Chapter 33 (Everin)

Everin didn’t believe in luck, but fortune had definitely just smiled on him and Cora. The gate leading into the main courtyard was open, but four soldiers had blocked the path. They’d appeared to be questioning anyone who went in or out of the enclosed walls. Everin didn’t think he could try to threaten them with a demonstration of his power – there were too many onlookers. The boy must’ve been a messenger of some kind, informing the guards that their shift was up. The four soldiers turned and followed the boy back within the walls.

“Did you see that?” Everin asked.

“Yeah,” Cora replied. “It looks like their changing shifts right now. We should get inside quickly, while the gate’s unguarded.”

They both picked up their pace. Everin tried to walk as fast as he could without making it obvious. He took long strides, anxious to get inside the wall before the next set of soldiers arrived. He and Cora both walked under the tall stone archway before any new guards returned.

Everin let himself exhale a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Just inside the massive, circular wall was a wide, grassy courtyard. To his right was the royal garden. Flowers and trimmed bushes were just beginning to open their blossoms now that spring had come. To his left was a playground. That was the only explanation for what the thing could’ve been. There was a structure Everin recognized as a slide, a tower to climb on, a pit of sand, and at least a dozen children playing what looked like a game of tag all throughout the space. Aside from the children on the playground, Everin couldn’t see anyone else in the large courtyard that sprawled before the castle entrance.

King Valen’s castle loomed in front of them. Made of the same polished white stone as the outer wall, it was far and away the tallest human-made structure that Everin had ever laid eyes on. His eyes slowly moved up the front of the castle, taking in the sheer size of the stone fortress. He couldn’t see the auras of anyone standing near the windows. It was the middle of the day, Everin supposed. Many of the castle’s residents might be out and about in the city.

As his eyes reached the top of the castle, he saw a figure standing on the roof. Their face appeared to be turned away from the courtyard. They were much too far away to make out any fine details, but Everin could tell that the figure was female. She wore a white robe, and she had a strong aura. This was what caught Everin’s eye. It was an aura he’d seen before. One that he was intimately familiar with – he’d absorbed that aura before. He’d felt exactly the kind of suffering that the owner of that aura experienced.

It was Kyzella. Everin’s heart skipped a beat when he recognized her.

“Cora, Kyzella’s on the roof,” he hissed.

“What?” Cora started to tilt her head up to look for herself, but Everin grabbed her wrist.

“Keep your head down. She isn’t looking in our direction right now, but we need to get into the castle in case she sees us.”

Cora nodded, and they resumed the panicked run-walk that they’d used to get into the courtyard. They reached the pair of broad oak doors at the base of the castle and pushed them open. The doors were unlocked. Not surprising, given that it was the middle of the day and King Valen’s castle was generally a fairly public place.

What did surprise Everin was how empty the interior of the castle was. He’d expected it to be crawling with soldiers, administrative workers, servants, anyone. The only person inside the grand hallway was a servant girl sweeping the floor at the end of the hall. She was of average height, thin, with dark hair. They approached the girl cautiously.

“Excuse me,” Cora said. “We have an appointment to see McCarthy Loxborne. Could you tell us where he is?”

Just hearing the name of the man who’d killed his parents made Everin shudder.

The girl looked up from her task. “McCarthy? He’ll be upstairs right now. I can take you to him if you’d like.”

Cora looked at Everin. He could tell what the look on her face was asking him.

Are you ready for this?

Everin nodded grimly. He had to do this. He had to make sure McCarthy couldn’t hurt anyone else the way he’d hurt him and his parents.

“That would be wonderful. Thank you,” Cora said to the girl. “Can I ask your name?”

The girl flashed her a wide smile. “It’s no trouble. You can call me Mao.”

Mao set aside her broom and dustpan. She led Everin and Cora to a stairwell and they climbed several flights of stairs. Everin’s legs started to ache, but the girl kept climbing with relentless energy. When they reached the top of one staircase, she led them down a set of hallways to another stairwell.

On the stairs and in the hallways, they didn’t encounter anyone else. Everin thought it was odd, but he didn’t exactly know how things worked in King Valen’s castle. Maybe it wasn’t usually that busy. He didn’t want to say anything to Mao that might reveal that they were outsiders.

Just as they started climbing the second stairwell, another figure came into view. He was an old man, shuffling his way down the staircase. Mao stood aside to let him pass, and Everin and Cora followed suit.

“Hello, Sir Acheson,” Mao said to the man. “What brings you to this part of the castle?” Despite her civil tone, Everin saw Mao’s aura, which had been unremarkable before, flare with a stab of hot red anger. It wasn’t a full-on rage, just annoyance, perhaps.

The old man smiled. “Ah, Mao. Just wanted to make some last notes on King Valen’s war plans before heading downstairs.”

Mao nodded. “I see. Well, I hope those notes were helpful.”

“They held me up a little, but I think they’ll be well worth the delay,” he said as he moved past the trio.

Mao shook her head and began leading them back up the stairs. Her red aura gradually faded. Everin wondered what kind of frustration a servant girl would have with a man like Acheson, who he guessed was a royal advisor. Everin chose to keep his mouth shut, better to prepare himself the imminent confrontation.

It almost felt surreal. The moment that he’d fantasized about every day for the past year, the moment when he brought his parents’ killer to justice, was nearly upon him. He tried to come up with a plan. McCarthy would likely recognize him instantly, so Everin would have to move quickly. He glanced down at the thin, pale scar on his right forearm. He knew that McCarthy was good with a knife. Other than that, he didn’t think the man posed a serious threat – nothing that he couldn’t handle with the power that McCarthy had given him.

Cora was scared. She had a strong green light drifting around her frame. Everin decided that he would siphon Cora’s fear as his first move. Hopefully, he could use it to incapacitate McCarthy without killing him. Then, he could grill the man for information on exactly how he’d turned him into an angel and how to reverse it. After that, he could finish McCarthy off and rid the world of one more source of suffering.

They reached the top of the flight of stairs, which ended at a locked door.

“We’re getting close to where McCarthy is,” Mao told him.

Everin hoped so, they’d climbed so many flights of stairs, they had to be on one of the top floors of the castle. Mao had a key ring hooked to her belt. She picked through a handful of keys until she found one she was satisfied with. She pushed the thin metal key into the lock and twisted. She stepped aside and gestured for Everin and Cora to open the door.

Everin pushed it open, expecting to find another hallway. Instead, he felt a wave of brisk air roll over him. Everin froze when he took in the scene before him. The door had opened up to the roof of the castle. Just twenty feet in front of him stood Saphine. Behind her and to the left, still standing near the edge of the roof, was Kyzella.

Everin kicked into full panic mode. His heart started pounding. His hands began to shake. He heard a gasp behind him. Everin whipped his head around to see that Mao had drawn a knife. She held the blade against Cora’s neck. Cora stared at Everin with pure terror in her eyes. Her aura exploded with waves of radiant green light.

“No sudden moves,” Mao said to Everin.

At the sound of her voice, Saphine and Kyzella turned and noticed the open door and the trio standing in the entryway.

“Move,” Mao snapped at him. The softness that had been in her voice earlier was gone.

Everin felt his stomach drop with dread. With feet that felt like they were made of lead, he slowly stepped out onto the rooftop. It was a flat space that was roughly the shape of a square with sides about fifty yards long. With both angels and Mao tracking his movements onto the roof, Everin had never felt more exposed.

As he stepped forward, Ichoron came into view to Everin’s right. Standing beside the third angel, was a familiar figure. Cora spotted him, too.

“Ford!” she cried.

“Shut up,” Mao hissed as she pressed the blade harder against Cora’s neck.

Ford didn’t answer. Instead, he stared at them with horror in his eyes. Everin could see plenty of green light around his figure.

“Everin, long time no see, eh?”

A voice called out behind Everin. It was a voice he’d heard in his dreams nearly every night for the past year. There was no mistaking who it belonged to. Everin thought his heart stopped for a moment. Waves of hot anger and stone-cold terror alternately washed over him. He could hear blood pounding in his head, threatening to block out every other sound.

Slowly, Everin turned around. Leaning against the wall, no more than fifteen yards from where he stood, was McCarthy. The man who’d taken everything from him. The man who’d turned him into an instrument of war.

McCarthy addressed the girl behind Cora.

“Good job bringing them here, Mao. Did you run into any trouble on the way?”

“No problems,” Mao reported. “That stupid old man, Acheson, was still bumbling around upstairs, but everyone else seems to have moved to the lower levels.”

McCarthy nodded. “Good. You’ve done well, Mao. You may leave us now.”

“Are you sure that I can’t stay, sir?” Mao whined. “I don’t want to miss the fun part.”

McCarthy shook his head. “You’re a loyal apprentice, but there are some things that you aren’t ready to hear just yet. Plus, you’re a liability when you’re out here. Go join everyone else in the lower levels.”

Mao sighed, disappointed. “Yes, sir.”

She eased the knife off Cora’s neck and tucked it into her belt. Cora raised a hand to her throat and cautiously felt the area where the blade had been pressed. Mao bowed towards McCarthy. She turned towards the door and bowed to another figure before leaving through the same door they’d entered. It closed behind her with a quiet click.

Everin looked at the other figure Mao had bowed to. The door leading to the stairwell inside the castle was mounted into a wall about seven feet tall. The wall was part of a small, one-story structure that rested on the roof. McCarthy leaned against one part of the wall to Everin’s right. Directly above the door, standing on the roof of the room, was a man. Everin hadn’t seen him before, but he knew from descriptions he’d heard and from the gold crown on the man’s head that this could only be one person. King Valen was here.

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