What do I do now?
“Hey, hey, what are you so worried about?” said Opal, conjuring up a couple of chairs and a small, earthen table. “Come sit, and tell big sis Opal what’s on your mind.” She smiled enchantingly. She’d always had the best smile among us sisters.
But I hated it. It made my skin crawl thinking about what hid behind that disarming smile. After all, when the rest of us tried to ban slavery in the first conclave, it was Opal who managed to convince the others to let it exist. Since then she’d taken an incredibly active role in the management of her country, even going so far as making the monarchy her puppet. The slave based society that she’d created was ridiculously profitable, but none of that money went back to the people.
The slaves thought the slave-owners were hoarding all the profits, the slave-owners suspected the nobility, and the nobility believed that the monarchy was eating it all up. In truth, it was Opal who was sucking all the wealth out of her own country, but even I didn’t know where all that money was going.
I didn’t accept the seat, choosing instead to stand as I met her gaze.
“Fine,” she said, her smile never faltering. “Tell me what happened and I’ll do my best to help. We’re sisters, after all.”
“Those stones come from rings that belonged to my friends. I gave them those rings so I’d be able to find them if we were separated, the way we are right now. And now I’ve found the rings but not the people and I’m worried about them. If you know where they are, tell me immediately,” I said. “Please,” I added.
Opal furrowed her brow and stood up. “Well that would explain why I couldn’t refine it. Goddesses can’t break each other’s possessions. The slaves and nobility would have been too weak to do so, as well. But…” She raised her eyebrows quizzically. “Since when did you get so good at crafting rings? Teach me, I’m sure it’ll come in handy someday.”
“Listen!” I shouted. “I don’t have time for this. Lily and Zoe are probably in danger right now and I need to find them!”
“Lily and Zoe?” she said. “Are they humans? Aia, darling, you know there’s no point fretting over silly little humans, right? They’ll be dead before you know it. No point in getting too attached to your pets, dear.”
I shot her an angry glare but her words echoed inside my head nonetheless. I knew exactly how short-lived humans were. I’d avoided humans for centuries because I feared getting attached to them.
“Just tell me where they are,” I said, irritably.
“You’re a lost cause.” She shook her head. “I haven’t detected anyone with those names in my country.”
“You wouldn’t be able to,” I stated.
She raised an eyebrow. “Hero, or Demon Lord?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Tell me where you found the rings and I’ll go search for them myself.”
She was a little unwilling but eventually agreed. I assured her I’d attend the next conclave and made to leave the chamber when she called out for me to stop.
“What is it?” I asked, annoyed by the delay.
“Have you talked to the others?” she asked, her tone serious.
“Yes, I have,” I replied, curtly.
“And you’re okay with the plan?” she asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I asked, furrowing my brows.
She pondered for a bit, then nodded. “Right, see you at the conclave.”
I didn’t think too much about her odd behavior, and rushed out to the staircase again.
Kai appeared from above.
“Kai! I found the rings,” I said, showing him the gems that Opal had given me.
“But where are Zoe and Lily?” he asked.
“Don’t know, but I know where these rings were first found,” I kicked out the wall of the tower. “But we don’t have the time to walk.”
He nodded, completely unperturbed by the destruction of the wall. He hugged me tightly, making me flush a little bit, but I held it in and shot off into the distance.
The wind whistled past us, drowning out the shouts of the people below. We couldn’t afford subtleties anymore.
Wait for us, kids. I won’t let this end the same way.
Not this time.
I’ll find you, no matter what. No matter how hard I have to look.
I’ll find you.