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The Rose Thief

Chapter Text

For the first time probably ever, Ray felt a strong urge to play Minecraft outside of work that Thursday night. He supposed he was curious as to the repeated pull of the game. Maybe he would play some classic survival on his Xbox, see if it really was something he could get into. He’d mess around a little, see if he could explore a little, find some interesting landscapes or maybe a dungeon. He inserted the disc and waited. He almost gave up when he was alerted that an update was needed. With a sigh, he let it run. He was going to play, he was. He let it run, realizing fairly quickly that this update was going to be a long one. He sent a final text to Michael, placed his phone down beside him, laid his head on the desk, and prepared to nap.

He closed his eyes and drifted off. As such, he did not hear it when his Xbox started making inappropriate whirring noises, and he did not see it when the words on the screen began to turn garbled. The screen shook, the image bending this way and that. Then the screen went black. The blackness appeared to be rotating, swirling into a vortex. Ray dreamed he was falling, falling, and then


 

He fell to the ground with a dull thump, face down. The wind was knocked out of him with the impact, and… was this grass? His hands curled around soft blades, and he lifted his face off the firm dirt. He paused mid-rise, propping himself on his elbows.

Was this a dream? If so, it was possibly the most vivid one he had ever had. He was in the middle of a small clearing; grass pressed outward from in him a radius of at least three feet, forming a ring. After that, thick trees bled into shadows, limiting his range of view. He had barely taken this all in when there was a heavy thumping of footsteps and a clatter of metal rubbing together, and suddenly spears were being shoved into his face. He lurched back onto his ass and started to edge away, but a spear gestured threateningly towards his throat. Dream or not, the spear’s head looked sharp. His heart began to race and moved to beat in his throat.

“Don’t move, rogue scum!” shouted the man holding the spear way too close. Ray gulped and began to sweat, perspiration pricking his skin. He could barely see the man’s face underneath his helmet.

“We should kill him where he stands for his crimes!” said one of the other men eagerly. Every person in front of Ray wore the same thing. A metal helmet, a thickly padded vest, iron gauntlets and greaves, and leather straps holding extra weapons. He counted four men, and could hear more moving behind them.

“H-hey now, don’t – don’t fucking jump to conclusions,” Ray stuttered.

Leaves rusted behind Ray, and something groaned and snapped with a dry, splintering cracking noise. The men in front of him kept their spears trained on Ray, but their gazes snapped up. A couple of them stumbled back fearfully, fumbling nervously for a crossbow. One of them dropped his spear entirely and just stood, stunned like a deer in headlights. Ray slowly, slowly turned his head to look over his shoulder.

Ray saw the eyes of the beast before he saw the rest of it. Purple glinting eyes that glowed with sinister power hovered almost three meters above ground. A low guttural growl followed the eyes, a growl like the rattling of bones that chilled the air and made the world seem darker. A black, oily, skeletal hand with fingers the length of Ray’s forearm curled around the trunk of a tree to pull the eyes closer. Where the fingers dug into the bark, the bark turned gray. Ray’s eyes were locked on the eyes of the monster, frozen completely in fear. He began to shiver. He felt like he would never be warm again.

Now would be a great time to wake up.

Two arrows whistled through the air, one right after another. They buried themselves into the creature’s head, one in each eye. The creature let out a chilling, echoing screech and slumped, its head falling into the sunlight of the clearing. Its face was humanoid and skeletal, its head bald and covered with tight skin as black as pitch. Dark purple liquid leaked out of its wounds.

“Great shot, Your Highness!” said one of the men.

“Step back, guards,” said a voice behind the men that still brandished their spears at a defenseless Ray. The voice was more familiar to Ray than anything else around him. A throaty voice clipped with a stupid accent. It couldn’t be… The guards shuffled off to either side of Ray, revealing a tall, lean man carrying a dark composite bow stepping out of the trees.

He was dressed finely in a bright green tunic embroidered with glinting gold and black thread. A gold shoulder pad allowed gold beads to cascade around one shoulder, and the other shoulder supported leather straps that held a long skinny quiver. The tunic was high-necked and long-sleeved, but his left forearm was encased in a brown leather arm guard. Black pants fed into tall brown boots with turned-down tops. But what captured Ray’s attention the most was the man’s face. Long dirty blond hair was left to carelessly do what it wanted, restrained only partially by a silver circlet studded with small emeralds. The green of the stones brought out the green of the man’s eyes, which now peered down a rather large nose at Ray.

“Gavin!” Ray gasped. What was his friend doing here? Dressed like an asshole and everything. This dream was getting too crazy.

One of the guards smacked Ray with the broadside of his spear. “Don’t address the prince like a commoner, filth!”

“That’s racist,” Ray said casually, rubbing his arm where the weapon had hit him. The guard brandished his spear again, making Ray recoil. He kind of wanted to wake up now. He still felt cold from the creature and that spear looked as sharp as ever. Gavin held out his free hand to place it on the aggressive guard’s shoulder.

“Stand down,” Gavin said calmly.

“But my prince, this man is the Rose Thief! We should kill him where he lies!”

Gavin clucked his tongue and shook his head. “There is a process, and we of all people should follow the law. How can I expect my people to follow the law if I do not? We will take him to the captain of the guard, and he will go on trial. We should get back as fast as possible anyway, and tell the king of the Enderman.”

“The Rose what?” Ray blurted. “Enderman? I’m not a thief, I – Gavin, what’s going on?”

The aggressive guard suddenly spun his spear around and jabbed Ray in the chest with the blunt end. Ray fell back with an “oof,” his chest aching with the promise of a bruise. He was beginning to think less and less that this was a dream. It felt far too real, and he should have woken up long ago when the Enderman had shown up. Lord knows he had wanted to. Perhaps he had known that it wasn’t a dream from the start, but had refused to believe it.

“I told you not to speak to the prince that way,” the guard hissed as two more picked Ray up and tied his hands behind his back with some thin, scratchy rope.

“You’ve got the wrong man,” Ray insisted as they shoved him ahead of them. “I’m not a fucking thief!” He staggered and glanced behind him at the black corpse at the other edge of the clearing. Its scarce flesh was already deteriorating and rotting in the sun.

Chapter Text

Ray was brought back to another, larger clearing where several horses were stationed. He was lifted up onto a brown stallion in front of the aggressive guard who took far too much pleasure in his discomfort. Ray had never ridden a horse before, and it didn’t help that his hands were tied behind his back. The guard, too, took only the minimal required effort to make sure he didn’t fall off. Gavin marched over to a beautiful steed with hair like woven gold. He put on foot in the stirrup and swung up onto it easily with far more grace than Ray had ever seen Gavin move before.

There was one horse more than the total number of men here. The extra was a stocky beast that carried the carcasses of two deer and several rabbits. It seemed that the prince had been out on a hunting trip. When everyone was on their mounts, Gavin led the hunting party through the woods confidently. Another guard slid up next to Gavin to chat with him, and Ray could overhear them talking. This guard was dressed slightly different from the rest, with more armor pieces that were better kept and polished than the rest of the guards. The guard’s voice sounded familiar as well, with a clipped accent, but Ray had more trouble placing it.

“My prince, this Enderman is troubling news,” said the guard. “If we had known that there was such danger here, your Highness, we would have never let you go out…”

Gavin raised a hand from his reigns to shush the nervous guard. “Sir Dan, do not fret about that.” Oh. Dan. Of course. Why was Ray not surprised? “The Enderman have never come so close to the city; you wouldn't have known. Besides, I can take care of myself.” Gavin turned his head to face the guard, and Ray could see his wide, stupid grin. Dan sighed and slumped in his saddle.

“I just fear that they are becoming braver, your Highness,” Dan admitted.

“They might be, but it is possible this was just a scout. Highly likely, in fact. I wouldn’t worry too much just yet, Sir Dan.”

Ray suddenly started to slide sideways on the saddle. He squeezed his thighs to try and stabilize himself, but he surely would have fallen if his guard didn’t roughly grab him by the arm and yank him back. By the time Ray was steadied again, Dan and Gavin had moved too far away to eavesdrop on anymore.

The forest began to thin, and Ray realized that they had started following a packed dirt trail. The dirt trail melded into a packed gravel road just outside the forest, which in turn transformed into a paved cobblestone street. After travelling for probably two hours, the hunting party had left the forest, crossed a short stretch of farmland, and approached a tall stone wall that stretched for a few miles in either direction with turrets every 200 feet or so. A wide, softly shushing river cut the city encased by the wall into two to Ray’s left. The smaller half contained a massive tower that looked to be cut from all the same stone. Ray would bet both of his arms that that belonged to Geoff.

The cobblestone road led to a wrought-iron gate raised for the daytime. As they went under the arched entrance into the city, the guards posted there bowed respectfully at Prince Gavin and did double takes when Ray passed by. Whispers and second looks followed Ray as the hunting party wound their way carefully through the afternoon crowd and turned from their broad street left onto an even broader street. From his vantage point on horseback, Ray could look across the top of the crowd to see his first looks of the castle.

The stone wall cut inside the city, preventing needless peasants and commoners from wandering the castle grounds at all hours. There was another gate that was opened quickly at the approach of Gavin’s party. Inside this gate was a small courtyard with a round little fountain in the center. Ray couldn’t even see half of the castle from here, stretching from side to side. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be seeing it soon, either.

Most of the guards left to take care of their own horses, but three boys dressed simply yet finely rushed up to take Gavin’s, Dan’s, and Ray’s horses. They did not go through the enormous wooden double doors in front of them. Instead, Ray’s aggressive guard gripped him by the scruff of his neck and veered off to the right with Dan and Gavin. Ray was shoved down an open-air hallway decorated and supported with stone arches, through a smaller, locked wooden door, and down a tightly winding staircases lined with torches.

The stairs led to a dungeon with cells of varying sizes lined up next to each other. It felt like a maze to Ray. They exited the staircase, pulled an iron gate closed across it, locked the gate, and took a few turns past cells to a wide open area with single-person cells and a staircase built into the wall. The room was brightly lit by torches, and there was a large roughly-carved table with benches in the middle of the open floor. At the table, sitting across from each other and discussing something in low voices, were two more familiar faces. But before Ray could shout at them, he was thrown into a cell with a pile of straw in the corner. The captain of the guard looked up from his muttered conversation to smile warmly at Gavin. He stood and embraced the prince.

“My prince!” Michael said, pulling back, Gavin’s hand lingering on his shoulder. “How was your hunting trip? I see you’ve brought me a criminal?” Michael looked ready for battle. He wore a shiny breastplate with gold designs welded into it. At his shoulders, a bear pelt was clipped with steel studs at the front paws and fell down his back, the head of the bear sticking up like a hood behind his head. Yellow sleeves were visible at the upper arm, and they fed into gauntlets that matched his breastplate. His pants were dark brown and were almost completely covered by matching armor. A red-orange sash was tied around his waist just below his breastplate. A helmet rested on the table with a red-orange plume sticking out the top of it. Judging by the pattern, Ray assumed that was also Michael’s.

Gavin grinned and shifted his quiver into a more comfortable position. “My guards found the Rose Thief, supposedly, though he wears very strange clothing.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ray mumbled, looking down at his Team Lads shirt, red shoes, and blue jeans. He was ignored. He sat on the cold stone floor and waited, trying to wiggle out of his rope binds.

Michael’s eyebrows shot up, and he turned to look at the second man at the table. Ryan frowned and stood, approaching the iron bars to look at Ray. Ryan did not wear one lick of armor. He wore a tightly fitted black doublet embroidered with silver and gold thread on top of a white shirt with long billowing sleeves that covered his hands completely when they were resting at his sides. He wore a black leather belt and undyed pants that stopped just over black, inch-high heeled shoes. An orange cloth was tucked over his belt at the back and left side, and Ray could tell that this was to cover small, narrow pouches that were hooked onto his belt.

“Anyway,” continued Gavin, “I cannot stay long. Soon after finding the criminal, we were attacked by an Enderman. I must go report this to the king.”

Michael’s eyes grew wide, and even Ryan glanced sharply back at the prince. “Of course, Prince Gavin.” Gavin nodded at Ryan, then waved at his two companions to follow him out of the dungeon, leaving Ray alone with Michael and Ryan. Michael approached the iron bars to study Ray just as Ray finally wiggled out of the rope. He rubbed his wrists and stood back up, trying not to look too pitiful.

“This is not the Rose Thief,” Michael said confidently.

Thank you,” Ray said, making Michael narrow his eyes.

Ryan stared at Michael. “How are you so sure? This man looks exactly like him, if not dressed a little strangely.”

Michael stepped back from the bars and crossed his arms, making his metal gauntlets clack together. “I’m sure. Young man, what is your name?”

Young man? Michael was like, two years older than him! “Ray,” he said, feeling foolish for introducing himself to someone he already knew.

Ryan gestured at him fiercely. “He even shares a name with the thief! How can you not think this is the same man?”

“I share a name with the previous king of Roosterteeth,” Michael pointed out. “Names mean very little. No, you’ll just have to trust me. I know the Rose Thief better than anyone.”

Ryan gritted his teeth and swept away from the bars, putting his back to Ray. He seemed deep in thought. He said finally, “For all anyone else knows, though, we have the Rose Thief in captivity. We could execute him anyway.”

What?” Michael and Ray shouted simultaneously.

Ryan turned to face Michael again. “The Rose Thief has been terrorizing our city, our kingdom, for a few years now. If we execute him, even if he is just a lookalike, then morale will be raised.”

“I cannot stand by that,” Michael said. “That’s dishonest.”

“Which is better, the life of one man, or the state of all our people?”

Ray wanted to say the life of one man of fucking course, but before he or Michael could answer, footsteps echoed down the stairs that Gavin had gone up previously. Ray watched as first fine, black knee-high boots appeared, then dark red pants, then a green tunic belted at the waist with a rope braided with gold thread. Shoulders followed with a dark blue half-cape attached over one shoulder with a bunch of white feathers pressed over it like a flat wing. This cape was long enough to cover the man’s left arm entirely. Ray saw a trimmed orange beard, and finally, Jack was entirely visible.

“I hear we have the Rose Thief,” he said, stepping down off the last step.

“Not exactly,” Ryan said.

“How do you mean?”

Ryan glanced at Michael, who said, “He looks like the Rose Thief, but is not. Ryan wants to execute him anyway to raise morale.”

Jack hummed to himself, stroking his beard with a black-gloved hand.  When he spoke again, he looked pained. “If the perceived threat is killed,” he said slowly, “then people will sleep easier at night. We would just have to make sure that the real Rose Thief is covered up.”

“Don’t I get a say in this?” Ray asked.

“Shut up,” the three said in unison. He shrunk back into his cell. Michael looked defeated, his shoulders slumping.

“I can see I’m outranked here,” he said glumly. “If the king’s chief advisor himself agrees with Ryan, then there’s nothing I can do.” Ryan reached out and put a hand on Michael’s shoulder.

“The king mustn’t know,” Jack said. “The only people who know he is not the real Rose Thief should be us three.”

“And the real one,” Michael added under his breath angrily.

“He shall go to trial and lose, then,” Ryan said. “He will be hanged in two days, I expect.”

A guard came down the stairs to replace Michael at his post and the trio fell silent and left. Ray leaned against the back wall of his cell and sunk back to the cold ground. He breathed in a damp, shuddering breath. He was going to die. There was no way around this. He began to shiver, both from fear and chill.

His own friends were going to hang him.

Chapter Text

The guard that replaced Michael in the dungeon fell asleep almost immediately at the table, showing no interest in Ray whatsoever, not even sparing a passing glance inside the cell. Ray wasn’t sure how to feel about that. On one hand, the guard wasn’t going to spit at him or anything. On the other, Ray had no one to talk to except his own rattling breaths. He had no way to tell time, being underground, but eventually the some of the torches began to dim, crying out in need of replacements. It was around this time that Michael returned to the dungeons.

He had taken off his armor and bear pelt, leaving the loose yellow shirt, brown pants, red sash, and soft calf-high leather boots. He carried a bundle of folded clothes and a pair of tall boots. He padded quietly down the stairs, stopped and stared at the guard for several moments to make sure the guard was sound asleep, then walked over to Ray’s cell.

“Lazy fuck,” he said, nodding at the sleeping guard and sounding very much like the real Michael. “Here, put these on.” He tossed the clothes and boots into the cell.

Ray lifted up the top piece of fabric with two fingers delicately. It looked like a stiff vest. “No thanks.”

Michael glared and flared his nostrils. “It wasn’t a suggestion,” he said, fighting to keep his voice low. “Put them on, or I will come in there and make you.” So casually as to look nearly accidental, he crossed his arms so that one of his sleeves pulled back. Where the real Michael normally had a tattoo of Ganondorf was a strange tattoo that looked like a vague sword shape made out of Celtic knots. Ray could tell he was supposed to feel intimidated by it, but he simply didn’t know what it meant.

“Okay, alright,” Ray conceded. He dropped the cloth back to the pile. “I always wanted to die looking fancy,” he muttered dryly. Michael’s mouth twitched. Ray dug out the shirt out of the pile and turned his back to Michael. He had taken off his normal shirt before he realized that Michael was still there. He looked over his shoulder where the captain was watching with narrowed eyes.

“A little privacy, please?” Ray asked flatly. Michael put a hand on one of the iron bars as if to say something, but then let his hand drop. He turned away and stalked up the stairs. When Michael was safely up them, Ray swiftly and quietly changed outfits. He fumbled with some of the unfamiliar, archaic clothing methods, but eventually figured everything out.

Ray did feel fancy, if he was perfectly honest, even though his outfit had far less colors than all the other outfits he saw his friends wearing. His fake friends. Who seemed to hate him. He shook his head and examined himself best he could in his cell. He wore a white long-sleeved shirt that was tied up the front like a polo with red string. Over this he wore a black sleeveless vest that was held closed by short leather straps across the front. His vest seemed a little tight across his middle. His pants were black and loose until they hit the top of his boots, and had two columns of buttons to hold it closed. His boots were hard soled and mostly black, but the tongue was white, and the laces were bright red. Most interesting about his outfit, however, was the cape. It was long and black with red lining, attached at his shoulders by a pair of red glass pins set into a backing of gold. The cape had a chunk missing from the hem, but when it was hanging loose it was barely noticeable.

Ray kicked his normal clothes underneath the straw in the corner of his cell and sat back down, letting the chill of the stone seep into his thighs and ass. At the very least, this outfit was a bit warmer than the other, especially if he wrapped the cape around himself. He waited to see if Michael would return, but the man did not. Rather than ponder his two days left of life, Ray wrapped the cape around himself and tried to get comfortable on the straw. It was probably nighttime by now, anyway. Ray slept.

He hoped he’d wake up back in his apartment but knew by now that that wasn’t happening.


 

Ray barely paid attention to the next day. He was absorbed in his own thoughts, his own impending death. He refused to eat the dry bread handed to him through the bars. The time seemed to go by slowly, but before he knew it, Michael came down to fetch him. He reluctantly allowed himself to be handcuffed with iron bands and led out of the dungeon. He didn’t look around, staring at his fancy shoes as he plodded along. The carpet was kinda nice. Green in one hallway, red in this one, gold in another. Each the same thick plushness. He only looked up when Michael forced him to stop walking and pinched the back of his neck.

Ray was at the end of the largest room he had ever been in. The ceiling stretched high above him, and staircases lined both sides of the room leading up to upper floors. Ray glanced over his shoulder down the wide green carpet to see dark wood double doors. Michael tapped him on the back of the knees with a foot, and Ray took the cue to bow. But not before he got a good look at who stood in front of him.

There was a crowd of finely dressed spectators, who stood off to either side. In front of him was a massive throne made of intricately carved gold with green cushions on a raised dais. At the top of the throne was the biggest lump of solid gold Ray had ever seen, probably at least a meter cubed. Jack stood to the side of the throne with his back straight. On the throne lounged the man Ray had kind of expected to see at this point.

Geoff, that magnificent bastard, looked as well as ever. In some ways he still looked exactly like Geoff. His moustache was styled into a twirl, his dark hair was an unbrushed mess, and his sleeves were kept short to show off armfuls of tattoos. He lounged in the throne mostly sideways, one leg propped over the arm. A crown perched crookedly on his head, a golden beast studded with obsidian and emeralds. He wore a rich forest green tunic with black lace ruffles at the neck and a dozen golden chains and decorations. His tunic was decorated with silver pieces of armor at the shoulders and across the breast. His belt was thick and black. Dark green pants fed into silver armored boots. His tattoos, like Michael’s, were different from real Geoff’s, and in some way Ray couldn’t fathom, they were supposed to be intimidating. He couldn’t make sense of the tattoos before his head was forced down into a complete bow.

Ray barely remembered what happened at the trial. He had been made to stand again, and he couldn’t deny anything that was thrown at him. He had felt Gavin’s hot glare and Michael’s steely side-eyed gaze on him the entire time. Geoff had rattled off a list of some of his more heinous crimes, and Ray of course had claimed he didn’t do any of it. He wasn’t believed. He wanted to scream, shout that he was just some poor sap who had stumbled into a strange world, but any time he had tried to speak “out of turn,” someone was always there to smack him. He was sentenced to hang tomorrow.

He spent his time back in his cell lying on the floor and staring at the mossy ceiling. His real friends – the ones who didn’t want to hang him – must be so worried. He’d been gone for almost two days now. Were they looking for him? Did they search his apartment? What would they find? A body? Nothing?

When he wasn’t thinking about his friends back in the real world, he was thinking about his execution. He was too young to die, wasn’t he? Worst of all, no one would know how he died. His friends would be looking for him forever, but they would never find him. No closure, no real funeral. A memorial service, maybe. Would they hold it in Austin? Or New York? Who would show up?

At dawn the next day, Jack and a random guard came down to get him. Ray was handcuffed and led up a different back staircase in the dungeon and out into a square courtyard. Dozens of people, both poor and wealthy, milled about in front of a wooden platform, having been let in to the castle grounds to watch the execution. The wooden platform was two meters off the ground and pushed against the outer wall of the grounds. A single beam with three ropes dangling from it was supported across the platform. Jack and the guard led Ray up the wooden steps where a somberly dressed man threw a noose around Ray’s neck and stood him on a trapdoor. The king and his prince, as well as Ryan and Michael, were present on the other side of the platform, bearing witness. When Ray was all set to die, Jack joined the four of them.

Jack made a short speech that Ray didn’t listen to. The somber man put his hand on a lever on one of the poles. Ray closed his eyes and gulped, waiting for the drop that would break his neck. He sniffed, and the heavy scent of roses drifted his way. He wasn’t crying, there was just some dust in his eye. He took a deep breath. At least he’d die with a pleasant smell in his nose. Oh god, it was actually happening. He was going to die. He was going to die and his friends were

What was that sound?

Chapter Text

A dagger whistled through the air and sliced through the rope above Ray’s head, leaving but a few strands attached to his noose. The dagger plunged into the wood of the gallows with a dull thud. The lever was already being pulled, and the somber man couldn’t react fast enough to stop it. The trapdoor opened up underneath Ray, and he dropped a few inches before his feet hit something solid. The rope broke completely.

People were shouting. Ray’s knees buckled, not expecting to only fall a few inches and land, but before he could tumble, a pair of hands was on him. A thick cape not unlike his own billowed around him and he was heaved upwards. The air wooshed out of his lungs as suddenly his whole weight was being carried by another person. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear the tears from them to see what the fuck was going on. He saw a blurred shape that must have been Jack reach back and fling something at him. Ray’s cape suddenly pulled at his shoulders as an ax caught the edge of it and buried itself in the stone wall behind him. There was a massive tearing noise and the cape stopped pulling. And still he was being heaved upwards.

The ground dropped below Ray. His savior was apparently running on air. The pair leaped over the wall and ran for the nearby thicket of woods. Apparently on this side of the city, the woods were much closer. Ray was so shocked he forgot to scream and struggle. His noose slipped from around his neck and fell a dozen feet to the ground below. Once they were over the trees, the pair dropped.

They didn’t fall quickly, per se, but Ray was still dropped ruthlessly. He wasn't dropped hard enough to break anything, but the ground rushed up to meet him and gave him promise of several bruises. If he lived long enough to bruise. A weight was upon him, a heavy billowing cloak drifting down to rest over the grass. Something cold and sharp pressed against his neck, and he reflexively choked and tried to lean away.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t slit your throat now,” the weight on top of him hissed. Ray’s eyes focused on… was he looking in a mirror? His own face floated in front of him. Thinner and screwed up in anger, wearing a small white mask instead of glasses, but his face all the same.

“Uhh, ‘cause you just saved me?” he sputtered weakly as he realized the cold sharp thing on his neck was a dagger. The blade pressed harder against his skin, and his Adam’s apple bobbed against it with a gulp. His skin itched with nervous sweat and he was still breathing hard.

“That was so I could kill you myself,” his doppelgänger said angrily. Ray’s heart was beating way too fast, and his mouth was dry. His lookalike looked ready to swipe his throat open any second now. “Who do you think you are, wearing my clothes and getting executed? Do you know how hard it is to build a reputation? Who are you, really? An enemy Mage?”

“N-no,” he said, unable to prevent himself from stuttering. “I’m Ray, I swear to god, I – I came from Austin, Texas, I work at Achievement Hunter and make videos for the internet. I fell asleep in front of my computer and – and I woke up here I’m innocent oh please god don’t fucking kill me.”

His doppelgänger narrowed his eyes, studying Ray closely. A hint of confusion fluttered across his face. Finally, the doppelgänger withdrew his blade, jumped lightly to his feet, then with a wordless cry of rage spun and hurled the dagger into a nearby tree. Ray sat up and rubbed his throat while his doppelgänger retrieved the blade. The doppelgänger turned and faced Ray head on, holding his hands out as if on a stage.

“I am the one they call the Rose Thief,” he said. Ray could see him clearly now. The overall theme of the Rose Thief’s outfit was similar if not identical to Ray’s. The shirt was stiff-collared and buttoned, and the vest was low-cut and white. A black long-sleeved jacket was held open by a belt wrapping around his waist. The jacket was pointed in the front and had tails. The pants were nearly the same but with a simpler fly, and the black leather boots were calf-high and belted up the side. The long black cape was tied around his throat with a bright red ribbon. A rapier with an intricate handle ending with a red rose pommel was attached to the belt by a frog. He wore a pair of white gloves, and a white eye mask partially concealed the Rose Thief’s face, though at this point it was more for style than for secret identities.

“I don’t understand half of what you just said,” added the Rose Thief, “but I think I would know my own face if I was telling the truth or not.”

Studying the Rose Thief’s cape made Ray remember his own. He twisted around and discovered that it had ripped at a jagged angle, the longest part just brushing the grass where he sat, the shortest part maybe a foot higher. As Ray’s face reddened, the Rose Thief let out a short laugh.

“Jack’s ax had caught the cape. I had to cut it,” he said casually, twirling his dagger. “You’re wearing one of my old outfits, but don’t feel bad. I haven’t seen that outfit for five years, maybe. And by the Tower, it’s even a bit tight on you.” He grinned sadistically. “You’re soft.”

What?” Ray said lightly, but he was too nervous to smile. After all, what stopped the Rose Thief from changing his mind again and killing him right there? “We just met and you’re already insulting my weight.”

The Rose Thief laughed heartily and strode over, holding out a gloved hand. “Does this really count as a first meeting?” he asked rhetorically. Ray took the hand and was hoisted up to his feet. The Rose Thief bent down and picked up a previously unnoticed top hat, which must have fallen off when they had landed.

Ray swallowed a lump in his throat and asked, “Uh, you’re not gonna threaten to kill me again, are you?”

“Nahhh,” replied the Rose Thief easily. He gestured broadly to the world around him. “I’ve decided the potential profit is too great. Can you imagine? Two of me! The guards won’t know who to chase!” Ray decided not to tell him that he didn’t really plan on stealing. The Rose Thief suddenly frowned thoughtfully. “Well, me. Self. Ray. I don’t know where you came from, and maybe we can figure it out eventually, but right now we need to get to travelling. Guards and even regular commoners will be on high alert for the Rose Thief for a little while. We need to get away from Achievement City, maybe even the country entirely.”

“Wait, Achievement City?” Ray asked, more out of astonishment than curiosity.

“Achievement City,” the Rose Thief confirmed, a smirk making the corner of his mouth twitch. “The capital of the kingdom of Venator. You’re really not from around here, huh.”

Ray nodded to his mirror image nervously. “It’s… an interesting story, that’s for fucking sure.”

“Well, we’ve got a bit of a walk ahead of us. Plenty of time to talk. I hope you like horses.”

Chapter Text

The Rose Thief did not steal a horse. No, he already had one that he had “borrowed” from a poor sap in the next city they were headed to. Well, he had every intent on returning the steed, anyway, and look – they were headed back now, weren’t they? Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately given his lack of experience – the Rose Thief didn’t have the time, means, or will to steal a second horse. Together they looked like a pair of twins riding double on a horse. The Rose Thief set the horse at a quick trot almost constantly, citing that it was a couple days travel down the river at a quick pace.

Ray did his best to explain his situation, and the Rose Thief in turn gave him a quick summary of the lands. Ray explained that where he was from, the six Achievement Hunters were all friends who worked together for the same company. Geoff was their boss, but they all treated each other more or less equally. The world he came from was very different from this one – instead of horses, people used wheeled contraptions (sometimes automatic) to get from point A to point B; instead of torches they used electricity; instead of swords, they used projectile fire shooters. But as a whole his and his friends’ lives were pretty peaceful. Then he fell asleep and woke up in the middle of a clearing, to be found and arrested by Prince Gavin and his hunting party.

According to the Rose Thief, the kingdom they were in was Venator, led by King Geoff from Achievement City, which was near the northern central end of the territory. The city they were headed to now was the main seaport of the kingdom. It was called Astropolis and was the second largest city in Ventaor behind Achievement City. From there, they would be sailing to the Ruby Kingdom in the northwest, which was only accessible from the sea. King Monty was in charge of this kingdom, which is known for its fierce and skilled warriors and weapon smiths. Almost directly to the east was the massive Kingdom of Roosterteeth. It was the biggest kingdom in both land mass and population, though a lot of it was lush farmland. Its king used to be King Burnie, but Burnie had since abdicated and given the crown to the current King Matt.

Every time the Rose Thief said another name that Ray recognized, Ray laughed and reported what those people were in his world.

“I’m not very knowledgeable in the subject,” said the Rose Thief at the end of their first day of travel. “But I’d say you’re from a different sort of universe entirely.”

“But then, how did I get here? Why am I here?”

The Rose Thief could only shrug.

After sleeping rather poorly out under the open stars with a tree root as a pillow, Ray woke up with the crack of dawn. Through the fog of sleep he saw his doppelgänger facing away from him take off his shirt, shake it out, wave a hand over it, and prepare to put it back on. Ray had mixed reactions to seeing himself from the back, which mostly amounted to a small gasp. For one, the Rose Thief was fitter than Ray – much fitter. He could see why the old outfit was a little tight on him despite his light weight. The Rose Thief was slim and had muscle, hard lithe muscle. But more shockingly, long thin scars crisscrossed in alarmingly large numbers across his back.

The Rose Thief heard the gasp and looked over his shoulder at Ray, his arms already halfway in the shirt. He smirked. “Like what you see?” he asked lightly, but he quickly donned his shirt.

“No, you’re making me feel inadequate,” Ray said dryly, making his doppelgänger laugh. If this was what meeting yourself was like, Ray thought, then maybe more people should do it. Well, without the attempted murder. The Rose Thief finished dressing and approached Ray before wrinkling his nose.

“Ugh, you smell awful,” he said.

“I’ve kind of been in jail. I haven’t fucking showered – um, bathed in like three days.”

“Well, allow me.” The Rose Thief raised his left hand and splayed his fingers. Ray could feel the dirt and dried perspiration lift off of his skin. The Rose Thief frowned and waved his hand a couple more times with a befuddled look on his face. By the time he was done, Ray actually felt clean and didn’t smell all that bad. He felt like he had just showered and dried. “It usually works in one go,” the Rose Thief admitted, studying the palm of his gloved hand.

After a quick breakfast of dry meat so salty it made Ray's tongue curl, they got back on the horse. Ray remembered something that the Rose Thief had skipped over. He brought up the topic of Endermen and he felt his doppelgänger stiffen in the saddle. The Rose Thief took a few minutes before replying.

There were a multitude of creatures that threatened the land. Woodland beasts, engorged spiders, explosive creepers, and occasionally a rogue necromancer will summon the undead. The area around Achievement City and Astropolis was generally pretty safe and protected. They had Ryan, the Court Mage, to thank for a lot of that. But there was one enemy that was unlike any other.

“There’s a fourth kingdom,” the Rose Thief was saying. Ray listened in rapt attention. Did this count as narcissism? Listening to himself talk a lot? “The Ender Kingdom, often called the End for short. I don’t know much about the End’s history, but I think it used to be fairly prosperous. But now it’s a dangerous place overrun with Endermen. They’re possibly the most terrifying creature you could ever face. Their gaze can paralyze a man with fear, and their blood is known to be poisonous. The easiest way to kill them is through their eyes, of course, but their skin is actually pretty durable. It’s possible to cut, but it’s tough. Best to go for the eyes and mouth – joints, if you have to, I know they’re pretty tall.” Ray shivered in the saddle, remembering the eyes back in the clearing. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” Ray said. “I should probably learn about these fucks if I’m going to be here a while. And I feel like I am gonna be here a while…”

“Fair enough. Plenty of people never see an Enderman in their lifetime. Not a whole lot is known about them, ‘cause when you see one you basically are already in battle. No one has time to observe their habits. They rot quickly, and they don’t seem to like water much, but that’s about the extent of it. All I know for sure is that they’re ruthless,” he added bitterly. “Tell me again, how did you hear about the Endermen?”

“I didn’t say,” Ray reminded him. “When I first arrived, an Enderman walked out of the trees behind me. Before it could do anything, though, Gavin shot it in the eyes with his arrows.”

The leather reigns creaked quietly as the Rose Thief’s grip tightened on them. He was silent for a long time before saying, “They’ve never been so close to Achievement City. And you were only probably about two hours away from – by the Tower, Ryan’s protective spell probably does nothing against the Endermen.”

“Yeah, they seemed a bit worried at the sighting,” Ray recalled. “Gavin thought it might be a scout.”

The Rose Thief didn’t reply. Ray was still burning with questions, but the Rose Thief didn’t seem to want to talk anymore. Ray recognized his own habits and picked up the cues easily. Instead, he was forced to admire the passing landscape with increasing soreness from sitting in the saddle. He could understand why people don’t regularly ride horses anymore. They were goddamn uncomfortable, especially for long travel. Still, the sun was warm, and the near-constant breeze was cool, and the lush scenery was aesthetically pleasing. He allowed himself to be lulled into dozing. It was better than worrying about the real world, worrying about his real friends, worrying about how he was going to get back – if he was going to get back.

The horse suddenly stopped as the Rose Thief pulled on the reigns. It whinnied and turned sideways. Ray jolted and shook the drowsiness out of his head. The breeze was stronger here, and carried the humid scent of salt water.

“We’re here,” said the Rose Thief.

Chapter Text

The Rose Thief had stopped at the crest of a hill, still probably a mile or two away from the first building, so Ray got a good look at Astropolis. It was vaguely star-shaped and not walled in, and from this distance he could see an enormous town square dead center with a tall obelisk-like statue in the middle. One tip of the star reached towards them, and the base two straddled the river where it bled into the sea. Ray guessed that at least a hundred boats were docked at the base of the star and up the river, and more were anchored farther out in the water.

The Rose Thief slid off the horse, helped Ray off, then jumped back up. “Stay here,” he ordered. “I’m going to go return the horse. So stay a little ways away from the road and we’ll go into Astropolis when it’s night. There’s still a chance that the messenger beat us here and told the guards to look out for us.” Ray nodded mutely, and the Rose Thief galloped off, his long cape billowing out behind him in the wind.

Ray stretched and sat down in the grass. The main road was a little ways off – he couldn’t even see it. The river was loud, gushing and flowing down to the sea. Ray sat there for a while, letting the sun warm his face, before lying down and just looking up at the darkening sky. It was boring. He idly wondered how they were going to leave. Were they going to hide away on a ship? He hoped not. He didn’t really want to be a stowaway. His thoughts inevitably drifted back to his hopeless situation. Thinking about it all made it feel like someone was sitting on his chest. At least he was on the move. That gave him a small amount of optimism that they could find something, learn something, to get him back home. Maybe if he clicked his heels three times…

Ray sat up suddenly, the back of his neck prickling. He glanced around, but he couldn’t see anyone. He rubbed his neck. He was on top of a hill and there weren’t many trees – he should be able to see if anyone was there. Still, he felt like he was being watched. He shivered with an unexpected chill breeze that bled through his clothes and settled into his skin, making goose bumps rise. The sunlight was almost completely gone. He stood, hoping to increase the range of his vision. A scraggly tree at the base of the hill behind him looked almost pitch black in the dusk. Torches and street lamps started flaring up in Astropolis as the lamplighters made their rounds.

Ray thought he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. He spun, staring down at the scraggly tree again. The wind blew again, making the branches of the tree dance. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He was being spooked by a little breeze and poor lighting. This was stupid. But then, why was his heart racing? Why did the hair on the back of his neck still stand up? He really wanted the Rose Thief to return now. He was suddenly feeling exposed and defenseless. He wanted to go home.

His first wish was granted. “Oi!” he heard him voice shout. “It’s time.” Ray practically sprinted to meet up with the Rose Thief again, who was standing at the base of the hill nearest Astropolis. The duo stole into Astropolis quickly. By the time they made it to the city, the sun had set completely. Most of the streets here were made of gravel with wood planks for sidewalks, though the largest roads were paved with cobblestone. The outer buildings looked quite cheap and dingy, made of new wood that was already beginning to deteriorate with the humid, salty air. Stone was used when possible, but it was clear that the buildings near the edge of the city couldn’t always afford stone. The Rose Thief’s long cape swished softly as they hurried down the streets. Deep in the shadows between buildings and hanging out in the golden light in front of taverns, multitudes of peasants watched them past. Their faces were grubby with grime and their clothes were mostly brown and in varying stages of fraying.

“Yo,” Ray said suddenly. “For a thief, you’ve got really nice clothing.”

The Rose Thief laughed shortly, but it sounded fake to Ray. “Well…” he said, and then after a brief hesitation, “I’m a good thief.” The Rose Thief had to know that Ray could pick up on the lie of omission. Ray slowed to make eye contact with a kid, who watched him with wide eyes that seemed glassy in the moonlight. When the kid realized he was being watched back, he quickly shied back into the shadows. Ray sped up to catch up with his doppelgänger.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

“An old friend has his ship docked out in the bay. He often lets me hide out on his ship. You might know him, too, if the trend stays.”

The buildings and streets gradually got nicer as they got closer to the water, but as they reached the center of the city, the buildings suddenly turned old and nearly luxurious. The town square that Ray had seen from the top of the hill was like a giant circle, the buildings surrounding it made of pure, smooth stone bleached white. Many of the buildings had engravings over entrances and around glassless windows. Smack dab in the middle was a paved expanse of land, with the roads going around the edge. On a pedestal was an enormous statue made of some hard stone – possibly marble. It was of an enormous rectangular tower sat upon an intricately carved block of marble. In front of it, in a power pose facing the sea, was a rather rotund man, his hammy fists on his waist and his legs spread solidly. A grin was carved into his round face, the eyebrows drawn together to make a victorious expression.

“Who and what the fuck is that?” Ray asked, pointing at the statue even though it was pretty hard to miss. The Rose Thief didn’t even look at it as he encouraged Ray to hurry along.

“King Dexter, the first king of Venator,” the Rose Thief said impatiently. “He’s standing in front of the completed Tower. Can you hurry up? I don’t like the way that patrolling guard is looking at us.”

“It’s not impossible to fucking walk and talk at the same time,” Ray reminded him crossly, but he stopped lagging behind. He felt like laughing, though. He’d bet everything that that was the Tower of Pimps – though he sincerely doubted the people here would call it that. And Dexter? Wasn’t Grif’s first name Dexter? “Do you know the history of your own kingdom?” he prompted as they left the square.

The Rose Thief shot him an incredulous look as if to say this is the knowledge that every baby knows. Then he seemed to remember that Ray was an outsider and continued the story. “Alright, well this basic history is practically drilled into our heads during… Okay, well the Golden Tower used to be one whole tower, and the four kingdoms used to be one whole kingdom. Then there was a fight, blah blah blah, and the gold was split into four. The obsidian base on which it originally stood sunk into the ground – to rejoin the Nether, I guess. King Dexter took one piece and staked out a claim for Venator. The Sargent King made Roosterteeth; King Lavernius took a piece to the Ruby Kingdom; and King Leonard took a piece to the End. Happy?”

“King Dexter didn’t happen to have a lover named Dick, did he?” Ray asked dryly. The Rose Thief shot him another look, this time more surprised and bewildered.

“He wed the Sargent King’s only son, Richard, to secure their alliance. Or rather, Richard went off with him and the Sargent King reluctantly formed one. Do you know these people in real life, too?”

“Lucky guess,” Ray said quickly, hiding his smile by staring at the ground. He wasn’t about to admit that these kings were very much fictional back in his world.

“Hey! Ray!” A familiar voice rang sharply out. Ray’s head jerked up to see they had reached the main docks. A dirty blond man even shorter than him in a finely embroidered black coat, tall boots with turned down tops, and a three-pointed hat greeted the two of them with open arms – literally. The Rose Thief and Kerry embraced warmly, Kerry clapping his hand on his friend’s back. Ray pursed his lips and tried not to react too strongly. Kerry pulled away and finally seemed to notice Ray. “Ray, there’s two of you!”

“This is the fake Rose Thief,” said his doppelgänger, gesturing at Ray.

“I thought you were going into the city to kill him, though?”

The Rose Thief laughed nervously. “Ha haaa, well, about that. I think he’s me from another universe, or something? Listen, he seems innocent to me, and he hasn’t tried to kill me yet, so I think he’s safe. Just some poor guy they tried to frame. Oh, uh – Ray, this is Captain Kerry.”

Kerry nodded respectfully at Ray and hopped down off the dock into a little dinghy. The Rose Thief reached over and untied the dinghy from the dock and gestured at Ray to get in. Ray sat down at the edge of the dock and awkwardly pushed himself down to the boat. When Kerry realized Ray was not nearly as competent as his lookalike, he quickly reached out a hand to steady him. The Rose Thief hopped down soon after, and Kerry began rowing.

“Apparently the same people are in his universe,” the Rose Thief was saying. “Hey, do you know Kerry back… uh, back home?”

“We’re friends, actually,” Ray said, making Kerry grin.

“Some things remain constant, eh?” Kerry said to the Rose Thief, who shrugged and rubbed his arm. “Oh, Ray, I know you wanted to hide out in the Ruby Kingdom, but ahhh – it’s not safe to dock there for a while. We’re going to be sailing around for a bit.”

The Rose Thief grimaced and groaned. “How long?”

“Two months, maybe? I may have angered someone important…” At the Rose Thief’s sigh, he added, “Nothing really bad! I just want to let them cool their heads a little.”

The Rose Thief sighed again and turned to Ray. “The Ruby Kingdom doesn’t hold the same grudge against me that Venator does. I had hoped to talk to some of the Mages and scholars at the castle to try and learn where you came from and how you got to be here, but I guess we can’t do that for a while. Sorry.” Ray didn’t reply, choosing instead to look at the black water as it lapped slowly past. The oars splashed gently as Kerry rowed. The Rose Thief attempted a slight smile. “On the bright side, I could use this time to get you in shape!” Ray groaned, and his two companions chortled. “If you’re going to be here a while, you should probably know how to fight a little at least.”

“Kill me now,” Ray moaned.

Captain Kerry rowed the dinghy up to a ship that wasn’t the biggest in the bay but was by no means the smallest. It was simple in its craft, sturdy and reliable with three tall masts and nicely sized living quarters in the aft. The living quarters had two small stories, the second one dominated by a pair of double doors. The first story had two doors on either side of a staircase leading down. The only real bit of decoration on the ship was a highly intricate wooden carving of a dragon underneath the bowsprit in the front of the ship. A couple shadowy figures were moving about in the main deck and helped pull up the dinghy with its three passengers. Ray didn’t recognize any of them.

“Most of my crew is asleep,” Kerry said, helping Ray to his feet. Ray immediately felt a little off balance as the ship rocked ever so slightly in the nighttime waves. “We’ll give you a tour of the ship in the morning. For tonight you can sleep in my captain’s quarters – I don’t want you stumbling about below deck and wake up all of my crew!”

The strangers grumbled to each other and made their way below deck. Kerry led Ray and the Rose Thief up a set of stairs to the red-painted double doors that opened into a room bigger than Ray expected. In the back was a large bed with a black quilt decorated with red designs. In front of it was a little section that seemed devoted to meetings. A couch in the shape of a semi-circle wrapped around a round table with a map spread on it. There were knickknacks all over the place – on the table, on a dresser, on a vanity. The Rose Thief threw himself happily onto the couch as Kerry took off his jacket to reveal a dark red shirt and walked around blowing out the lamps placed strategically about the room.

Ray carefully removed an ornate dagger from the couch and set it on the table. The room was now dark as Kerry crawled into bed. Ray sat on the other end of the couch from the Rose Thief and fingered his ripped cape. Something wasn’t adding up about the Rose Thief’s clothing. Ray knew that successful thievery was not the reason behind his doppelgänger’s fine attire, but now he remembered something else the Rose Thief had said. Ray was wearing an old outfit from five years ago. And yet, Michael had somehow had it at the castle. He frowned and unpinned the cape from his shoulders and shrugged out of his vest, letting the clothes fall carelessly to the floor.

Asking the Rose Thief about this oddity would surely result in more lies. Maybe Kerry would know.

Chapter Text

Ray awoke to the muffled sound of shouting and the clack of metal. He lurched up on the couch and looked quickly around the room to find Kerry and the Rose Thief gone. A pile of new clothes was neatly folded on the table in front of him, clearly meant for him. His glasses had been put gingerly on top of the pile. As he put on his glasses and picked up a loose black shirt, the door creaked open, letting in a sea breeze. A familiar man dressed almost entirely in white entered quietly and shut the door behind him. He smoothed his dark hair back down and grinned at Ray when he realized he was awake.

“Good morning,” said Caleb. “Those clothes are for you.” Caleb wore a long white tunic that reached to mid-thigh and was belted at his waist by a white and yellow rope. The sleeves just barely covered his fingertips. His pants were undyed and fell loosely to the top of pale brown shoes. As Ray pulled his shirt off and donned his new one, Caleb walked over and plopped down next to him on the couch. “How are you feeling? We set sail earlier at dawn with the low tide, and we’re worried you might get seasick.”

Ray plucked at his billowy sleeves and the v-shaped neckline. “I’m fine for now,” he said.

Caleb smiled again and patted Ray on the shoulder. “Well, if you ever feel nauseous, just come see me and I’ll fix you right up.” He helpfully handed Ray the pants from the pile and stood up again.

“What’s going on out there?” Ray asked, nodding at the door. Caleb glanced at it then back and laughed.

“Ray and – uh, the other Ray and Kerry are fighting. Oh, don’t look so alarmed! They do this all the time. They’re both pretty good with the sword, so they like to challenge each other to duels. Especially if they haven’t seen each other in a while.”

“What about you?”

Caleb smiled and flicked his wrists to pull his hands out of his sleeves. “I don’t use a sword. I hate the things.” He started for the door. “You should catch the end of the fight; they’re pretty good at what they do.”

Ray stood and nearly stumbled as the ship swayed beneath him. It would take a while for him to get used to the pitching floor. Caleb stepped back to steady him. The two of them exited the captain’s room and Ray expected to see two men fighting on the main deck, but as he leaned against the railing he noticed all the crew members were looking up. He heard a laugh that he heard many times editing videos.

“Is that all you got, Kerry!?”

“I’ll show you what I’ve got if you come at me, cousin!”

The Rose Thief and Kerry were on the horizontal bar of the main mast on opposite sides of the great wooden pillar. The Rose Thief brandished his rapier, and Kerry wielded a slightly heavier blade with a simpler guard and hilt, his unarmed hand gloved in thick leather. The Rose Thief, too, had changed outfits, this time wearing a loose white shirt and a masculine corset belt. Kerry lunged at him and he slid back and smacked the blade away. Then with a flourish of his left hand he jumped off the mast. The smell of roses filled the air as a strong breeze suddenly picked up. The Rose Thief flipped in midair, his legs perfect and straight, and he landed back on the main deck easily. Kerry jumped for the mast and wrapped his gloved hand around it. He spun around and around, descending back to the main mast as the Rose Thief landed.

The crew applauded as the two duelists lunged at each other, their swords colliding and pressing against each other. Their grins were wide as they leaned into each other. Then, with a twist of the wrist, Kerry slid his blade down and shoved the sword out of the Rose Thief’s hand. It flipped over and stabbed into the wood of the deck. Kerry brandished his sword, the tip hovering inches from the Rose Thief’s throat. They were both breathing heavily and sweating, but beaming.

“I win,” Kerry said happily. He lowered his sword and extended his gloved hand, which the Rose Thief took. As Kerry tugged off his glove and tossed it at the nearest crewmate, Ray realized for the first time that the Rose Thief wasn’t wearing his white gloves. The Rose Thief’s hands – his hands – were covered in tattoos.

“Nice show!” Caleb called. Ray nudged him.

“What’s with the Rose Thief’s hands?” he asked.

“Huh? Oh, you mean his tattoos?” Caleb tilted his head and gave him a confused and pitying smile. “Do you not… know about tattoos?”

“I’m not from here, Caleb. I don’t know anything.”

Caleb sighed and looked back at the two duelists as the Rose Thief shook hands with Kerry and retrieved his sword. “Hmm. Okay, I’ll start at the very basics. There are three types of people in this world, Ray. There are normal folk who can’t do a lick of magic, and there are Mages that can do a lot. And then there are people who have potential that needs to be unlocked through spells tattooed onto their skin.”

The crew dispersed as they realized their show was over. Kerry and the Rose Thief bounded up the stairs to join Ray and Caleb, their faces shiny with perspiration but relaxed with the conclusion of play. “Teaching him about magic?” Kerry asked, clapping Caleb on the shoulder. He leaned forward to look at Ray. “Caleb here’s a Mage! Some say he’s a better healer than even that man Ryan up at Achievement City!”

“Aw, Kerry, please,” Caleb protested, but he didn’t look too annoyed. The Rose Thief drummed his fingers on the railing, drawing Ray’s attention again. The back of the left hand had a relatively simpler tattoo than the right, and was decorated with a pale blue triangle with a line cutting off the top third. Rosy red and darker blue designs embellished this triangle. The design on the right hand was not restrained to the back of the hand. A red and pinkish glyph dominated the back of it, but swirls and runes expanded from it, wrapping around the hand and the fingers. The Rose Thief noticed Ray’s gaze and smiled nervously, tucking his hands into pockets.

“Gloves are too hot and slippery for sailing,” he explained quietly.

“Anyway,” Caleb continued. “A Mage has to apply the spell to those with potential, and only Mages can tell if someone has this potential. Like for Ray here, I gave him the cleaning spell on his left palm after his—”

“Fascinating,” the Rose Thief said shortly. Ray frowned as his doppelgänger pushed off from the railing. He drew his sword and offered it handle-first to Ray, then nodded at Kerry. “Why don’t you show him some of the basics?” Ray took the sword and the Rose Thief swept away, disappearing into the captain’s cabin, presumably to clean up. Kerry and Caleb shot each other quick looks, sharing their confusion. Then Kerry took one look at Ray awkwardly holding the sword and groaned.

“Alright, alright,” he said, grabbing Ray by the arm and dragging him down the stairs. “It is physically painful for me to see you hold that sword. Come on.”


 

 

Caleb followed the Rose Thief into the captain’s quarters. He got straight to the point, not even letting the thief sit down before he asked him his question. “Why are you being so secretive?” he demanded. “Why are you hiding information from yourself?”

The Rose Thief rubbed one hand with the other and turned to stare hard at Caleb. “He doesn’t need to know all that shit. He just needs to get back to where he came from and move on with his life.”

“He’s going to be here for at least another two months or so,” Caleb pointed out. “I know you don’t like talking about it, but he’s going to find out whether you tell him or not.”

“Not if I can help it. Now shoo, I need to clean up.”


 

“You’re holding it all wrong, like this – no, not that tight. Are you kidding me? If you hold it that loose, it’ll fly out of your hand when you swing. Were you raised by a dog?” Ray sighed and tried to do as he was told. He twisted the sword around in his hand and mimicked Kerry as he showed him how to hold it. Finally, Kerry seemed satisfied enough to move on to the footwork.

He tapped at Ray’s shins with the flat side of his own blade. “Assuming you’re the same as the other Ray,” he said, “then your right foot should be forward. A bit further… not that far. Good. You should be solid but light. You’ll likely be moving a lot. If you’re in an actual fight, you’ll probably be constantly shifting your weight from foot to foot so you can move at a moment’s notice.”

Kerry circled around Ray and judged his standing position. At the same time, Caleb exited the captain’s cabin and nodded at the pair before disappearing into one of the lower doors. That reminded Ray to ask Kerry one of the questions that had been burning at him for a couple days now. “Kerry, do you know why one of, uh, Ray’s outfits would be at the castle in Achievement City?”

Kerry stopped circling, pausing a couple paces in front of Ray, and put a hand to his chin. “I’m assuming you’re talking about the outfit you showed up in.”

“And that he seems really nicely dressed for a thief,” Ray added. Kerry nodded thoughtfully.

“He is. That’s because, up until about five years ago, he used to live up at the castle.” Ray opened his mouth, but Kerry continued. “He and I both, in fact. There was a training program for knights that we both partook in. He’d been there long before me, though. I’m originally from the Ruby Kingdom, so most of my training was done there, and I came here to complete it and become a knight in Venator – lots of people from the Ruby Kingdom end up living somewhere else.”

“So why’d you both leave?”

Kerry studied him and seemed to consider his response before answering. “He was going to be executed, and I helped him escape. I gave up my career as a knight to help him – not that I really care; I’ve always enjoyed sailing, but sometimes I miss my other friends at… the… castle.”

A loud thump echoed behind them, causing Kerry to trail off and pale. The Rose Thief had jumped over the railing and landed on the main deck, and he looked fucking furious. Ray was still processing the information that his other self had been on death’s row when the Rose Thief marched over.

It was obvious the Rose Thief had heard enough to figure out what they were talking about, but he didn’t mention that. He didn’t need to. He glared at both of them, his nostrils flaring and his eyes wide beneath his furrowed brow. He had changed his mask to another white one, though this one had long trailing ribbons in the back. He stood by Kerry and stretched out his hand. When Kerry didn’t react, the Rose Thief coughed and twitched his fingers in a give me that motion. Kerry mutely handed over his sword.

“He – he hasn’t done any motions yet, we – we’ve just been working on basic positions…” Kerry started pleadingly.

The Rose Thief shut him up with a wave of his hand, and Ray gulped. He realized now that his doppelgänger was mad at him. The Rose Thief took a position two or three paces away from him and raised Kerry’s sword. Ray shifted his sweaty grip on his own sword, but the tip of it exaggerated how much he was trembling. The Rose Thief nodded at him, silently telling him to attack.

Ray had no idea what to do.  He didn’t feel particularly like fighting his doppelgänger, though he was sure that even if he tried he couldn’t hurt him. Plus, he was so out of shape that holding the sword upright for however long he and Kerry had been working on his form made his upper arm ache with the effort. He tried to remember all the sword fighting he’d seen in movies, maybe some Olympic fencing, but he was blanking. So, he did what any sensible man would do in this situation.

He ran forward and lunged.

The Rose Thief sidestepped and swept his foot under Ray in a single, fluid, spinning motion. Ray’s foot caught on his doppelgänger’s and he slammed to the deck, his palm skinning itself on the wood planks as he flailed and shouted expletives. He just barely held onto his sword. By now, several members of the crew had stopped what they were doing and observed from afar.

“Up,” the Rose Thief said. “Get up.”

Ray studied his injured palm for a moment and shakily stood. The ship pitched beneath him, and while Kerry and the Rose Thief kept their footing easily, swaying with the ship, Ray stumbled. The ship steadied again, and Ray raised his sword to point it back at the Rose Thief. His left palm burned at his side, and his cheeks felt flushed and warm. He was conscious of every eye on him.

Running and lunging hadn’t worked. So instead, Ray ran and swung. He sprinted forward, his sword raised and swinging down, and the Rose Thief moved faster than he could react. The Rose Thief flicked his wrist, and the blade of his sword danced before Ray’s eyes. Before he could comprehend what was happening, Ray’s sword was being pushed out of the way by his opponent’s blade, following his momentum. The Rose Thief rotated with his blade, and his free hand darted out and shoved Ray in the back. Ray stumbled, but managed to stay upright. A bead of sweat trickled down from his hairline, and Ray wiped it away with the back of a hand.

He was starting to get frustrated – angry, even. What was his fucking deal? The Rose Thief was being secretive, and now Ray was being punished for being curious and finally getting at least some answers. Not just punished, but publically humiliated. The Rose Thief was toying with him. Himself from a different universe was toying with him! Did he really hate himself that much? Did Ray’s actions really deserve this response? This time, Ray didn’t wait for the Rose Thief to egg him on. He lunged.

He expected the Rose Thief to dodge again, but his lookalike met his blade. The two blades angled away from each other, pressed against each other, and slid down each other so that the two fighters were locked at their swords’ guards. Ray ground his teeth and angrily heaved his weight against the sword, but it was painfully obvious that the Rose Thief had him beat on physical strength. The blades quivered for a few moments that felt like forever.

The Rose Thief twirled his hand, and Ray’s wrist twisted with his sword to the point where he was forced to let go. With a triumphant flourish, Ray’s sword flipped out of his grasp and plunged its tip into the wood of the deck, where it stood, shaking comically. Ray fell to his hands and knees, exhaustion and humiliation pulling him down. The Rose Thief loomed over him, studying him as the crew studied them in silence. Finally, the Rose Thief tossed Kerry’s sword back to the captain and spun on his heel. As he strode away, back to the captain’s cabin, he said, “I expect a hundred pushups and a hundred sit-ups.”

It was only when the door slammed that people started moving again. Kerry slid his sword back into a loop at his belt and, with a glance at the red double doors, yanked Ray’s borrowed sword out of the deck. He offered his free hand to Ray, who ignored it and pushed himself back so he was sitting on the floor.

“Don’t be a baby,” Kerry said. “Caleb can heal up your hand, and then you can do your exercises. Ray might be… mad, but it’s not a bad idea.”

Ray looked up at Kerry and squinted against the sunlight. Sweat was already soaking Ray’s black shirt. “Kerry… I can’t fucking do a hundred pushups and sit-ups.”

Kerry sighed and glanced around the deck. His hand was still outstretched, offering. “Just… do as many as you can, then. Eventually you’ll do a hundred no problem. Afterwards, you can get cleaned up and take a tour of the ship.” When Ray’s stomach growled, he laughed and added, “And have a meal!”

Ray honestly didn’t want to move. He was stuck on this ship for two months, with maybe a couple stops to get more supplies. The only thing he had to occupy himself with was exercise – he couldn’t hope to be of any help to the crew. He was still trying to process the Rose Thief’s anger and secrecy. He was hungry but didn’t want to eat. He just wanted to disappear where he sat right then and there. A significant portion of him thought he wasn’t ever going to get back home.

Kerry’s hand was still outstretched. The captain was patient, staying near Ray. Something about Kerry’s presence wanted to urge Ray on. The small bit of him that was optimistic begged him to get up, to eat something, to get moving again. One day, he’ll get back home, this small bit said. It might take a while, but if he kept moving, eventually he’ll get back home. The only way he would never get back home would be if he stopped trying. Something brought him here, so something can send him back.

Ray took Kerry’s hand, and the captain helped him up off the deck.

Chapter Text

Ray started counting the days he was aboard the ship. He was never allowed on shore when they stopped occasionally for supplies in case something bad happened. If they got jumped by drunken thugs or spotted by Venator guards, then they needed to be able to make a quick getaway without worrying about Ray. Otherwise, he tried to keep moving, because he knew if he ever stopped, he wouldn’t be able to start again.

Ray’s regimen was the hardest he had ever been on. He slept on a rocking hammock below deck with the rest of the crew and woke up at dawn when everyone else started moving around. He never really got seasick, but it took him a whole week to get used to the constant swaying of the ship under his feet. After a quick breakfast, he was made to do physical exercises, normally including stretches, pushups, and sit-ups, but extending occasionally to other exercises as well. Then, after lunch, he and Kerry would train with the sword, usually borrowing Kerry’s blade. It was exhausting, but it kept Ray’s mind and body occupied. He was finding it hard to get used to the sword. It simply wasn’t clicking. At the end of every day, he would collapse into his hammock and fall instantly asleep.

 Every couple of days, the Rose Thief would watch them practice on the deck from in front of the double doors before jumping down and dueling Ray himself. After Day 1, the Rose Thief took a few breather days, and on Day 4, when he tested Ray’s progress, he seemed a lot calmer. Still angry, but restrained. Ray had learned not to pry into the Rose Thief’s past – at least, when the Rose Thief was on board. On that Day 4, when the Rose Thief tested him a second time and knocked the sword out of his hand a second time, the Rose Thief stood over Ray with a sneer.

“Pathetic,” the Rose Thief said. “Can’t even hold onto his sword.”

When the Rose Thief had disappeared into the captain’s cabin again, Kerry told him, “It’s like that phrase. ‘You are your own biggest critic.’” He was trying to be helpful, but Ray only felt miserable.

On Day 5, when the Rose Thief was nowhere to be seen, Ray ventured again to ask Kerry about the Rose Thief’s past. Kerry chewed his lip and glanced at the cabin doors. “If he doesn’t want to talk to you about it,” he said after a moment’s thought, “then I’m not going to go behind his back. It’s up to him.”

Day 7 was overcast, and while Ray had a friendly duel with a random crewmate and dulled, relatively harmless swords, Kerry and Caleb talked in hushed voices. They weren’t trying to be secretive, but what they were discussing was not applicable to a general audience.

On Day 8, the winds began to die and Ray got to see his first real example of a Mage’s power. The black clouds churned above, and the rain came down in heavy blankets of water. The wind picked up again and howled. Caleb stood behind the railing in front of the captain’s cabin, his hands gripping the wet wood so tightly his knuckles paled to match his sleeves. His clothing plastered to his body with the rain. Ray, invited to watch Caleb in action by Kerry, clung to the main mast in the middle of the deck, his black shirt cold and wet against his skin. When the wind began to blast, Caleb began to concentrate.

The dark storm was lit up nearly constantly by lightning, but Ray could barely hear the thunder around the wind and the chill in his ears. Caleb began to glow as he leaned forward, elbows locked and feet spread solidly wide. The wind plucked at the soaked hem of his robe and sleeves. White light hovered around him before, with a sudden whirlwind originating from him, the light stretched rapidly outwards in an orb. Caleb created a white force field around them, and the wind howled a little less and the waves stopped tipping the ship as much. The rain and lightning no longer threatened them at all. Kerry exited the cabin behind Caleb and put a hand on the Mage’s shoulder, whispering something in his ear. Caleb’s eyes flashed white, and the wind changed direction to blow the ship in a specific direction. They dropped anchor near a town a few leagues away and waited the storm out. Ray only threw up once, and he felt he deserved an achievement for that. Caleb slept for all of Day 9 after that.

On Day 10, the Rose Thief challenged Ray again. Ray barely held onto his sword, and sported a few new bruises and scrapes where he had fallen to the ground. The Rose Thief was careful not to cut him, however. The Rose Thief seemed calmer, so Ray decided it might be a good idea to ask again about his past. It had been over a week, and he figured the Rose Thief might be more reasonable and more willing to share.

He was wrong. The Rose Thief shut down immediately. When Ray insisted, he snapped back, “It’s not fucking important for you to know, so just shut up, okay?” He then shoved Ray away and disappeared back into the captain’s cabin.

Day 14, the Rose Thief hopped off the ship during the afternoon at a different port in Venator. Ray wasn’t told the details, but he assumed the Rose Thief was going to terrorize that poor little town to uphold his title. While Kerry worked with Ray and his dueling stance, Ray ventured, “Why was the other Ray going to be executed?”

Kerry shook his head and pressed his lips into a fine line. Caleb looked up from his book where he was seated at the railing to squint at them through the harsh sunlight. “If Ray still hasn’t told you himself, I’m not going to. So stop asking me.” Ray nodded in understanding and practiced a lunge. Kerry lashed out a hand to smack Ray’s wrist, and he dropped the sword. “Poor grip.”

On Day 19, Kerry and Caleb stopped at a town in Roosterteeth to visit a lord who was a known book collector. They were gone from midmorning to nightfall, and Ray learned just how awkward it could be to be essentially alone on the ship with the Rose Thief. He was standing at the rails lining the edge of the deck, leaning over the water and allowing the cool sea breeze to whisk away the heat of the sun from his face, when he felt eyes upon him. He looked behind him to see the Rose Thief standing in front of the captain’s cabin. The silence between them was so thick, Ray could have stabbed it with his borrowed rapier.

“Are you going to fucking talk to me?” Ray called.

The Rose Thief merely held his gaze for a moment longer before spinning on his heel and entering the captain’s cabin again, his clothes fluttering in the breeze.

Being essentially alone with the Rose Thief only reminded Ray how much he didn’t know. The Rose Thief had been on death’s row but refused to tell him why. It didn’t make any sense to Ray. He couldn’t understand being so closed off, especially to his own doppelgänger.

He also realized he was starting to feel lonely. Being around Caleb and Kerry helped, but they just weren’t the same as the real Caleb and Kerry. They were alike in face, but Ray missed the friends he worked with and shared memories with. And he missed the other Achievement Hunters. The last time he saw any of them, including lookalikes, they had been eager to kill them. And now he had been gone for nearly a month. The random strangers that made up Kerry’s crew were no replacement.

That nineteenth day, Ray didn’t do any sword practice.

On Day 20, Caleb went below deck to rouse Ray from his slumber and told him, “Next time both Kerry and Ray leave the ship, I can try to answer any questions you have.” He retreated back above deck before Ray even had time to sit up and rub his eyes.

It was over a week before Ray could take Caleb up on his offer. Day 25 saw another bad storm that threatened to capsize the entire ship, and it was only thank to Caleb’s Mage abilities that they were able to dock safely in a sheltered cove, where they stayed for two days so that the stormy weather could subside and so that Caleb could recover his energy.

It was Day 30 when Kerry and the Rose Thief finally decided to run off into a town in Roosterteeth and pull a stunt together. Ray had Caleb to thank for encouraging Kerry to tag along with the Rose Thief. He spouted some mumbo jumbo about friendship and old times, and Kerry enthusiastically bought it all. So, Ray finally had a couple hours alone with Caleb without threat of his lookalike or the captain barging in on them.

Caleb invited Ray inside his personal cabin, which he had been inside a couple times before. It was sparse, especially compared to the captain’s cabin with all of its souvenirs and knickknacks, and about a quarter the size as well. There was a small bed with undecorated and undyed sheets, a lamp on two of its walls and a round window on a third, a simple desk, and a small bookshelf crammed full of books. Ray sat on the bed while Caleb took the desk chair.

“Why are you so willing to tell me stuff?” Ray asked immediately, choosing not to parse words. He had been waiting a month. He was impatient. Caleb grinned.

“I’m a Mage. My power comes from the knowledge I have, so obviously I think it’s not fair to willfully withhold knowledge from you. I’m going to assume you still want to know about Ray’s – other Ray’s – execution?”

“Fuck yeah, I do. No one’s telling me shit.”

Caleb chuckled.

“I wasn’t actually there when everything happened. I had lived at the castle, but I travelled a lot. At the time, I was spending several months in southern Venator along the border of the Ender Kingdom. I had a few missions in mind, almost all of them including Endermen, but that’s not really important right now.

“As you probably guessed, Gavin, Michael, and the other Ray were very close.” Caleb paused for a moment, as if gauging Ray’s reaction. When Ray started to react in confusion, Caleb continued. “About five years ago, the year Michael became captain of the guard, apparently you – the other Ray, I mean – attempted to kill the king.”

“I would never fucking—”

“That’s what Ray said, too. According to his majesty King Geoff, he was awoken in the night with a figure over him. It was thanks to his quick reflexes and spell training that he fended the person off, though it was too dark to identify the intruder. He shot an ice spell, which snagged the figure’s cape and ripped it, but he didn’t get the person himself. Guards were shouted for, but the figure got away, leaving only a piece of fabric. Soon, that fabric was matched to an outfit of y—of Ray’s. One of his capes had a missing piece, and that piece had been left behind in the king’s chambers.

“Ray ran away from the guards who turned around to arrest him. He fled to Michael’s room, hoping to get the new captain’s help, but Michael couldn’t make a decision fast enough, and Ray was arrested. He was found guilty, but simply being hung wasn’t enough for the king. One of his most loyal and closest subjects, one he had sometimes personally worked with for over a decade, had turned against him. He had to be made an example of. Michael took charge of the punishment.”

Ray interrupted, “The scars…?”

Caleb nodded. “So you saw those. Yeah, the punishment was a public lashing. It was at the lashings that Ray made his escape, but not without the help of Kerry. Kerry took Ray away, gathered his crew, and took his ship south to pick me up.” Caleb stared at his lap. “By the time they found me again, Ray’s injuries had scarred over, and there was no way I could heal them completely.”

“So I—so Ray, the other me, tried to kill Geoff?” Ray summarized. He was starting to feel numb. That didn’t make any sense. Not from his standpoint, anyway. The real Geoff was a very good friend and a great boss. His exposure to this world’s Geoff was limited to his trial, but it was easy to assume it wouldn’t be much different.

“The other Ray claims otherwise,” Caleb said, “but there’s no proof. The only ‘proof’ is the outfit you showed up in.”

Ray balled his hands in his lap. He felt all drawn and tight like a stretched rubber band. Any other questions Ray might have had for Caleb had vanished with the new information. He needed time to digest. When Kerry and the Rose Thief returned from their heist, they found Ray dutifully practicing his motions with his borrowed sword.

Day 36, the Rose Thief challenged Ray to another duel. The sword felt heavy in Ray’s hands as he lunged and attacked, but the Thief was just toying with him. Dueling was a game and Ray hadn’t figured out how to play yet, and so was getting picked on by the more experienced gamer. When the Rose Thief twisted the sword out of Ray’s hand and kicked him back so that Ray stumbled to the floor, Ray started to believe that his other self was capable of attempted murder.

“You’ve been doing this for over a month and you still can’t hold on to your sword!” the Rose Thief chastised.

The rubber band snapped. He had spent a month dealing with the tension between him and the Rose Thief and he was sick of it. He had tried to hold back, tried to let the Rose Thief do his own thing, but being humiliated again was the last straw. “Maybe if you weren’t such a huge fucking pissbaby who didn’t fucking hate himself so much, maybe I’d learn a little better!” Ray’s voice was rising as he spoke. The Rose Thief’s face stilled, his eyes widening slightly as he looked down at Ray. His clenched fists betrayed his apparent calm.

Kerry picked up on the sudden tension and dashed forward. “Haa, that’s, uh, that’s enough practice for today, isn’t it?” The Rose Thief raised his hand and glared at Kerry, who stopped in his tracks.

Ray pushed off the ground and stood back up. He wasn’t done. “All you’ve done is fucking bully me! Well, what have you got to fucking prove? You fucking know, you fucking know you’re better at this than me! What the fuck is this fucking hatred?” He inched forward during his rant, shouting at his lookalike. It was like yelling at himself in the mirror, though his reflection was trying his best to hold back his rage. “I think you can’t fucking like yourself. Maybe you fucking regret not being able to just fucking do it, to just plunge the fucking knife into Geoff’s goddamn back!”

How did you find that out?” the Rose Thief screamed. He stepped forward. “You’re not supposed to know—

Some small part of Ray’s mind realized he made a mistake, but he could only continue on now. It was too late to backtrack, even if he wanted to. “It doesn’t fucking matter how I know. I know that you tried, I know that you must fucking hate everything around you! That you’re fucking displacing your own shameful fucking feelings onto me, and I know that you fucking—I know that you’re a goddamn bitch of a coward who betrayed Geoff and Michael and—”

The Rose Thief didn’t even formulate words. He just gave a primal shout and lurched forward, tackling Ray to the ground. Kerry leaped back in surprise and seemed unsure of what to do as the two identical men rolled around on the ground. They punched at each other, but were too close to be very effective. So they ended up tumbling over each other, trying to pin the other beneath them, all while shouting and grunting. The Rose Thief might have been a better, more refined fighter, but in the heat of the most basic battle, there was no clear winner. They slapped at each other, grabbed onto loose clothing and hair, pushed and pulled and punched.

I—did not—attempt murder,” the Rose Thief hissed between grunts. “I—was—fucking—framed!

The door to Caleb’s room slammed open, and the two brawlers flew apart as though yanked by a rope attached to their backs. Ray slid along the wooden floor towards the railing while the Rose Thief smashed into the main mast and was held there. Ray was able to struggle into a low sitting position, but felt resistance as though thick straps were trying to pull him back down. Caleb marched out from the doorway with his hand visible and flung out in front of him. “What in the name of the Tower is going on?!” he cried.

“He’s a bitch, that’s what,” Ray shouted indignantly, jabbing a finger at the Rose Thief. The Rose Thief was fighting against the spell that pinned him to the mast, but he was still able to perceive Ray’s insult. Before the Rose Thief could open his mouth and yell back, Caleb’s eyes flashed and the two men’s heads jerked back and their jaws forcefully snapped shut.

When Caleb turned his gaze to Kerry, the captain offered his best explanation. “Ray was—they, uh… Well, the new Ray lost the duel with our Ray, and he started shouting, and then they started fighting…”

The Rose Thief attempted to talk around the second spell and turned his attention to Caleb and Kerry. “How did he know about the trial?” he hissed around a tight jaw. Caleb’s eyes briefly flicked guiltily towards Ray.

“Well I didn’t tell him!” Kerry said immediately, raising both hands defensively. When Caleb didn’t respond just as quickly, Kerry and the Rose Thief fell quiet, their gaze narrowing onto the Mage.

“I warned you he’d find out eventually,” Caleb said crossly.

Ray worked his jaw free of the second spell and shouted, “Is your friendship more important than justice!?”

Will you shut up?” Caleb yelled suddenly. He took a deep breath, and everyone present waited out of respect to the Mage. The air was tense with anticipation. He breathed a few more times, as though waiting for anyone to dare to speak up defiantly now. When he spoke again, his voice was completely under control. “I think we all just need to chill. Ray—both Rays—I want them separated.” He turned to Ray. “I advise you return below deck and rest a while.” He then looked at the Rose Thief. “You will return to Kerry’s cabin, and if you have anything to say to me or to the other Ray, you will say it later after you have calmed down. Kerry will remain out here and you will have the cabin to yourself. Understand?” he asked both of them.

“Yes,” Ray grumbled.

The Rose Thief didn’t nod until Kerry ordered, “Do as Caleb says,” and continued shifting his intense glare between Ray and Caleb. When Caleb felt that the two men would follow his instructions, he lowered his arm slightly, then quickly swiped his hand horizontally across his torso, his long sleeves fluttering back to hide his hands again. The spell was released, and the Rose Thief slumped away from the mast, breathing hard. The spell must have bound him much tighter than it had bound Ray, who only felt the invisible pressure dissipate. Ray scrambled to his feet and hurried to the stairs below deck. He would have remained there for the rest of his time aboard if Kerry hadn’t come for him the next day.

“Come on,” he said when Ray refused to get up from his hammock. “I think you’re getting the hang of sword fighting…”

Ray exhaled loudly through pursed lips. “I’m sorry for starting a fight yesterday.”

It was Kerry’s turn to sigh. The captain took off his hat, rolled up his jacket sleeves, and sat down on the floor where he stood. “I guess you’re both just victims of circumstance here. I can’t imagine talking to myself, especially if that person who was supposed to be you knew less about you… if that makes sense.” He looked up to meet Ray’s eye. “I think he views you as a sort of impermanent fixture. Two months seems like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, I guess it isn’t. And that part of his past is full of shame and feelings he doesn’t really want to revisit, so when you ask after them and pry into things, and he can’t really run away, being stuck on a ship in addition to being sort of responsible for you…”

“I get it,” Ray said when Kerry trailed off awkwardly. He massaged his forehead. They sat in the dim light for a moment as the ship gently rocked beneath them. Then, Ray asked, “Will the people we visit really be able to help me get back home?”

Kerry stood back up with a soft grunt. “I’m not the person to ask. All I know is that if anyone knows anything, it would be a Court Mage. The Ruby Kingdom is as good a place as any, and they don’t want to arrest or kill us. Now get up, you lazy ass.”

Day 42, swordplay finally seemed to click in Ray’s mind. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing differently, but in one fluid movement he swiped his partner’s sword to the side with his blade and lunged forward. The man, a random crewmate, scuttled backwards and fell to avoid the point, as Ray had aimed straight for the torso. The sword he was using had been dulled, but it could still do some damage.

Kerry began to clap. “Way to go, Ray!”

Ray stared at his sword before letting a grin break his face. He imagined the look on his real friends’ faces when he would tell them that he learned how to swordfight. He was by no means a professional, but he certainly knew more than Michael and Gavin.

On Day 45, The Rose Thief challenged Ray once more to a duel. This time, Ray was much more careful, much more sure of himself than with previous times. He knew the Rose Thief was still a much better swordsman, but he wasn’t going to be toyed with any longer. He lunged, expecting not to hit but for the Rose Thief to block his blade. He dipped the blade under and continued forward, and the Rose Thief stepped back with a raised eyebrow.

The air was still tense between them as they moved back and forth, their swords clinking steadily together. The Rose Thief had taken some time to cool off, but it was clear he hadn’t yet forgiven Ray for his outburst and his nosiness. Then Ray saw his chance and he took it. He lunged

The Rose Thief stumbled back, his sword raised. Ray’s sword bounced off of something unseen, jolting his arm in his socket. He caught himself and glanced up at the Rose Thief, surprised. In front of the Rose Thief’s hand on his sword, the air shimmered in a moderately sized oval like a shield. The glyph on the back of his hand shone so brightly, shone rosy red and deep soft blue, that it hurt to look at. When the Rose Thief lowered his hand and his sword, the air returned to normal, and the glow faded. Ray guessed that the spell on the Rose Thief’s right hand was some sort of force field.

The Rose Thief coughed once into his free hand. “You’ve improved,” he said awkwardly, twirling his sword a couple times before thrusting back into the frog at his waist. He hesitated before turning on his heel and retreating to the captain’s cabin.

Kerry approached Ray to retrieve his sword that Ray had been borrowing. Caleb trailed behind him. “Nice work, Ray!” Kerry said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I think you impressed yourself there.” He laughed, amused at his own little joke. Ray smiled briefly and shrugged. He glanced at Caleb but couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Don’t worry,” Caleb said, noticing. “The other Ray isn’t as mad at you as he is at me. There’s some… residual anger, but…”

“Thanks,” Ray said.

On Day 49, Kerry decided it was roughly time to head towards the Ruby Kingdom. They had sailed a little farther east than intended, but if they turned around now, they should reach the Ruby Kingdom by this second month’s end. Ray’s heart beat with tentative warmth when he heard the news. They had purpose again. Just another week or two of waiting, and then his waiting would be done. And the Mages at the Ruby Kingdom can probably get him back home. Home, where his friends were probably worried sick about him. Home, where his friends didn’t want to hang him, and where there was only one of him.

The next week and a half were agonizing to Ray. He slowed his sword practice in favor of standing at the railing and feeling the wind in his face and watching the water slip by. He would have forgotten to eat had Kerry and Caleb not reminded him to. He was antsy and restless.

On Day 60, when the land of the Ruby Kingdom was faintly visible on the horizon, a dark gray smudge against the blue background, the Rose Thief joined Ray at the railing. They stood there for several minutes, the air thick. Finally, the Rose Thief broke the silence.

“I guess I should apologize for our fight two weeks ago.”

“About fucking time,” Ray said lightly with a brief grin. “I should be the one apologizing; I started it.”

“No,” said the Rose Thief, “if I had not been so secretive, you wouldn’t have been so nosy…”

Ray shrugged, keeping his eye on the horizon. The wind stung at his eyes, drying them out a little and making him blink rapidly. “It’s your personal business. Just ‘cause I’m… you from another fucking dimension or something doesn’t mean you have to share.”

The Rose Thief laughed, his tattooed hands tightening on the railing. “I guess we can agree we’re both at fault.”

Ray nodded and met the Rose Thief’s eyes. “I guess so. I won’t pry anymore. You tell me what you want to tell me.”

The Rose Thief closed his eyes against the wind and the sun and smiled. The sea breeze tugged at the ribbons trailing from his hat and pulled at his billowy shirt. He sighed. “Michael and I, our towns were close to each other. Our families were the lords of our towns. So by the time we were both in the knight program at the castle, we were already really close. We grew up together. King Geoff was kind to us, was like a second father to both of us. When I was… accused of attempted assassination, Michael had been recently appointed Captain of the Guard. I went to him, the night of my accusation, hoping he would help me, but he couldn’t decide between me and the law. And when I found out he would be the one delivering my punishment, I hoped he would be easy on me. But it seems his loyalty to the king outweighed his loyalty to me.”

Ray studied the Rose Thief. It seemed his doppelgänger was offering a personal story sort of as a part of his apology. But really, it just meant that Ray didn’t know how to respond. The Rose Thief opened his eyes again and stared at his hands.

“There was a lot of betrayal at that time,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about, and if people don’t know about it, I’d rather they not know at all.”

“I’m sorry,” Ray said lamely. The Rose Thief shrugged and smiled again, though this time his smile was weaker.

“I’m just hoping that you understand,” he said. Ray affirmed this, and his lookalike nodded, watched the horizon for a while longer, and then returned to the captain’s cabin. Ray wasn’t exactly sure what had just transpired, but he felt like something had been repaired between him and the Rose Thief. Their fight felt so long ago, and in retrospect seemed childish at worst, needless at best. Things were still a little awkward, but it was infinitely better than the tenseness between them.

Tomorrow, they would land at the port capital of Vale in the Ruby Kingdom. Yes, Ray would much rather be a little awkward with himself than at odds when they finally arrived.

Chapter Text

The docks of Vale were impressively massive, with docks large enough for ships like Kerry’s to anchor to. The bulk of them were made of what appeared to be concrete, with appendages and walkways made out of sturdy wood. Hundreds of boats, most of them smaller merchant ships, were docked here. The sun lit up the port brilliantly the west. Ray couldn’t see much of the city from the ship as they slowly headed in, as the buildings blocked much of it. He could see the very top of what must be the castle over the roofs, but the land was rather flat and the castle was not a prominent feature – not like Geoff’s castle in Achievement City.

A young man stood waiting with arms crossed at the end of the dock Kerry’s ship neared. His fluffy brown hair was carelessly brushed back but messed up by the sea wind. He wore no crown, but was dressed finely enough for a prince, with a scarlet silk top embroidered with gold and a white square cape attached to a black belt at the waist. Black pants fed into expensive leather boots laced with gold rope, and several rings glittered on his fingers. A short sword and shield were attached to his back with thick straps decorated with rubies, topaz, onyx, and opal.

Kerry stood next to Ray at the railing while his crew docked the ship. “Funny,” he said with a grin. “Miles dressed down today.”

The ship finally docked after what seemed like ages to Ray. His heart rammed in his chest, and he had to stop himself from bouncing in place. He was finally going to get some answers. Maybe, a voice whispered in his head. Probably, he replied. Most of the crew stayed on the ship, but Caleb, Kerry, Ray, and the Rose Thief climbed down off the ship to greet the grumpy looking Miles. As the Rose Thief helped Ray clumsily disembark, Kerry went in for a hug. He threw his arms around Miles, who stumbled at the weight but refused to hug back.

“Miles! Have you been waiting all day for us?” Kerry exclaimed happily, pulling back. When Miles still refused to smile, he bowed and added mockingly, “Oh, sorry, I forgot. Your Highness.

Behind Kerry, Ray whispered to the Rose Thief, “‘Your Highness? Is Miles the prince?”

“Did I not say?” the Rose Thief said thoughtfully. “Yeah, he is.”

Miles sniffed haughtily. “That was stupid of you and you know it. Sir Gray is still mad at you, but we’ve managed to convince him not to take action against you. Took a fair amount of gold.”

Kerry scratched the back of his head and grinned sheepishly. “Ahh, yeah. My bad.”

Miles finally noticed the two Rays and did a double take. “Woah, wait, why are there two of them.”

“That’s what we want to find out,” Kerry said. “We were hoping we could talk to the Court Mages here.”

Miles stroked the stubble on his chin and hummed. “You know I can’t give you permission for that. You have to get it directly from King Monty, but you’re probably going to have to wait a few days. Formality, you know?” He glanced at Kerry and finally allowed his lips to twitch into a smile. “I can’t stay mad at you, you idiot.” He lightly grabbed Kerry’s head and planted a kiss on his cheek as Kerry squirmed and leaned away, grinning. “Come on, you can stay at the castle while you wait. And wash up,” he added, wrinkling his nose.

As Prince Miles led them through the streets of Vale, Ray’s heart dropped a little. He was going to have to wait even longer. He didn’t want to wait another day, but there wasn’t anything to do about it. He sighed, glancing at the buildings around him. He supposed a few more days wasn’t going to kill him. He preoccupied himself with the things around him.

The buildings were of varying height, material, and style, certainly making Vale an interesting city. Vale got a lot of traffic with their apparently famously large marketplace, which they were avoiding today in favor of getting to the castle faster. As such, they got many types of people passing through or moving there to focus on their craft, including different architects with different training. The people themselves were very colorful, even those in the plainest clothes. Additionally, almost everyone carried a weapon of sorts. Most of the people on the streets ignored them, though several waved at Miles. Some even bowed, bending from the waist with straight backs and palms on their thighs. Miles would nod or wave back.

Ray fell back with Caleb and asked, “Is… is Miles, uh, Monty’s son? Like… actual son?”

Caleb laughed. “Oh, no! Anyone with eyes can see that. No, King Monty adopted Miles when young and is responsible for educating him to be the next king. That sort of thing happens a lot. Sometimes the kingdom will go to the biological child, but more often than not, they choose someone else. Mostly because they don’t have children of their own, but sometimes their own children are… incompetent. Is that not how it happens in your world?”

“Uhh… not really. We have… a complicated government system, but the people vote for a president out of selected candidates.”

They rounded a corner and suddenly the castle was in view. It wasn’t very tall, having maybe only one or two floors, but it was long and sprawling, set on a slightly raised hill. The setting sun was to the left, bathing it in scarlet and orange. The sloped roof was shingled with deep, glittering red and rimmed thickly in gold. The walls were pale, solid and smooth, and the doors and window shutters were of dark, polished wood. The doors and windows were all outlined in white and yellow gold, and statues of fearsome dragons stood guard at the major entrances. The short staircase leading up to the open, rather empty courtyard in front of the largest doors had red railings in the shape of long dragons as well. Every decoration was intricately carved, and in the low angle of the sun helped highlight this. Ray couldn’t help but compare it to the stark, looming grandness of Geoff’s castle. This one might be smaller, but there was much more attention to detail here.

Kerry caught him staring and thumped him on the shoulder. “Impressive, right? I’ve always liked the Ruby Castle better than Venator’s.”

Miles glanced back. “That’s the double, right? Has he never been here before?” He paused at the top of the steps and turned, throwing his arms out to the side and beaming. “Welcome to the Ruby Castle, my twinned friend! Rumor has it that it took King Lavernius’s whole life to bring this castle to total completion. The outside was done fairly quickly, but the last room was furnished and decorated just a few years before his death. The finest architects, artists, and carpenters were hired from all over the four kingdoms, and some say that was the start of our popular trade route.”

Two guards were standing at either side of the large front doors wearing heavy-looking chainmail and colorful, padded leather armor. One of them, a man with a bandage over one eye, jogged forwards and bowed to Miles. “Your Highness, we have been waiting for you. If you would just come inside, his Majesty the king Monty has been anxious for your return.”

Miles rolled his eyes. “What, I can’t have a little presentation to my guests? He knows where I was.” He sighed when the guard simply stared at him. “Alright, alright. Summon a servant to show our esteemed guests to their rooms and have someone bring them a tray of dinner later. I have a message I need to take to the king.”

“Yes, your Highness.” 


 

Ray’s room had a tall ceiling and felt very scarce overall. The prominent feature was the large bed with crimson sheets and tall posts draped with white sheer fabric. Three tall windows faced the east and were completely covered by gold curtains. A lit fireplace was opposite the bed and torches lined the walls, giving the room a warm orange glow. There was a dark wood wardrobe and a vanity of sorts with an intricately carved chair and a wide mirror with a fancy gold and silver border. Ray supposed the room was meant to make him feel wealthy or something, but mostly it felt empty.

A bathtub was set up in the empty space in front of the vanity, a bronze thing with a tray attached to one side that carried washcloths and soap. The bathtub had already been there when he arrived, its water pleasantly hot. Ray couldn’t ever remember being as excited to bathe before. He felt absolutely filthy after being on a ship for two months. He shrugged out of his black shirt in front of the vanity and chucked it at the bed. The shirt floated just shy of the mattress, but Ray didn’t really care.

He glanced at the mirror and paused, startled by his own reflection. He stepped closer and leaned on the vanity. His face had thinned out somewhat, and he needed to shave again. He had shaved a couple times on the ship, but it involved scary-looking silver razors—and on a rocking ship it was doubly terrifying. Notably, however, he had gotten tan under the hot ocean sun. He laughed to himself. He supposed he was worthy of the nickname Brown Man again. He turned around back to the tub.

“…Ray?”

Ray froze. Was he hallucinating? He must be. The voice—the unmistakable voice—had come from behind him. Ray looked over his shoulder in disbelief, not expecting to see anything.

“Ray? Is that you?”

The mirror above the vanity had stopped showing a reflection of his castle room and instead pretended to be a window into his apartment. And Michael—his Michael—the Michael he left behind when he woke up in this bizarre land was apparently leaning on his desk and looking into his computer. It was an image that usually played on Ray’s livestreams, except now Michael replaced him.

“Michael…” Ray was so stunned he couldn’t even exclaim loudly. Michael’s name slipped from his lips like a careless whisper, like a hunter yanking his trap on an unsuspecting critter. He nearly slammed into the vanity as he went to lean on it again. “Is that really you?”

“I just asked you that,” Michael said, grinning. “Where have you been? What are you doing in the computer?” His eyes flicked down. “Heyyy, you been working out, man?”

Ray glanced down. Already slim to begin with, the combination of less food than he normally ate and a rigorous athletic routine meant that he had begun to show hard, lean muscle on his arms and his abdomen. His cheeks heated up. “I fucking guess so,” he said. He wanted to drink in Michael’s friendly face. The last time he had seen it, it had tried to hang him. But this was his Michael. His friend.

“It’s been so long,” Ray said. “Fuck, two months. You guys must be fucking worr—”

“Wait,” Michael interrupted. “Two months? Are you fucking crazy? We’ve been wondering where you were for like, a day. I just got off work.”

Ray frowned and bit his lip. “Okay wait,” he said. “What day is it, where you are?”

Michael furrowed his brow. “Friday,” he said.

“What day, Michael.”

Michael said the date, and Ray began to shake. According to Michael, it was the day after he fell asleep in front of his computer. “Th-that doesn’t make any—any sense,” he said, his voice quivering. Michael’s expression grew concerned. “I—I’ve been here for just about—about two months. That doesn’t make any fucking sense…”

“Ray… What’s going on?” Michael asked, his voice dropping to a calm tone laced gently with worry. “You said you’ve been gone for two months, but I got your last text…” He checked his phone. “… about twenty hours ago. And you’re in the fucking computer screen and here we are talking normally… Where the fuck are you?”

Ray shivered. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I don’t fucking know. I—I fell asleep, I had put Minecraft in and then the Xbox had to update, so I took a nap and I woke up in this different world. I don’t know anything more than that, but I’m trying to figure it out.”

Michael hummed and glanced to the side. “Well, your Xbox is still on.” He laughed, though it didn’t sound very mirthful. “Fuck, if I weren’t talking to you now…”

A knock at his door startled Ray. The mirror snapped back to normal as though someone had pressed the power button on a TV remote, showing only his tired, wide eyes. “No… No!” he said in a low but rising voice. He shook the mirror as if that would bring Michael back.

When the knock sounded again, Ray whipped his head around and shouted, “What!?”

The large wooden door creaked open and Caleb poked his head in. “Sounds like someone didn’t get a good night’s sleep.”

“Wha—”

“Since we can’t see the king yet, and therefore gain permission to access the library, we were going to take you to the market to get you a sword of your own.” Caleb stepped fully inside the room and shut the door behind him. He wore apparently the same outfit he wore on the ship, with his extremely-long-sleeved white tunic, but it looked much cleaner. In his arms he carried a new bundle of clothes, presumably for Ray. “The Ruby Kingdom is well known for its weapon craft. It would be better to have a sword made specifically for you, but you probably won’t be here long, so a pre-made one will be fine. I’m sure you wouldn’t really know the difference anyway.”

“Wh—Caleb, what time is it?”

Caleb frowned, noticing seemingly for the first time the dark circles under Ray’s eyes and his frantic facial expression. “It’s probably like, nine in the morning? Is everything alright?”

Ray didn’t reply, instead staring bewilderedly at the mirror for a moment before striding over to the heavy curtains blocking his windows. With a heave, he yanked on of them aside, allowing bright morning sunlight to stream inside the room. He backed up, his brow knitting together and his heart pounding against his ribcage. He felt a panic rising in his chest, clawing up his throat and threatening to lift his head from his shoulders. He had been able to talk to Michael for the first time in two months only to be rudely cut off by what he could only assume was magic he didn’t understand.

Caleb set the bundle of clothes on the bed and walked up beside him to put a hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Ray bowed his head, pinching his nose bridge with a hand. “I… I seem to have missed the night.”

Caleb frowned, concern glinting in his eyes. “What do you mean? Do you not remember the night? Maybe you just don’t remember falling…”

“No, Caleb, I was awake. I was awake and…” Ray hesitated.

“Did you… simply lose track of time?”

Should he tell Caleb about seeing Michael in the mirror? There certainly was nothing to really be gained by withholding information from the Mage, but for whatever reason, Ray had a strong desire to keep this private. He wasn’t sure why this urge was so powerful. It was a giant puzzle and he wanted to have the pieces, all the pieces, and he wanted to try and solve it himself. Not share it with some alternate dimension Caleb. He wasn’t sure how much Caleb would be able to help anyway. Ray decided he would wait until he had more information.

“Yeah, that must have been it.”

Caleb frowned again and patted Ray’s shoulder. “Well, get dressed then. In about half an hour, someone will bring you breakfast. We leave for the market in about an hour.”

Ray watched Caleb leave, the door closing behind the Mage, and sighed. His shoulders felt all tight and tense, and an aching loneliness had settled in a condensed pit beneath his heart. He wandered over to the bath, intending on washing up at least a little. He dipped his hand into the water to test the temperature. It was still hot.


 

Ray’s new outfit included a relatively simple black jacket with a short stiff collar, slits just under the shoulder to reveal redness beneath, and a set of button ties that closed the jacket diagonally over his right breast. He had seen Monty—his Monty—wear similarly constructed tops before. Ray also wore white pants, a short red-lined black cape shaped sort of like a rose petal attached to a wide belt at his waist, and black boots that pulled over the knee with half-spherical buttons running up the outside. Ray did not fully appreciate this outfit, but it was clean and it was what was expected of him.

Caleb retrieved him from his room, and the two of them met Kerry just outside the front doors of the castle. The captain was chatting amicably with the one-eyed guard when they got there, the gold embroidery on his fresh red coat glittering in the morning sunlight. His coat was long enough that both sides had a slit for ease of movement. Kerry still wore his three-pointed hat; he seemed relatively proud of that hat. The Rose Thief was nowhere in sight—Caleb said that he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that there were two of him, lest the attention turned sour. Ray wasn’t sure about the reasoning, but he couldn’t exactly do anything about it. He shrugged it off.

The Central Marketplace was a wide open area in the middle of the city. Dozens of stalls, shops, and tens opened their doors and uncovered their tables to the crowds that milled about every weekday. Every street that fed into the market had a guardhouse, and anyone entering had to be checked or scanned for weapons which, if found, were taken until the person left the market. Not much could be done about magic users, though there was a ward around the area that suppressed spells. It wasn’t a powerful enough ward to stop all magic, but it would slow a Mage down long enough to be stopped by a guard.

Ray thought it was unusual to ban weapons in the Central Marketplace when the Ruby Kingdom was known for warriors and weapons, but Kerry explained that it was to decrease unnecessary deaths. Before that rule was created and enforced, a deadly brawl could break out at any moment. Now the only people allowed to have any weapons were the constables wandering the place. Those selling them had dull blades and had at least one guard standing by.

As they wandered the marketplace, Ray guessed that probably about half of the stands and stalls were of food. High-end jewelry and fashion stores and decorative weapon stores that promoted style and elegance over functionality filled the permanent shops in the buildings surrounding the square, as well as other random fancy stores. Everyone else made do with sturdy rented stalls and weighed-down tents. Kerry and Caleb led Ray through this stalls, looking for weapon craftsmen.

“What about this one?” Caleb asked, gingerly picked up a narrow, plain sword.

Kerry shook his head and made an ugly face. “I can tell by looking at it that it will never suit Ray.” Ray frowned. He couldn’t really tell the difference, but Kerry would be the one to know.

Eventually, Ray lagged behind to look at some of the stalls they were passing. Kerry and Caleb had one goal in mind, but Ray had never seen anything like this. He wanted to wander. He wanted to see some of the wares. He had no hope of buying anything—Kerry and Caleb held all the money, which he supposed was for the best. He passed a lady selling fancy hats and a dude selling small decorated cakes. One woman had set up a sort of portable stove and was selling a warm, bread-like treat.

When he passed by a table selling all sorts of glass objects, the guy manning it called out to him. The man was dressed nicely enough, but there was something grubby about him that Ray couldn’t place. The man’s hair was white and wild, reminding Ray of Einstein. “You there, my good sir! You look like someone who would be interested in my fine wares!”

Ray paused to get a closer look. The man had probably called out to him because he was dressed like a lord, and Ray figured it’d be rude to completely ignore him. He might not have had any money on him, but he at least wanted to look at the wares and then shrug it off and claim disinterest or something. He was conscious of Kerry and Caleb wandering further away, but he didn’t care. He’d find them later.

Many of the glass objects were small figurines, though there were also pendants, vases, and decorative bowls. The man gestured to his wares enthusiastically. “You seem like a lord in need of some trinkets to bring home! What about this fine little unicorn? Handmade by yours truly!”

Ray grimaced. It was a pretty sculpture, but it was far too delicate for him. “No thanks. Hey, I need to get going, so…”

“Ah, but wait, young sir,” the man said desperately, waving his hands. “I’ve got something rare you might appreciate!” Ray hesitated, and the man took this as his cue. He flourished his hands and presented a glass sphere about the size of a gumball. It was a dark green with hints of deep ocean blue, the color getting darker towards the center. Ray instantly recognized it as an Ender Pearl. He kind of expected it to be bigger.

“I see you know this! Of course, I’d expect a man with as fine a taste as you would. Yessir, straight from the Ender Kingdom! You don’t see them much anymore since trade shut down. I could let it go… for a fine price. Here, hold it!”

The man shoved the pearl into Ray’s hands. Ray had read somewhere once that touching things in shops made you more inclined to purchase them. Not that he cared, having no money on him, but he wanted to examine the pearl all the same. It wasn’t every day you got to hold a real life Ender Pearl. Its surface shone like glass, but it was soft and smooth like a real pearl. Ray rolled it around in his palm and peered at it closely, looking at how it bent and reflected the light.

He realized soon that the eye looking back at him wasn’t his own. It appeared for a few seconds in the reflection of the pearl, familiar yet unplaceable. It definitely wasn’t Michael’s, either. Ray stared at it stunned, until the pearl made a cracking noise and the eye disappeared, startling him. A crack at formed on the top of the pearl. The man hadn’t seemed to notice yet, but Ray began to panic when he heard more cracking noises like the sound of glass crunching underfoot. And that was when the pearl exploded entirely.

He didn’t have much time to react. He threw his hand up and out, tossing the pearl just before it shattered, the hand he had been holding the pearl with flying up to shield his face. Smoke and shards burst out from the pearl, and Ray felt a sting in his palm. The explosion was cold and much larger than one would have expected from such a small object. His hand turned icy as though plunged into a bucket of ice water as he stumbled to the ground.

“Hey, you break, you buy!” the man shouted angrily. Ray barely heard him. His hand was so cold, it hurt, like on a winter day when he forgot his gloves. He curled his body around his hand, cradled it, but it was as though it was producing its own chill. The cold seemed to emanate from deep inside the flesh of his palm, numbing it and making it pulse painfully.

The smoke didn’t dissipate, but hung there thickly before sucking back like the explosion was played in reverse. It billowed up from the center, and a shadow appeared, tall and spindly in front of Ray. Dimly, he started to hear screams as the smoke faded. Shouts rang out. People were fleeing. Someone might have been calling his name.

The coldness Ray now felt in the pit of his stomach was different from the coldness that pained his hand. It was one born of terror. Terror that paralyzed him, curled on the ground around his frozen hand. His muscles felt weak. An Enderman loomed above him, balancing on the balls of its bony humanoid feet just a yard away from him. He could barely hear the shouts around him; it was as though cotton was stuffed in his ears. The Enderman was above him, leaning over to look down at him with its paralyzing purple eyes. Its black skeletal hand drifted forward, reaching for him.

Hey!” he heard Kerry shout. A small stone whizzed above Ray and hit the Enderman in the middle of its face. He looked over his shoulder to see Caleb and Kerry standing in front of the crowd. Some people hadn’t quite cleared the area, stopped by fear. Caleb, too, was visibly shaking and looked as pale as his tunic. Kerry was frightened yet determined, his clenched fists trembling. “Get away from Ray!”

Ray’s neck grew tired, but he felt so cold and so drained that he didn’t want to move anything. Next to Kerry was a table with a tarp covering it, the tarp weighed down by buckets of water attached by a thin rope. Kerry slid out a knife from under his coat—something he obviously had smuggled past the guards—and sliced through the rope. He grabbed the bucket, dashed a few steps forward, and just before he ran into Ray thrust the bucket at the Enderman. The water gushed out, splashing heavily into the Enderman’s dark narrow chest. The Enderman screamed, a horrible hollow and primal sound, sort of like wind howling through rattling bones. And then, in the blink of an eye, it vanished again, leaving behind only a sucking, warping noise.

Kerry dropped to his knees next to Ray. He picked Ray up so that Ray was sitting again. Ray hunched forward, still cradling his arm. Kerry’s eyes were large and wild.

“What happened to it?” Ray mumbled.

“It teleported away, probably to die,” Kerry said, glancing at the spot where the Enderman had previously stood. He licked his lips. “Are you okay?” Warmth was returning to Ray’s body, but his hand was still throbbing and numb, so cold that he didn’t even realize he was bleeding until he raised his hand. Kerry’s eyes widened. “The Enderman shouldn’t have been here. Their main mode of transportation is to teleport, but they never go far. They’ve never come across the sea to the Ruby Kingdom before. What happened?”

“The Ender Pearl…” Ray murmured. He felt exhausted. He just wanted to crawl into a warm bed now. “It exploded…”

Kerry clucked his tongue, then twisted around to shout at Caleb. “Snap out of it, you stupid Mage, and get your ass over here!”

Caleb violently shook his head and hurried over, flicking his hands out of his long sleeves. He kneeled on the other side of Ray as the crowds shyly returned, observing the scene with caution. Even the guards stayed back. Caleb’s hand hovered above Ray’s, and a golden light weakly sparkled between the skin of the two men. He scanned Ray’s entire forearm slowly with an intense frown wrinkling his forehead.

“I need to take him back to the castle,” Caleb said. “He needs a bed and I need to get out of this damned ward. You buy a sword. I will get word of this to the king as well. I will see you later.”

Kerry nodded and stood as Caleb helped Ray to his feet. Ray still cradled his icy hand, blood oozing from several small wounds in his palm and threatening to drip. He began to shiver, and Caleb’s hand tightened around his shoulder. The eyes of the crowd bored into him, and he desperately wanted to get out of the marketplace. A guard stopped them to ask some questions, but Caleb firmly told him to essentially back off, and the guard took his cue. He seemed to realize Caleb was a Mage, though Ray wasn’t sure how.

The walk back to the castle felt very long to Ray, though as soon as they arrived it felt like it hadn’t been very long at all. The whole while, Caleb quizzed Ray on what just happened and how he was feeling, etc. Something about his tone of voice seemed worried. Caleb hurried Ray to his room, dropped him off to dash back to his own room, and returned with a small iron box.

“I think there are some pearl shards trapped in your hand,” Caleb said quickly, his hands still trembling slightly from the Enderman encounter but moving deftly. He opened the box and dug around, retrieving a piece of cloth and some herbs. “It’s… hard to sense. Harder than usual. I’ve noticed this about you. I thought it was me at first, but it’s you. You seem incredibly resistant to magic.”

“Hn?” Ray asked, focusing his energy less on the formation of words and more on the inflection of his voice. Caleb sighed as he began scanning Ray’s hand and forearm again.

“The more magic you possess, the more susceptible you are to it and the change it brings. Basically, the more malleable your mind and body. That’s why you almost never see Mages or Potentials as leaders. Those with no magic at all are more resistant to its effects and are considered more reliable that way. Venator and King Geoff are unusual in that regard, and even then King Geoff’s prime advisor and his prince are both non-magical. Mages still help the leaders and are often close advisors, but the non-magical person often makes the final decision. You, however, are more resistant than any non-magical person I have ever examined before.”

“Sorry,” Ray said, unsure of how to respond. Caleb shrugged.

“Not your fault. It’s fascinating, mostly, but especially in situations like this, it’s more than a little frustrating.” He clenched his hand and the golden scanning light winked out. “Okay, I think I’ve located all the shards. This might hurt. I’m sorry in advance.”

With his left hand, Caleb grasped Ray’s fingers tightly. His right hand hovered over Ray’s palm, and after a brief pause his eyes flashed and his hand began to glow white. Ray quickly figured out why Caleb was holding on to his fingers. His hand erupted in pain, like someone was digging a hot knife through his flesh from the inside out. His hand spasmed against the pain, and it was only Caleb’s grip on his fingers that prevented his hand from jerking around too unmanageably.

Fuuuuuck!!!” Ray hissed, making an effort to not flat out scream. The shards wiggled out of his hand, bring with them small spurts of blood. When they popped out through the holds they entered in, they drifted over to the piece of cloth Caleb had pulled out earlier.

It took Caleb ten minutes to get all the pieces out—ten minutes of slow, grueling, pinching pain. Caleb swayed and rubbed his temple but didn’t let go of Ray’s hand yet. He cleaned up the blood with another piece of cloth, scabbed the wounds over with another spell, and wrapped herbal paste with cloth tape around Ray’s palm. “To help with scarring,” he explained, “and minimize the work my magic has to do.” Then he called for a servant to take the shards and throw them in the ocean. “I’m not sure if the Endermen can use the shards to teleport to a location, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Caleb said. “It must have broken the pearl to teleport here. Normally they can’t teleport very far. That’s why the Ruby Kingdom has been so far untouched by Endermen.”

Ray flexed his hand and swore under his breath. Feeling and warmth was slowly seeping back into his flesh. “You mean you didn’t know about them using Pearls before?”

Caleb gave a helpless shrug. “It’s never been noticed. Soon after the Endermen first appeared, the Ender Kingdom shut down completely. No one would go in it, and no one would leave. Even the Mages who entered were never heard from again. So the Pearl trade shut down, too, meaning you don’t see very many of them anymore. Many people viewed them as bad talismans and broke them or threw them into bodies of water. How are you feeling?”

Ray had to backtrack in his mind. He had gotten sidetracked by this new information and had to think about his condition again. “Tired, mostly,” he admitted. His hand and forearm now ached, but it wasn’t painful anymore.

Caleb patted his shoulder. “Not surprising. It’s been a busy morning, and healing is always tiring for both parties involved. Get some rest, then. We’ll see you when you wake up again. Hopefully King Monty will see us sooner rather than later in lieu of this… development.” Caleb drew the covers over Ray and left, taking his little iron box with him.

Ray’s sleep was fitful, and he drifted in and out of terrible, dark dreams filled with shadows, glowing pearls, and Michael. In most of his dreams, he would reach out to the figure of Michael with his right hand, the hand that had had the shards. As he reached, his hand would turn gray and crumble to pieces as though frozen to the core and so brittle that a breeze would shatter it. He barely remembered his dreams coherently.

He was shaken awake by an eager Kerry. “The king is finally going to see us,” he said quickly, enthusiasm making him talk fast. “Especially you. He wants to hear what happened in the market earlier.” Kerry backed up to let Ray push himself into a sitting position. His back felt damp with sweat, but Kerry didn’t seem to notice anything. Ray’s hand still felt a little cold, like it had sat in front of a cool fan for a while. He shook it out to get some blood flowing and took his jacket back from Kerry. When he was fully dressed again, he followed Kerry out to see the Ruby King.

Ray, Kerry, Caleb, and the Rose Thief met up just outside the massive double doors of the great courtroom. All of them except Caleb wore clothing more reminiscent of the fashion of Ruby Kingdom, as was polite, including tops that clasped over the right breast and light, short capes that hung from the waist. The two guards posted outside the doors looked them over before sending them in.

King Monty sat upon a low throne, his back straight as he watched the four of them stride purposefully towards him. The courtroom wasn’t nearly as long as Geoff’s, and though this one was far more ornate with more statues and paintings and tapestries, it felt almost homier. Nearly all of Monty’s outfit was some form of red, and his crown was sleek, narrow and gold embedded with rubies. His long golden cape was edged with soft white fur, and his black calf-high boots had hard, short heels. Miles stood dutifully at Monty’s right with a pale silver prince’s crown and his jacket decorated with various chains and brooches. Barbara was at Monty’s left, her hair twisted up out of her face and hung with gold decorations. She wore a golden belted tunic that reached mid-thigh and white pants that fed into tall brown leather boots. She held a tablet with paper and some sort of pen or pencil. Ray could see a tattoo like a burning heart on the back of her hands.

When the doors opened, Barbara announced loudly, “Captain Kerry and his friends, including the Mage Caleb, have arrived.” Miles winked at Kerry, who grinned back before quickly regaining his serious composure. Ray followed the other three’s example when they bowed deeply, bending at the waist and keeping their palms on their thighs. Monty bowed from his seat, merely inclining his head respectfully. It was weird bowing to Monty, but when in Rome…

“Tell me again why there are two of Ray,” Monty asked in his calm voice. “I know what my messenger told me, but I want to hear it from you.”

Caleb stepped forward, and Monty nodded at him to speak. “Your Majesty, the second Ray appears to be from some alternate world similar to ours but different. We were hoping you would grant us access to your library and permission to discuss with your Court Mages here to try and figure out where exactly he came from and how he got here.”

Monty crossed his arms and cupped his chin in a hand. He paused for a good minute or two, thinking. “Hmm… I don’t see why not. You have my permission. Now, I want to hear from the double, who you tell me was the main witness of the Enderman attack in the Central Market today?”

“It was less of an attack and more of an appearance,” Ray muttered under his breath. The Rose Thief heard him and smacked his shoulder to shove him forward as Caleb stepped back. He coughed once before speaking. “Ah, yes, Mon—You Majesty. Um. The Enderman appeared in front of me after an Ender Pearl shattered. I think that the Pearl breaking summoned an Enderman or something.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” interrupted Miles. Monty carefully eyed his prince and allowed him to speak. “Lots of Ender Pearls have been broken, accidentally or on purpose. As far as we’ve heard, they’ve never summoned an Enderman.”

I didn’t break it though,” Ray said quickly. He was starting to get frustrated at not being believed, and made a strong effort not to swear lest he offend anyone. “The Pearl shattered as I was holding it. And…” He hesitated. Should he tell them about the eye he saw? The same desire to keep it a secret, a desire like how he had felt with seeing Michael in the mirror, tickled at his mind. But this was different. This was far beyond him. “And just before it broke, I saw an eye in the reflection that wasn’t mine. I don’t know whose it was, though it did seem a little familiar.”

The king frowned deeply, narrowing his dark eyes in thought. “I see… That is an interesting development. We had thought before now that the Pearls were just another pretty export from the End, but it seems they may hide some magic. I will issue an order to seize all Ender Pearls in the Ruby Kingdom so that they may be studied by my Mages. Owners will be paid according to their value. I also want scouts sent out to find the Enderman.” Barbara was hurriedly writing down Monty’s order. The king paused, studying the four men in front of him. He certainly didn’t seem as worried as Kerry and Caleb, but perhaps that was just a better command over his emotions. Ray was keenly aware that he was still a step forward in front of his three companions, but he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to step back into line again. Ray began to squirm under Monty’s gaze.

“There is nothing more I wish to discuss,” Monty said finally. “Thank you; you are dismissed.”

Chapter Text

As soon as Monty dismissed them, Miles jogged lightly forward with a smile on his face. “I can take you to the Mages,” he said, throwing an arm around Kerry’s shoulders.

“They’ll probably want to see you, too,” Caleb said to the Rose Thief before he could slip away. The Rose Thief shrugged and tagged along as Miles led all four of them down a couple of hallways and into a library crowded with tall shelves made of dark polished wood. Despite the numerous shelves, Ray felt like there was a severe lack of books. Every shelf had at least one, and plenty had twenty or thirty books placed neatly on the wood, but it didn’t even hold a candle to the smallest public library Ray knew of back home. There was a strange hush in this room despite its size, a silence as soft as a pillow. Any noise felt like it was too loud, especially the sound of five pairs of boots against a stone floor. As they moved, Ray could see small open areas with plush chairs and hard tables.

Prince Miles took them straight through the shelves to a set of double doors edged with gold. Just outside this door, sitting at a table with a book, was Kara. She wore a high-necked, sleeveless undyed tunic fell to mid-thigh and a pale blue jacket with a short torso and long scalloped sleeves that would cover her hands when standing neutrally. Her black pants fell loosely to the top of bright red embroidered cloth shoes. When Miles drew closer, she carefully closed the book and rose from her chair.

“Your Highness,” she greeted, her eyes flicking from Miles to each other person he was with. Her gaze rested on Ray and the Rose Thief, but if she was surprised, she didn’t show it. “What brings the party here?”

Miles grinned widely and giggled, his eyes scrunching up. “Straight to the point, I see.”

Kara crossed her arms. “Well it’s not every day you bring four people directly to the Mage’s Atelier.”

“True, true,” Miles admitted. He gestured to Ray and the Rose Thief. “Anyway, as you can probably tell, we now have two of Ray. The extra claims to have come from another dimension, and they were hoping that the Mages here could help discern… stuff. Anything.” Ray pursed his lips and drew his eyebrows together. The extra? Well, he supposed that wasn’t a wrong descriptor.

Kara exhaled through her nose and uncrossed her arms, letting her sleeves fall to cover her hands. “Alright. I want Ray and the extra to come with me. Everyone else, leave.” She paused before shrugging. “Caleb can hang around I guess. Now shoo,” she said, waving her arms, her sleeves flapping and exaggerating her movements. Kerry tipped his hat to the Rose Thief and left arm-in-arm with Miles. Caleb waved and disappeared into the bookshelves with the promise of stopping by in a little while.

Ray wasn’t sure what to expect on the other side of the double doors. The Mage’s Atelier was circular, the center of the room comprised of stairs all in a circle leading into a circular depression in the ground like an inverted dais. Three extra rooms at equal distances from Ray seemed to hold various materials, like vials, herbs, mortars and pestles, and yes, cauldrons. A spiral set of stairs off to the side led up to a second floor. Contrary to the atmosphere of the library, the air here practically seemed to buzz. A few people were wandering about, people that Ray actually mostly recognized. Arryn was apparently cooking something in one of the side rooms, wearing mostly black, her long sleeves rolled up and buttoned. Patrick and Jordan seemed to be sparring in the circular depression, but stopped when Kara entered with the two Rays.

“Carry on if you wish,” Kara said to Patrick and Jordan. As she strode over to Arryn, Ray and the Rose Thief trailing in her wake, she called, “Hey, Arryn, do you have any time to spare right now?”

Arryn brushed some sort of crushed, dried herb off of her palm and into the large pot she was leaning over. She stirred it with a copper ladle a few times before setting the ladle aside and turning towards Kara. “I suppose, yeah. The potion’s got to simmer for a few hours now.” She froze when she noticed the two identical men. “Woah, did Ray find his long-lost twin?”

Kara’s lips twitched in a suppressed laugh. “Not quite. The extra claims to have come from another world, and I want your help trying to figure out exactly what happened.”

Arryn nodded and undid her sleeves, allowing them to fall down and cover her hands. The two Mages took Ray and the Rose Thief up the spiral staircase into another circular room. This room was even barer than the one below it, completely empty save for torches on the walls, clear windows in between them, and a few scattered candelabra. Kara waved her hand, and a wooden three-legged stool appeared in the air beside her, suspended for a few seconds before falling. She caught it and tossed it at the Rose Thief.

“I’m not sure right now if we’ll need you,” she said. “Maybe to see if there’s a connection between you two. For now, sit somewhere against the wall.” To Ray, she said, “Now you are a different story. Stand in the middle, there, and Arryn and I will get to work.”


 

Ray was made to stand in the middle of the empty stone room for hours. About half an hour in, the chill of the room—chill by virtue of being entirely stone—began seeping into his flesh, beginning at his exposed right hand and raising goosebumps all up his arms. Kara and Arryn stood around him in varying positions trying several different spells. One made him glow softly and made warmth tingle all over him. One had several orbs of white light spiral about him. At one point they made the Rose Thief stand up and stand back to back with him, and several silvery-purple ropes twirled around them.

After a couple hours, Arryn had to leave to return to her potion. Caleb showed up to see how they were faring and stood next to Rose Thief as they watched Kara work. Whenever Ray attempted to shift position or slouch, Kara would snap at him to remain still. His back and feet were beginning to ache. Finally, when Ray’s stomach had been growling for twenty minutes, Kara sighed and stretched. She looked exhausted, dark shadows underlining her eyes.

“I’ve done all I can,” she said. Ray sighed in relief and immediately sat down on the floor. She turned towards the Rose Thief and Caleb. “Unfortunately… I didn’t find much. There’s nothing between you and this extra Ray. Which means the fact that he’s another you is completely irrelevant as far as I am concerned.”

The Rose Thief frowned and made a sort of frustrated growling noise. “Did you find anything fucking useful?”

Kara glared at him and crossed her arms. “Other than he’s incredibly hard to scan? Nothing, just my own speculation.” She looked at Caleb now. “Why didn’t you tell me he was hyper resistant to magic?” she snapped.

Caleb shrank back and raised his hands defensively. “Uhh, slipped my mind?”

Kara sighed again. “My theory is that a dimensional spell was used. If I had seen him soon after his arrival, I might have been able to sense the remnants of the spell. I had no idea that portals to other dimensions were possible—other dimensions are only a theory to us, after all. But anyway, whatever happened, my best guess is that he wasn’t brought here by accident. Someone made a cross-dimensional portal, and he went through it.”

Portals?” Caleb asked incredulously. “I didn’t even consider… No one has been able to create an actual portal for years. The closest thing I know of is the Enderman teleportation technique. But portals…”

Kara shrugged. “A book or two that we have mentions portals used in the past, but not how they were made—only that they’re really complicated. Somehow, someone somewhere cast one. It’s not even a sure thing that this is what happened, it just seems most likely to me. You wanted my help, and that’s the best I could do. Sorry I couldn’t do more.”

“You’ve been a great help,” the Rose Thief said, standing up and sweeping out of the room. Ray couldn’t tell how sincere his doppelgänger’s statement was; he said it in such a biting tone. The two of them might have stopped fighting, but the Rose Thief still seemed grumpy and in a hurry to get rid of Ray. A few seconds later, a plainly dressed servant in red climbed up the stairs.

“I have been instructed to let you know that dinner will be ready in half an hour,” said the servant. “His Majesty the king has invited the four guests to join him and his Royal Highness the prince at the table.”


 

At the dinner table, Ray quickly realized just how similar his Monty was to the King. Though King Monty had had a calm and focused demeanor in the throne room and seemed to think deeply about what he was going to say before he said it, in a casual environment he was as animated as anyone.

The dinner table was a large but squat rectangle, close in measurements to a square but still clearly elongated. It was made of dark, polished wood, and a deep red tablecloth covered it all. White and yellow roses adorned the center of the table. The room itself had several alcoves carved into the wall at equal intervals, and each of these had an intricate statue or decorated vase. In between them and the torches, on the stretches of blank wall, colorful tapestries hung depicting what Ray could only guess were pieces of interpreted history. The tapestry directly across from him had four guys raising their arms up to a large golden pillar, from which bright yellow and white threads burst like the rays of the sun.

King Monty, Prince Miles, and Barbara all sat at the short side of the table. Ray was sat next to the Rose Thief and some noble he didn’t really know. On the other side of the Rose Thief was Kerry, who sat around the corner from Miles. Caleb sat across from Ray. Food was brought out by servants on silver platters. Ray was surprised to find that the food was really appetizing, including chicken garnished with tasty herbs and spices and steaming rice mixed with a colorful sauce—though to be honest, he wasn’t really sure what he was expecting in the first place. The servants first tried to serve him wine, but the Rose Thief actually leaned in and made the servant bring water instead.

The Rose Thief winked when Ray shot him a thankful look. “I know myself,” he said with a smile.

Ray spent most of the dinnertime quiet, having nothing to contribute to the conversation. He listened intently to the exchanges around him, however, and repeatedly rubbed his hands together without really realizing it. Barbara was loud and enthusiastic, and seemed to love to gossip, though almost everyone at the table discussed the social happenings of the other countries and even of people within the Ruby Kingdom. Ray heard plenty about the scandal Kerry caused with Sir Gray; about the naughty gossip surrounding the Captain of the Guard in Achievement City sleeping in a room attached to the Prince’s (and how he was also the Prince’s chief bodyguard as well); about the many rumors surrounding Joel in Roosterteeth and how surely by now that man is off his rockers (fueled, of course, by Caleb’s and Kerry’s recent visit); and about the jokes made about the relationship between King Geoff and his prime advisor.

When Michael and Prince Gavin were mentioned, Ray noticed the Rose Thief grow still. The Rose Thief took several seconds to recompose himself before rejoining the dinnertime conversations. Ray studied his doppelgänger out of the corner of his eye for a while, but whatever the Rose Thief’s beef was, he hid it well. Ray quickly forgot about it, especially when the man sitting on the other side of him distracted him. The man introduced himself as Shadles and inquired after Ray’s “strange mask.”

Ray blinked confusedly for a moment. “Uh, my glasses? They’re not a mask, I need them to see.”

Shadles, a man with a square jaw and a twisted goatee, smiled blankly. “Oh, I see. I thought that, like your twin, it was a sort of mask. You need them… to see?”

Ray blinked again and realized for the first time that he hadn’t notice anyone wear glasses. “Yeah, like, if I’m not wearing them, then everything is blurry.”

“That sounds like something the Mages could heal,” Shadles replied, thumping Ray on the shoulder. Ray grimaced at the contact and shrugged. Something about Shadles and the lithe way he moved felt… off to Ray. He couldn’t place it, but Shadles made him feel uncomfortable.

“Whatever.”

Ray was relieved when dinner finally ended. He wasn’t sure when he was allowed to leave, since no one seemed inclined to excuse themselves, but when King Monty stood and announced he was retiring for the night, that seemed to be the cue for when everyone else could leave. Ray was fatigued despite being asleep for a good portion of the day. He had skipped the previous night, stood in the same spot for several hours, and then attended a large and busy dinner; he felt like he deserved to go to bed.

When he returned to his now-dark sparse room, he found a long wooden box on his bed. Inside was a rapier and a note from Kerry. The note said, “This is the sword I found for you in the market. I had it sharpened while you were resting. I hope it is too your liking.” The sword was similar in make to the Rose Thief’s sword, with a similar handle and guard, the gold from the guard twisted down to meet the pommel. The pommel was a blooming red rose, as opposed to the Rose Thief’s closed rose, and the blade was darkened with heat. Ray smiled at the gift and set it aside to crawl into bed. However, Ray quickly found he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, restless and unfortunately awake. Finally he decided to take a walk around the castle. If anything, he could freely appreciate the art scattered about.

Rubbing his chilly hands together, Ray wandered about the halls, feeling for the first time in two months relatively at ease. A few torches were lit, but the castle was much dimmer than it was in the daylight. Being alone was refreshing to Ray, just him and the moonlight streaming through the windows.

It wasn’t long until he heard the murmurings of voices. Ray crept closer to the source, which appeared to be past an open door with candlelight flickering inside. He slowed when he could pick out what the voices were saying and hid in a crevice with a statue. He recognized all three, though he could only identify one.

“Do I have your word that you will do it?” asked the Rose Thief.

“If you have the coin, then my skills are all yours,” said one man’s voice. Was that Shadles, from dinner? “I must ask why a guard needs to work with me.”

Ray heard the Rose Thief huff. “Ichigan used to work in Venator’s castle. He knows the layout and can help you get in.”

“And if I know Venator,” said the third man, who must be Ichigan, “then even their patrols should still be mostly the same. We can get into the prince’s room no problem.”

Shadles gave a resigned sigh of agreement. Ray heard small bits of metal clink together, and then the Rose Thief said, “You’ll get the rest when the deed is done. I expect you to leave tomorrow.”

The sudden shuffling of bodies alerted Ray to the fact that the three men were leaving. With no real place to hide in sight, Ray opted to duck behind the statue he was already sharing a space with. Shadles, seemingly the only one with a candle, stalked off in the other direction. Ichigan, who Ray recognized as the one-eyed guard who usually stood at the front of the castle, marched past Ray without even shifting his head. It seemed the shadows hiding Ray were adequate enough for the one-eyed guard. Maybe that’s why he was only on duty in the day.

The Rose Thief was a different story. Ray’s doppelgänger left the room a few moments after the other two men, and almost immediately spotted Ray hiding. Ray tried to shrink against the wall, tried to become as small as possible when he saw the Rose Thief’s face blanche. The Rose Thief strode forward and gripped Ray’s shirt, lifting him up and pushing him against the wall.

“How much did you hear?” the Rose Thief hissed, his face contorted with anger. Ray could tell it was an anger driven by fear and anxiety. Ray hadn’t wanted to believe what he had been hearing, but the Rose Thief’s reaction solidified Ray’s theory.

“Enough to know you’re sending fucking mercenaries after Gavin,” Ray said with a steady voice. He balled his hands into fists nervously and tried not to tremble. The Rose Thief shoved Ray away and stepped further out into the hallway. “What the fuck are you doing? You’re—you’re gonna fucking kill your own friend?

Ray didn’t expect the Thief’s gloved hand to backslap him across the cheek. “He’s not my friend,” the Thief said in that terrifyingly quiet voice straining with anger. “Not anymore. And he’s not yours either. I don’t know your relationship with Gavin in your world, but this one is not fucking yours. So stay out of this.”

Ray thought quickly, ideas firing off in his head like a minigun. He rubbed his cheek with a cool hand. “Fine, God,” he said, slumping his shoulders and looking away for extra effect. “Sorry I care about a different version of my friend?”

The Rose Thief was breathing heavily, but he seemed to accept Ray’s response. He stood in the darkness for a few moments before marching off. Ray watched him go and waited. He wasn’t sure how long to wait, but after what must have been fifteen minutes, Ray walked off with purpose. When he reached his room again, he did not enter and instead headed further down the hall where he knew the other guests were sleeping. He didn’t even knock on the door, but entered in quietly and gently shook the bed’s occupant awake.

“Kerry,” Ray whispered. “I need you to get me back to Achievement City.”

Chapter Text

Ray barely allowed Kerry to sit up when he launched into an explanation of what had just transpired. He said that the Rose Thief was sending assassins to Achievement City, and he, needing to do something, wanted to try and beat them there and warn Michael and Gavin so that they might have a better chance at surviving.

“Are you serious?” said Kerry with a yawn. He rubbed his eye and squinted at Ray. “I know Ray—our Ray—is kinda bitter about the people in Achievement City, but I didn’t think he’d ever… What’s it to you, anyway? As he said, it’s not your Gavin. I’m just curious,” he added when he saw Ray’s exasperated look.

“I don’t know,” Ray admitted, throwing his hands up. “It… it’s not my Gavin, or my Michael, but they’re still some version of them, you know? And… And since this trip turned out to be fucking useless—and since it looks like I might never get home, I—I gotta do fucking something.” He leaned forward and fixed Kerry with an intense stare. “I have information that could prevent Gavin’s death. Shouldn’t I use it? Shouldn’t I fucking do something?”

Kerry sighed and patted Ray’s shoulder. “Alright, buddy. You said that he hired Shadles, and rumor has it he’s one of the best assassins around—to the point where even the Prince, who guards against assassins every day, might not survive that alone… If I can’t convince you otherwise, I’ll help you out.”

Kerry gave Ray a new belt with a frog for his sword and a pouch for coin that the captain also supplied. Then, while Ray retrieved his sword from his room, took off the bandage on his hand, and paced anxiously, Kerry managed to find a large traveler’s cloak. Ray had to pull it over his head, though there was a long slit in the front. The hood was more like a cowl, and when Ray flipped the hood up, it threw his entire face into shadow.

“We’re gonna get you on the first boat out of here,” Kerry said. “You’ll generally want to keep your hood up, and always act confident. If anyone gives you the evil eye, flash your sword and look like you know how to use it. It’ll probably take a day or two to get back to Venator. You might want to sleep light anyway, though ideally you won’t be travelling with highly suspicious folk.” Kerry said that last part with a small smile, though Ray didn’t feel the humor. Kerry sighed and grasped Ray’s arm to tug him along. “Look, I really don’t want to leave you on your own, but you’re an adult. A stranger, but an adult. You’ll have to manage. Because I can’t leave here.”

Ray nodded. “I understand,” he said.

Kerry led Ray out of a side entrance of the Ruby Castle and through the city to the docks. The city was eerily quiet at this time of night, with barely another soul on the streets, but it was somehow peaceful this way. The night was soothing, a balm after long exposure to a sunny day. All the bright colors were washed out in the moonlight. It was far past midnight, Ray supposed, and dawn had to be coming in a few hours.

The docks were less quiet than the city, enough so that Ray wondered if boat workers ever actually slept. Kerry approached several people with Ray in tow, asking when and where they were leaving and if they would accept a passenger. Most of them, in one way or another, gave an undesirable answer, so Kerry moved on down the dock. Finally, they approached a merchant with a beat up but sturdy-looking ship.

“Ho!” Kerry called out. The merchant handed off a box to a crewmember and turned towards Kerry and Ray with his arms crossed.

“What do ye want?” said the merchant in a gruff voice. The man had a frizzled gray beard and a threadbare hat, but the rest of his clothes were kept in good condition. His skin was tan and his face had a leathery wrinkled look to it.

“Are you going to Venator soon?” asked Kerry. “If so, my friend here needs a ride as soon as possible. We have the coin to pay passage with.”

The man studied the two of them with glittering eyes. “Yeah, I’m heading to Venator at dawn with the low tide. Probably the earliest ones heading out. No one else can handle the early hours. I told the last two guys that I don’t have the room for any more passengers.”

Kerry squeezed Ray’s shoulder before sidling up to the merchant and throwing an arm around the man’s shoulders. He put his head close to the merchant’s ear. “Listen, good sir, I’m sure you don’t realize who I am. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Scarlet Dragon?”

The merchant visibly paled and dropped his arms to his sides. “O-oh. Uh. Well I suppose if it is just one more passenger, I can manage… but it will cost ye!” he added fiercely as if trying to reassert his dominance.

“Now that, we can discuss,” Kerry said in a low voice. Ray shifted uncomfortably and rubbed his arm under his cloak. Then he remembered Kerry’s previous advice and forced himself to keep his arms at his side and rolled his shoulders back. Gotta be confident. Can’t show weakness or timidity. Ray was going to regret this, he knew it.

Kerry worked out a price with the merchant and handed over the gold coin. Kerry seemed confident that the merchant would keep his word to take Ray along and soon headed back to the castle. The merchant was thoroughly intimidated and was too scared of offending Captain Kerry to possibly go back on his word, so when the sun was just starting to show its rays on the horizon, Ray was invited onboard and they were off.

While Ray had been waiting, he had spotted from far off Shadles and Ichigan the guard going up to different boats. With his hood and cloak, Ray was unnoticed by the two assassins. Ray was just glad that he was going to have a head start on them.

On the boat itself, which was much smaller than Kerry’s boat, Ray was kept under the deck with the cargo on a hammock with the rest of the non-crew passengers. He preferred being down there, not interacting with anyone. Occasionally, someone would come down below deck, but they would merely give Ray a strange look and skirt around him. Ray was anxious and didn’t much want to sleep. He sometimes did some exercises with his sword in some corner of the ship, but mostly he just twiddled his thumbs and avoided the crew to the best of his ability. The other passengers and crewmembers seemed wary of him, so it wasn’t hard to avoid them. A day and a night later, the merchant captain thumped down the steps and announced that they had arrived at Venator.

Ray, exhausted and on edge, nodded his thanks and followed the merchant back into the midmorning daylight. He blinked rapidly, his eyes adjusting again to the bright light. He felt tense and uneasy, and the stares he was receiving from the crew didn’t help. Nervously, he put a hand on his sword, a movement that made his cloak flutter and his sword briefly sparkle. He hopped onto the dock, and as he passed a pair of crewmembers, he heard them whisper, “Tower, look at the way his eyes flash under that hood… Like a beast’s… Glad to have him off.”

Ray had assumed that the ship was taking him to Astropolis, given that it seemed like a popular place to go. Now, however, he found himself at the edge of what looked like a small fishing town. The docks were small and mostly meant for fisherman boats, and the town, though sizeable, was clearly not planned by a city planner. The buildings, chiefly made of wood, sprawled out from one another with no clear system of organization. Ray, having no idea where he was and no desire to turn back to the merchant who he pretty sure didn’t like him, pseudo-confidently strode into the town.

On the outside, he tried to appear as confident as possible. On the inside, panic was starting to claw at his throat. As he walked, he forced himself to take a few breaths and think out a plan. People got lost all the time and always somehow got un-lost, right? He would just have to ask the right people. Someone had to be able to help him.

Ray found the only tavern and asked the friendly bartender a few questions about where he was and where Achievement City was in relation. The bartender told him that he was in Angler Town, the place from where most of Venator’s fish supply came. They were just north of Achievement City, probably about ten or twelve miles in distance. There was a straight road connecting the two places, at the very least, so even though there were thick forests in between, he should be able to follow the path and get there within the day. The bartender gave Ray explicit instructions, and Ray thanked him and left immediately. He had no time to waste.

About an hour down the road, Ray began to regret his decision to walk. His feet started to ache, and he was exhausted from his lack of sleep and previous anxiety. After two hours, sheer force of will kept him going. Luckily, soon after leaving Angler Town, Ray entered the forest, which shielded him from the worst of the sun. But even with the near-constant shade, after three hours, he stopped to rest. He had a new blister on his heel and was dying from thirst.

Ray thought he heard running water nearby, and after resting his feet, he started ambling towards it. Just after he stepped out of sight of the road, he reconsidered and doubled back to leave a trail for himself. The water he heard was a small rushing brook cutting across the middle of a clearing. It might not have been the cleanest water, but Ray figured it was better to drink that than nothing at all. After taking a drink, he sat back and closed his eyes against the sunlight streaming down into the clearing.

At this point in his… adventure, he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He was completely alone for the first time since arriving here, on his own in a strange forest with only a rapier to protect him. If he was to be honest, he was scared. He didn’t know what to expect, and everything was so unfamiliar. He didn’t really have a plan for when he got to Achievement City, and at this point it was only his pure stubbornness pushing his fear down and moving him forward.

He sighed and stood up, preparing head back to the road. Time to get on with it. He was almost out of the clearing when he heard a violent rustling of undergrowth across the clearing. He spun around in time to see a huge gray wolf burst from out of the trees, splash across the brook, and freeze. Foam flecked the wolf’s muzzle as it growled at Ray, glaring with piercing yellow eyes. Ray was next to a pine tree with some low hanging branches, and in a panic, he climbed them. Three branches up, he turned to see the wolf bound out of the clearing, and he saw the long pale shaft of an arrow sticking out of its bloody rear thigh. He leaned forward a bit, trying to get a closer look, but the wolf was gone in an instant.

Another figure stumbled out of the trees and hopped over the brook a few seconds later. Ray stilled. He never thought he’d be so happy to see that mug.

“Where did it bloody go?” said Prince Gavin through clenched and bared teeth. He wore an outfit similar to what Ray last saw him in, though a lot less decorated. A green short-sleeved tunic with golden embroidered patterns that glittered in the sunlight; brown leather straps attaching a quicker to his back; tall soft leather brown boots laced tightly; khaki pants; leather arm guards stitched with gold. His hair was ruffled from his run, though he was only panting lightly. He carried his bow with an arrow nocked but not drawn. He glanced around the clearing quickly.

Ray tried to quietly move back, to get down in a way that wouldn’t startle Gavin. He needed to approach the situation in a way that would get Gavin to believe him about the planned assassination. His heart was beating hard and fast. Ray wobbled as he moved and lost his balance completely, tumbling out of the tree with a yelp of surprise.

Gavin whirled around, automatically drawing his arrow back. His eyes went wide when he recognized Ray, uttering a “You…!” and jerking his hand on the bow. He had reflexively shot the arrow, but it only nicked Ray’s shoulder and embedded itself in the tree with a dull thunp. Gavin stalked over to Ray as the latter sat himself up against the tree. His ass ached from the fall, and his shoulder burned with his new injury.

“You,” Prince Gavin screeched, jabbing a finger accusingly at Ray. “What are you doing here? I should have shot you, you thief! You… you criminal!”

“But you didn’t,” Ray pointed out, but that only seemed to piss Gavin off more. Not that Ray really cared, he just wanted to warn Gavin and be on his way. Or something. He hadn’t planned much past that, but maybe he could sail back to the Ruby Kingdom. Kerry had given him some coin… “Listen, I came to warn…”

Gavin let out a guttural noise of frustration, rudely cutting Ray off. He paced and clenched his fists tightly. “Ever since you reappeared, Michael’s been all brooding and withdrawn! I don’t like it! He won’t pay any attention to me outside of business, and it’s all your fault!” Gavin twirled to point at Ray again at his last phrase. Ray flinched, both from Gavin’s action and from the burning sensation in his shoulder that didn’t seem to lessen.

Ray’s mouth fell open. “I—well, I—that’s… that’s not really my problem…” He was confused. Gavin seemed about to go into a rage, and just seeing Ray had set him off. Ray understood not wanting to see someone, but this was a little extreme…

In the distance, some men started calling for the prince, wondering where he had run off to. Gavin ignored them and crouched in front of Ray, tossing his bow to the ground and leaning in close to Ray’s face.

“Of course it’s your bloody problem!” Gavin hissed. “Or—or have you bloody forgotten the way you ripped Michael’s heart out when you got caught.” Of course. Gavin didn’t quite realize that there were two Rose Thieves. Or, if he did, he didn’t realize that this Ray wasn’t the right one. And fuck, Ray’s shoulder still burned. It felt like it was getting worse, like the hot sensation was spreading.

“That wasn’t me!” Ray said, trying not to shout. “But that isn’t…”

Gavin’s abrupt laugh cut him off. “Insist all you want that it wasn’t you. You still betrayed him, and he’s mine now.” He paused, glowering at Ray. “Or at least, I thought he was, until you showed up again. You don’t get another chance. You bloody well blew it when you ran instead of facing justice.”

Ray was stunned for a moment. The way Gavin was speaking made it sound like he and Michael… Ray remembered the rumors he overheard at dinner in the Ruby Kingdom, and suddenly they seemed a lot more likely to be true. He shook his head. That wasn’t important now.

“Gavin, listen—ah, fuck!” Ray winced as the pain in his shoulder flared up suddenly. His hand flew to the wound, pressing against it.

Gavin snickered, moving back and standing again. “All of these arrows are coated with my burning jelly. Do you like it?” He glared again. “I should have aimed lower.”

“There you fucking are,” called another, exasperated voice. With the clinking of steel armor, Michael forced his way out of the trees. His face was red, and his voice was hoarse with the shouting he had been doing. “You shouldn’t run off like that, my prince. You should go back to camp.”

Gavin shrugged and beamed at the captain. “I lost it anyway,” he said, picking up his bow and crossing the clearing. As he passed Michael, he lifted his free hand to drift lightly across Michael’s shoulder. Michael nodded but did not return the smile, and then seemed to notice Ray for the first time. As Gavin disappeared back into the forest, Michael approached Ray and kneeled down.

“It’s you,” he said. “The fake one.”

“I’m not fake,” Ray said through gritted teeth. He was hunched forward now, the burning jelly making his entire shoulder feel like it was on fire.

“I see he got you with the burning jelly,” Michael said. “Sorry. Here.” He took out a long strip of bandage out of a pouch at his waist and offered it to Ray. Ray took it with his free hand but merely held it for now. Michael stood. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing here, but you should get going.”

“Wait,” Ray gasped out. “I—I came to warn you and Gavin about Shadles—about assassins. The—in a couple of nights, they’re gonna…”

Michael let out a short laugh. “We’ve dealt with assassins before. They’re practically a constant danger. Your warning means little.” He turned to leave.

“Don’t leave me,” Ray blurted. He winced when Michael looked over his shoulder. Why did he say that? Did he want to suffer in company, or something? He scrambled for words to keep Michael there. “Whatever—whatever the other me, the other Ray, did, I’m sorry. Okay? I’m fucking sorry—just don’t leave me alone…”

Michael sighed. He glanced off to the other side of the clearing where he had entered. “That’s not something an apology will fix,” he said. But he shifted to more easily look at Ray and smiled a little. “I can’t stay, but I appreciate the sentiment.” He sighed again, exhaling heavily, and when he made eye contact with Ray, his gaze felt distant and weary. Ray waited, pressing his hand to his shoulder.

“When I saw you—this will sound fucking weird, I’m sure, but when I saw your… unmarked back,” Michael said, “I thought maybe Fate or something was giving me a second chance. You know? Start over with someone I didn’t betray…I know, I’m fucking dumb. Forget it.” He threw up his hands and looked away. His face was turning red again. Ray’s own face suddenly felt hot. This only seemed to confirm Ray’s suspicions about Michael and Gavin. But then, that meant…

“Michael,” Ray said slowly. “Were you and the other Ray… in a relationship?”

The look Michael gave Ray was unfathomable, a mixture of confusion, grief, and anger. He shook his head in disbelief, his mouth set into a hard line. “It’s in the past now. Listen. Ray. The burning jelly will wear off soon, since you only got nicked. You really shouldn’t be in the forest during the night.” He marched off without another word, his armor clinking gently and sparkling in the sunlight before he disappeared into the trees.

Ray smacked the ground beside him with a fist and immediately regretted it as pain lanced through his hand. Nearly everyone in this universe liked to talk over Ray and ignore him, especially Michael and Gavin, and frankly he was sick of it. But most of all, he had technically achieved his goal, and now he was lost. He didn’t know what to do. He still had a horrible feeling in his gut about Prince Gavin’s fate, but he had done all he could. He was useless, helpless…

He couldn’t care less about the relationships between this universe’s lads, past or present. Michael had basically confirmed that he and the Rose Thief had been… romantically involved, and with all the information and rumors Ray had gathered, he was inclined to believe it was true. Had been true. Not to mention that this likely made Michael’s and Gavin’s relationship true as well. And, Gavin had mentioned that Michael had been “brooding” ever since Ray showed up. The way Ray saw it, Michael still felt guilty about punishing the Rose Thief, still felt betrayed and like he had betrayed as well.

Ray shivered as he crawled across the clearing towards the brook to rinse his hand off. The burning was starting to ebb, but now his hand had blood smeared on it. He took off his cloak and shirt and awkwardly wrapped the bandage around his shallow wound, tying it tightly with a square knot. He frowned as he put his clothes back on, a little upset that they were now ripped and bloody.

He sat by the brook for a while, staring blankly at the gently rushing water. He hated being here, he decided. He felt powerless, and no one seemed to like him very much—well, except for this place’s Kerry and Caleb. He had spent two months on a boat at sea, learning how to use a stupid sword, only for their destination to not help him at all. He was still trapped here, and whatever he did seemed to affect nothing at all. His hand felt cold and he plunged it ruthlessly into the brook, letting the water chill it further. The chill was refreshing, numbing, and distracting.

Michael had told him to leave the forest, but Ray had no idea where to go and felt so very tired. He let himself slump over onto his side and closed his eyes. He had nothing left to do in the waking world, and he was just so, so tired.

Ray slept.

He awoke when a sharp pain shot through his right hand so suddenly that he thought someone had stabbed him. He lurched up with a shout, flexing his hand and staring at it, rubbing it with his free hand for some evidence of blood. His hand was perfectly unscathed, however, except for the light scars from the shattered Ender Pearl that would fade soon enough. It was dark, probably not more than an hour after sunset, but the sky was overcast and nearly black. Even now, several droplets of rain fell coolly on his face. The air smelled damp, and Ray scurried out of the middle of the clearing to avoid getting wetter.

Ray scooted up against the tree he had climbed before and pressed his hands into his eyes. The pain in his hand had faded as soon as it had come, but now he had to deal with the spiritual anguish of being awake. Emotions churned in his gut, anger and confusion and frustration mixing into a potent concoction. He was losing his handle on his situation. The emotions pushed up his throat and forced their way out in long, guttural cry. When he ran out of air for his shout, he sat there breathing deep and hard, his hands pushed up under his glasses, his knees pulled up against his chest.

What was he going to do now?

Chapter Text

The drizzle turned into a downpour. Ray watched the rain from underneath his pine tree, but even the pine’s branches were not much safety from the water. Soon he was wet enough that he didn’t really care if he was in shelter or not. He closed his eyes and rested his head back against the pine tree’s trunk, letting the cool rain splatter against his glasses and roll down his face.

Meanwhile the forest was only getting darker as the sun set and the clouds thickened. The wind picked up, rustling leaves and making the rain spray everywhere. It wasn’t necessarily a cold wind, but its near constant blowing sliced through Ray’s cloak and chilled the water on his skin. It came in lengthy, strong gusts and long, gentle pauses. Ray was prepared to sit there underneath the pine tree forever, maybe, or at least for the rest of the night. Let Michael and Gavin take care of themselves. Clearly they didn’t want his help.

The wind paused now. There was a rustling in the bushes much louder than that made by the rain, and Ray looked up just in time to see a gray wolf appear. It took but a few moments to identify it as the huge beast from earlier; it walked with a limp, and the shaft sticking out of its haunch had broken off. Its glittering yellow eyes stared at Ray as five more wolves emerged from the bushes. They seemed to be waiting for something.

“Sup,” Ray said, jerking his head in a nod but carefully keeping eye contact with the injured wolf. “The guy you want is long gone.” Ray had no idea what the wolves wanted—he didn’t even know if they’d be the type of creature to return for revenge—but he figured talking wouldn’t hurt.

The pack of wolves crept forward, their steps light and their heads low. A low growl rumbled out of their throats, the injured wolf at the lead, and they soon surrounded the passive Ray. He didn’t even care anymore. If they wanted to bite his throat out, well, he was sure he deserved it at some point in his life. He was already basically dead back in the real world anyway, so what difference would it make?

The injured gray wolf limped forward and jabbed his nose at Ray’s face. Ray leaned his head back, arching and exposing his neck as the wolf’s cold, wet nose gently nudged and sniffed his skin. The wolf’s breath was weirdly hot, making Ray’s skin prickle. He felt the pressure of the wolf’s teeth rest against his flesh, and he tensed up, preparing for the awful pain that was sure to follow.

But then the wolf pulled away. Ray released the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and looked back at the beasts surrounding him. The injured wolf had pulled his face away from Ray’s and was now at Ray’s right hand. The cold, wet nose was back on Ray’s skin, sniffing and studying, shoving his nose underneath it. Ray lifted it, showing his palm to the wolf.

A flash of lightning lit up the clearing like a strobe light. The movement of Ray’s hand seemed to startle the wolf, and suddenly sharp, quick pain lanced through his palm. The wolf bounced back as Ray yelped, loud and short. He yanked his hand away, convinced the wolf bit him, and scooted away from the beasts. He leaned onto his left elbow, preparing to kick any other wolf that decided to attack, but the wolves were already bounding away. The injured one stopped at the edge of the clearing to stare back at him with its cold yellow eyes.

A dagger suddenly appeared in the tree next to the wolf with a dull, wet thunk, and the wolf slipped into the bushes in a blink of an eye. Ray had barely registered the dagger when the Rose Thief leaped out of a nearby tree into the clearing, landing gracefully in the mud. He was back in his Venator clothes, his long cape fluttering wildly as the storm’s wind gusted again. A scent of roses followed, but was quickly whisked away by the storm.

The Rose Thief did not immediately retrieve his dagger, but instead turned around and shouted over the wind and the rain. “What the fuck are you doing?” he shrieked.

Ray shrugged. “I dunno. Dying.” He studied his hand that he thought the wolf had bitten only to find it unwounded. He frowned and loosely folded his fingers into a fist.

The Rose Thief threw up his hands and marched across the clearing to tug his dagger out of the tree and back again so that he could yell closer to Ray’s face. “I should have known you would go meddle anyway! What did you think you could fucking do, huh?”

Ray didn’t have the energy to get angry. But his natural state was stubbornness, and he stuck by his previous decision. “You were planning Gavin’s murder. I had to do fucking something, and this was all I could really do. He may not be the Gavin I know, but he’s still Gavin, and I know as much as he might annoy me, I would never fucking wish death for him.” He fixed the Rose Thief with a dark, calm stare. “I think you’re going to regret this, and I wanted to try and stop it.”

The Rose Thief looked at Ray with drowning eyes. There was something there, some old pain, that transformed his entire face in subtle ways and pulled the corner of his lips down and his eyebrows together. It was the expression of pain that he knew the observer could not understand, and that he could not fully explain. Though the Rose Thief turned away suddenly to hide this expression, in that moment Ray had made his decision.

“And I’m still going to stop it,” Ray said. He pushed himself up off the ground and stood. The Rose Thief glanced over his shoulder back at him.

“You know not what you’re trying to stop—what the prince has done…” the Rose Thief said in a voice trembling with fury and angst and, perhaps, stubbornness and doubt?

“Kerry told me that the guy you hired will likely be better than Michael and Gavin can handle on their own,” Ray continued bluntly.

“Michael won’t have to handle anything,” said the Thief defiantly. “They’re there for the prince and only the prince.”

“Do you really think that?” Ray said quietly. “Even if Michael isn’t a target, who is to say that they don’t kill him in self-defense? And who is to say that Michael won’t do everything in his power to protect or avenge Gavin?”

Those had been the right words to say. Whatever doubts the Rose Thief had pushed away rose to the surface again. The flicker of regret in the Rose Thief’s eyes before he turned away again was enough proof for Ray.

“It’s too late to call it off,” the Rose Thief said. His whole body tensed as he straightened his back, adopting a resigned posture. He still seemed to want to stubbornly stick to his plan. Then again, it didn’t take much obstinacy to succumb to inaction. The wind died down again, letting the rain fall in sheets. “If they haven’t arrived at Achievement City by now, they will in the next couple of hours.”

“Well then. We’ve got some walking to do.”


 

About twenty minutes after Ray left the clearing, the Rose Thief reluctantly trailing some paces behind him, the storm died down. A few drops still stubbornly fell from the sky, but by the time the pair reached the outer wall of Achievement City, they were mostly dry and the clouds had thinned out enough that the moon and the brightest stars were beginning to shine through. During the walk, Ray had sensed rather than saw several creatures flitting through the forest around him, but whatever the reason they did not make themselves known.

Ray had no idea what to do at this point. He knew enough to realize that just walking in was not going to work. When the Rose Thief caught back up to him, he took over with a sarcastic and patronizing expression. Now that the Rose Thief was actually at the city, he seemed a lot more willing to act against his original plan, but he still wasn’t happy. Ray figured he wouldn’t be happy whichever path he took.

Ray ditched his travelling cloak in the forest. He stuck as close as possible to the Rose Thief as they jogged around the tall city wall towards the castle. There were guards at the top, and more nearer to the castle, but by hugging the wall and staying in the dark shadows there, these were easy to bypass. By the time they were behind the castle, Ray was struggling to control his breathing so that he wasn’t gasping. Here, the Rose Thief turned to him.

“I’m not following you over the wall,” said the Rose Thief. He held up a finger to make sure Ray didn’t try to talk over him. “This is your mission, not mine. Besides that, my presence won’t help anything, but I’ll hang around so that if you need to escape, I’ll help you out. Just don’t count on me to save your life. Okay?” Ray nodded, his mouth set into a hard, grim line. “Good. Now. On the other side of this wall are the courtyard gardens, and if I measured it right, there should be a shed right there as well.

“It might be a little harder to avoid the guards in the gardens, at least until inside, but stay low and time it right and you’ll be okay. The gardens are overlooked by the windows of Prince Gavin’s and Michael’s rooms, though. They’re both on the second floor—their rooms are connected—and there should be a small servant door near their windows. It’s basically a straight shot from the front of the shed, so you should be able to see it immediately. Go in that door, climb the stairs, and find Michael’s room. You’ll have to deal with any guards on your own. You got it?”

Ray sighed, glancing up at the top of the wall which suddenly seemed very looming. “Yeah, I guess so.” His heart started beating painfully hard—he thought his whole body shook with its thumps. “Let’s do this.”

“Remember,” the Rose Thief added, raising his gloved right hand under which the large magical tattoo hid. “I can only make one air platform at a time. Just keep hopping up and trust me.”

Trust you, Ray thought scathingly. After you turned on Gavin? He didn’t have any other options, however, short of scaling the stone wall—a nearly impossible feat, as the stone was too smooth and the guards would see him as well. Besides, the Rose Thief seemed to feel at least a little guilty, and he certainly wouldn’t take it out on Ray.

They had to time it so that Ray wouldn’t be seen by a guard on top of the wall. He waited for the thief’s nod and took the first step. The glyph on the Rose Thief’s right hand glowed bright enough to show through the glove, and Ray’s foot came down on a sort of force field made out of pure air. After a few awkward steps, it was not too different from running up a flight of stairs.

As soon as he reached the top of the wall, he dropped over the other side. He saw a guard marching away from him out of the corner of his eye, but that didn’t matter to him. The wall was probably about twenty feet high or so. Ray hopped over the edge on the inside and landed on his feet, immediately rolling forward. His ankle twinged in pain, and he bumped his shoulders awkwardly, but it was short lived and soon faded. When he was upright again, he discovered he had nearly collided with the back wall of the large wooden garden shed. The Rose Thief had been right about that placement.

The shade was so dark here that Ray felt practically invisible. He took this moment to massage his ankle and gather his wits. He cautiously peeked around the edge of the shed. Sure enough, there was a beaten dirt path in front of him that joined one paved with cobblestones farther up ahead, which in turn led up to a small oak door. The dirt path was apparently part of a small grove of floral trees, the type that might also be considered large bushes with several slim trunks sprouting from a singular spot. The paved path was far more open and was lined with square hedges, and formed a T-shape from Ray’s point of view. Behind the hedges, Ray could see the edges of several latticed trellises on which rose vines flourished. Right. Straight shot.

Ray crept along the edge of the dirt path, weaving in and out of the trees and watching for raised roots and dry branches. When he reached the end of the grove and the paved path, he crouched in the shade of the trees and watched for any guards. From his position he could see two, marching in opposite directions along the paved path. Ray held his breath and felt his heart beat in his throat. He stayed as still as he could and let the guards pass, so that now both of them had their backs to him.

He almost chickened out at this point. What if he tripped? What if they suddenly turned? Saw him out of the corner of their eyes? What if he was spotted halfway down the path and couldn’t escape anywhere? He took a deep steadying breath. If they didn’t kill him immediately, he would surrender, and that would be that. Now was not the time to let his nervousness and fear prevent him from acting. He swallowed hard and, before he could change his mind, stepped out of the bushes and ran for the door. He crouched down low, so that when he finally reached the hedges, he was mostly hidden.

When he reached the door, he faintly heard a startling cry from a guard atop the wall. The guard was far away, but spotted the small figure and immediately knew it to be out of place. Ray yanked on the door, found it unlocked, and slipped inside before the guards travelling the path looked to where the wall guard was pointing. The inside of the door had an iron lock, and Ray threw it into place. He expected at least one of the guards outside to have a key, but it would give him a minute or two. He turned around.

The space he was in was small and lit only by torches. It was a servant’s passageway, so the hallway winding away from him and the staircase in front of him were narrow. He didn’t waste any time and climbed the steep staircase, taking it two or three steps at a time. When he reached the top, he heard the door beneath him shake vigorously in its hinges as the guards tried to follow him. His heart beat painfully hard in his throat, and he struggled to keep his gasps for breath quiet. He kept one hand on his rapier’s hilt as he opened the door on the second floor.

He peeked out at first. The long expanse of hall was surprisingly vacant. He had expected at least a couple guards to be stationed at some of the doors, but there was no one. Ray decided to not look a gift horse in the mouth and jogged down the corridor. He had no idea where Michael’s room was, but it was imperative that he found it soon. Michael may have rejected Ray in the forest clearing, but he was the only one capable of helping now.

One door rattled as he passed it, startling him. He put one hand on the oaken wood and one on the handle. The iron was cold under his hand, and he pushed it silently open. Immediately, a cool breeze washed across Ray’s face like a silk blanket. He slipped inside and shut the door again without making a sound. Across from the door, the two great windows were thrown open to the night wind, the steely gray curtains fluttering. The moonlight streamed in, putting pools of white light across the stone floor and the bear rug in front of the unlit fireplace. The sounds of guards drifted up through the window, but apparently did not disturb the sleeper.

Michael was sound asleep on a bed, tangled in grey sheets and a yellow quilt. He was clothed in an undyed linen shirt and loose brown pants for sleep. The bed’s entire frame was made of solid metal, but for the headboard and footboard, the shiny iron was gracefully crafted into curling shapes and delicate tendrils. The walls were mostly bare, save for an enormous portrait of the king off to the right of Ray, over the fireplace. A suit of armor stood on a stand on one side of Michael’s bed, and a small darkly stained bedside table was placed on the other. Near the windows was a similarly darkly stained desk and desk chair with an embroidered yellow cushion. A huge wardrobe sat next to the left of the door. Farther to the left of Ray, a second, smaller door was set into the wall, forming a small walkway between the perpendicular wall and the bed.

Ray stood a moment in front of the closed door through which he had entered to catch his breath. He rubbed his right hand with his left, took a deep breath, and hurried over to the foot of Michael’s bed. He gripped the footboard, the cool metal soothing against his suddenly hot palms. Then, he opened his mouth and fiercely whispered, “Michael.” When the sleeper stirred, Ray continued, “Michael, I need your help.”

Those words seemed to jolt Michael into action. He flailed upwards, and before he was even fully upright, one hand swiped down his bicep—the one where the triforce tattoo usually was, though Ray did not know what the new tattoo looked like. There was a flash of silver light, and then some of the designs on the footboard came to life. It was nearly instantaneous, the delicate designs flipping over to cuff Ray to the bed.

“H-hey!” Ray exclaimed. He tried to tug his hands back, but the metal was tight against his wrists, holding him securely to the bed. Michael seemed stunned for a few moments, frozen in his position as he stared, wide-eyed, at Ray. Ray soon gave up on getting free and looked helplessly at Michael.

“Okay, I’m sorry for startling you, but please, you have to help me. The assassins I told you about, they…”

“Shut up,” Michael said in a quiet voice. Ray trailed off awkwardly. Michael began to shift and get off the bed, his movements fluid and lithe. He kept his gaze locked on Ray. Ray shivered and tried once more in vain to get a hand free. “You shut the fuck up. Who gave you the right—who gave you the right to stand where he stood, to say what he said?”

Michael had moved behind Ray now, and Ray had to strain to catch any glimpse of him. Ray had evidently fucked up by coming here. In the clearing, Michael had seemed for the most part composed. But now, in the dead of night, the similarities between the past and present were too much. Ray would have to tread carefully.

“Michael, you have to fucking listen to me. The assassins I told you about are more than…”

“Those guards,” Michael interrupted again. “Are they for you?”

Ray’s ears pricked, and the guards outside suddenly seemed louder than they had been. The phrase sounded rehearsed, or repeated…

“They’re for me,” Ray confirmed in a whisper.

“Get on your knees.” When Ray didn’t respond, didn’t move, out of fear and confusion, Michael kicked the back of Ray’s knees. “I said, on your fucking knees.” His knees buckled, and he collapsed to the stone floor. It felt like his heartbeats were shaking his entire body with each thump, and he began to shake. He twisted his wrists around, his hands sweaty and cold.

“Michael,” Ray begged, his voice trembling, his breathing shallow. “Michael, please…”

I told you to shut up!” Michael shouted. Ray could hear him pacing behind him. Then, a flicker of silver light, and the sliding metal sound of a sword being drawn. “You beg to me in his voice, but you aren’t him.” He placed something cold and sharp at the base of Ray’s neck and trailed it down his spine. Ray thought it must have been a sword, because the fabric on his back ripped and popped as threads were cut, and then his shirt was hanging loose. The glitter of metal confirmed this when Michael swiped it down Ray’s sleeves as well. Ray’s shirt and jacket fell off his shoulder in tatters, leaving his back bare.

Michael tossed the sword aside, and it clattered against the floor. Michael went silent for a few moments, his breathing labored. Ray could see the sword where it fell; it was made entirely of steel, a monocolored, unembellished sword without even leather on the grip. Moonlight glinted off its razor-sharp edge.

Michael started suddenly and strode over to his wardrobe. He flung the doors open and dug around, searching for something, all the while ranting. “How dare you show up, in my room, guards chasing after you. You come here, you come fucking here, and you rub all of my fucking mistakes in my face.”

Michael was raving. He was a fucking lunatic. Ray watched him pull out a long braided leather whip and thought his heart stopped. His wrists were red from his struggles, and when he tried to stand back up again, Michael snapped at him to “stay the fuck down.”

“I told you to leave,” Michael said dangerously. “But still you come back. I fucked up, I know I did, so why do you keep coming back and reminding me?”

There had to be something Ray could say, something he could do, to calm Michael down. He didn’t know what, but he was willing to try anything. He opened his mouth. “Michael…”

The pain was quick, sharp, and lancing. The crack of the whip sounded a millisecond before the hit landed. Ray jerked underneath the blow of the whip. He sucked in a breath and clamped down his jaw, refusing to cry out even though tears sprung to his eyes.

“I cannot stand the way you speak,” Michael hissed. “You say my name with all of the same intonation, but with half the meaning.” On the word half, he struck with the whip again. Ray shuddered, the pain shooting across his back like a knife, but for now was bearable. It was gone quickly. “I cannot stand the sight of your unmarked back, cannot stand the sight of you, cannot stand this mockery of my mistake.”

Each inflection was another hit, and on the sixth whip, Ray let out a shaking yelp, a single cry of “Michael!” How could this have gone so wrong?

The scent of roses drifted in through the window. Just as Michael raised his arm for a seventh blow, the wind gusted inside with the soft snapping sound of billowing cloth. Suddenly the Rose Thief was there, cape fluttering around him and Michael as he gripped the wrist holding the whip.

“Stop,” he said in a low, smooth voice. “He’s not the one you’re angry at.”

The whip fell to the floor with a dull, piling thump. With a laugh that was half quivering sob, Michael sank to the ground, taking the Rose Thief with him, the cape folding around them in the wind like a loose cocoon. The metal cuffs around Ray’s wrists curled back into their original places, finally releasing Ray. He pulled his hands away and rubbed the raw, red marks around his wrists, curling over them as his back smarted in pain as well. He could hear the Rose Thief murmuring to Michael as the captain complained through choked-back tears.

“You fucking bitch, I fucking hate you,” Michael wailed, though he held on to the Rose Thief as though afraid to let go.

“I know,” said the Rose Thief.

“Why did you have to go and fucking leave…?”

“You know why.”

Here Michael buried his face into the Rose Thief’s chest. “Why did it have to come to that, huh? Why did I—why did I…”

The door connecting Michael’s room to Gavin’s slammed open. Ray immediately hoisted himself up using the footboard to meet the prince’s furious eye. The prince, predictably, was in night clothes, but his shirt was pale green silk, and his loose pants were black. He took one look at Ray, took one look at Michael and the Rose Thief huddling on the floor, and let out a guttural shriek and a yell for “Guards!” A glint of metal alerted Ray to the dagger clenched in Gavin’s fist and the murderous intent in the prince’s green eyes.

Ray didn’t think, only moved. He sprinted around the bed and grasped the hand with the dagger as he collided with the prince. His free arm pushed against Gavin, trying to prevent him from getting to the other two men on the floor. “Gavin, Gavin, stop, stop,” Ray cried. Gavin struggled against him, but Ray held on, using all his might to stop the prince’s forward movement.

“Let go of me, you treacherous double!” the prince shouted.

Over Gavin’s shoulder, Ray saw a flash of movement in the shadows back in the prince’s room. Ray met the dark gaze of Shadles, saw the assassin’s arm move as he lunged forward, and reacted instinctively. He used Gavin’s momentum to his advantage, suddenly twisting them both around and shoving Gavin to the bed.

A fiery pain sliced deeply into Ray’s right shoulder as he spun, and he felt a knife slide in and out of his flesh and muscle. He flinched and hissed in pain. Gavin squawked indignantly, sputtering weird noises that Ray assumed were supposed to be protests. He didn’t really have time to think about that, however. An arm hooked around Ray’s throat and pulled him up off of Gavin. He had time to see Gavin’s expression change from fury and resent to horror and realization before he automatically went limp. Ray supposed it was his body impulsively giving up, but it seemed to work. Shadles couldn’t hold on to him and slit his throat at the same time, though the knife had been on its way there. Shadles was forced to drop him, or else awkwardly end up on the floor, too.

Ray’s shoulder was wet with hot blood, and every time he tried to use that arm, his muscles and nerve endings in his shoulder screamed in burning pain. He glanced up to see the Rose Thief and Michael still on the ground. Michael was in no state of mind to help. The Rose Thief met Ray’s eyes and didn’t react. To Ray, it seemed a challenge, but he didn’t dwell on it. Frankly, he didn’t have the time.

Gritting his teeth through the pain, Ray twisted around and kicked at Shadles’s knees. The assassin had turned his attention back to the prince, but now leaped away from Ray’s attack. Gavin scrambled further onto the bed to regain his wits, his hand a vice grip on his own dagger. Ray rolled to his feet and drew his sword, but Shadles was already coming at him. Ray thrust his left arm up as the square-jawed man brought his knife down, their forearms meeting and glancing the knife away from Ray. At the same time, Ray drove his rapier forward.

Later, he figured Shadles did not properly see it coming, and that the assassin’s forward momentum was too great to stop—and in such a small space, there was not much elsewhere to go. Indeed, where would he have gone? Into the wall to be stabbed later? Onto the bed where Gavin waited with a dagger? But the options did not change the outcome. The blackened blade plunged into Shadles’s gut, sliding easily out his back covered in slimy blood. With a stunned grunt, Shadles slumped forward, limp and heavy. Ray’s right hand turned unbearably ice cold, so he let go of his sword and stumbled back, letting the assassin fall. Shadles was not quite dead yet, but the light was quickly fading from his dark, glittering eyes. A bit of blood dribbled out of his mouth and down into his twisted goatee.

With his last vestiges of strength, Shadles flung his arm forward and grabbed Ray’s ankle. Ray, still stepping backwards, lost his balance and dropped. He landed on his elbows, and he nearly blacked out from the hot pain in his wounded shoulder and icy pain in his right hand. His vision edged with red. Ray kicked wildly and began to scream, hoarsely and as loud as he could. Dimly he was aware of Gavin hopping off the bed and pulling Shadles back, but not before Ray’s foot connected with the assassin’s face.

Ray felt hands slide under his uninjured left arm and around his chest. The flutter of a cape told him it was the Rose Thief, finally choosing to help out. Ray couldn’t seem to stop screaming. He thought his hand was going to fall off, thought it was going to turn to ice and shatter into pieces. He refused to get up, despite the Rose Thief’s best efforts, curling into a ball around his hand.

“Stop being a baby!” the Rose Thief hissed. “It’s just a knife wound, it can be healed easily by a Mage!”

Ray did his best to catch his breath, but it only meant that his screams turned into loud gasping sobs. He could only shake his head and hope for oblivion. Gavin stood up and kicked the body of the assassin aside, declaring him dead. He remained back by the connecting door, though, the body between him and Ray.

At this time, the guards finally decided to show up. They burst through the door, all shouting and clanking metal. “What’s going on here!” yelled one. “Where is the intruder?”

And that was when the Enderman showed up. With a sucking, warping sound, it appeared at the foot of the bed. The shouts of the guards cut off like they were being strangled. The temperature of the room seemed to drop. The Rose Thief backpedaled to press himself against the wall, and Michael, nearest to it and still on the ground, shuffled quickly backwards before freezing in place, his eyes wide and locked onto the Enderman. Ray weakly craned his neck to look at it only to see it striding straight for him.

“No,” Ray moaned. He couldn’t find the strength to move, to get away from the dark skeletal beast. “No, no, no, no!” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gavin raise his dagger and charge towards the Enderman. But just then, the Enderman reached down, curled its long fingers around Ray’s right arm, and teleported.

As soon as the Enderman touched his skin, the cold poison-like feeling spread from the contact. It chilled Ray’s body to the core and sapped him of any will to move. Then his ears were filled with the sucking sound, and pressure pushed down on him from all sides. His vision faded to black. Everything popped back a second later, and the Enderman was dragging him along grass. His shoulder was numb, possibly going into shock, and his vision was edged with black now. He felt close to unconsciousness. The open window of Michael’s room was clear in his vision, and he screamed as loud as he could.

Help me! Help me!

The Enderman twisted around and slid its other long, black hand over Ray’s mouth, muffling his cries for help. In order to keep this grip on Ray, however, it let go of Ray’s arm and instead wrapped its narrow arm around Ray’s chest. Wherever the Enderman touched turned icy cold. Ray’s movements were sluggish, and he didn’t know how much longer he could struggle, how much longer he could stay awake. He saw Gavin appear at the window, point, and shout, “There!

Ray was once more surrounded by the warping noise and the pressure, and he and the Enderman reappeared farther down the courtyard gardens, farther away from the window. But the prince leaned out and continued pointing, though now Ray couldn’t hear him.

Something made creaking and dry cracking noises at Ray’s feet. The soft dirt parted underneath them, and then thick tree roots surged from the earth and wrapped around his and the Enderman’s legs. The Enderman opened his mouth like a skull’s jaws falling open and let out a horrible screech not unlike a record player transmitting white noise. It yanked its legs free as the tree roots around it turned gray and died, the roots shattering into woodchips. But more sprouted and grabbed at the Enderman, and the ones around Ray kept their hold despite the beast’s best efforts to pull him free.

The roots climbed further up Ray’s legs like snakes, some of them reaching for his arms. It slowed the Enderman down for long enough that he saw Gavin rush out of the servant’s door into the garden with his quiver slung quickly over his shoulder, an arrow already nocked on his bow. He had to have been a hundred yards away at least, but still he raised his bow and prepared to fire. But another figure followed Gavin out the door. His vision fading, his breath haggard, he identified it as Ryan Haywood, illuminated by a glowing staff apparently made out of different entwining woods.

Gavin shot off two arrows in rapid succession. The arrows shone with a golden aura, and each one found their mark in the Enderman’s eyes. The Enderman screeched again and fell backwards, letting go of Ray. Ray slumped back as well, but he was caught by the creaking tree roots. He could feel them writhing underneath his back as they formed into a suitable net. He fought to hang onto his consciousness, but he was fading, fading. He blinked, and Gavin was hovering over him. He blinked again and Ryan and a guard or two were there. He blinked once more and a full crowd had gathered, but now Ryan was gripping his hand.

“We’ve got you,” Ryan said with a soft smile. “You’re safe now.”

Ray managed the tiniest of nods and twitched his hand in an attempt to squeeze Ryan’s. Then he promptly and properly passed the fuck out.

Chapter Text

Ray slept for a long time. He didn’t remember any specific parts of his dreams, just vague feelings of floating and of being watched. When he opened his eyes again, he did so without ceremony. He was lying on his back in a room he didn’t recognize, his shoulder aching deeply, dressed down to his boxers with bandages wrapped around his shoulder and chest. He didn’t feel much like sitting up. It wasn’t because he felt weak, but because he felt like there was still a haze of sleep hanging over him. He thought he should at least get his bearings before sleeping again, though.

The bed was plush and clean, with white sheets and a black quilt stitched and lined with red. The frame was of dark polished wood with a tall, extravagant headboard carved with incredible and mostly floral designs. The headboard clearly took a very long time to make. On one side of the bed, his glasses (which he immediately grabbed) were folded neatly on a bedside table. Against the wall on the other side of the bed, next to his head, rested the staff he saw Ryan using previously. Close up to it now, he could see the several different types of wood making up the staff. It looked as though several small trees were all wrapped together, starting from the dull base, twisting tightly together until the top, where they all spread out in crooked branches. He was by no means a botanist, but he recognized birch and redwood, something that was probably oak, and then a wood or two that could have been anything.

To see the rest of the room, he had to sit up, an action that made his shoulder twinge painfully, making him grunt softly. This alerted Ryan to the fact that he was awake. Gavin, however, remained asleep at the end of Ray’s bed, still in his bed clothes, he himself sitting on a stool and curled over to rest his head and arms on the mattress. His bow and quiver were leaning against the bed beside him. Ryan had been dozing on a desk chair, and he awoke with a little jerk of his head when Ray moved and grunted.

Unlike Gavin, Ryan was fully dressed, though from its slightly rumpled appearance, it seemed he had been dressed for a while. It was a different outfit than Ray last saw him in. He had a complicated-looking black leather vest that fitted over him tightly with gold buttons. His shirt was undyed and had the longest, billowing sleeves that Ray had ever seen, though the sleeves split apart at the inside of his elbow, showing off his forearms, and were loosely tied at the wrist to help keep them more in place. His pants were beige, his belt of black leather and sporting a few pouches. The belt held up a floor length strip of cloth that could not rightfully be called a skirt, for it did not quite reach all the way around his waist and instead left his right hip exposed. His laced black boots were calf height and hard soled with its heel raised up about an inch.

“Thank the Tower you’re awake,” said Ryan.

The Mage paused, as if expecting Ray to respond. Ray merely continued his observance of the room. Several tasteful landscape paintings as well as pastels of artful buildings decorated the otherwise drab stone walls. A fireplace was directly opposite the bed, and next to it was situated an obscenely large wardrobe. The entire wardrobe was made of the same dark, polished wood, the main section tall and made entirely of carved doors. It also had a set of drawers on either side of the main section. To the left of the bed was the wall of windows, and Ray could tell from his position that he was higher than the second floor. To the right, near the far wall, was the door to the room. To Ray’s immediate right, however, sat the desk (in front of which Ryan had been dozing) with a large framed mirror hung over it. A glass of water and a tray of bread and cheese were set on the desk.

When Ray failed to respond in an adequate amount of time, Ryan continued talking as he reached over to feel Ray’s forehead. “Now that you’re awake, though, I can heal your shoulder better. Healing always goes better when the patient is alert. I also want you to tell me everything that happened last night, from your perspective.”

Ryan moved to sit on the bed and started casting a spell on Ray’s shoulder. Ray looked out the window, barely paying attention to Ryan as he talked. He regretted waking the Mage now. He just wanted to go back to sleep. He related last night’s incidents in the drabbest way possible, describing everything with short sentences and surely leaving a lot out… until he got to the part where he fought Shadles. “He came towards me and I—I, uh…” He looked down at his hands, resting on his lap. “I killed him. I stabbed him right in the gut. I—I didn’t even think it would—it would work? I just…”

Ryan rubbed Ray’s back in a soothing manner. “It was you, or him. The other guy, the one who drew all the guards away, was eventually killed, too. They both deserved it. Try not to dwell on it.”

Ray frowned at his hands. What freaked him out the most about that whole thing wasn’t the murder itself, but his reaction to it. He frankly did not feel any different, and that scared him. He always thought that if he ever murdered someone, he would feel guilty, or at least just… different somehow. He shook his head. It was an accident. It was him or Shadles. It was self-defense. He sighed, then suddenly remembered something else.

“My sword, what happened to it?”

Ryan shrugged. “I guess you let go of it? I don’t know, but Gavin would know for sure. You can ask him when he wakes up.” He smiled fondly at the boy. “He stayed up until about five in the morning waiting for you to wake up.”

“What for?”

“To properly thank you, probably. You did save him from an assassin.” Ryan sighed again and stood up. He started to pace the length of the bed as he mused out loud. “Ray, I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve never seen anyone survive being grabbed by an Enderman. Of course, usually they go to kill you immediately anyway, but if they survive, oftentimes they just… go to sleep and drop off. The fact that you woke up so soon afterwards bodes well for you. Though… I don’t know why it would keep you alive. I’m worried about how it got here, too. I mean, I knew they could get past the ward, but I modified the spell so they shouldn’t be able to tell where they’re teleporting exactly. But to be so bold, and to specifically target you, the double…”

Ryan trailed off, suddenly lost in thought. He jerked back to reality when Ray drew in a hiss. “What is it? What’s wrong?” he asked quickly.

Ray flexed his right hand. “It’s nothing, just… it got icy all of a sudden.”

“All of a…” Ryan grabbed Ray’s wrist, nearly yanking him off the bed, and hovered his other hand over Ray’s palm. A shimmering glow filled the space between their hands. “How long have you been feeling this cold? How long, Ray?”

Ray was baffled by Ryan’s agitation. He stuttered at first, trying to reconnect his mouth to his mind. “Since… about three days ago? An Enderman appeared in the Ruby Kingdom after an Ender Pearl shattered…”

“Did any of the shards fly into your hand?” Ryan asked curtly, his gaze frantic and intense as it locked onto Ray’s.

“I, uh, yeah, but—but Caleb said he got all of them out?”

Ryan shut his eyes for a moment, breathing loudly through his nose. Then, he readjusted his hovering hand and said, “Not all of them. Caleb is a good enough healer, but you are unique. He doesn’t know what to look for. He missed one. I’m sorry, but this will hurt.” Ryan’s eyes fluttered open and glowed gold as an intense pinching feeling erupted in Ray’s palm. He bit his tongue and resisted crying out. A tiny wound opened up, letting loose a single bead of blood and releasing the smallest sliver Ray had ever seen. It floated in between Ryan and Ray, no wider than a piece of thread, no longer than the radius of a penny. Then, Ryan swiped it away and tossed it into the glass of water that had been sitting on the desk behind him.

“They’ve been tracking you,” Ryan said, pacing the bed again. “I’ve never—I’ve never seen them do this before.”

Ray rubbed his hand with a grimace and gazed at Gavin. The prince had barely stirred during all of this; he really was sound asleep. “As you said, I’m a unique guy,” Ray said with a shrug.

A door slammed shut. Ray and Ryan both thought someone had entered the room, but it wasn’t until Ray heard Michael say “Jack, Jack, the screen changed!” that he knew what was happening. Before Ryan realized what had changed, Ray had shoved the covers aside and lunged for the desk to stand eagerly in front of the mirror, the pain in his shoulder a mere dull ache now.

“Michael!” Ray said happily, relief flooding through his stomach and temporarily lifting the haze of sleep from his head. Only a short while had passed for Michael, who was still in front of Ray’s computer looking in. A few seconds later, Michael was joined by Jack and Ryan running over from the direction of his front door, and they crowded around Michael to peer into the screen. Michael grinned at Ray, his smile leeching some of the tension from his face.

“Ray! You look a little worse for wear than when I last saw you,” Michael greeted.

“I can’t believe—you weren’t kidding!” Jack exclaimed.

“I didn’t actually believe you,” said the Ryan in the mirror. “When you said there were weird symbols, and then one time you saw Ray…”

Mage Ryan rushed over to stand next to Ray, nearly colliding with the lad, his expression baffled and confused. “What? What is this? What am I—What…”

Mirror Ryan looked equally as confused. Michael and Jack glanced at him before returning their gaze to the computer screen. “Why am I in there, too?” Mirror Ryan asked, pointing.

Ray gently bumped Mage Ryan to a comfortable distance with his hip. “Ryan, meet Ryan,” he said, grinning. "It's not you, Ryan, not exactly. I'm in some weird other world." Speaking to the Mage, he said, “These are my friends from my world.”

“Ray, what’s with the bandages?” Michael asked, his face serious again. “Are you okay?”

As Mage Ryan stroped to the side and moved close to the mirror to examine it, Ray said, “Yeah—yeah I am now. Got into a bit of trouble, but…” He paused, debating whether or not to tell them he got stabbed, and debating whether or not to tell them that he was healed by magic. One step at a time, he decided. “But it’s nothing.”

Mage Ryan tapped the mirror experimentally. Michael frowned at him, but it was still solidly a mirror. “It’s like a window…” said the Mage under his breath. Ray, in the meanwhile, was just content to see Michael again. And Jack and Ryan, he supposed. But more importantly, Michael. Because this Michael didn’t go all looney and attack him. This Michael was happy to see him. He didn’t know how long this communication would last, and he wanted to drink in these familiar faces before they were whisked away again.

“Michael said that you said you’d been gone for two months,” Jack said. When Ray confirmed this, he continued, “How long has it been for you since you last saw us?”

Ray counted on his fingers. “What, like, three days, I think? Just about?”

Michael shook his head. “It’s been about an hour for me.”

The Ryan in the mirror frowned and pulled back, reaching into his pocket for his phone. “I’m gonna do some quick math on that,” he said in a low voice.

Mage Ryan, in the meantime, whipped around to stare at Ray. “You mean this has happened before?” he asked incredulously, just a little too loud. Ray flinched at his accusatory tone, though he was sure the Mage didn’t mean it.

“Y-yeah, though last time it didn’t last this long…”

“It changed when I approached the computer,” Michael said helpfully. “It snapped back to a fucking weird sort of loading screen with changing strange symbols. And now it’s back again, when Ryan came by.”

“It didn’t happen when I entered the apartment,” Jack said. “That’s why I didn’t believe you at first. I thought the Xbox was just glitching out.”

The Mage snapped to attention and leaned on the desk. Ray frowned and glanced back at the bed. Prince Gavin was still asleep at the end of the bed, unnoticed and unseen by the three men in the mirror. “You said there were strange symbols? What did they look like?” the Mage asked impatiently.

Michael shrugged and began searching Ray’s desk for a piece of paper and pencil. As he sketched, he said, “I mean, they’re not showing up now, obviously, but I’ve been staring at them for the past hour. I can’t remember them all—they go by so fucking fast—but I think a few of them looked like this?” He held up the paper close to the screen, obscuring all of them save for Michael’s fingers. The symbols reminded Ray of embellished Nordic runes, perhaps with a little Elder Scroll flavor thrown in.

Mage Ryan clucked his tongue and snapped his fingers. A sheet of paper appeared next to him, and he twirled his fingers at it. Ink appeared on the page like it was bleeding through a page beneath it, perfectly copying Michael’s scribbles. “I’ll need to research these…” he mused, more to himself than to anyone. “I’ve got to have something on them…”

Michael pulled the paper away again, revealing that Mirror Ryan had approached the screen again. He seemed struggling to hold back a smile. “You really are in fucking Minecraft,” he said breathlessly. “It’s been an hour for us, but three days for you. That’s how long a fucking—that’s how long a Minecraft day is.” He laughed, eliciting raised eyebrows from Jack and Michael. He had to walk away from the screen, he couldn’t handle the absurdity. “You’re in Minecraft! This is ridiculous!”

Mage Ryan, too, turned from the mirror, held out his hand to allow his staff to fly into it, and headed towards the door, the paper he summoned trailing behind him in the air. “I have to study this,” he said, flapping his hand at the paper.

Ray nodded at him and glanced quickly at the mirror. He reached out with a hand and pressed it against the cool silver surface. “I have a feeling this is goodbye for now,” he said. Michael held up his own hand and put it on the screen so that it was against Ray’s.

“We’ll figure it out, Ray,” Michael said. “We’ll—we’ll get you back, somehow.”

As soon as Mage Ryan opened the door to leave, the mirror snapped back to normal, leaving Ray with just the reflection of his tired face. The relief he had felt quickly seeped out of him, and he let his hand fall as he turned back to the bed. The door slammed behind Ryan, and Ray watched Gavin stir. He climbed back into bed, and the moving mattress finally nudged Gavin awake. He blinked sleepily, his hair sticking up in all directions. Ray resisted the urge to ridicule the prince’s bedhead.

“Good morning, asshole.”

Gavin’s face immediately warped into a scowl. He opened his mouth to retort before evidently deciding against it, his cheeks warming to a delicate pink. He pursed his lips, straightened his back, and pointedly looked away from Ray. “I wanted to thank you properly for—uh—saving my life last night… I owe you my life, and if there’s any way to repay you…”

“Yeah, whatever,” Ray said, flopping down on his side and throwing the covers over himself so that his back was to Gavin. His head and shoulders felt heavy since the mirror returned to normal, and he really just wanted to sleep it off. “I’m going back to sleep.”

He heard Gavin make an offended noise, but once again, the prince bit back any retorts he might have had. When the prince gathered up his bow and quiver with a clatter of wood and headed for the exit, he said under his breath, “This is what I receive after staying up all bloody night…”

Ray rolled his eyes at the fuming prince and let Gavin storm out. Ray rubbed his face and sighed heavily. Seeing Michael and the others had seemed to do more harm than good, despite the brief respite. Now he just wanted to go home more than ever.  He shivered and curled up under the covers, and as he looked up at the mirror, he realized Ryan had also taken the glass of water away.


 Back in Ray’s apartment, the clock finally ticked to the next minute.

Chapter Text

Ray lost all sense of time as he drifted in and out of sleep. In his waking periods, he would watch the sunlight progress across his floor as though in a haze and reflect on, well, everything. The dreams he would slip into, where he no longer felt like he was being watched, but he certainly felt alone and like he was floating; the events surrounding the assassin and the Enderman; the strange loading screen that Michael had reported—these all got plenty of consideration. And Ray had nothing to show for it. It didn’t help that now his mind felt fuzzy and distracted. He still felt as clueless as he was when he arrived in this world, except that now he knew that someone had been tracking him.

He shivered at that thought. Someone wanted him bad enough to send Endermen after him, to shatter an Ender Pearl in his hand and track the shard. He could still sometimes feel the sensation of the Enderman’s hands around him, covering his mouth and wrapping around his chest. The memory felt oily and cold. Someone wanted him, and instinct told him it was someone he knew—well, some copy of them, anyway. But who?

At some point, he was woken up by Jack entering his room. By this time, Ray’s food tray (which he had not touched) had been replaced, this time with fresh bread and a couple slices of poultry. He had a new water glass, too. Jack was as fancy as Ray remembered, with a dark green, long-sleeved coat embroidered brilliantly with gold thread, brown pants, dirt-encrusted leather knee-high boots, and a short navy cape. Gemstones on gold and silver sparkled at Jack’s throat and fingers. Jack sat on the desk chair and reached out to put a hand on Ray’s arm. His hand felt rough on Ray’s skin.

“Hey, how are you feeling?” Jack asked with a smile. “I heard an Enderman grabbed you.”

“Yeah,” Ray said. It felt like it took a lot more energy than normal to speak. He didn’t even sit up to talk to Jack, instead lying there limply. “Wasn’t fun.”

“I also heard,” said Jack, “that you saved Prince Gavin from an assassin.” He gave Ray an odd look, as though sizing him up. “Perhaps we misjudged you. Either way, the king isn’t here at the castle, but word has been sent to him, so he should be here in a few days. He’ll want to thank you personally for protecting his heir.”

Ray shook his head and swallowed his laughter. “Yeah, sure.” He rolled his head over to look at Jack directly. “Guess you’ll have to start recognizing me as an individual person.”

Jack flinched at that and stood up. “We are sorry about that,” he said calmly. “For all we knew at the time, there was nothing special about you. We realize now that allowing you to hang wouldn’t have done anything but temporarily raise morale. It was not a long-term solution, and an innocent would have died.”

Ray did laugh this time, letting out a short bark. “Yeah, good thing the actual convict showed up on time.”

Jack sighed and shook his head. As he prepared to leave, though, he paused. “How did you know about the assassination, anyway? You showed up right on time.”

Ray rolled onto his side and threw the covers over his shoulder. “Go away,” he said. Jack hesitated a moment more, before striding out of the room, deciding in the end to not argue with the current hero and apparently bedridden man.

Ray was next woken up by muffled voices just outside his door, voices he recognized immediately as Gavin’s and Michael’s. They were arguing.

“He’s sleeping!” Gavin was saying, his voice pitched and frustrated. “You can’t disturb him!”

“That hasn’t stopped you or Jack!” Michael snapped back. “Or the servants! Why am I the only one who’s not allowed? Don’t be such a child.” Michael pushed through the door despite Gavin’s protests, and Ray lay still and pretended to still be asleep. The door shut behind Michael with a loud snap, the prince evidently remaining outside the room. Ray’s heart suddenly sped up as the captain approached his bed, choosing to stand on the side with the windows. The last time he had seen Michael, the lad had gone positively mad. Ray found himself fearing retribution or continuation, and so faked unconsciousness.

Michael was no fool, however. “I know you’re awake,” he said. Ray kept his eyes closed and didn’t respond. After a few seconds of no reply, Michael snapped, “Do you take me for a fucking moron!?” Ray heard a sudden movement of fabric, as though Michael started an action and stopped it suddenly. He concentrated mainly on staying limp and heavy—not exactly challenging for the mood he was in.

Michael sighed heavily, and Ray felt the mattress move as Michael sat down on it. From the sound of his muffled voice, it seemed he had put his head in his hands. “He left, you know,” he said. A pause. Ray didn’t need to guess to realize he was talking about the Rose Thief. “He appeared suddenly and disappeared just as suddenly in the confusion with the Enderman.” He laughed, but it was without mirth. “That’s just fucking like him. The breeze arises without warning and leaves soon after, leaving no trace of it behind.”

How poetic, Ray thought wryly. Now please go away. This has nothing to do with me.

“He couldn’t have stayed for a little bit fucking longer…” The mattress shook as Michael moved, and Ray felt a hand on his exposed shoulder. He shuddered violently and scooted back, suddenly spurring himself into action. Michael had clearly not expected that reaction, and stared, stunned, his hand hovering sad and forgotten in the air, as Ray put his back against the headboard. The captain was wearing a loosely fitted yellow silk shirt that tied with string at the wrists. A short cape made out of bear pelt was attached to his shoulders, and his pants were dark brown and held up by a sword belt with no weapons in sight. Ray couldn’t see his shoes from his angle.

“I knew you were awake,” Michael said finally.

“Get out,” Ray said, his voice hard. He could feel his pulse in his throat, and all of his muscles felt tense and wired.

Michael’s expression softened, and he reached for Ray’s hand. “Oh please don’t be like that,” he said. “I only meant—I haven’t seen him in so long…”

Ray knocked his hand away. “No! Don’t touch me, I—I did not give you permission to touch me.”

Michael rubbed his hand and did his best to look wounded, his eyebrows drawing together and the corners of his mouth drooping. “Ray…” he said tenderly. Ray resisted the urge to shiver. “There’s no need to be so—so cold. It’s just us.”

“What about Gavin, huh?” Ray said sharply. Michael’s face twitched in a barely restrained flinch. “Here I thought it was ‘in the past now.’”

He expected Michael to get angry, but instead the captain carefully schooled his face into a neutral expression. But he still sought Ray’s eyes, and when he spoke, his voice belied the broiling passions inside. “He and I could never be like how you and I were…”

“That’s it,” Ray said. “Get out, or I’ll fucking scream and raise an alarm. Go on, get out!” Michael lurched up from the bed, eyes going wide. He opened his mouth, but Ray cut him off. “Get the fuck out of this room. I bet Gavin’s still waiting outside, I’m sure he’d love to crash this fucking party.” He flapped his hands at Michael in a shooing motion, and Michael narrowed his eyes so that they glittered like the edge of a steel blade. But the captain finally headed for the exit. Ray flipped him off as he went and bade him farewell with, “And fuck you. I am not him.”

Michael paused at the door to glance one last time at Ray before wrenching the door open and slamming it behind him. Ray remained upright for a while as he waited for his heartbeat to calm down. He tried desperately to distract his thoughts from the captain, thinking instead of the Michael back home. He reminded himself over and over again of his friends back home, of the jokes they shared with each other, the games they played together. When he was able to relax his muscles again, he slid down between the sheets and curled up into a tight ball on his side. He may have drifted off during that time, but he couldn’t be sure.

Ray’s next visitor was the prince again. Judging by the dimming sunlight, it was probably around dinnertime. Ray must have slept at some point, because someone had come in and lit a fire in the fireplace without his realizing it. Wearing a fresh green tunic, Gavin stood by the bedside and crossed his arms huffily. “You need to eat,” he said simply.

“I’m not hungry,” Ray said, which was only half true. Sometimes his stomach would gnaw hollowly, but Ray had no appetite, and after a while, everything could be ignored. The thought of eating was just not appealing.

“Let me rephrase that,” said the prince haughtily. “You will eat. I did not get this saving you from that Enderman” He shoved back his left sleeve to reveal what looked like an ugly red bruise along the inside forearm. “—just to let you starve yourself to death!” He tugged the sleeve back down, marched over to the desk, and grabbed the tray of food. Ray tried to protest, but Gavin balanced the tray on one hand and hopped onto the bed to kneel on the mattress. When Gavin pulled the pillows out from underneath him, Ray finally gave in and shifted into a sitting position, allowing the pillows to prop him up. Gavin laid the tray across Ray’s lap and bounced off the bed again.

“I’m not feeding you,” he added with a sneer. “That’s demeaning. Besides, you’re fully capable of feeding yourself.”

Ray covered his mouth with a hand to snort. But when Prince Gavin turned to leave, Ray felt a moment of panic rise in his throat. “Gavin!” he said, not quite loud enough to be a shout. Gavin gave him a startled and confused look. The back of Ray’s neck prickled with embarrassed heat. He didn’t really have a follow-up statement, so he just stared at the tray on his lap.

“Do you want me to stay or go?” Gavin snapped. “Don’t be so indecisive.” Without waiting for a true answer, he walked out of the room, leaving Ray with his bread. It was probably just as well; Ray didn’t have a true answer.

Ray picked at the bread, ripping it into tiny pieces before methodically eating them. He ignored the poultry, for it was disgustingly room temperature now, but the bread was fine enough. It was sort of difficult to make bread disgusting. He didn’t get any joy from eating the bread, but the act of tearing it apart was mildly therapeutic. With such a repetitive task at hand, he allowed his mind to empty, and for a short while, he didn’t feel nearly as hollow and lonely as he had been feeling, though his limbs still felt heavy.

By the time he finished the bread and water, Ray was feeling restless. It was almost completely dark outside his windows, the sun having set very quickly. He threw back the covers and began to wander about the room, having no real desire to leave it. Besides that, he was still wearing nothing but his boxers and the bandages wrapped around his shoulder and chest.

He walked over to the windows and unlatched one of them. The windows were tall, but hinged in iron and swung outwards, making the translucent white curtains flutter where they were tied against the wall. The fresh, sweet breeze washed pleasantly over Ray’s face, and he leaned against the stone sill and closed his eyes. He guessed that he was four stories up, and he was facing a different part of the gardens. Far down to the right, he could see the disturbed earth where the roots had burst out of the ground, but directly in front of him he could see a cleared, grassy area with a few archery targets set up in a row against the stone wall. Off to the left was a sandy area with some wooden dummies dumped in a haphazard pile on the side.

Ray pushed away from the window and paced around the room a few more times, admiring the art and just trying to gather his thoughts through his mental haze. Michael’s visit had bothered him more than he was willing to admit. But mostly, it just made him even more homesick.

He approached the wardrobe and experimentally opened the drawers, sliding them smoothly out to reveal their vacancy. He didn’t really know what he expected, but he had sort of hoped that there were at least some clothes he could put on. With a sigh, he closed the last drawer and pulled the wardrobe doors open. This too was empty, but the smell of polished wood was more aggressive here than in the drawers, so he breathed that in for a few moments. It wasn’t that pleasant, but it made his nose tingle and itch, and it was something.

Something caught his eye in the lower right of the wardrobe. Orange light from the fireplace was flickering between the back and bottom of the wardrobe, as though the wood did not quite meet up correctly there. Ray frowned and crouched down, sitting on the ground to get closer to it. He would have thought that a wardrobe this fancy would be constructed better.

“Something in there interest you?”

Ray jumped and turned to see the Rose Thief leaning against the wall between windows, his long cape waving gently around his ankles. Ray felt his face flush, and he quickly stood, closing the wardrobe doors behind him.

“Not really. The whole thing is empty.”

The Rose Thief laughed. “Looking for clothes, huh? I’m sure it is empty. They put you in my old room, and I’m sure they took everything out of here when I escaped execution.”

“Such scandal,” Ray agreed. He headed back for the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. “And you still think you were framed?”

The Rose Thief sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He, too, walked over to the bed and sat next to Ray. “There’s no way for me to prove it, since I had no alibi for the time other than being asleep in bed, but yes.” He glanced at Ray. “King Geoff is the last person I would ever try to murder.”

“Why?”

The Rose Thief sighed again, nervously readjusting his gloves. “I told you before that Michael and I were from neighboring towns, and we were both sent into the knight program here at the castle. Well… when I was about ten, I had been training for two years, and spent my summers at home. Our towns… they are—were—really close to the border of the Ender Kingdom. One day, a bunch of Enderman attacked my town while I was away at the castle.” Here, the Rose Thief’s voice grew thick, and started to crack ever so slightly, but he held on to his emotions tightly. “The town fought against them, but it was apparently like a squadron. Everyone held on for a few days, and some reinforcements came from Michael’s town, just the Lord and Lady—his parents—and a few volunteers. Everyone died. I lost my whole family, my whole town, and Michael lost his parents—and no one knows what the Endermen really wanted, either.

“When that happened, the King, he—well for one, he stopped me from running away and getting myself killed for revenge,” said the Rose Thief with a little laugh. “He offered both Michael and I a permanent place at the castle, since Michael’s brothers were to be the new lords, and—well—I had no town left at all.” He fixed Ray with a dark gaze, his eyes shining too brightly in the firelight. “When I said Geoff was like a second father to us, I meant it. He and Jack personally took care of us, and saw to it that we would be alright. Even when he adopted Gavin as his official heir a year or two later, he always tried to make time for us if we needed it or wanted it. That’s why I could never even think of trying to kill the king. But try telling that to the judges when the clearest evidence was all against you.”

Ray’s heart felt heavy, and he stared at his lap awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he said lamely. A beat. The Rose Thief sighed and stood, walking directly for the window.

“I’ve stayed too long,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay after the Enderman.”

“He misses you, you know,” Ray said, looking up in time to see the Rose Thief halt, his back turned to him. “Michael.”

“I know,” the Rose Thief said, so quietly Ray barely heard him. His head was bowed, as if he was trying to hide his face. Ray thought he heard the Rose Thief add, “And I do too,” but with the fireplace crackling and the sudden flapping of fabric as the thief dashed for the window, Ray couldn’t be sure. And then the Rose Thief was gone, out the window and trailing the scent of roses.

Ray blew air out of puffed cheeks and flopped back on the bed, staring up at the stone ceiling. He might have doubted the Rose Thief before in his claim of being framed, but now he was confident. His doppelgänger had certainly seemed capable of assassination on the ship, but the emotion that was communicated just now was real. Ray now believed in the Rose Thief’s innocence completely.

Good lord, what a mess he was in.

Chapter Text

Ray woke up several times during the night, but he always quickly fell back asleep. He was woken the next morning by three people entering the room. Two of them were servants, both wearing brown and white clothing. One servant carried a tray of food and a bundle of clothing, and the other went to tend to the fireplace. The last person was a woman dressed in a red bodice and a poofy white skirt. Her bodice was long sleeved and ended with white lace that extended over her hands, but as she entered, she rolled the lace back and buttoned it to her sleeves. Her dark brown hair was tied back into a tight bun and entwined with red ribbon. She smiled at Ray as they entered.

“I’m the tailor,” she said. “The one the castle usually calls, anyway. Sir Jack instructed me to make you an outfit to wear for now, and luckily I still had the Rose Thief’s measurements in my books! Anyways, I’m sorry this outfit isn’t terribly fancy, but with the time I had…” Ray noticed for the first time that dark circles were under her brown eyes. She must have worked late into the night.

Ray smiled back at her warmly. “Believe me, I’m not too picky. Thank you.”

The tailor blushed and coughed once into her hand. The servant carrying the food and clothes set the prior on the desk and the latter on the bed. “Now,” said the tailor, “the measurements were from a few years ago, and I’m told you’re… similar to a twin, I guess. So I want you to put on these clothes for me, and I can make any adjustments necessary. I made the pants a bit long anyway, just in case.”

“Sure, yeah, okay.” Ray was in no hurry to move, but he also wanted clothes—and to not impede the nice tailor.

The tailor had made a soft white shirt with billowy short sleeves and a v-neck that could be tied with string. The sleeveless doublet was simple and red, and was loosely laced shut in the front with more white string. It extended a couple inches past his hip, and it was edged with strips of gold. She had thoughtfully embroidered a rose on the left breast, of a dark blood red with a twirling and thorny green stem. The black pants she hemmed with a spell that cut the excess fabric and sewed it in place all at once. The tailor hadn’t been responsible for shoes, but the servant had still brought a pair of red boots, knee high and laced up the back, with hard, inch-high heels. Shoes his size had apparently been easier to find than fitted clothes.

“What, no cape?” Ray asked jokingly.

The tailor smiled. “Maybe next time, sir.”

Once Ray was all set, the tailor promptly packed up and left. Ray took a few moments to admire himself in the mirror and rub at his stubble. His hair was getting a little long, too, which meant it was extra fluffy. He’d have to see if someone around here could cut it for him soon, and lend him those scary-looking straight razors. He stared blankly at the mirror for a few more moments, hoping that the screen would change and show him Michael and the others again. It was a hopeless endeavor, and he knew it, but still he waited. The fruitlessness of the situation lay heavy on his shoulders and in his chest.

Ray felt idle, but he also did not want to do anything. It was a confusing haze which he took about an hour to sort through. During this hour, though, he did manage to eat the tray of food that had been brought in. Finally, he decided to hunt down Gavin and ask for his sword, since he had forgotten to ask for it the last time Gavin was in here. It was something to do, anyway. He put on his sword belt and left.

There was a guard outside Ray’s door. Ray caught him in the middle of a yawn, though the guard snapped to attention when he noticed Ray exiting. He even managed a quick salute, beating his left breast with his right arm, his bits of armor clanking unceremoniously. Ray asked him where Gavin was. The guard wasn’t sure, but told him he might be able to find the prince (and he stressed his honorifics since Ray did not) at his room. At the very least, someone else over there might know where he is.

The castle was massive and showed this off at every opportunity. The hallways were broad enough for four people, the ceilings were tall, and the windows were peaked and large. Though the outside walls were all smooth stone, the inside walls and floor were made of solid stone brick. There weren’t much in ways of decoration, definitely not like the Ruby Castle. Paintings and tapestries were hung intermittently on the walls, and though every alcove had a vase or a statue or something, the castle itself preferred to be bold and stark. Differently colored carpets were in the main hallways, serving as some of the only spots of colors in the castle.

The prince’s room was on the second floor, but Ray took a wrong turn and found himself at a pair of massive oaken doors. There weren’t any guards standing in front of it, despite it looking like an important room, so he grabbed the handles and pulled the heavy doors open. They swung open soundlessly on their iron hinges to reveal an enormous ballroom. The ballroom took up two stories and was as long as he remembered the throne room to be. Elaborate crystal chandeliers sparkled high above Ray as he wandered into the room. The floor was hard golden marble, and his heels clacked loudly against them. There were four staircases in the room, two at either end that curved up to the second floor balcony that ran around three walls, leaving the grand entrance clear to the ceiling. Ray could see more doors on the balcony through the white stone balustrade which must lead to other hallways. At the far end of the ballroom, on that interior balcony, the wall was made entirely of windows with curling, wrought iron frames. Even from this distance, Ray could see the shape of glass doors that would lead to an exterior balcony.

“Are you lost, sir?” came a voice behind Ray. He twirled around to see a guard who must have been patrolling the hallways. He stood awkwardly at the door, waiting for Ray to respond.

“Oh, uh, yes,” Ray said. “Do you know where Gavin is? I need to ask him something.”

“Yes, sir. Please come with me, sir,” said the guard. He closed the ballroom doors behind Ray and gave him a strange look. It seemed that not all of the guards fully trusted Ray—not that he could blame him, since his lookalike was pretty infamous around here.

The guard led him around the second floor, and Ray noticed that they passed the bedroom doors of Michael and Gavin. He shrugged as they passed them by. He couldn’t expect Gavin to be in his room all day. Instead, the guard took him down a different hallway to a door with another guard posted there.

“The prince is in there,” said Ray’s guide. “Probably doing some experiments.” The guard at the door raised a hand in a “stop” motion, though.

“The prince does not like to be bothered now,” he said. “I must ask you, sir, to please wait until he is finished.”

“Who cares,” Ray said, waving aside the guard. “I’m not waiting around for Gavin to be done fucking around.” The guard stepped back automatically, but he looked extremely worried. Ray yanked open the door impatiently and stepped inside, the door closing behind him.

The room was a mess. Or at least, the first half of it was. There were three tables but only two stools, and they were all strewn with paper, books, and carefully sealed ink bottles. Ray still spied a couple papers with huge ink blots on them, though. There were two shelves about Ray’s height but twice as wide as him off to his right, crammed full of jars, small bowls, mortar and pestles, and various ingredients. Ahead of Ray, in the far second half of the room, was what looked like a mini indoor archery range. The floor was clear there, with one straw-stuffed target painted with a bullseye and set up twenty or thirty feet away.

Gavin was standing at the edge of this cleared space, and had just fired off an arrow from his bow when Ray entered. He whipped around angrily, and snapped, “Who said you could enter? How dare you interrupt my practice?” The green shirt he wore had seen better days, its short sleeves singed with past experiments. He had a quiver belted at his hip, and a brown leather armguard on one of his arms. His dark green pants were dirty and ink-stained like he had carelessly wiped his hands on them several times, and his brown boots looked well worn, the leather cracking in some places and showing creases. The warm flush rising in Gavin’s cheeks, however, confused Ray. Was he embarrassed at being interrupted? Or of being seen in these clothes?

“Uh,” Ray said. “Your—your target’s on fire.” Eloquent.

Gavin didn’t even glance behind him, but continued to glare hotly at Ray. The arrow that had plunged into the target had sparked, and now was starting a small flame. Ray supposed that was why that area was completely clear of objects.

“It’s supposed to do that,” Gavin said, looping his bow over his shoulder so that he could cross his arms. “Do you need something from me?”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Do you happen to have my sword? I dropped it, uh… when the assassin guy came.”

“You interrupted me for that?” Gavin did his best to continue looking angry, but ended up looking frustrated and confused, his eyebrows drawn together and one corner of his mouth raised. But when Ray could only hopelessly shrug, his expression softened, and he sighed. He tossed his bow at the table, then unbelted his quiver and tossed that aside too. The objects fell a little short and clattered to the stone floor. He pulled a square of cloth from his pocket and wiped his forehead with it, looking rather disgruntled. “Fine, I suppose we can get it now. It’s in my room.”

Gavin guided Ray back to his room. Ray had expected it to be bigger than Michael’s, but it was actually about the same size. In terms of door placement (but not fireplaces), the room was a mirror of Michael’s, with the connecting door far off to their right when they entered. The bed, immediately in front of them, was bigger, though, with an emerald green quilt embroidered with scarlet and gold. The bed’s frame was pale wood and sharply carved, with four tall posts draped with green. The walls were covered with large paintings, mostly of people and architecture, with a portrait of King Geoff and a young Gavin hanging over the fireplace opposite the bed. A large desk and a waist-high bookshelf were to the left of the fireplace, both of the same pale wood of the bedframe. A wardrobe was nestled between the two big windows. Two green armchairs embroidered with golden leaves and vines were in the middle of the floor in front of the fireplace.

Ray’s rapier was leaning against a pale bedside table, the tip propped against the edge of a stone brick, the handle resting against the table in front of a small lamp. Gavin marched ahead of Ray and grabbed the handle. He turned and held it out to Ray with both hands, the handle on one palm, the blade on the other. Ray immediately took it by the handle, reverently studying it as it shone in the sunlight streaming in through the windows and reflecting off the dull stone. The leather grip felt warm to his hand, and it was a pleasant, familiar weight. The cold heaviness in his chest seemed to lessen as he held on to it. He didn’t realize how long he was staring at it until Gavin spoke again.

“Why did you do it?” asked the prince. Ray let his hand fall, letting the sword rest at his side.

“What do you mean?”

Gavin avoided his gaze, glancing instead at the currently unlit fireplace. “Save me, and—and Michael. I mean, I was only there for a part of it, but you took a bloody knife for me, even when I was… gonna…” He trailed off, his cheeks flushing.

Ray sighed and rolled his stiff right shoulder. “I don’t know, man. I wasn’t thinking much. It’s all kind of a blur. I mostly just wanted everyone to stop freaking the fuck out, and I guess I…” It was Ray’s turn to trail off. He glanced down at his blade. It had been cleaned, its darkened blade pristine. He slid it into the frog attached to his belt. “Listen, I know it’s not my place, really, but currently you guys are all I’ve got. I’m trapped here, in your world, while in my world exact duplicates are wondering what the hell happened to me.” Ray met Gavin’s eyes again. “I know you guys aren’t… them, but…”

Gavin gave him an odd look that Ray couldn’t interpret. “You’re an interesting person, Ray,” he said. He paused for a beat. “I could take you to Ryan, if you’d like. See how he’s faring. Maybe he’s found something by now.”

Ray’s heart fluttered warmly in his chest. “Oh, uh, sure. Yes. Let’s do that.”

When they left Gavin’s room, a guard ran up to them and stopped them, gasping lightly. “My prince,” said the guard. “You shouldn’t go off alone like that.”

“Sod off,” Gavin said, flapping his hands at the guard. “You don’t need to be breathing down my neck at every turn. Besides, I’m not alone. Now go back to your duties, I’m taking him to see Ryan.”

The guard faltered. “My—my prince, are you sure?” He cast Ray a dark, distrustful glance. Ray felt his heart drop in his chest. The guards really didn’t like him, and it kind of hurt, if he was to admit.

Gavin, however, rolled his eyes. “Oh for the Tower’s sake—he saved my life. Do you really think he’s a danger to me?”

The guard bowed his head, clearly giving up. “As—as you desire, my prince.” He slunk off, looking over his shoulder several times before he turned the corner.

The silence between Ray and Gavin was awkward now, so Ray decided to try his best to break it as they navigated the hallways. “Hey, Gavin, how—”

Prince Gavin to you.”

“Yeah, whatever. How did you become prince anyway? Just out of curiosity.”

Gavin shot him a side eyed glance before speaking. “It feels weird telling this to you, when you—or your double, I guess—were already here when I arrived. Geoff probably tells it better than me, anyway.”

“Well Geoff isn’t here right now. Sorry, King Geoff,” he added when Gavin glared a warning at him.

“Fine, fine. I arrived in Venator when I was about eleven or twelve, though ‘arrived’ isn’t really the word for it. I’m originally from a country overseas, and my ship wrecked close to the Venator shore. I don’t remember much about my country, so don’t ask about it, but I was the only survivor of the shipwreck. Hit my head pretty hard, too. As chance would have it, the king was visiting that town, and—this is how he puts it, mind you—he saw me and instantly knew I would be his heir. I didn’t argue much about it; I was a kid with a head injury and no one else. Most people thought I was too old to be claimed as an heir—usually they’re claimed at least four years younger. Lots of people didn’t like that I was technically a foreigner, either, but that all sort of calmed down when they realized I didn’t remember much.”

Ray laughed. “Hah, you’re probably right, I bet he does tell the story better.”

Gavin’s face flushed again. “Well, you’re the one who bloody asked. He took me up to the castle, I met Michael and the other Ray, and it was just great until the other Ray tried to kill Geoff. The end.”

Ray studied Gavin’s face as they started climbing a staircase. Gavin had looked away during his last statements. Ray assumed it was embarrassment—and Ray had laughed at him—but something felt off. He shook his head. This whole world felt off. He was just picking up on the weird dissonance between them, caused by his belief in the Rose Thief’s innocence and Gavin’s lack thereof.

Gavin’s face suddenly brightened when they reached the fifth floor of the staircase and turned towards the hall. It took but a glance to know why—Michael had rounded the corner. Ray ducked back down into the staircase. One would think in a castle this big, he’d run in to less people. Gavin didn’t even notice Ray’s disappearance, grinning as Michael approached him.

There you are,” said Gavin, leaning in close and resting a hand on Michael’s armor-covered chest. “I haven’t seen you since yesterday afternoon.”

Michael’s arm automatically slid around Gavin’s waist, and he quickly pecked him on the cheek. “I’ve been busy trying to make sure there are no more Enderman around the castle. Or criminals. I just visited Ryan to ask him about the ward. Where were you headed? I thought you were in your little study.”

Gavin took a step back so that he could more comfortably look at Michael’s face, but he loosely held on to Michael’s hand. “We were going to check in on Ryan, too, see if he’s come up with anything to help our guest.”

“We?”

Gavin glanced over his shoulder and realized for the first time that Ray was out of sight. He blinked twice, quickly interpreting this new data. “Well, I guess it’s just me, now. Ahh, why don’t you get back to your work? It seems important.”

Michael grinned at Gavin, lifted the prince’s hand, and gently kissed it. “Of course, my prince,” he said in a low, sultry voice. With a wink at Gavin, he continued his walk down the hall, walking right past the staircase without looking at it. Gavin watched him go, and when he disappeared around the corner, the prince wandered towards the staircase. He leaned against the corner and turned his head so he could look down at Ray, who had his back pressed against the wall a little ways down.

“He’s gone,” said Gavin, studying his nails. He glanced at Ray, who slowly made his way up the stairs again. “What, are you scared of him?”

Ray swallowed hard, and suddenly found his shoes very interesting as he stood in front of the prince. “No, it’s just—I don’t feel like dealing with him right now.”

Gavin moved away from the corner, crossed his arms, and tilted his head to the side in a purely curious manner. “And why is that?”

Ray toyed with the hem of his doublet. “Listen—long story short, he thinks I’m someone I’m not. And I’m just not prepared to deal with that at the moment. Can we just go see Ryan now?”

Gavin sighed and patted Ray on the shoulder. “Whatever you want, I guess. You are currently the guest of honor. Come on, he’s this way.”

Chapter Text

Ryan had a whole fucking suite to himself on the fifth floor. Being the only Court Mage obviously had its privileges. As soon as Ray entered, he was met with the warm, slightly musty smell of hay and barn. It took him a moment to realize why. Though the first room appeared to be some sort of waiting room, with green couches, daybed, and armchairs arranged around a brown rug in a welcoming and affable manner, the left wall was a wall of thick glass. The glass looked into another room with no visible exit or entrance, and the exterior windows there were also thick and reinforced with an iron lattice to ensure no one could easily get in. The oddest thing about this room, however, was the cow.

The stone floor on the other side of the glass was absolutely covered with dirt and straw, and there was a pile of hay and dried grass in the corner. A brown white-spotted cow was munching contentedly in the middle of that room, and lazily looked up at Ray as he peered in. He lifted his hand in a slight wave. The cow responded by leaning down and searching for more hay to eat. Ray, meanwhile, looked back at Gavin and pointed at the room.

“Um. What the fuck?”

“Oh,” Gavin responded, flopping down on the daybed and stretching out on his side, propping himself up on an elbow. “That’s Edgar.” Ray nearly snorted, but barely held it in. Gavin caught the amusement, however, and raised an eyebrow. “I’d treat it with more respect. That’s Ryan’s familiar.”

“Edgar. Is a familiar.”

Gavin nodded and yawned. “Supposedly it helps with the ward, but Ryan doesn’t reveal his secrets much.”

Ray glanced back at the cow. “How does he get in there?”

Gavin shrugged one shoulder. “I dunno, magic? I don’t think anyone’s seen him go in there, but he keeps Edgar treated well, at least. The cow certainly seems happy enough.”

Ray rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to ask what they were waiting for when the other door in the suite swung open off to the right. No one was there, but it clearly led to a room that looked like a small study. Gavin jumped up immediately and motioned Ray to join him as he went through the door.

Ryan was not in the room, at least at first. An impressive oak desk sat in the middle of the room facing the door, with a high-backed chair behind it. There were several different knickknacks and papers on it, but it was neatly organized. The only other furniture in the room were two chairs pushed against the wall next to the open door, as well as a few bookcases around the other three walls. Like the Ruby Castle library, the shelves were mostly empty, but each shelf had at least one book on it. The empty spaces, however, were usually occupied by an object of some kind. Ray spied several small potted flowers and leafy plants he couldn’t identify. There was a classy human skull on one bookshelf as well, serving as a bookend. Across the room from Ray and Gavin was a closed door. To the left were the windows, and to the right was another closed door.

Ray entered and stood awkwardly next to Gavin in front of the desk. A few seconds later, the closed door across from them swung open, and Ryan entered. His hair was a mess from running his fingers through it constantly, and dark circles were under his eyes like bruises. He was still in the clothes Ray had last seen him in, which were even more rumpled. He gripped his wooden staff and used it like an unnecessary walking stick.

Ryan nodded his head at Gavin first. “Nice to see you, Your Highness.” His eyes flicked to Ray, and his face visibly brightened. “Ah, Ray! It’s good to see you up and walking around. Oh Tower,” he added, wincing. “It’s been—how long? Two days?”

“Have you slept at all?” Ray blurted. Gavin gave him a sidelong glance, but said nothing.

Ryan ran a hand through his hair and blew out air through puffed cheeks. He shifted his weight on his feet. “I’ve been busy. I’ve had to do upkeep on the ward, and research those symbols…”

“Speaking of those,” Ray said. “Have you found anything?”

Ryan paused for a moment, then beckoned to the two lads to follow him into the next room. “I wish I could say I have all the answers,” he said as they walked. The next room was the size of two rooms, hooking into an L-shape around a corner. It felt a lot more spacious in here, even though there was probably more stuff than in the study. The study, Ray realized, had been small and cozy-feeling. This was broad and actually a little chilly. Large wooden chests were in random places against walls, and sometimes even used as makeshift tables for books and papers. Three cauldrons were spaced around the room, all empty. More bookshelves were in this room, but almost none of the books were stored here. Most of it was ingredients and various necessary tools, and the books that were there looked as though Ryan had written them himself. Another desk with a chair was at the far end of the room, right where the room hooked into an L-shape. Lanterns and torches were everywhere, but the walls were otherwise bare. As they approached the desk, Ray saw that the space around the corner was empty save for a giant circle inlaid into the ground with copper.

“I know I’ve seen those symbols before,” Ryan continued, leaning his staff against the desk and rifling through the papers on it before finally pulling out the symbols Michael had drawn. “But it’s been a long time, and I can’t remember what they might mean. I think it’s an old, complicated spell, but without being sure where it originated from, and with only random symbols that might not even be full words, it’s a lot harder to find. I might not even have the books I need here. I’m worried that’s the case.”

“Are these from before we revived you?” Gavin asked. Ray frowned, confused.

Ryan nodded. “I certainly haven’t seen these in modern times. That’s part of why they’re so hard to locate. And why I’m worried I don’t have the resources I need here.” He sighed heavily, leaning on the desk and bowing his head. “Being alone and doing nothing for over a century muddles your memory sometimes.”

“Hold the fuck up,” Ray said. “What.”

Gavin glanced at him again. “Ryan was a tree before we found him.”

“What. Excuse me, what.” It was so ridiculous, Ray could barely comprehend it.

Ryan, however, chuckled at Ray’s bafflement. “Oh, that’s right, you wouldn’t know. It’s true, I was a tree. When Caleb was a Court Mage here, with King Geoff, he and the king travelled near the border of Venator and the Ender Kingdom. That was where they found me, as a tree. Caleb eventually managed to turn me back, and since I was an old Mage and clearly on the side of the Venator royalty, I was invited back to the castle. So there were two full Mages here until Caleb left.” Ryan grinned mischievously. “I am told I was a beautiful tree.”

Ray blinked at Ryan. He couldn’t seem to make his face form any sort of expression. A chill began creeping up the back of his neck, making his skin prickle. “Ryan, why were you a tree.”

Ryan’s smile dropped, and he looked at Gavin before responding. “I guess it doesn’t hurt to tell you about it. A lot of records about this have been lost to time, mind you. A long time ago, the Ender Kingdom began lashing out at Venator, their neighboring kingdom. Enderman started appearing, too, and you know how hard those are to deal with. As a Venator Mage, I was recruited to help fight in what would be called the Ender War. I don’t know if “war” was really the right term, but I digress. Many of the other magical people fled before that last battle ended, and plenty others died, so I was one of the last people there. I expended a lot of energy making sure the Ender Kingdom would have a much harder time crossing the border, and an enemy Mage took that opportunity to change my form to a much more harmless one. I joke about it, but… it wasn’t really pleasant. It was actually quite lonely.”

Ray frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. He remembered that Caleb had mentioned that magical people were more… malleable. He supposed this was sort of what Caleb had meant—at least partly. Now, however, Ray had no idea how to respond. It was still sort of ridiculous.

Ryan smiled again and shrugged. “But I’m here now, and I can help you out, too. Don’t feel too bad about me. Sure, a little information and memories were lost, but new ones were made, and I like you guys.” A realization crossed Ryan’s face as he looked at Ray. “Oh, I am an idiot. I should be checking up on you.”

“I’m fine,” said Ray, though the prickling feeling on the back of his neck wouldn’t go away. He was starting to feel a bit faint as well, as though he has expended far too much energy today already despite only being active for a short while. “Just a bit tired.”

Ryan narrowed his eyes. He walked around the desk and felt Ray’s forehead. “Ray, I know I haven’t slept in two days, but I can still see that your status has been deteriorating since you got in here.” He stepped back but put his hands on Ray’s shoulders, holding the lad at arm’s length. “Endermen are dangerous and nothing to just shrug off. They have very powerful magic, and though your natural resistance helps, you shouldn’t just rely on that.”

Ray shook his head and tried to shrug out from under Ryan’s hands. “I said I’m fine,” Ray insisted. “But I came here to get some fucking information, which you apparently don’t have.”

“Go rest. As soon as I find anything, you will be the first to know, okay?”

“But…” Ray licked his lips and glanced at Gavin, who had once again crossed his arms and waited impatiently. “Do you really have no idea?” He stared desperately into Ryan’s eyes, and the Mage broke eye contact first. Ray took this chance to continue talking, raising his voice as he spoke. “Ryan, someone brought me here. The Mages at the Ruby Castle couldn’t find anything, but they think it was a cross-dimensional portal. And just before the Ender Pearl shattered and summoned an Enderman, I saw someone else’s eye, and I don’t know whose. Ryan, you have to fucking know that it’s not just the Endermen after me. Someone’s sending them. If you know anything, you have to let me know.”

Ryan turned away from Ray and strode over to a nearby bookcase—not to get anything, just to bow his head and think. “I didn’t want to consider this,” he said in a low voice. “He shouldn’t even be alive…” Ray swayed, and Gavin quickly moved to slide an arm under Ray’s.

“Consider what, Ryan?” Gavin asked.

Ryan glanced over his shoulder with a startled look in his eyes, as though he had briefly forgotten the both of them were there. He faced them again, his eyes wide and… scared? “No, it’s better if you don’t know until I’m more certain. I’m sorry, Ray.” He locked eyes with Gavin, and Ray felt the prince slacken in resignation. Gavin sighed.

“Alright, come on, Ray,” he said. “There’s no point when he gets like this.”

Ray pushed away from Gavin. He started to march right up to Ryan, but the prince lurched forward and wrapped his arms around his chest, holding him back. “Who is it, Ryan?” Ray shouted. “What do you know!?” He struggled against Gavin, but the prince was stronger than him. He was being dragged backwards. Ryan, meanwhile, avoided his gaze and turned towards the desk, partially hiding his face. “Tell me what the fuck you know! What aren’t you telling me! You mother fucker! Ryan!

Prince Gavin succeeded in hauling the shrieking Ray back into the study, and the door slammed shut. Gavin didn’t let go of Ray until they were in the first room, at which point Ray twisted around and gripped the front of Gavin’s shirt, putting his face close to the prince’s.

“If you know fucking anything,” Ray hissed, “you fucking tell me right now.” Gavin didn’t even have the decency to look scared or startled, only irritated.

“I don’t bloody know!” Gavin snapped back. “I know about as much about the Ender Kingdom as you do—that’s useful anyway. Do you want me to tell you about its supposed landscape, the population density of magical folk, its jewels and exports, allfrom before the borders shut down and no one came out?”

Gavin half-wrestled, half-shoved Ray on the daybed. Ray slumped against it, his knees on the stone floor, his arms and head resting on the daybed. His throat felt all tight, and he let out a little gasping sob. His eyes welled with hot tears, and he buried his face into the soft cushion. He felt exhausted, his body a dead weight, his head filled with lead.

He jumped when he felt Gavin’s hand on his back, but he still refused to show his face. “I’m sorry,” muttered the prince. “Ryan gets these… secretive habits. He’s always been like this.”

“Gavin…” Ray murmured into the daybed, his voice muffled and cracking. “I don’t think I’m ever getting home. I’m trapped here and someone is hunting me.”

Gavin chewed his lip and glanced over at Edgar, who was lazily staring at them through the glass, rhythmically chewing on something. “You were brought here by a spell. Probably. Which means you can be sent back with a spell, and if anyone can do it, reverse engineer it or whatever, it’s Ryan. Besides that,” he added, rubbing Ray’s back. “You’re safe in this castle. You’re safer here than you would be anywhere else. I promise.”

Ray shifted his head so that one eye was squinting up at Gavin. “Why are you so nice to me?” he asked in a small voice. “I don’t think I’ve been anything but an asshole to you since I got here.”

Gavin exhaled noisily and stood up, extending his hand and waiting for Ray to take it. “You did save my life. And besides… Your double and I were friends at one point. I mean, he betrayed everyone, and you’re a different person, I know. But that counts for something, right? It feels sort of like… a second chance, I guess.”

Ray breathed heavily into the daybed, taking a few moments to calm down. Finally, he lifted his head and allowed Gavin to help him stand. “Yeah, I guess,” Ray agreed reluctantly. Gavin’s choice of the phrase “second chance” well as the prince’s casual reference to the Rose Thief’s “betrayal” unnerved him and made his shoulders tense. Ray had seen how it affected Michael and the Rose Thief, and to have Gavin treat it so nonchalantly seemed odd to him. And, well, it wasn’t the first time he had been called a “second chance.” But maybe Gavin hadn’t been as close to the Rose Thief as Michael had. It had been five years. Maybe he just got over it faster.

“Come on,” said Gavin, guiding him out of the room and back into the giant, open hallways. “I’ll take you back to your room.”


 

“Ray? Ray, wake up.”

Ray came to with a little jerk of his head. For a moment, he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing, partly because he wasn’t wearing his glasses and could barely see anything at all, partly because it just didn’t make sense at first. What he did see was his hand outstretched and resting on the curling iron handle of glass doors. A second later, he realized he was standing, partially dressed in his pants and shirt from yesterday, but without shoes. He blinked sleepily, looking at the wall of windows in front of him, the dark shapes of trees outside and the bright moonlight shining in his eyes, before turning and affirming that he was indeed standing on the interior balcony of the ballroom.

Someone was walking towards him on the main floor, near the bottom of the closest stairs, but by his voice Ray knew it to be Michael. When Ray turned, Michael’s step faltered, and he hesitated before jogging up the stairs, his armor clacking and sliding. At the top, he hesitated once more as Ray retreated a few steps. He raised one arm, outstretched in front of him, and all of his armor glowed bright silver. The silver light drew off of Michael like liquid and converged on one of his tattoos. When the glow faded, Michael wasn’t wearing a single piece of plate armor, leaving him otherwise in a brown tunic, chainmail, soft leather boots, and dull yellow pants.

“It’s okay,” Michael said, lowering his arm again. “You were sleepwalking. One of my guards saw you and didn’t know what to do, so he got me. Said you were heading towards the ballroom. Are you alright?”

Ray paused, staring wide-eyed at the blurry Michael illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the windows, before spinning around and fleeing down the staircase behind him.

“Wait!” Michael cried, giving chase. “Ray—stop!” He caught up to Ray in the center of the ballroom and grabbed Ray’s arm, turning him around. Ray was breathing heavily. “Stop, please. Why do you run from me?”

Ray ripped his arm away from Michael’s grip and took a step back. But he didn’t flee this time. His face screwed up in fury, he gestured wildly with his hands as he shouted. “Oh, please forgive me, but last time I wanted you to help me, you did anything but! You trapped me and hurt me and refused to listen, and now you expect me to open up to you?” Michael flinched as if wounded. There was a tornado in Ray’s head, a whirlwind of emotions and memories. He clutched his head in his hands. He felt like screaming, shrieking, howling. “Fuck off, okay? Just fuck off! Leave me alone!”

“Ray,” Michael said softly, his voice tight. He gently put his hands on Ray’s upper arms as Ray hunched forward, cradling his own head. “I’m sorry, I am so fucking sorry. I never wanted—I was in a bad place. I was lost in my memories and I was selfish, but I never wanted to hurt you, to make you scared of me… Please believe me.”

Ray tried to pull away, but Michael held on. Ray didn’t try for very long. “My back healed, Michael,” he spat, “but you still betrayed my trust and hurt me when I came to you for help, to help. Sorry doesn’t take back your actions. Sorry doesn’t—doesn’t heal the scars on his back.”

Michael cupped one hand to Ray’s jaw, coaxing his face towards him. One thumb stroked his cheek. Ray looked ready to cry. He was overwhelmed and tired and did not possess the state of mind to sort through his thoughts and emotions clearly.

“The last time I saw this expression, this face,” said Michael, “it was through the bars of a dungeon cell. He begged me to believe him, pleaded, told me that he was framed, and you know what I did? I called him a liar. I screamed it in his face. I wish almost every day that I hadn’t. That was one of the last things I said to him, you know. I don’t know the truth, but I regret that so much. When you showed up in my room, I got angry, because it felt like those mistakes, those regrets, were being shoved in my face. I let myself go, but I should have never gotten you involved in that, not when you were innocent and had no idea what was going on. I don’t want you to be another regret.”

Ray searched Michael’s eyes, seeing that the emotion was true. And he wanted to believe Michael, of course he did. He understood Michael in the desire to reach out to the copy, to substitute for the original. After all, hasn’t his Michael been an anchor point of hope for him this entire time? Wasn’t his Michael’s face the one he looked forward to seeing the most? Was Ray very different, in those regards? Wanting to pretend? And fucking hell, he was just so tired.

“I am trapped,” Ray said quietly in a shaking voice. “I am trapped here, and I’m being hunted, everything is different, and—and I just want to go home. I am so tired… Michael, I want to go home.”

Michael held Ray’s gaze. Without his glasses, and with his two months spent away from his easy life, the similarities between Ray and the Rose Thief were near perfection. If Michael hadn’t known that the Rose Thief was hiding away, he would have thought it had been him standing there at the balcony, and standing in front of him now. It gave him an idea, however.

“Close your eyes,” Michael said. “Do it.” Ray obliged, but not before frowning in confusion and distrust. “Pretend I’m him. Pretend you’re back home, and that I am your Michael.” Ray breathed through his nose, loud and steady. Michael pulled him close to his chest and hugged him, knowing he was successful when Ray slid his arms up and around him in return. Michael, too, closed his eyes and rested his cheek on the top of Ray’s head.

“There we go,” he muttered. “It’s all going to be okay. Nobody said it would be easy, but you’ll get through it. I know you will.” He started stroking Ray’s hair, and he felt Ray relax against him with a little sigh. “You’re going to be okay.”

Michael wasn’t sure how long they stood there, but it eventually became apparent to him that Ray was dropping off into sleep. In one fluid movement, he scooped Ray up and started carrying him. Ray barely seemed to notice, willingly curling up and resting his head against Michael’s shoulder. The captain easily carried him back to his room and set him on the mattress. Ray stirred, nestling into the pillow, but did not open his eyes again. Michael paused, then leaned over and lightly kissed him on the forehead. He pulled back, glanced at the window guiltily, and quickly left the room without making a sound.

Chapter Text

From a fourth story window, Ray could see King Geoff enter through the gates in front of the castle. He was on horseback and leading a small parade of soldiers, his long green cape cascading over the horse’s haunches as he rode. He rode to the middle of the courtyard, leaped off, and threw his arms around the prince waiting there. The two rocked as they embraced tightly. Michael stood behind them, standing at the ready but clearly happy to see Geoff as well.

“Now isn’t that a sight?” asked a voice behind Ray. He turned to see Jack approach and stand beside him at the window. “Geoff can get terribly worried sometimes. The bond between them is strong.”

“Yeah…” Ray avoided Jack’s eye, though he knew the gent was looking at him. He stared down at the scene below him instead. A chill was creeping up his neck, and he tried to shrug it off.

“You never did tell us how you knew about the assassin,” Jack said. “You were right on time, and Michael told me you had been asking for his help before he actually showed.”

Ray leaned against the window, pressing his forehead against the cool glass. “What are you implying?” he asked evasively.

Jack put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back from the window to face him. “I’m implying that I think you knew more than you’re letting on. I’m implying that I don’t think the danger is over yet for our prince, despite what he and the captain may think.”

Ray took a deep breath and looked into Jack’s eyes, deciding to tell a half-truth. He couldn’t blame Jack for being suspicious, but he also couldn’t condemn the Rose Thief like that. He was a version of himself, after all. “I overheard the assassin plot being made, so I decided to do something about it. I couldn’t confront the assassin himself or else I’d get fucking murdered, so the Rose Thief helped me try to warn Michael. That I got there at the same time was coincidence.” He kept his eyes locked desperately on Jack’s, hoping he would be believed.

Jack narrowed his eyes. “That’s your story, huh? Just be warned—if you try to hurt the prince or the king, or anyone in this castle, I will personally cleave your head off your shoulders.”

Ray gulped and glanced outside the window. Geoff pulled away from Gavin, patted him on the head, then started shouting loud enough that Ray could hear he was calling for Jack. “Yes, sir. Of course.”

Jack sighed and turned away. “There will be a feast and a ball tonight to celebrate the king’s return and the prince’s survival. You should start preparing now.”


 

Back in Ray’s borrowed room, there was a tub set up waiting for him, steam curling off of the water’s surface, with a tray of soaps attached to the rim. On the bed was a fresh pile of clothes and two notes. The first one mentioned the tub, and how it was specially set up for him as per request of Ryan, so that he would not have to move around too much and exhaust himself before the banquet that night. The second note, sitting atop purple fabric, was from the tailor.

I know what it’s like being forced to dress like someone else all the time. Hope you don’t mind the departure from your twin’s theme!

P.S. Sorry, still no cape!

Ray smiled and set the note back down. His smile fell, however, as he turned at stared at the mirror. He hoped its surface would change, that it would show him Michael and the others again, but it remained purely a mirror, reflecting his sorry face back at him. He zoned out for who knows how long until he was startled back into the present by a knock at his door.

“Are you decent?” called a throaty voice Ray immediately recognized. Geoff didn’t even give him time to answer before barging in, still in his travelling outfit, his cape rippling behind him. “There he is,” he said with a grin as he strode up to Ray. “The hero of the week!” Ray nervously picked at his fingers, unsure of what to do. Should he bow? He had no idea what was expected of him, and he stared at Geoff’s green boots instead.

Geoff stood with one hand on his hip, looking Ray up and down. Ray noticed that Michael, Gavin, and Jack as well as a few random guards had trailed in behind Geoff or paused in the doorway. Ray accidentally caught Michael’s eye, and he flashbacked to the night he sleepwalked. His face flushed and he looked away again, earning a suspicious glance from Gavin.

“So, you’re not the Ray we know,” said Geoff more as a statement than a question.

“Yeah,” Ray mumbled.

“And you come from… where?”

“A—a different world…”

Geoff snorted, then thumped Ray on the shoulder, surprising the poor lad. “Well, fuck, welcome to my castle, Ray,” he said. Ray started to stutter out a “thank you” when Geoff suddenly pulled him into a tight hug. It was brief—definitely not as long as the hug he gave Gavin—but it made Ray feel truly welcome in the castle for the first time.

Jack tapped Geoff on the shoulder, prompting the king to turn away. “Your Majesty, you need to get cleaned up and changed,” he said formally. “Remember the banquet tonight…”

“Ehh,” Geoff said as he flapped a hand. “There’s plenty of time for that. And I told you not to be so formal with me, Jack.” He flung an arm around Jack’s shoulders with enough force to push him down slightly. “I’ve got hundreds of people falling over their own asses every day to call me ‘Your Majesty,’ I don’t need my best man doing it, too.” Jack merely shook his head with a small, exasperated smile, but the king did take his leave after that. The king parted with his little party with a reminder to Ray that they will see him at the banquet and ball later.

A servant slipped into the room behind the party. He was a middle aged man with dark brown hair peppered with gray, and he asked if Ray needed any assistance.

Ray smiled nervously and shook his head. “O-oh, no, I can do everything myself, thanks. Just one question though…” He picked up a small bottle of thick clear liquid off the tray next to the bath. It was a stoppered glass bottle about the height of a USB drive and the width of his thumb. “What the fuck is this?”

“That, sir,” said the servant, “is a bottle of scented oils. Many members of royalty like to dab it on their wrists and neck for special occasions. Is that all?”

Ray shrugged and set the bottle back down. “Sure, yeah, you can go.”

The servant bowed and exited the room. Ray sighed and flopped onto the bed, running his fingers through his hair. He was not looking forward to the banquet and ball.


 

Dinner took place at a large room right next to the upper level of the ballroom, with four long tables organized into a rectangle. Servants dressed simply but neatly in brown and black flitted amongst the numerous guests, carrying dishes and drinks, cleaning up any spills immediately and overall taking care of everyone. Ray was actually seated at the same table as the king, which he knew to be a huge honor. He was nervous at first, but as the dinner went on he was glad he was at that table—he knew no one else, and Geoff told stories the entire mealtime. The downside was that he was sat right next to Michael, on the other side of who was Gavin. Every time Ray felt himself beginning to relax, he would become hyperaware of the captain next to him, and he would tense up and draw in on himself again.

Ray felt rather underdressed as well, for once. Everyone else had capes, jewelry and gold, embroidered clothing, the whole shebang. Whereas Ray wore a lavender vest that was more or less backless except for a strip of cloth going from his right shoulder to his lower left back. His white collared shirt had billowy sleeves cuffed halfway down his upper arm, and a gold chain attached with rose-shaped pins cut across the space between the folded tips of the collar. His black pants had a row of gold buttons down the outside and fed into fancy knee-high white boots with a pattern of pale blue on the top half and short, hard heels.

But, for example, Michael’s doublet was made up of large patches of brown and blue, fastened closed down the middle with black ties, with cuffs and collars of steel. He had silvery domed pauldrons with a scalloped edge strapped to his shoulders, and a long cape made of what looked like bear pelt. His brown pants had a patch of yellow on the outside thigh that looked like two upright triangles overlapping, and they fed into what looked like regular armored boots to Ray, but more refined and delicate—not truly meant for combat.

Ray had put on the scented oil—or, as he liked to call it, perfume—and he could tell he wasn’t the only one there wearing some. The scent he wore was clearly that of roses, and he couldn’t help but feel that this was done on purpose, that maybe some servant somewhere was having a laugh. He could also smell a fresh, ocean-like scent on the king, even if none of the other lads and gents wore “scented oils.” Perhaps Ryan would have, but the Mage was nowhere to be seen.

Ray did his best to ignore the fact that both Michael and Gavin seemed irritated with him, put off in some manner. Michael had been pleased enough to deal with him earlier, but ever since the dinner started, the captain appeared to be doing his best to ignore Ray—though he kept shooting “secret” glances at him. The prince was a bit more open with his displeasure, and gave Ray suspicious looks throughout the meal. Ray focused on the plate of food in front of him and listened to Geoff tell his stories.

“And I’m fucking telling you, there’s this little kid, with dirt smeared all over his face and clothes that had seen better days, trying to pickpocket the king’s horse—while I’m still on it! He thought he was being a sneaky little shit, didn’t you, Gav?”

Gavin blushed and scowled in annoyance. “You tell this story all the bloody time,” he complained. Geoff hooked his arm around Gavin’s neck and ruffled his hair.

“Aww, does it embarrass you?” he teased. But then he returned to his audience of nobles. “But I looked at this kid, I looked at little Gavin, and it was like something clicked into place. Looking at him, it felt right, it felt Tower-influenced. So I put him on the back of my horse and took him back home!”

“It wasn’t exactly like that!” Gavin protested. “You’re making it sound like you kidnapped me. You invited me back, you dope!”

“You don’t know how to tell a good story,” Geoff said, messing up Gavin’s hair again. He lifted up his golden goblet and shouted at the nearest servant. “Reggie! More wine!”

Jack reached over and pushed his cup back down to the table. “I think you’ve had enough already,” he said gently.

“Nonsense,” Geoff said, patting Jack’s hand and then raising his cup again. “Reggie!”

The dinner lasted a good two hours at least, and Ray was ready to leave everyone for the night by the end of it. However, he was expected to show up at the dance as well, as a sort of guest of honor. So, as dishes were being carried away by servants, the party spilled out into the ballroom next door. A small band played on stringed instruments and old fashioned flutes and percussion in one corner on the lower floor. Many people were dancing in the middle of the lower floor, though Ray had no inclination to join them. He had never learned ballroom dancing. In fact, he couldn’t really dance at all, formal or otherwise.

Thankfully, it didn’t seem he was expected to dance. King Geoff threw an arm around Ray’s shoulders immediately and steered him around the room, introducing him to people whose names he forgot instantly. Gavin trailed after them for a while, but soon dropped off and disappeared into the crowd.

Between greetings, Geoff said, “You know, Ray, it’s nice having some version of you around, even if you’re not ours. I missed seeing your cute little face every day,” he added, pinching Ray’s cheek. Ray leaned away from it, but he smiled in good humor.

“If you miss me so much,” Ray said, “then why don’t you invite the other me back? You’re the king, you have the power to do these things. Forgive his crimes or whatever.”

Geoff’s face darkened, and they stopped walking so that he could face Ray. They were on the interior balcony near the railing. “Ray, you’re new here, but you must understand that—that the Rose Thief is a criminal. I—we all—have fond memories of him. Fuck, Michael and Gavin fucking grew up with him. Jack and I watched him grow up. But that does not change anything. The law does not bend for fond memories.”

“But he didn’t do it!” Ray blurted. The king gave him a look that Ray couldn’t read, but it made his face grow warm. Geoff was usually as rocky as a boat in choppy waters, but now he was standing completely still.

“And what,” said Geoff, “makes you so sure of that?”

“Well—I—he…” Ray stuttered. “Instinct?”

King Geoff sighed and leaned against the railing, his long cape flowing heavily around his body. “Justice doesn’t function on instinct, it functions on fact,” he said. “You mean well, Ray, but the fact remains that the fabric my ice spell snagged matched a cape in the Rose Thief’s wardrobe. There had been no one else it could have been.” Geoff pushed away from the railing and patted Ray on the shoulder. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be stuck talking with boring old nobles all day. Find someone and dance with them, maybe.” With a grin, Geoff turned and threaded his way through the crowd and down the stairs. Ray watched him head towards Jack when he felt a hand on his arm suddenly.

Ray jumped and turned to see Michael. His grip was tight, and he was tugging at Ray’s arm. “I need to talk to you,” Michael growled. He pulled Ray away from the railing without waiting for an answer and out the nearest door, Ray stumbling behind him as he struggled to keep up, his arm starting to hurt under Michael’s grasp. Ray couldn’t even think of anything to say, it was all so sudden and aggressive. He also suspected that nothing he said would stop Michael from “talking to him.”

The hallway was dim and cool outside of the bright and warm ballroom, and though guards were posted at the ballroom doors, it was otherwise deserted. Michael rounded a corner and shoved Ray into a small room with a singular window. It looked sort of like a closet, with a few boxes and a couple brooms stored there, but it was mostly empty. The moonlight was bright enough to see in, and it glinted off of the steel pieces of Michael’s outfit.

Michael rounded on Ray after shutting the door. Ray’s heart started galloping in his chest, and he backed up against the wall as Michael stepped closer. The moonlight illuminated his intense expression, made his brown eyes dark and flat. He slammed his hands against the wall on either side of Ray’s body, boxing him in. Ray’s heartbeat was racing, but calling it fear didn’t sound right. No, he couldn’t be scared. Awkward, yes—nervous, of course, but scared?

“Who gave you those scented oils?” Michael demanded. “Who?”

“I—I dunno,” Ray muttered. “A servant?” Michael’s gaze was paralyzing, and it was fogging up his mind. It confused him and made his face flush. Ray felt like he was in a waking dream. The lines between reality and fantasy blurred, and the Michael in front of him could have been his Michael with but a little stretch of imagination.

Michael closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose, letting his head hang for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was husky.

“He always wore a rose scent on special occasions,” he murmured. He opened his eyes again, his features more relaxed this time. He lifted one hand and slowly slid Ray’s glasses off. Ray’s heart was doing its best to beat its way out of his throat, though he didn’t know why. He could feel his brain shutting down, his thoughts turning to white noise. They stood there for several long seconds, a yearning building heavily in Ray’s chest with sources unknown as he stared up at Michael, the rest of his world blurred.

It was so quick, Ray almost didn’t see it coming. Michael suddenly gripped the sides of his head and pressed his mouth against Ray’s. If Ray’s mind had a heartbeat, it would have flatlined. For a second or two, Ray defaulted to autopilot. Then, he pulled at Michael’s hands and shoved him back. Michael thankfully responded to Ray’s demands and hung shyly back.

“Michael, Michael,” Ray said quickly. “I’m sorry, I—I need space. I need—I have to think some things through.” His heartbeat was still throbbing in his throat, a war against the cavity in which it lived. Michael nodded and looked away, biting his lower lip and turning red.

“Right,” he mumbled. He smoothed the front of his doublet and handed back Ray’s glasses. “Okay. Sorry I—I’ll just go then.”

Ray waited until Michael left the small room, shutting the door behind him and cutting off any ambient light from the hall, throwing him back into cool darkness. Then, Ray sunk to the ground and put his head in his hands, shoving his face into his knees. He began to shiver, but not from chill. Was this happening? Was he reading his emotions right? Because if they were true, then he knew himself to be falling in love.

Ray rubbed his face and eyes and groaned. This couldn’t be happening, not now. He cautiously let his thoughts stray to Michael, automatically defaulting to his Michael, and he groaned again when he felt a thrill jolt through his gut. Fuck this place. Fuck this world. Fuck these people. Ray felt a mess and he hated it. He didn’t know how to deal with these emotions, especially not with the situation he was in. The sense of yearning still weighed in his chest, and he curled up tighter. He felt hollow, like he would cave in and crumble at any moment.

He was pining, and he didn’t know who to blame.

The door slammed back open, shattering the silence like a baseball through a church window. Ray shot to his feet, scrambling up the wall as Gavin stood with his arms crossed and his head tilted up so he was glaring down at Ray.

“Oh what do you want now!?” Ray shouted. He allowed what normally would have been irritation to flare up into anger. It was better than this hollowness.

“You!” Gavin cried back, striding forward and jabbing his finger at Ray. “What were you doing in here with Michael?”

Ray laughed, cruel and bitter and mirthless. “Oh, that’s it, huh? That’s fucking it. You’re jealous! For your fucking information, he was just asking me some questions.”

“Questions he didn’t want anyone to bloody overhear?” Gavin hissed. He balled his hands into fists, but held them at his side, trembling with restraint. “Do you take me for a fool? I thought you were avoiding him! I thought you were different.”

Ray tried to retort, but his mind flatlined again, completely baffled by Gavin’s claim. Instead, he just shouted, “Fuck off!” and shoved past the prince. He started sprinting, and nearly collided with Jack, who had also exited the ballroom and was clearly trailing after Gavin. He sidestepped Jack and continued his escape, merely yelling “Not fucking now!” as he ran past. Jack narrowed his eyes at the retreating figure, but let him go, relaxing only when Gavin came into view, frustrated but unharmed.

Ray didn’t slow down until he was outside his borrowed room. He paused to catch his breath a little, then slipped inside. When he turned around from latching the door, he jumped to see his mirror image leaning against the wall between the windows.

“Nice party going on,” said the Rose Thief casually. “Have a good time, being a hero?”

“No,” Ray seethed. He marched over to the bed and faceplanted into it.

“That bad, huh?”

“Mmphth.”

The mattress rocked as the Rose Thief sat on its edge. Ray felt a finger jab his side, and he jumped again. “You’re gonna get soft again,” said the Rose Thief lightly. “You should still be doing your exercises. Besides, the routine will do you good.”

“I’ll be sure to try and pencil it in,” Ray said venomously. “Do you want something from me, or are you just gonna fucking poke me and make fun of my lack of athleticism.”

The Rose Thief sighed heavily. “Listen,” he said. “I just wanted to apologize for… leaving you here. I didn’t know you’d be trapped here for this long.”

“Where the fuck else am I supposed to go?” Ray muttered angrily into the mattress.

The Rose Thief continued without responding to his question, and Ray suspected it was because he didn’t have an answer. “I know Michael can be… intense. I don’t know your feelings towards him, but it’s best to be careful around him, okay?”

Ray pushed himself up so that he was propped on his elbows. “Why don’t you just come back then,” Ray asked bluntly. “Get him off my fucking back.”

“It’s not that simple,” the Rose Thief snapped, but then took a deep breath to calm down before continuing. “He’s still the Captain of the Guard, and I’m still a wanted man. If I’m caught, I’m set right back on the path to execution, and he knows that it is his duty to ensure that, no matter his feelings. I can’t put that decision on him again…” he added in a low voice as he stared at his lap. “No, as long as I am still considered guilty, I can never be allowed back.”

Ray didn’t know how to respond, and the silence grew awkward. He felt a vague responsibility push down on his shoulders, and he shoved his face back into the mattress. Sometime in this silence, the Rose Thief got up and disappeared again, letting the smell of roses drift in through the window again.

Suddenly feeling too exposed, and wanting to never smell roses ever again, Ray sat up and scanned the room. He strode across the floor and wrenched the doors of the wardrobe open. As he climbed inside, shutting the doors and sitting on the floor, the brutal scent of polished wood assaulted his nostrils. It was strangely comforting, and provided a distraction from his thoughts. It prevented him from focusing too much on his emotions and confusion. He curled up there in the warm, secluded darkness, away from the light, away from the people, away from everything.

He kind of wished he could stay in that wooden box forever.

Chapter Text

Ray fell asleep in the wardrobe. He had sat up for so long, miserable in the pitch blackness, that he nodded off without even realizing it. He dreamed lightly, vaguely, feeling like someone was watching him. His dreams were cold, oily, and dark, filled with swirling and pitching sensations. He woke up with a stiff neck and cramped muscles, his glasses askew on his face. He rolled his neck and rubbed it, feeling a chill creep up. He fumbled for the door and pushed it open.

That was when he realized the back of the wardrobe had popped off. His stomach dropped—he thought he had broken it, kicked it off in his sleep. It was still attached on its entire left side, but was swung against the wall like a door. Ray lurched for the loose edge and pulled it back in a panic. He didn’t want to be responsible for breaking what was surely a very expensive piece of furniture.

The back of the wardrobe swung easily back into place, appearing as though it had never popped off in the first place. Ray frowned—was it broken, or was it supposed to do this? He tested the back of the wardrobe, pushed against it, but it wouldn’t open except at one spot. It seemed the back panel only swung open if he pushed at the lower right corner. When he got it open again, he saw tiny hinges on the left that had been otherwise invisible, and a wooden peg of sorts on the right that held it closed otherwise.

So it wasn’t broken. But, then, why was it like this? What purpose did this function have? Ray was utterly baffled. He pushed at it again, but it hit against the wall and barely opened more than a couple inches. He tried to peer around the wardrobe, between it and the wall, but the space was too narrow and dark for him to see.

He stood back, crossing his arms and squinting at the wardrobe. Early morning sunlight brightened his room, and his stomach growled with faint hunger, but he ignored it for now. This wardrobe was important, and he knew it, but he couldn’t figure out why. Frustration was building behind his temples, and he let out an irritated growl.

What purpose did this serve?


 

Prince Gavin, the morning after the banquet and the ball, marched straight up to the Mage’s quarters. One could argue that the prince had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, and looked like he had a bone to pick with someone . He hadn’t fixed his hair that morning, and it was a stuck-up mess without even his crown to hold it on. Of course, he still had a dagger at his lower back, attached to a belt around his waist. A prince must always have a means of defense, after all. He caught Ryan as the Mage was exiting his room.

“Have you found a way to send him home?” Gavin demanded, striding right up to him.

Ryan paused at the door and studied Gavin carefully. “Not really. I was actually about to go send a message to King Matt and his Mages. Why?”

“He just needs to go,” Gavin said hotly. “As soon as possible.”

Ryan leaned his staff against the wall so he could cross his arms. “Alright, what did I miss. Did something happen at the ball?”

Gavin opened his mouth to lie, but stopped himself. Ryan could usually tell when he was lying anyway, and was intrigued enough by now to not let it go. “He—he was with Michael last night. Says Michael was just asking him questions but—in a closet?”

Ryan sighed and flicked his hands out of his long sleeves to put one on Gavin's shoulder. “Gavin, you mustn’t let yourself get so jealous. It will consume you and drive you to do things you would never otherwise condone. Envy is not healthy. Did you fight with him?”

Gavin ground his teeth and made an irritated noise, but he avoided Ryan's gaze with shifty eyes. He glanced at a mirror hanging on the wall and furrowed his brow to appear angrier. “Yeah, I fought with him! He was in a dark closet with Michael. He bloody well didn’t stick around though. So he needs to leave as soon as possible, and—”

Ryan shushed him by placing a finger over Gavin's lips. “Gavin. Listen to me. You can’t abandon him like this.”

Gavin swiped Ryan’s hand away and huffed. “Of course I can, I am the prince and he—!”

“Gavin. You’re a human and a citizen before you are a prince. You can’t use your title as an excuse to leave someone who needs you.”

Gavin’s frustration dropped away like he had just jumped off a cliff, leaving him with a heavy sense of dread and guilt in his stomach. “What—what do you mean, ‘needs me?’”

Ryan locked gazes with Gavin, his blue eyes intense like burning wood. “I mean that he has no one right now but you. I am too busy, as is Geoff, to be a real friend, and he probably doesn’t even trust me much after withholding information. Jack is suspicious and doesn’t trust him as far as he can throw his ax. Michael won’t be able to see him as an individual, and who the fuck knows where the Rose Thief is. If you push him away, he’ll have literally no one else to rely on.”

“But why does it have to be me?” Gavin whined quietly. “I don’t understand why anyone else can’t hang around.”

“Because you’re the only one able, so it is your duty. For the Tower’s sake, Gavin, he took a knife for you when there was no self-beneficial reason for him to. Everyone here is a stranger except for the six of us, and even then we’re just as strange to him as he is to us.”

Gavin felt fully miserable now. Because Ryan was right, and usually when Ryan was right, it made him feel a fool. He glanced at the long mirror on the wall and was startled by how guilty he looked. He carefully schooled his face, but still looked down at his feet for good measure. “Alright, fine,” he caved. “But what do you want me to do about it?”

“Well, apologize, first,” Ryan said simply. “If he doesn’t distrust you completely, now, that is.”

Gavin bit his lip and opened his mouth to reply when there was a sound like a mirror shattering underwater. When he looked up to glance around, he knew Ryan heard it too. They quickly realized that the mirror no longer appeared crisply reflective and silver, but now looked like a pool of mercury, albeit vertical. They stared at it, transfixed.

“Ryan,” Gavin said slowly. “What is that…?”

“I—I don’t know,” Ryan admitted. “A spell, that much is obvious…”

All at once, the mirror reverted back to normal with a tinkle of crystal, as though it never tried to become a liquid in the first place. At the same time, Ryan’s eyes widened. He glanced at Gavin, and the prince understood the alarm.

“Ray,” they muttered simultaneously, and took off down the hall, running, hoping they weren’t too late.


 

A chill prickled at his neck as Ray reconsidered the wardrobe. He tried to push and heave the wardrobe away from the wall. It was heavy, heavier than anything he tried to push before. The added weight of the drawers on the side made it sturdy and impossible to move on his own. He wanted to kick something, hard, but resisted the urge. A stubbed toe was not worth it. But he was beginning to feel really stupid, and started subconsciously berating and insulting himself.

He stepped back again and was considering what to do next and what this all might mean when he heard an unusual sound, like glass cracking under stretched cellophane. He turned to see that his mirror was no longer reflecting back the room perfectly—nor, however, was it showing Michael’s face. It looked like mercury, and anything it reflected was turned into a tiny amorphous blob of color amongst the silver.

He approached it, hopeful. This was a development, something different. He leaned on the desk, completely baffled. Was this real? An illusion? A different picture? He lifted a hand and lightly touched it with the tip of a finger. The surface rippled like the surface of a pond, and it was cold and wet-feeling, though none of the silver got on his finger. Weird.

A hand, coated in this quicksilver material, shot out of the mirror like someone was reaching through from the other side of the water. It grabbed Ray’s wrist and yanked him forward. It was ice cold. Ray shouted and braced himself against the desk, but his hand sunk into the cold, cold silver liquid, and was being pulled farther by the second.

“Help!” he cried. “Somebody help me!” Where were the guards? He was nearly up to his elbow, and though the desk was helping, he couldn’t hold out for long. He was leaning forward, his legs pressing against the furniture, the edge of the desk cutting into the tops of his hips.

His door burst open and he was never so glad to see Gavin as he was now. He saw the green blur out of the corner of his eye, and then he felt lean arms wrap around his torso, saw a leather-clad foot brace against the desk. Gavin wrenched him back as hard as he could, as abruptly as he could. Whoever or whatever was grabbing him clearly didn’t expect this, because as Ray was pulled back, the other was pulled forward. A whole arm appeared, covered in silver, and the brief silver imprint of a face as the person faceplanted unexpectedly into the pool. Then, the hand let go and slipped swiftly back into the silver liquid, which instantly snapped back into a normal mirror.

Ray, meanwhile, was too shocked to cry out as Gavin, not expecting to pull Ray so easily, brought the both of them down on top of the bed. Ray flailed instinctively, and Gavin had to fight to disentangle himself from the lad. Ray leapt up off the bed to face Ryan as soon as he was able, leaving Gavin half-reclining on the mattress.

“Ryan, did you know who that was!?” Ray demanded in a high-pitched tone that proved that he very much knew who that was, and was testing Ryan's knowledge.

“You’re welcome,” Gavin said bitterly, but it went unnoticed by Ray, whose entire focus was on Ryan.

Did you!?” Ray asked again.

Ryan’s expression said that yes, he did know who that was, and it was a shameful enough expression that Gavin’s interest was piqued too. “Why did you hide this from me, Ryan!?” Ray shouted in a hoarse voice.

“Look,” said Ryan, clearly floundering. “It—it didn’t affect anything…”

“Ryan,” Gavin said when the Mage trailed off. “Who was that? What’s going on?”

The Mage heaved a sigh. “That,” said Ryan slowly, “was someone who’s supposed to be dead for a hundred years.”

“What?”

Ray finally looked at Gavin, his eyes ablaze. “It’s Kdin.” He turned back to the Mage. “Kdin is the one after me.”

“Kdin?” Gavin asked, confused. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

All conversation was cut off when the sound of someone gasping and running echoed down the hall. The king practically slammed to a stop in the doorframe, breathing heavily and hunching over.

“For the Tower’s sake,” said King Geoff, his crown crooked on his head. “Ryan you are hard to find in a crisis sometimes. What the fuck was that mirror thing?”

“Someone was using a mirror to bypass my ward and get at Ray,” said Ryan. His hands were shaking, but he hid them in his long sleeves.

“Geoff,” said Gavin, getting the king’s attention. Geoff looked like he was about to ask why Gavin was here, but the prince kept talking. “Do you know who Kdin is?”

Geoff frowned and squinted, furrowing his brow. “Weirdly familiar name, but I can’t place it.”

“You’ve probably only read his name once or twice, years ago,” Ryan said in a low, controlled voice. His hands hidden, only his paleness hinted at his unease. “He’s—I knew him as the Court Mage of the Ender Kingdom.”

The silence was heavy, and long enough that several guards, who had been chasing after the king, joined them at the doorway. Finally, Geoff made a confused “ehh?” noise.

“That can't be possible,” Gavin said. “It—it’s been probably about a hundred years. How could he have lived that long?”

“He wasn’t old, either,” Ray pointed out. The brief anger gone, he was trembling now, and he sat down on the bed so that his legs wouldn’t give out underneath him. The shock of Kdin’s discovery wearing off, the fear and dread about nearly being dragged powerlessly into a mirror was now creeping up on him. He looked at the mirror, and it showed him how wide his eyes were, how pale his skin was. He was conflicted. He had nearly been dragged into it, but… it was also where his Michael sometimes appeared.

Ryan licked his lips and glanced at the doorway and at the king. “I—I don’t know. I don’t know of anything that could do that. Immortality—it isn’t a thing.”

“Well apparently it is,” Ray said simply. “Would… would Kdin be sending the Endermen after me, too?”

“That would be the logical assumption,” Ryan said.

“Great,” said King Geoff dryly. He gestured at two guards behind him. “Either way, if he’s using mirrors to bypass the ward, then we can’t have any mirrors, especially around Ray.”

The two guards went to either edge of the mirror, lifted it off the wall, and started carrying it. Terror seized Ray’s heart, and he launched himself off the bed. Gavin lurched forward and managed to grab the fabric of his shirt, holding him back.

“No!” Ray cried. “You can't take my mirror!” He paused to try and rip his shirt out of Gavin's fists, and the prince took this moment to grab at his wrists and pull him back into the bed. Ray struggled, kicked and shouted. The guards had stopped, uncertain and slightly afraid. Ray felt a lump build in his throat. Mirrors had been his only way of sometimes communicating with his Michael, his friends. He couldn’t let that be taken away.

“Gavin!” he cried. “Gavin please, don’t let them take my mirror, please! As a favor, as repayment, please, please,” he sobbed.

Gavin rolled them so that Ray was beneath him, pressed between the prince and the mattress. “Calm down, you child,” hissed Gavin. Ray did his best to choke down tears as Gavin stood back up, took the dagger out of the sheath at his waist, and cleared his throat. The guards waited for an order than never came.

Gavin swung the pommel of his dagger into the mirror as hard as he could. The mirror shattered, cracking out in a silver spider web, and slowly the pieces of mirror flipped out and tinkled to the floor. The audience was stunned into silence. Gavin grabbed the biggest piece, a vague triangular shape from an edge about the length of a forearm and as wide as a palm is long at its thickest spot.  This he tried to hand mutely to Ray. When Ray refused to even look at the prince, Gavin tossed the piece of mirror aside so that it landed on one of the pillows on the bed.

“I guess that takes care of that,” said Geoff, shrugging. “The rest will have to be covered or moved.” To another guard he said, “Go find a servant to clean up this mess.”

“We have to do something about this Kdin, don’t we?” asked Gavin.

“We know at least he is there,” suggested the king. “We can send a troop into the end and—”

“No!” Ryan shrieked suddenly. Everyone present gave him a startled, wide-eyed stare. He looked desperately at Geoff. “You—you can’t send anyone in there.”

“Why not?” The king demanded. “A couple soldiers, a couple magical folk, it’ll take care of him easy.”

“Geoff, close the door,” Ryan said quietly. “Leave the guards outside.”

Geoff frowned, but obeyed. “What aren't you telling us?” Geoff asked calmly. Ryan took a deep breath and stared at his feet.

“What I’m telling you, it stays in this room. You—you can’t tell anyone else.

“Ryan, come on. Don’t make me order you,” Geoff insisted.

Ryan took another deep, shaky breath and closed his eyes, the color drained from his face.

“There’s another reason why Kdin shouldn’t be alive. The Endermen... They used to be people.”


 

Ray felt sick to his stomach, and judging from the pale faces of Gavin and Geoff, he wasn’t the only one. Every Enderman he had seen had once been a human being. Every Enderman that had died had once lived a normal life. Blood roared in his ears. How did this happen? Did they still remember their humanity? Did it hurt?

Geoff echoed Ray’s sentiments. “How—how the fuck does this happen? How do you know? Why—why didn’t you tell us before?”

“It—it’s the reason no Mages who go into the End come out anymore,” Ryan said quietly. “I—I don’t know the exact cause, but all I know is that some of my friends, my colleagues, they crossed the border, and—and they changed.” Ryan was as white as a lily flower, and his breaths were ragged and short. The other three were respectfully quiet as he relived his memories in order to pass on critical knowledge. “Everyone who had a drop of magical ability was changed, regardless of power. You know the End had the highest percentage of magical users of all four kingdoms—that’s a lot of Endermen. I—I kept it secret so that you wouldn’t hesitate, so you wouldn’t try to help them. Because I’ve already tried. It—it’s irreversible. People were already avoiding the border… It was best if you thought they were just another monster.”

“Oh, Tower,” whispered Geoff. Then he snapped to attention. “Come, Ryan, Gavin. We need to discuss this in length. Ryan, I need to share this with Michael and Jack at least.”

Ryan hesitated. “Not Michael—Jack, you can tell, but Michael shouldn’t know.” The king pondered this, then reluctantly agreed. He and the Mage headed for the exit, but Gavin paused, glancing at Ray. Ray had flipped onto his side and put his back to everyone.

“Gavin,” snapped Geoff. “Come on. I need your input, too.”

“Yessir,” Gavin said, and hurried away.

Ray was staring at the mirror shard hopelessly. The Endermen were people, cruelly twisted by some insane magic so that they were turned into monsters. Kdin was the one after him, a Mage who should be dead, or worse. And he couldn’t ignore the fact that he was no longer safe around mirrors, which had also been his only source of communication with his home. He rubbed his wrist, feeling the goosebumps that were still there after being grabbed. Ray felt scared and more miserable and alone than ever before. With the others gone, he quickly spiraled down into a desolate melancholy.

Gavin's actions only served to confuse him as well. Last night he had been aggressive, violent, and Ray had been sure Gavin wanted him gone. But now the prince had rescued him from the mirror.

It wasn’t because he wanted to, but because he was expected to. Besides, you see how quickly he and the others left. They have more important things to take care of than you.

He had broken the mirror, instead of letting it be taken away entirely.

He could have left it there. He had the power. He might have broken it for good.

Well, he wasn’t dead yet by the hands of the prince.

You know he wants you gone. And shouldn’t you be? You’re nothing but a burden. You don’t belong here, but you’ll never get back home.

God, why didn’t they stay? Why didn’t they make sure he was alright? Were they getting tired of taking care of his useless ass? He was beginning to feel like a checkbox on a to-do list, right up there with “water the orchids.” Just another task to make sure he hadn’t withered away yet. When something else came up, they ditched him. The odd doppelgänger is still alive and in the castle, check that task off as complete.

So when the shard of mirror on his pillow activated again, it didn’t bring the relief it usually did. It seemed to Ray to serve a reminder of what he couldn’t have, to dangle home in front of him like a carrot on a stick, forever out of reach.

“Oh man,” came Michael's voice. “Geoff's gonna be pissed he missed this one to go pee. Ray, you there? The screen looks weird, only like, half of it is showing anything.”

Ray groped for the shard, holding it like an iPhone in front of his face. Michael’s somewhat cheerful expression immediately fell.

“Oh,” he said. “Ray, you look awful, is everything—?”

“Michael, do you love me?”

Michael blinked. “What?”

Ray winced. He had blurted it out before he could stop himself, and now he regretted it. But he also had to know—he had to know if there was some end to this crippling loneliness, even if it was waiting for him on the other side of a mirror.

“Do you love me.”

“Ray, what—? I don’t under—”

The mirror cut off again. Ray let out a sob that shook his entire frame, and he curled around the shard, hugging it tight to his chest like it was a life preserve. He shook with every gasp he took, and every breath struggled around the lump in his throat. He couldn’t handle this world, this magic, this fear, this loneliness. Every good thing he had, he seemed to ruin, and it was usually his own damn fault. He felt like he was falling into a pit and there was no ledge to grab onto. A black hole sat in his gut and his mind was caving in like a glass castle.

Chapter Text

Ray must have fallen asleep at some point, clutching his shard of mirror, because he dreamed. He dreamed of Endermen and cold, solitary darkness. The purple eyes glinted at him, glowing in the blackness, as the shapes melded forth as if made from shadows themselves. They reached for him with their long, oily fingers. He tried to run but found he couldn’t, as though his legs had forgotten what running was like. They grabbed at him, turned his skin black, and he detached from his dream body, watched himself twist and turn into an Enderman…

He woke up in a cold, shivering sweat, clutching the mirror shard so tight that it bit into his palms. He thrust it away from him, scrambling to sit up on his bed, breathing hard and getting his bearings again.

He didn’t know how long he had been asleep, and he didn’t know how long he had been awake before that. Earlier he had been dimly aware of a servant sometimes coming in, to sweep up the silver mirror shards, to bring food, to replace the food. He didn’t know how long ago that was, or how long the periods in between had been. Whatever the case, now it was dusk. He shivered and drew his knees into his chest and hugged them.

A few minutes later, he noticed the mirror shard flicker to life. He crawled towards it, hopeful. He needed to talk to Michael, he needed to apologize and take back what he said. But when he picked up the shard, it was not Michael but Ryan who was looking at him. He couldn’t tell if anyone else was in his apartment, since Ryan took up most of the tiny screen.

“Oh,” said Ryan. “It did the thing! Hi, Ray!”

Ray licked his lips before speaking. “Where’s Michael?” he asked bluntly. His voice felt gravelly; he hadn’t used it in a while. He coughed once to clear his throat.

“He said he needed some air,” said Ryan. He glanced at his phone. “He went out like… ten minutes ago? I dunno. He’s been here a while, I don’t blame him for wanting to stretch his legs.”

Ray’s stomach dropped, spreading a numb feeling throughout his limbs. “I need to speak to him,” Ray insisted. Ryan shrugged helplessly.

“I can pass on a message?” he suggested.

Ray shook his head, then reconsidered. “Yeah—you know what? Tell him—tell him I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

Ryan raised an eyebrow and frowned. “I’ll… tell him you said that. Is everything—?”

The mirror turned off without warning. Ray tossed the shard listlessly aside and hugged his knees to his chest again. He knew, he knew he had driven away his Michael. The thought was too much for him to bear at this moment. He wished he could have apologized to Michael’s face, but with the mirror as unpredictable as it was… there weren’t many options. He felt numb under the lead weight of his mind.

Not quite an hour later, a guard cautiously opened the door and peeked in. When Ray turned to look at him, the guard’s tense face relaxed with relief.

“Oh, thank the Tower,” said the guard, slumping and grinning. “The servants got worried about you when you didn’t move all day. I was sent to check up on you, but I see you’re still alive.”

“By who?” Ray asked. He was surprised to find his voice was flat and monotonous.

The guard, who had been prepared to duck back out, turned quizzical. “Well, Captain Michael, of course. He’d have checked up on you himself, but he’s been in the War Room since this afternoon, with His Majesty and His Highness.”

Ray nodded once, his face blank. “Thank you,” he dismissed. The guard took his chance and left, shutting the door behind him.

Ray glanced at the mirror shard, staring at it blankly. With methodical movements, he stood up and finally took off the clothes he wore to the ball, putting on a white linen shirt and loose black pants—clothes he had been given to sleep in. He stood at the edge of the bed, zoning out, looking at the mirror. He felt hollow, stagnant, empty. Alone.

This Michael cared, right? He had sent a guard to check up on him. Maybe it wasn’t because Michael liked him, but rather the guy who looked like him, but maybe it was enough. This Michael was certainly happy enough to transfer some of those feelings over to him. Maybe it was enough.


 

It was probably an hour or two past midnight. Ray stood in front of the door, his heart pounding in his chest so heart he felt it pulse in his throat. He inhaled deeply through his nose and put his hand on the door’s iron handle. There was nothing for him to lose, right?

He slipped inside and silently closed the door. Michael woke up when the door latched shut, and he pushed himself up to look at Ray. Any words died in his throat. Ray exhaled and padded over to the bed with his bare feet. Michael waited, propped in a sitting position on his elbows, illuminated by the moonlight reflecting off of the stone floor. Michael was surprised to see Ray enter his room, but he only asked questions with his expression. Excitement thrummed at Ray’s heart—Michael, apparently, didn’t usually sleep with a shirt on.

Ray wordlessly kneeled on the edge of the mattress, using his knee to push his face closer to Michael’s. Michael waited still. Ray’s hands were trembling with nerves, and he smoothly, deliberately, kissed Michael, kissed him with light, quick, nervous smooches. Michael responded in kind, their lips making small, smacking sounds as they pressed against each other.

When Ray paused for breath, Michael’s hand lingering on his cheek, Michael asked, “What brought this on?”

“Don’t ask so many questions,” Ray muttered, and kissed him again.

Ray brought his other knee up and shifted so that he was straddling Michael. Michael leaned into Ray, pulling him closer and encouraging longer, deeper kisses. Ray shivered pleasurably as Michael ran his hands up the back of his thighs, sliding over his ass and slipping under the hem of his shirt. This felt good, this felt right. He was on top of Michael now, who had slid down to lie flat on the mattress. He wanted this, he did.

Michael trailed a hand up his spine, sending tingles and goosebumps across his skin. A slight hesitation, a hitch in the breath, brought Ray out the moment like waking up from a dream. Guilt slammed into his gut. He shouldn’t be doing this. It wasn’t right. He wasn’t the right person. He wasn’t the one that Michael actually wanted. He was a decoy, a shadow, that’s what he was.

“Is something wrong?” Michael asked, feeling Ray pause.

Ray gritted his teeth. “No,” he said. Fuck that. He needed this. He wanted this. Michael wanted this. Didn’t he? Michael grinned and slid Ray’s shirt off over his head before rolling them both on the mattress so their positions were reversed. Ray pulled Michael’s head closer and demanded to be kissed again with his lips. He would just have to pretend. He could pretend. Anything to fill this hole in his heart. Anything to fill this emptiness.

He stubbornly pushed all guilt aside and gave in completely to pleasure.


 

Ray lay on his stomach, Michael’s arm draped over his naked back as the other man slept soundly. He felt numb and he couldn’t really understand why. He had been swept up in the moment before, but now, in this quiet night, reality crept back into his heart and gut. A small voice in his head berated him, told him over and over again that this wasn’t real, that he was a placeholder and a backup copy. This wasn’t his place. He felt fake and lonelier than ever. Why did his interactions with this Michael have to always leave him feeling worse than before? Why couldn't he be happy for once?

Ray slid out from under Michael’s arm, and thankfully the captain remained sound asleep. His face was completely relaxed and peaceful. Ray stepped into his pants and put on his shirt again before slipping silently out of the room.

Several hours later, he was found by Gavin on pure chance—though perhaps, Gavin would think later, Ray had intended to be found by him first. The prince was dressed simply in his singed clothes, and had been intending to mess around in his workshop. He opened the door, nodded at the guard stationed outside, and quickly entered. He turned towards his tables and nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Ray!” he choked out. “What are you—is this where you’ve been all day?”

Ray was sitting with his knees pulled up into his chest and his arms wrapped around his legs, still barefoot, still in his sleep clothes. He looked up when Gavin cried his name and revealed red rimmed eyes, dark purple bags under them, and wet cheeks. Seeing Gavin triggered his guilt and shame like it was fresh, and his face screwed up again before he shoved it back into his knees.

“Oh god,” he moaned. “Gavin, I’m so sorry.”

Gavin stared at him, speechless for a moment. Ray’s actions seemed to set his brain scrambling. “What are you bloody sorry for?” he asked finally.

Ray felt like his stomach was turning inside out and gnawing at his intestines. It felt like there was a blockage in his throat, but he couldn’t leave it like this. He couldn’t let it broil inside of him. The words pushed out of him like a volcano. “I—I slept with Michael. I’m so sorry—I—there’s no excuse.”

Gavin didn’t move initially. Ray sniffed and wiped at his eyes. Gavin abruptly and jerkily marched over to the nearest chair, mutely shoved the clutter on it to the floor, and collapsed into it. He stared at a corner of a bookcase.

You can’t let it consume you.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Ray said, his voice thick and cracking. The effort of speaking caused more tears to form and roll over his cheek. He was sure he looked quite pitiful. “I—I guess I thought—maybe, maybe having someone who claimed to love me so fucking much would—would—fuck I don’t know, take away some of this pain. But it didn’t.” Ray sniffed again and let out a little huff. “It didn’t, Gavin, and now I just feel worse. He—he never wanted me, he wants someone who looks like me, and he’s happy to pretend. I tried to pretend, too—I thought I could pretend—but I just—I couldn’t pretend, and now I’ve ruined everything. Shit, fuck, Gavin, I'm sorry.”

He has no one else but you.

“Just kill me,” Ray moaned. “Just get it over with before I make everything even worse. I’ll never make it home, so you better just fucking…”

“No.”

Ray jerked his head up to look at the prince, startled. Gavin was still staring blankly off at some corner of the room. Gavin’s refusal did nothing to alleviate his anguish, and his desperation clawed at his gut like a black beast.

“Gavin,” he begged, fresh tears welling in his eyes. “Please, I haven’t asked you for anything, I—I—please end this for me. I can’t stand it anymore!”

Gavin suddenly turned is head to look Ray in the eye, making the poor lad flinch. “No,” he repeated sharply. “I will not.”

“But why?” Ray pleaded. “Why won’t you?”

Gavin stood and crossed his arms. “Because you’re being bloody unreasonable. You don’t know for sure that you can’t go home, you’re making that up for yourself. Besides, you don’t want this to be the last thing you do in life, is it?”

Ray curled up again, hiding his face. Gavin sighed heavily, his expression softening, and he ran a hand through his hair. He sat back down next to Ray against the wall and stared straight ahead. Ray watched him, feeling just miserable, waiting for Gavin to truly explode, to kick him out, to punish him for what he did. Or maybe he would curse out Michael, and he didn’t want that either. He didn’t blame Michael. He didn’t want to have ruined Gavin’s relationship—fuck, he was so stupid. Why did he do this? Why did he actively try to destroy what he had? Why had he felt the need to tell Gavin about it? It could have been a secret. He could have—pretended a bit longer.

“You know,” said Gavin after a long pause. “I kind of suspected that sometimes when we slept together, he was imagining someone else.” He looked at Ray, reached out and squeezed Ray’s knee.

“Gavin, I…”

“I’m not mad. The Tower knows I have every right to be, but I’m not. Don’t ask me why, though. Ray, I should apologize as well. I’ve—I’ve been meaning too, since yesterday morning. I shouldn’t have shouted at you, I shouldn’t have pushed you away… I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel like it’s partly my fault for driving you in that direction. Just don’t do it again,” he added, lightly but sternly.

Ray snorted and looked away, a smile tugging at his lips. “No, yeah, I’m not—I can’t do that again. But—please don’t be mad at Michael. I—I couldn’t live with myself if…”

“No,” Gavin said. “I think I knew this was sort of coming. I mean, the way he sometimes looks at you…” He sighed again, bowing his head. “I don’t think he ever let go of the Rose Thief for one minute. I’d be stupid not to have recognized that. I guess I’m just… disappointed.”

“I’m sorry,” Ray blurted again. “I can’t believe I—”

“Forget it,” Gavin said. “Listen, just—forget it. You all seem so fond of pretending, so let’s just pretend it didn’t happen for now.”

“Are you gonna…? I mean are you and he…”

“For now? Probably not,” said Gavin, his eyes downcast and his mouth pulled into a sad smile. “I’ve worked too hard to get him, and I—I love him too much. I know he loves me, it’s just sometimes… Look, let’s not talk about this anymore,” he snapped suddenly. “This is too depressing.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Oh, shut up.” Gavin cast his gaze about the room, floundering for ideas. He laid his eyes on his bow and quiver, leaning neatly against one of the tables. “That’s it,” he said, standing up with a grunt. He offered his hand to Ray, who just stared at it. “I’m going to teach you how to shoot.”

Chapter Text

“Excuse me?” Ray said, baffled.

“You heard me,” said the prince. “Later you can show me how bad you are at the sword too,” he added with a grin.

“You can’t be serious,” Ray said flatly. He sniffed again and wiped away more trailing tears, but he was done crying—for now, anyway. The hard part was over. He had confessed, and felt a little lighter for it—though perhaps still a little nauseous.  

“I am completely serious,” Gavin said. “Now take my bloody hand.”

Ray begrudgingly obeyed and let the prince help him up. Gavin rummaged around and found him a leather arm guard, which he laced around Ray’s left forearm and tied it for him. Ray watched him blankly the entire time. Gavin was focused on the bracer, and when he was done tying it, Ray rubbed at it. It was as long as his entire forearm. It was tight against his skin, but not uncomfortably so.

“Shouldn’t we do this outside?” Ray mumbled, glancing at the target at the other end of the room. It was a new one, the other one having burned down.

“Eventually, if you want,” said Gavin simply, tugging on the string of his own bracer. “I figured you’d want less people watching you make a fool of yourself.”

Ray’s face warmed. He muttered, “Yeah, you’re right,” earning him a smug smirk from Gavin. Once the arm guard was snugly on, Gavin left Ray standing there to get his bow and quiver, and started showing Ray how to fire.

He nocked an arrow and pulled it back on the string. “The arrow will be pretty straight on its own, see, it’s got a notch that puts it right on the string. Rest it against the bow so that you can actually aim. Just, whatever you do, don’t fire the bow without an arrow, or it will probably shatter.”

“Uh, right,” Ray muttered, shuffling his feet. He wondered again why he was going along with this. He supposed it was better than talking about—thinking about—what he did.

Gavin slowly and deliberately demonstrated firing an arrow, pulling back the string so that his hand was next to his chin. Then, he released it, the arrow whistling through the air to thunk into the bullseye. He handed the bow to Ray.

It was surprisingly heavy. It was at least as heavy as his sword and was made of solid wood, though the handle felt like bone. He awkwardly nocked and arrow and drew the bow, his left arm fully outstretched and already feeling the weight of the weapon. He paused when Gavin told him to stop, and relaxed the bow again. Apparently his fingers were all wrong on the string. Gavin pried at his fingers and coaxed them into the correct position with a gentleness Ray hadn’t ever really felt from the prince. Gavin double checked Ray’s grip on the body of the bow, and gave the weapon a loving stroke as he stepped away again. Gavin chatted the entire time, giving him the reasoning behind the techniques as well as some more advice about shooting. Ray stared at him mutely, entranced by the passion Gavin had for his archery.

Gavin jerked his chin at him. “Well, fire, then.”

Ray blinked, startled out of his reverie, then looked back towards the target. He pulled back the arrow again, feeling his muscles strain against it. The bow wasn’t the easiest to pull, and it was maybe thirty pounds of force. He paused, and when he heard Gavin say “Shoot,” he released the arrow.

It was quite something, building up that energy and then just releasing it. It felt powerful, even though the arrow fell short, missing the target completely and clattering to the stone floor. Ray felt his face heat up again, and it didn’t help when Gavin chuckled.

“I think that bow has too much draw weight for you,” he said, taking his bow back from Ray. “Your posture and form is awful as well.”

“Well, then why’d you want me to do it!?” Ray said angrily.

“Oh don’t get so embarrassed,” Gavin said with a laugh, jogging down the room to retrieve the arrow. “For your first time, you were fine. I mostly just wanted to see if you could, and how well you’d do. I think there’s a beginner's bow around here somewhere, it’s a lot easier to pull and shoot. I mean, all the guards get this training, so...”

“Hey you asshole,” Ray grumbled. “I want that sword fight first.” He didn’t know the prince’s skill at the blade, but if he was anything like his Gavin, Ray figured he at least had a chance. A chance at payback.

Prince Gavin paused, looking Ray up and down with a slight smirk. “I’m sure we can arrange that.”


 

Ray was first led back to his room by the prince so he could change clothes. Gavin, however, accidentally stopped one room too soon and opened the door to the room next to Ray’s. He poked his head in, then quickly backed out with a sheepish grin.

“Whoops!” he said. “Old habits die hard even after five years, I suppose. It’s this one…”

Ray regarded the door as Gavin moved to the correct one. “I didn’t realize you were right next to the Rose Thief when he lived here,” he said.

Gavin shot him an odd glance over his shoulder and shrugged. “Yeah, and Michael lived a little further down the hall, too. It was nice, though. Sometimes late at night we’d sneak into each other’s rooms, without letting any guards know about our movements.” He grinned as he entered Ray’s room, shaking his head at the ground in nostalgia. “When we were younger we sometimes pretended to be thieves. Geoff thought it was hilarious when we’d try to take some of his jewelry, but he always caught us and made us put it back.”

“Sounds like a good time,” Ray said, rubbing his arm awkwardly.

“Michael was usually a distraction,” Gavin added cheerfully. “He could climb as well as me and the Rose Thief, but he wasn’t ever very good at being quiet. Oh, here’s your sword. I can wait outside the room if you want to change in private.”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. “Is it… okay to fight with this sword? It’s pretty fucking sharp after all.”

Gavin flapped his hand at Ray on his way out. “Nah,” he said casually. “The guy who’s in charge of training guards has a spell that will put a barrier around the blade. The worse you’ll get is bruises.”

“The worst you’ll get, you mean,” Ray said, which made Gavin laugh as he shut the door.

There were clothes around somewhere that Ray could wear. It didn’t really matter what, as he was sure he would get sweaty and dirty anyway. But suddenly he didn’t want to move. He was alone in this room, and his thoughts returned to what he did last night. Some fear of unknown origin formed a lump in his throat, and his hands began to shake. Why was he acting like this? Why did he feel paralyzed?

“Gavin?” he called before he could stop himself.

The door opened immediately, and Prince Gavin poked his head in. “What? It’s been ten bloody seconds. Oh come on, you haven’t even bloody moved.”

Ray rubbed his eyes and laughed silently so that his shoulders shook. “I’m sorry,” he said, smiling despite himself. He was being a fool, but at that point he didn’t really care. “I’m sorry—could you—could you stay, instead?”

Prince Gavin studied him with a bright, narrowed eye. His face was unsympathetic, screwed up in confusion, but he stepped inside the room anyway and shut the door behind him. “You are a strange one, sometimes,” he observed, raising an eyebrow.

Ray ran a hand through his hair and exhaled through puffed cheeks. He glanced at the window, squinting against the glare of the sun. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.” As he put his back to the prince, Gavin started studying his nails, perhaps to show how much he wasn’t paying attention. Ray pulled off his shirt and then paused, seized suddenly with uncertainty. His guilt would not stop nagging at his mind.

“I thought you’d be angrier with me,” said Ray. He heard Gavin sigh and smack the wall with the palm of a hand.

“Oh, by the light of the Tower—I thought we were done talking about this. Ray, we all make mistakes. You, me, Michael, everyone. Besides that, you’re already giving yourself so much grief over it. Why should I add to it? Now hurry up and put a bloody shirt on.”


 

It was sunny outside, and humid, though not on its own unpleasant. The breeze hinted at rain later, which comforted Ray—rain meant no Endermen. But for now, the only clouds were fluffy cumulus ones placed sporadically around the blue plate of the sky. Prince Gavin took Ray around the grounds behind Geoff’s castle, past the circle made of loose dirt where they would spar, towards a guard sitting on a chair next to a castle door. He squinted up at them as they approached.

“Good day, your Highness,” greeted the guard. He looked older than most of the guards Ray had seen, with face like wrinkled leather. He might even have been older than Geoff, though with the natural weathering of skin, it was hard to tell. “What can I help you with?”

“We’re going to spar,” Gavin said simply, gesturing back at Ray. “So you need to do the spell.” He held out his sword, usually kept sheathed at his waist by a belt that looped over his opposite shoulder. It was a saber, long and only slightly curving, with a heavily jeweled handle and a golden guard that looped over the knuckles when held. It clearly did not get a lot of use.

The guard raised an eyebrow and leaned to the side to get a good look at Ray, though he accepted the prince’s sword. He ran a hand slowly along the blade, a circular tattoo glowing through his sleeve on his forearm. The blade glowed bright green, and looking at it for some reason made Ray feel dizzy. “I thought you didn’t like the sword so much,” the guard observed.

Gavin shrugged as he took his sword back. The green glow had faded to a faint shimmer. Ray handed off his sword next. “I don’t,” the prince said simply, and the guard didn’t press. Ray figured he didn’t actually care that much. As Ray took back his sword, Gavin said, “Let’s see, best of three rounds, five hits each? Body only, no head.”

Ray blinked. “What?”

Prince Gavin rolled his eyes. “It’s a game. First to get five hits on his opponent wins the round, and we’ll have best of three. But don’t go for the head. Everywhere else on the body is fine.”

“Oh. Sure.”

Ray stood opposite Gavin in the sparring circle, their blades shimmering nigh imperceptibly in the sunlight. The guard who magicked their swords plopped his chair near the edge and played the part of a judge. He yelled “Start!” and Ray almost didn’t see Gavin strike. The prince smacked Ray’s blade aside and hit him on the arm. Ray lurched back, rubbing his arm with his left hand as he grumbled. That was going to bruise later.

Gavin grinned mischievously. “One-to-zero,” he said.

They reset their positions and started the next point. This time Ray was more prepared. Gavin went for the same trick. Ray slid back, dipped his blade under Gavin’s heavier saber, and jabbed it into Gavin’s chest for a point. That took the prince down a notch, and Ray was smirking as they started the next point.

Ray was a quick learner by nature, and once he had a basic understanding on swordplay, he could figure out many of the next steps for himself. Gavin’s sword was a wider blade, made for slashing, whereas Ray’s rapier was more of a thrusting weapon. Gavin could put more power in his swings, but if Ray could dart around them and avoid being hit himself, then he could usually get the point. He ended up winning the first round this way.

Both lads were sweating in the sun and the humidity by then, but they were panting only a little. Prince Gavin figured out where his advantage lay, and the points drew out longer and longer. Gavin kept the momentum of the matches going, predicting Ray’s thrusts and sidestepping them or jumping back, then moving again to try and hit the blade or Ray’s extended arm or leg. Ray couldn’t stop Gavin’s hits completely, but he could deflect them at least enough to usually get out of the way.

Gavin tied up the second round four-to-four by knocking Ray’s sword out of his sweaty grasp and nailing him in the upper arm. Ray wasn’t sure why he did it—he’d likely blame the insufferably smug look on Gavin’s face. He abandoned his sword altogether and tackled Gavin around his middle, brought him down to the dirt with an “oof!” Gavin, too, abandoned his saber and tried to squirm out of Ray’s grasp, but then Ray was on top of him and they were wrestling around on the ground. They kicked up puffs and splashes of loose dirt, which stuck to the sweat on their skin and settled back into the threads of their clothes. It was probably Gavin’s peals of laughter and Ray’s broad grin that kept the local guards from descending upon them as they twisted around, grabbing and pulling at each other and getting all around filthy.

“Ah hah!” Ray cried finally, pinning Gavin underneath him. They were both completely out of breath, their faces red and glowing, shining with sweat and smudged with dirt. “I win,” he said, keeping Gavin’s arms trapped. The prince merely laughed and did not really try to struggle out at all.

“Alright, alright,” he said, chuckling. “You win.”

They stared at each other then, green eyes locked on brown, in that awkward moment between conversations, between activities, that moment that exists in stasis. Ray felt light for once, like some of the weight on his shoulders had burned away. He knew Gavin let him win the wrestling match—or at least let him keep his victory, but that didn’t matter. He didn’t even notice he was staring at Gavin—though the prince didn’t seem to notice either—as he just enjoyed this buoyant, victorious feeling.

But then the queasy feeling crept back into his gut, and the sound of clinking metal and a husky laugh announced the approach of another figure. Gavin suddenly scrambled out from underneath Ray and bounced happily to his feet to greet Michael.

“Is this where you lads have been?” asked Michael with a smile. “Getting dirty like children?”

“We were just having a bit of a spar,” Gavin said, going in for a big hug. Michael pushed him away, laughing.

“Oh, gross!” he teased. “Don’t hug me when you’re all sweaty and dirty!” But he allowed Gavin to come close again and swiftly kiss him on the cheek while all the guards pretended to not look.

It was then that they noticed Ray had still not stood up, but had remained on the ground where Gavin had ditched him. Ray was not happy to see Michael, and seeing him again made gravity feel stronger. Michael seemed perfectly able to pretend nothing had happened last night, but Ray found that difficult. He didn’t know how to act now. He had at least hoped he could avoid Michael for a while longer so he could figure it out, but he realized in hindsight that if he hung out with the prince, such meetings would occur regularly. This coupled with a wave of nausea kept Ray where he was.

“You okay, there, Ray?” asked Michael.

Ray stared at the ground below him, curled his fist around a clump of dirt. If he looked up, the world spun. He focused on his breathing, trying to stop his stomach from churning. “I’m—fine,” he said in faint voice. “Just a little nauseous.”

Michael and Gavin frowned at each other. Gavin left Michael’s side to kneel at Ray’s. “Do you want to go lie down?” he suggested.

Ray considered the proposition. His head felt like a coal oven. “Give me a minute,” he said. “It’ll probably pass.”

“Okay…” Gavin relented, patting him on the back and standing. “You’re probably just thirsty. We’ll get you some water. Won’t we, Michael?” he added, turning to the captain. Michael took the hint and started heading away.

Ray took a deep breath and spared a glance to see where his sword landed. Its blade was still shimmering green with the guard’s spell, and sour bile filled his mouth. Before he could help anything, he was retching.

He hadn’t really expected to vomit up much, but he definitely did not expect the violently purple substance. It was about the consistency of thin syrup, and shimmered like a violet galaxy as it sickeningly plopped to the ground. His stomach heaved and he was choking up this weird liquid as onlookers stood frozen. Clearly, this was as new to them as it was to him. He couldn’t comprehend it, though. It was coming out of him. There wasn’t a single fluid in the human body that was purple or that glittered. Yes, he was a little scared, to say the least. If his brain had a little red emergency light, it would be going off right now with accompanying sirens.

“Don’t touch it!” called a voice. Ryan was leaning out a fifth story window. “Get any magical object away from him! Do not cast any spells! I’ll be right down!”

Ray scooted back on his butt as soon as his stomach began to settle, his hand flying to cover his mouth. His breathing was quick and short, and he was trying his best not to hyperventilate. That had come out of him. That had come out of his mouth. Michael scooped up the two swords and took them away from the sparring circle as Gavin took his place again kneeling at Ray’s side.

“It’ll be okay,” Gavin told him. “It’ll be alright.” Ray didn’t even register the words. All he could think was what the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck?

Ryan burst from the closest door having sprinted from the fifth floor. He strode towards the mysterious substance on the ground and stopped a pace away. With one arm held crooked in front of him like a shield, he swiped his other hand quickly from one side to the other. What looked like a frosted glass dome encased the violet liquid, which began to aggressively sparkle and ripple.

Ryan pulled out a ceramic jar that he had attached to his belt and popped open the top. With another flourish of hand motions, the glass dome lifted from the ground to become a levitating sphere, the purple liquid contained inside. The entire yard held its breath. Ryan’s face was one of complete concentration, as serious as a brain surgeon. The entire spell, sphere and substance, sucked itself into the open ceramic jar, and Ryan quickly screwed the top back on. Only then did he let out a relieved sigh and wipe his forehead on his long sleeve.

He turned to Ray and Gavin. “Come,” he said. “I’ll explain in my quarters.”


 

Ray sat on a forest green couch in the broad open room in Ryan’s suite, the room Ray privately referred to as the Mage’s laboratory. He shared the couch with some sort of species of fern in a rectangular pot. He clasped a mug of cool water in his hands as he slouched forward and leaned against the armrest. He still felt weak and shivery, but the nausea seemed to have gone completely. Gavin leaned against the wall next to Ray with his arms crossed. Michael had wanted to stay, but after helping Ray up the stairs, he had to continue his patrol. Ray tried not to think about Michael’s touch, Michael’s arm around him, Michael’s hand on his lower back. It gave him goosebumps he didn’t necessarily want. Ryan hurried around his room like the busy man he was, and soon had the ceramic jar labeled with his scrawling handwriting and set carefully on a shelf.

“Right,” said the Mage, returning to Ray and Gavin. “Now I’m sure you’re a little freaked out about what happened.”

“You don’t say!” Ray snapped, his voice cracking.

Ryan shot him an apologetic look. “I really am sorry, Ray. There was no way to predict this would happen. You, ah, basically vomited up pure, congealed magic.”

“Excuse me?” cut in Prince Gavin. “How can magic—Can magic even be solidified?”

“You’ve seen it yourself, now,” Ryan pointed out. “It’s possible, but it’s a massive amount of energy in one spot. Such congealed magic is highly volatile and will react violently to the slightest spell, perhaps even the slightest touch. It’s too dangerous to study closely.”

“Yes, but, what the fuck was it doing in my body?” Ray demanded. His hands shook so bad he almost spilled his water, but he gripped the mug tightly and forced himself to steady.

“It seems,” Ryan said, “and this is why we couldn’t have predicted it, but it seems that your body couldn’t filter all the magic around you properly. See, even if you’re a person with no magical ability, you’re still naturally from this world, so magic is still a regular and natural occurrence that your body can deal with. But you’re not from this world, you’re from one that has not a single drop of magic. This has granted you great resistance, but it means your body had no idea what to do with the magic being cast on you, or even lingering in the air around you.”

“But I don’t even feel like I’ve had that many spells cast on me…” Ray muttered.

“Well, you might not have noticed. We know that an enemy Mage has been after you. Who knows how many spells he cast that didn’t work at all, due to your resistance? Not to mention the spells that had been cast around you that would leave magic residue you might have absorbed.”

Ray shifted uncomfortably, staring at the water in his mug. “…Will it happen again?” he asked quietly.

Ryan shrugged. “If you want my best guess… probably not. I think your body knows how to filter the magic out of it now. Tower knows, you might even be more resistant now. Someone should keep an eye on you through tonight, anyway, just in case, but that’s just me being careful.”

“Oh.” Ray wasn’t sure how to feel about that, so he didn’t.

Ryan felt Ray’s forehead and pursed his lips. “You’ll be fine, but you might want to go back to your room and rest for a while. Drink water and try to get some sleep.”

“…Okay.” Ray didn’t want to be confined to his bed again, but he was tired. He supposed he deserved a nap after throwing up pure solidified magic.

Gavin grunted as he pushed off from the wall. “Come on,” he said with a sigh, offering Ray his hand. “I’ll make sure you don’t faint or something on the way back.”

Chapter Text

As a courtesy before they left, Ryan waved a hand and the dirt and grime lifted off of Ray’s and Gavin’s skin in a spell very similar to the Rose Thief’s. Gavin walked with Ray back to his room, though Ray did not need or even want the help. He was tired, yes, but he didn’t feel like he was going to pass out. Now he just felt guilty for taking up the prince’s time.

“I can walk back myself,” Ray insisted. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do.”

Prince Gavin shrugged. “You’re not taking me away from anything I can’t do later,” he said casually.

“So you do have things to be doing.”

Gavin huffed and rolled his eyes. “By the light of the Tower, Ray. I am a prince; my plate is never truly empty. If you want me to bloody leave, then say so, don’t dance around it.”

Ray fell silent with indecision. Deep down he didn’t truly want Gavin to leave—he didn’t want to be left alone. But he didn’t want to be a burden. It was a tightrope he was losing his balance on, and he simply did not know what he wanted. Gavin sighed again.

“You are infuriating sometimes,” muttered the prince. “Just like the Rose Thief… Look, we’re here, anyway. Get some rest. I or someone will be back to check up on you later, but I really do have some things that need looking after.”

Ray chewed his lip and nodded, bowing his head as he entered his room. The guard outside didn’t even look at him—he looked asleep on his feet. He yawned and looked towards the bed before freezing. In the middle of his white pillow rested what was unmistakably a red rose petal. His blood ran cold as he glanced around the empty room. After a brief hesitation, he turned back around and locked the door.

When he faced the room again, he nearly had a heart attack and jumped out of his boots. The Rose Thief had appeared in front of the windows, as quiet as a ghost and as irate as the North Wind. His eyes glittered dangerously behind his white mask. Ray cautiously closed part of the distance between them, walking to the center of the room. Then, the Rose Thief started towards Ray with a fury in his stride and a rage in his eyes.

“What a pleasant surprise—” Ray started, raising his hands up defensively.

The slap was loud enough that it sounded like someone clapping, and it was hard enough that Ray lost his footing and fell. His cheek stung sharply with the contact, and continued to smart long after.

“Ahh,” Ray groaned, rubbing his cheek, propping himself up on his other elbow. “Hey, what was that for?”

The Rose Thief straddled him then and gripped the front of Ray’s shirt, bringing their faces close together.

Did you not think I would know?” the Rose Thief hissed.

Ray paled and searched his doppelgänger’s face with wide eyes. “I—I don’t know what you’re…”

The Rose Thief shook him violently, and Ray grabbed his double’s arms to stop himself from cracking his head against the stone floor. The Rose Thief screamed in his face, “Did you think I wouldn’t fucking notice? Did you fucking think I wouldn’t fucking know you fucked him?”

“Oh God,” Ray gasped. “I—I didn’t mean to—”

He choked when the Rose Thief shoved him back down and whipped out a dagger, pressing the blade against his throat. Ray’s breath seized in a panic. “You didn’t what?” screeched the Rose Thief. “You didn’t mean to fuck him? You didn’t mean for me to fucking notice? You can’t fucking hide that from me! He looked at me the exact same fucking way! I should kill you right fucking now! How dare you sleep with him! How dare you—!”

“He was doing it to get to you!” Ray cried. The blade pressed harder against his skin, and he felt it pinch as it cut ever so slightly. “We were both—I’m so fucking sorry, I never should have done it. We were both just trying to—to be with someone we missed!”

The Rose Thief glared down at him, a mirror image filled with fury. But he took the dagger away from Ray’s throat. They were both breathing heavily. Before either of them could do anything else, however, the door rattled viciously, as though someone had tried to shove it open only to find it wouldn’t budge.

“Hey, who locked the door?” said the muffled voice behind it.

“You listen to me,” the Rose Thief said in a dangerously low voice to Ray. “You do your fucking best to stay away from Michael. He—is—not—yours.”

A key scraped in the lock of the door, drawing their attention again. Ray glanced at the door, and then suddenly in a flurry of whipping cape, the Rose Thief was off of him, vanished from the room in a breath of wind. Ray struggled to his feet just as the door opened.

It was the guard who was stationed just outside his door. “Is everything okay in here?” he asked, leaning in and looking furtively around the room. “I heard talking.”

“Everything’s fine,” said Ray shakily. “I was just—talking out loud to myself.”

The guard frowned. “Are you sure? You’re cheek’s all red.”

Ray paled, his hand flitting up to cover his still-smarting cheek. “Yeah. Just, uh, you know, hit myself to wake myself up. Clear my head. You know. Haven’t you ever done that?”

The guard looked at his own palm, than experimentally placed it against his own cheek. He narrowed his eyes and glanced behind Ray to the windows. Ray felt his stomach jolt. Could the guard know about the Rose Thief? Could the guard have guessed? But the guard merely shook his head and shut the door again, resuming his post.

Ray was alone again.


 

In his dream it looked like the ballroom, but there was only one floor and no windows or doors. There were six mirrors on the walls, but they didn’t reflect Ray back at himself. He spun in circles, terror creeping up his throat, as some ominous feeling, some watchful eye, peered at him from an unseen location, from nowhere, from everywhere.

He focused on the first mirror to see Jack inside of it. As soon as he made eye contact, Jack pounded at the mirror like he was in a glass box, desperate for escape. Ray didn’t know what to do, but as he ran towards it, thinking he might be able to do something, Jack looked up. Stones tumbled down on top of Jack, and within seconds the mirror showed only boulders.

Ray backed away, horrified, forgetting how to breathe correctly. The mirrors seemed to rotate around him, spin like a tilt-a-whirl. The others met their deaths in front of Ray, and he couldn’t look away. Geoff drowned in water underneath ice, drowned as he beat at the frozen seal above him. Ryan’s chest split open as a tree that was more like a wooden spike grew through his torso. Gavin was set ablaze, his screams rattling his mirror but still not making a sound. Michael jerked and twitched as steel swords and metal spears pierced into his entire body, his scarlet blood coating the ground beneath him as he slumped. The Rose Thief merely swung limply from a hangman’s noose after kicking and struggling as he asphyxiated.

Ray flung himself to the floor, put his head in his hands and tried to block out the images, but his dead friends still invaded his mind, still forced him to look at them. Geoff suspended in water; Jack completely covered by rocks; Ryan with wood growing out of his chest; Gavin collapsed and still burning; Michael with metal sticking out of his entire body, the Rose Thief swinging in the slightest breeze. He wanted to wake up. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to wake up. Oh god why couldn’t he wake up?

A voice laughed at him, a voice he recognized as Kdin’s. He never thought he would be intimidated by that voice, but the familiarity only made the terror worse. The voice spoke to him, bitter and cold, clearer than any dream sound, as though he was talking right in his ear.

“It’s time you came to me, Ray,” he cackled. “Alone. We wouldn’t want something bad to happen to anyone who tagged along, now, would we?”

Four of the images—Ryan, Geoff, the Rose Thief, Michael—transformed, stretched and blackened and twisted, turning gruesomely into Endermen. Endermen that now reached out to Ray, converged on him, and swallowed him in cold blackness. He could feel the oily arms wrap around him, could feel the long bony fingers slide over his mouth, curl around his throat, tug on his limbs.

Ray woke himself up with his screams.

“Is this a bad time?”

Ray flailed around on his bed, as though he was trying to kick his sheets off and pull them up to his chin at the same time. He eventually settled on clutching a wad of the sheets in his fist and holding that against his chest. His other hand was gripping the shard of mirror, onto which he had fallen asleep holding. His heart rammed in his ribcage, and he was drenched in cold sweat. He thought he could still feel the Enderman arms around him, tugging at him, choking him. His eyes roved and finally landed on Prince Gavin standing next to his bed.

“Bad dream?”

The prince had, of course by now, changed out of his ragged clothes and into something much more proper. He now wore a light green, long-sleeved tunic underneath a dark green, short-sleeved coat with a tall neck and padded shoulders. The jacket was short, covering perhaps only the ribcage and apparently following the curve of the hidden bone. The tunic had golden tassels at the hem that sparkled over his dark black pants like candles in a dim room. He had a sheer cape of gold wrapped around his throat that rippled down his back like sunlight through dust mites. He even had on his silver prince’s crown, studded regularly with glinting emeralds.

Ray didn’t fully know why, but seeing the prince was little comfort. It was nice to know that his friend was not actually a burnt corpse, but as the dream quickly crumbled away, he couldn’t ignore the waking world. He felt cruelly reminded how much of a burden he was. Was he really so pitiful that he couldn’t even sleep without someone needing to check up on him? He flipped over and shoved his face into his pillow so he wouldn’t have to look at Gavin.

“Why are you here?” Ray groaned. “Come to complete your to-do list?”

Gavin paused for so long that Ray thought he was right. The thought made his chest feel heavy, and he wanted very much to sink into the mattress, to perhaps join the Endermen that were trying to drag him down in his dream. Consciously, he knew Gavin was probably just baffled by his statement, and yet he still sank.

“I… have a gift?” Gavin said slowly, his tone communicating his confusion. “And I wanted to inform you that, if you’re up for it, you can join us for dinner tonight.”

“Oh.” Ray waited. Gavin waited. The silence dragged on and neither lad moved. At last, it seemed that Gavin had not the patience Ray had. The prince startled Ray by sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“Look,” said Gavin. “If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here. I could just as easily have sent someone else to give you messages. You’re not on a ‘to-do list.’”

Ray’s heart fluttered warmly at the words, but a small voice in his head still told him that Gavin wasn’t sincere. He stayed on his stomach, his face turned away from Gavin, his arms shoved under the pillow. He didn’t respond and expected Gavin to get sick of the silence and leave. What he didn’t expect was a light touch on his right shoulder blade. He jumped a little but otherwise didn’t react, and so the prince kept his hand there, gently massaging the scar the assassin’s knife had left. It felt kind of nice to be touched on his upper back, if Ray was going to be honest.

“Do you… regret it?” ask the prince.

“What?”

Gavin splayed his hand on Ray’s shoulder blade, his palm warm against his skin, against his scar. “The knife wound. Do you regret saving me?” Something about Gavin’s voice seemed off. It sounded… guilty? Uncertain? Insecure? He was choosing his words very carefully. Was he perhaps interpreting Ray’s silence in an unintended way?

Ray hesitated. Did he regret it? He honestly never really thought that deeply about it before. The knife wound had been one of the least of his worries that night anyway. The prince had to know that. So why was Gavin asking about it? It seemed like the sort of question more likely to be asked by someone seeking validation, seeking confirmation that he still deserved to be alive, to be redeemed. Or something. Ray had no idea, but he supposed that since he never really thought about the knife wound, he didn’t regret it.

“No,” he said truthfully.

Gavin began rubbing his upper back. Ray relaxed into his touch, his eyelids drooping. He hadn’t realized how tense he had been. The motions were making him sleepy again, and the nightmare seemed more and more like a far-off memory.

“Why?”

“Why…?” Ray chewed his lip. “I don’t fucking know, man. Because it was the right thing to do?”

“So… with hindsight, you’d do it again?”

Ray finally rolled over, forcing Gavin to take his hand away. Ray pushed himself up on his elbows into a sitting position to look the prince in the face. Gavin’s face was tinged red in his cheeks and on the tops of his ears, and his eyes appeared wide and startled by Ray’s actions.

“What’s making you ask these questions?” Ray asked.

“I’m sorry,” said the prince, looking down at the bedsheets. “Forget I asked.”

“Hold on, but you seem really bothered about something…”

Gavin shoved a leather object into Ray’s arms. “I said forget it,” he snapped. Ray opened his mouth to press more, but shut it again as Gavin turned away and crossed his arms. The prince was embarrassed to the point where he was locking up, and it would be useless to pry anymore. Ray sighed and studied the object in his hand. It wasn’t his job to play therapist anyway.

The object was what appeared to be a pouch of sorts, about as long as his forearm with a folded over lid. It was narrow, and had two loops on its back near the top, presumably to attach it to a belt. It reminded Ray more of a sheath than of a pouch or even a bag. Ray glanced up as Gavin started heading for the exit.

“Thanks…? What’s this?”

Gavin was at the door when he paused to answer. “It’s for your mirror,” he said simply. “You can put it on your belt so you can always have it.”

“Oh.” Ray felt his face warm, and he looked at the strange leather pouch in a new light. “Thank you,” he said again, glancing up in time to see Gavin leaving and closing the door. The prince nodded at Ray through the crack, then firmly shut the door.

Ray clutched the mirror shard in his fist, angled it so that he didn’t see his pitiful face reflected back at him. After staring at it aimlessly, lost in thought, he slid it into his new pouch. It was a perfect fit.

Anxious excitement twisted in his gut. He sensed that something was coming, perhaps multiple somethings, waiting just beyond the visible horizon. He glanced at the dark wardrobe, heavy and looming. He needed to do something soon. If the guard guessed that the Rose Thief was hanging around… and if that news got to the prince or the king or even Jack, they would perhaps logically assume it might be true, given that Ray was still around and seemed to have been the Rose Thief’s charge. Which meant he would have to actually put effort towards proving the Rose Thief’s innocence—something that only he could truly do. The Rose Thief could take care of himself, yes, but that was in normal circumstances. Ray knew that the Rose Thief still felt some responsibility towards him—after all, he kept returning. The sooner Ray found the truth, the better for everyone.

The prince seemed… off, now, and Ray couldn’t imagine why. He seemed apologetic towards Ray, though Ray wasn’t entirely sure why that might be. Did the prince perhaps still feel guilty about his previous actions towards Ray? About his brashness and totally unfair anger? That felt right. Guilt has the unique quality of eating at one’s mind. Ray shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t dwell on that. It was a distraction, and now he had to focus.

His dream felt so far away now. He took it to be a reflection of his stress and bad mood. Honestly he was surprised he didn’t have a dream like that sooner. It was but another distraction.

He was going to prove the Rose Thief’s innocence, and he figured the best place to start was with the victim. He needed to talk to King Geoff.

Chapter Text

Ray dug around his room and put on some of the clothes he had already worn. The shirt with the puffy sleeves from the celebration two nights ago, whatever black pants these were, the red shoes and sleeveless doublet. They were clean enough for the dinner tonight. As he dressed, he shivered lightly, his hands clammy and cold. The dream of the Endermen and of his friends’ deaths lingered still in his mind, despite his best efforts. The more he thought of the oily skin, the pulling, the more he felt physically ill. He shook his head and left the room.

The guard outside took Ray to the dinner. It was, as it turned out, in a different location than the feast. This dining room was significantly smaller, meant to be more intimate, and consisted of only one table, albeit decorated with a fine green tablecloth and a fabulous vase of flowers in the center. Ray recognized a few of the flowers—tall violets, delicate Queen Anne’s Lace, yellow roses not quite in full bloom. The stone walls were covered in paintings, the biggest one being a landscape of the castle and the town around it, hanging behind the king’s larger chair.

It was just the six of them this time. When Ray entered, Ryan immediately stood and strode towards him. He put a palm to Ray’s forehead and frowned.

“Sorry I haven’t been checking up on you,” he muttered. “You’re a little hot, I think. How are you feeling?”

“It’s fine,” answered Ray. “I’m fine.” He just wanted this dinner to be over. He needed to talk to Geoff in private, and the only reason he agreed to join them for dinner was so he could nab the king after it.

Ryan squinted at Ray. It was clear that Ray was not believed, but the king waved the two of them down, his crown perched crookedly on his head. “Oh sit down!” Geoff demanded. “There’s plenty of time to talk when we’re sitting having dinner.”

They sat. Ray wasn’t sure what it was, but the atmosphere was tense. Even as he stared at his plate of food, trying not to make too much eye contact, the conversation was not nearly as enthusiastic as the feast. Was it because he was there? They did seem to be glancing at him frequently, but maybe that was just him. Were they worried about something? All he knew for certain was that Jack sighed a lot and rubbed his forehead, and Ryan flubbed his words like he was distracted, and Gavin sure seemed to be going through a lot of red wine. Even Michael spoke with a tight tone of voice. Only Geoff seemed normal, but Ray was beginning to think that he just hid it—whatever “it” was—better than the others.

They talked of nothing of importance. They talked of the weather and the coming rain. They talked of the blooms in the garden. They talked of some of the guards in the castle. They talked of clothes for Ray. They talked of the horses in the stables. Ray wanted to scream. He wanted to leave, he wanted to talk to Geoff privately, he wanted to go home.

Finally, the last plates were taken away, and they all seemed to disperse at once. Ray tried to follow Geoff, but he was swiftly interrupted by a doting and well-meaning Ryan. He unintentionally blocked Ray, put a hand on his shoulder and did his best to look concerned.

“Ray, look,” Ryan said. “Are you sure you feel alright? I think it’s best if you rested for a while, okay?”

Ray shrugged out from under Ryan’s hand and glanced past the Mage. “Ryan, listen, I’ve rested for long enough. I can’t stay cooped up in that room so much longer.”

Ryan grimaced. “I understand, I do. But you can’t be traipsing around when you still probably need to recover. I would be visiting more, but with everything going on, being needed in the War Room among my other Mage duties…”

“I get it,” Ray said, frustrated now. “Ryan, I get it.”

Ryan seemed to pick up on his mood now. He nodded meekly and briskly bid him good night, and left. Ray tried to follow the king, but Geoff was long gone now. He didn’t want to ask the guards for fear of being found suspicious, especially not when they were leering at him so. He ducked down a few halls, trying to figure out where the king’s quarters might be, but he really had no idea.

Down one of these halls, however, was the prince. Dimly illuminated by the dying torches, Gavin was leaning his forehead against a cool stone wall, one arm up hooked over his head, the other hanging limply by his side. Ray remembered the fervor with which he had drunk his wine, and approached cautiously.

“Gavin…?” he asked slowly. “You okay?”

When Prince Gavin looked at him, he could see that the prince was ruddy in the face. “Oh,” said Gavin, twisting his features into an ugly expression. “Is you.” His speech was horribly slurred, and Ray heaved a sigh. He didn’t have time for this, but it didn’t feel right to just leave his drunken friend—well, copy of a friend—hanging out like this. He lightly touched Gavin’s shoulder with the intent to lug the prince back to his quarters.

But Gavin didn’t seem to want to go anywhere just yet. He grabbed at Ray and sunk heavily to the ground, sliding down the wall. Ray stumbled, but the grip was too strong, so he, too, sunk.

“Wha’s so great about you,” mumbled Gavin angrily. Ray was trying to disentangle himself from the prince, but Gavin’s hands roved and grasped at him, tugging him down. It was a quiet struggle, full of shushing fabrics and light slaps. “You already—you already fucked my—my Michael.” One hand grabbed Ray’s doublet collar, and the other slid onto his lower back. Ray fought against the grip, managed to shove both arms aside.

“Stop it,” Ray hissed. Gavin was really pissing him off now. “You’re fucking drunk. Stop it.”

“What does he see in you, huh?” Gavin rambled, mournfully, spitefully. A hand found its way to Ray’s thigh and squeezed. Ray snatched the wrist and threw the devious hand aside. “Is there something I’m missing? But yoooouuuu already fucked him, though.” The words slipped between Ray’s ribs like a knife. He was unprepared for Gavin to clamp his hands around Ray’s ears and jerk him close. His glasses slipped down his nose, knocked askew. He could smell the sour alcohol on the prince’s breath. He was far too close to those green eyes. “What’re you gonna do now? Are you gonna—are you gonna fuck me too?”

“Let go of me,” Ray demanded in a trembling voice. He shook his head abruptly and yanked back. His glasses fell off entirely and skittered across the stone floor. He snatched Gavin’s wrists and held them tightly between the two of them. He glared. “You gotta get back to your fucking room and sleep until you’re fucking sober. Then—then you can fucking apologize to me, you bastard.”

Gavin burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” he moaned, sinking even lower to the floor and slowly shaking his head. “Ray, I’m so sorry. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me—Ray, Ray, I’m so sorry, Ray.”

Ray faltered. Gavin wailed underneath him, all tense and bunched up like he was trying to make himself small. Ray couldn’t speak for a moment, he was so utterly dumbfounded. Gavin’s reaction just seemed so extreme to him. But, he supposed, people can get extremely upset over the strangest and littlest things.

“I’m not—I’m not gonna fucking hurt you,” Ray said, exasperated.

He heard the footsteps just before he felt the warm hand on his shoulder. He squinted up to see Michael offering him his glasses. Ray’s face was suddenly very hot. He took his glasses back and clambered back to his feet. He felt hyper-aware of himself, self-conscious and embarrassed about this situation Michael found him in. But the captain flashed him a quick, apologetic smile.

“I’ve been looking for him,” said Michael. “He slurred something at me after dinner and ran off. It’s good you’ve found him.”

“Great. Uh, guess I’d better take him back, then.” Ray kept his eyes downcast as his cheeks burned. He ducked down to loop an arm under Gavin’s, and he hoisted him up. He staggered under Gavin’s limp weight, and Michael lunged to the other side of the prince and draped on of Gavin’s arms over his shoulder. Gavin’s head lolled drunkenly. He was still crying, but he seemed to have tired himself out, and so he was crying in a manner that shook his ribcage and stifled his sobs.

Michael helped Ray carry Gavin back to the prince’s room. Neither of them talked much on the way there. Ray mostly just screamed internally. Why was Michael there? Why did he have to be there? Why, why, why? He didn’t want to think about Michael. He didn’t want to think about that night, or the face in the mirror, or about those nice, gentle lips… No! Why did Michael offer to help Ray carry Gavin, as opposed to just straight up taking the prince from him? Couldn’t he do it himself? He was embarrassed and shy and suddenly bedrest didn’t seem like a bad idea. He didn’t want to deal with this all right now! He had enough on his plate!

They supported Gavin between them all the way back to his bedroom. Then, Ray let Michael take the prince and gently shut and locked the door behind them. Michael lay Gavin on his bed, took off the prince’s crown and detached the cape from his shoulders. He did so gingerly, as Ray watched, like a mother putting her infant to bed. Gavin groaned a few times, but he was mostly ready to pass out, and so allowed himself to be taken care of. Michael brushed Gavin’s bangs back and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Once done, Michael gestured at Ray and went through the side door into his room. Ray glanced nervously at the locked door behind him before following. He couldn’t lock Gavin’s door from the outside, and he didn’t want to leave it unlocked. His heart beat hot and fast as he followed Michael, and he couldn’t stop the trembling in his hands. He had to be brave, he had to stay strong.

Michael held the connecting door open for him, and Ray slipped through easily. He hovered, as Michael shut that door. The room was dark, only a flickering fire lighting the room, glinting off of the steel decorations around Michael’s neck and on his coat. Ray bit his lower lip. Move, dammit! Move, you fool! Go to bed! Leave!

Then Michael was in front of him, holding him against the wall, hands rising to each cheek. “I want to kiss those lips again,” Michael growled huskily. Those lips, those lips. How they curled, how red they were. Ray couldn’t seem to focus, now, now, those lips were on his. He knew his shouldn’t, but his body disagreed, pushing into Michael’s body, accepting the mouth, the tongue, the hands. It was hot, violent, filled with heavy breathing against skin, teeth grinding, tongues meeting, curling. His hands flitted, drifted, up to Michael’s shoulders, craving something to hold on to. Michael lightly bit down on Ray’s lower lip and pulled, scraping his teeth along the soft flesh. Ray moaned into his mouth.

But Ray had to push him away, had to turn his head and take Michael’s hands down. “I can’t,” he said. Michael leaned down and kissed his neck, a pleasurable tingle spreading from the contact. He shivered. “I can’t,” he said again. He pushed against Michael’s chest, forced the other man to take a step back and look at him.

“This isn’t right,” Ray continued. He felt horrible, but he had to stop it now. He couldn’t repeat the other night. He couldn’t do this knowing they were just placeholders for each other. He didn’t want to feel like that again, in the aftermath. “I’m not—I’m not your Ray, and you can’t use me like this.”

If Michael had been unwilling to talk before, he listened to that. Ray almost wished he hadn’t said it, because Michael’s shoulders sagged like he wore armor too heavy for him. The captain glanced off to the side shamefully, the firelight reflected in his brown eyes, painting his face orange.

“But you also…” he started.

“I know,” Ray said, his tone pleading. “I know. I wanted to pretend, too but—I can’t. Michael, I’m not a little temporary replacement, and—and neither are you. I am my own person, dammit. And Gavin’s not chopped liver. He—I—listen, I can’t keep this up in good conscience. Not with—the other me out there, and not with Gavin…”

Michael bowed his head and turned away to put a hand on his face, over his eyes. “You’re right,” he sighed, and Ray wanted to pierce his own heart right there for making Michael look like that, sound like that. “Fuck, I’m—I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Ray muttered mournfully. This was probably even the last chance he’d get to kiss any version of Michael. He was still so sure he had ruined everything with the Michael back home. But that wasn’t the most important thing here. He couldn’t be selfish. “But—you do have Gavin. You do love him, right?”

Michael turned more and stepped close to the bed, staring over it out the windows. “I do,” he said. Empty space was between them. He rubbed his eyes and looked at Ray again. “I do, I do. I just—I fucking miss him so much.” Was his voice cracking? “And you’re not a wanted man. The prince is not a wanted man. I don’t have to arrest you,” he added mournfully. His eyes shone brightly like light on a plate of armor.

“Do you believe he is innocent?” Ray asked quietly. Michael tensed up, snapped to attention.

“I don’t know what to believe,” he said, barely above a whisper. “People lie. Evidence doesn’t, it fucking can’t. I can’t be naïve.”

“I don’t think he did it,” said Ray, stepping away from the wall. Empty space between him and Michael, between him and the wall. “I’m gonna prove it. Or at least, I’m gonna find reasonable doubt. Gonna show that it could have been someone else, that he could have been framed.”

Michael’s eyes widened. His hands lifted like he wanted to grab Ray by the shoulders but forgot halfway there. “How are you going to do that?” he asked, his voice quivering slightly. “It’s been five years… Surely no evidence remains.”

Ray crossed his arms and straightened out his back to appear more confident than he felt. “Then first, I need to talk to Geoff. In private. I had wanted to talk after dinner, but he got away from me…”

“No, you wouldn’t have the power to arrange a meeting.” Michael paused, and closed the gap between them. “Do you really think there’s a chance? That Ray’s name could be cleared?”

Ray chewed his lip, looking into Michael’s dark eyes. The captain looked so desperate, was staring so intently, searching Ray’s eyes for answers. Ray knew the Rose Thief was innocent. He could feel it in his soul, but could he prove it? He was certainly not the best qualified to play detective, but he was perhaps the only one that could. He was going to try his best anyway.

“Yes.”

Michael’s next action surprised Ray. He put a hand on the back of Ray’s head, slid his fingers into Ray’s hair, leaned forward and kissed his forehead. He looked at Ray again, his gaze intense.

“I’ll get you a meeting with the king.”


 

The only time soon that King Geoff was available was early the next morning. It was darkly overcast, the air thick with humidity. It was going to rain, and soon, but for now it was merely cloudy, a sheet of gray as far as the eye could see. Despite this, Geoff still took Ray on a walk around the grounds.

“Aren’t you afraid of being rained on?” Ray asked timidly. It was Geoff… but he still found himself intimidated by the king’s regality and strangeness. A king in a sleeveless tunic and heavy, draping cloak, but still a king.

Geoff, meanwhile, was completely at ease with Ray. He laughed and patted him on the shoulder before gesturing to a tattoo that was of a gray circle with a horizontal line cutting it in half. “I don’t fear a little water. Besides, this spell right here will stop me from getting wet if I don’t want to be. You too, if you’re in contact.”

“Oh.” Ray squinted at the clouds again anyway.

“So why did you want to talk to me?” King Geoff asked. He paused to lightly brush a Queen Anne’s Lace bloom with his fingertips. It shook white against the green grass like a stray snowflake. Guards watched them from atop the wall, but were out of earshot. “What’s so important that you had to get Michael to arrange a meeting?”

“I wanted to talk to you about five years ago,” Ray said, studying the king. The king stopped toying with the flower, and stilled. “The night the Rose Thief supposedly tried to kill you.”

“Oh,” said the king. He sighed. “I’ve already said everything I can from my perspective during the trial. I’m sure you could find records of that somewhere, just ask Ryan or Jack. What could you possibly want to know?”

“I want to hear it from you,” Ray said. “In your own words. I don’t really know what happened, and I want to know it exactly.”

Geoff narrowed his eyes at him. “I woke up in my bed,” he said, simply enough. “It was the middle of the night, so it was dark as dicks, but I was aware of a figure standing over me with a dagger. I cried out an alarm, the man fled, and I reflexively shot a spell at him. It was this one,” he added, pointing to an icy blue one, shaped like a row of squiggly, inverted-triangle icicles, on the back of his left hand. “It allows me to shoot a shard of ice. It pierced his cape, pinning it to an armchair, and he tugged it so hard it ripped. Then he was out the window. We put out an alert for anyone dressed like that, but no one was even seen leaving the grounds, and it soon became apparent why. One of the guards remarked about how the fabric reminded him of Ray’s capes that he was always fond of, and lo and behold, the very same cape was in his wardrobe.”

“You don’t think anyone could have put it there to frame him?” Ray asked.

Geoff paused, then shook his head. “There’s no way. There wasn’t any time. The guards were put on alert immediately and did not report seeing any other suspicious figures. Such a person would not have the time to plant evidence and escape undetected. The story is that he went out the window, and climbed back down to his room.”

Ray huffed disappointedly. He had one more question, though. “Can you point out for me your room and the Rose Thief’s room?”

Geoff affirmed and pointed at a window high up in the castle. Then he drew his finger down in almost a straight line to Ray’s window, directly underneath the king’s several floors down. “It’s pretty smooth brick,” the king added helpfully. “Not easy to climb down, but with—the Rose Thief’s hardened air spell, it would be simple.”

Ray chewed his lip. This was a disappointment. He couldn’t figure out how anyone but the Rose Thief could manage that. Could he have been wrong? Could the Rose Thief really be that good of a liar, to have Ray convinced? He licked his lips before nervously asking, “Um, do you think I could see your room?”

The king apparently thought this was hilarious and barked a throaty laugh. “You’re really quite stubborn, aren’t you? Alright, buddy, if it will convince you to give this hopeless case up, I’ll grant you access. I will send Dan—you know Dan, right?—to you later.”

 “Thank you,” said Ray.

The king started walking away, leaving Ray with his thoughts in the gray morning gardens, but then he seemed to remember something suddenly. He abruptly faced Ray again, now several paces away, almost at a castle door, and said, “Oh yeah, Ray! We will probably be needing you in the War Room tonight.” Him? In the War Room? What could Ray possibly do for them? It startled Ray so much that he just stared. “We’ll send someone for you, don’t worry. This is just a head’s up.” Ray nodded blankly at him, and then the king disappeared into the castle.

Ray shook the blankness out of his head, and squinted back up to the king’s bedroom window. He saw why everyone accepted the Rose Thief as the culprit without giving it much else thought. Who else could it be? But all Ray needed was reasonable doubt. That’s how juries back home decided people were innocent, right? Reasonable doubt. If he could show that it might not have been the Rose Thief, then perhaps the case would be reopened, and someone smarter than him could prove it entirely.

He rubbed his eyes and groaned. He had his work cut out for him, didn’t he?

Chapter Text

Ray wandered the gardens for several minutes longer, trying to think things through. His next action was, clearly, to see the king’s room, and then find records of the trial. But what was he really looking for? Would he know it if he saw it? All he knew is that he felt really stupid and unqualified for this mystery. He lightly brushed the soft petals of a red rose with his bare fingers before heading up to his room.

A note on his bed told him that clothes had been put in the drawers of the wardrobe for him in addition to the outfit currently set aside. He grinned despite himself; the clothes he wore now were getting a little dirty for his taste. He changed into the new outfit, consisting of a collared, long-sleeved white shirt; a stiff white vest with red glossy buttons; a black long-sleeved jacket that was cropped short and hung open; black pants with horizontal rope ties all up the outer seams; a pair of rose red sock-like articles that slipped over his pants up to his knees and tied in place; and blood red wedge boots that reached about calf-height, though the tops were a bit taller in the front than in the back.

It was a fine outfit enough, but he frowned at everyone’s apparent adoration of high heels. But, he supposed, when in Rome, wear what the Romans wear. Still, he missed the ease and comfort of his t-shirt and jeans. He wondered faintly if they remained in the dungeon cell where he had been imprisoned, hidden under the straw.

He slipped his belt into the pants’ belt loops easily, the frog and his new pouch hooked onto the belt. He gripped the mirror shard for a few moments, staring at his own reflection before sliding it into the specially-made pouch. Of course, he whipped it out again as soon as he heard a muffled “Fuck! The screen went black!”

The mirror had activated again. He collapsed onto the bed to sit on the edge, holding the shard gingerly by the edges to see one Geoff Ramsey blinking in the sudden change in light.

“It is you!” cried Geoff. “Michael was right, you are getting brown and slim.” He was grinning at first, but then he let his tired eyes and mouth droop. “What the fuck are you doing in there, buddy?”

Ray shook his head. He was just relieved to see his friend again, and the emotion flooded his body, draining away some of the tenseness in his muscles. It was brief respite. Behind Geoff he could make out Ryan talking to Michael, their heads drawn close together as Ryan talked in a quiet voice. It seemed Michael had finally returned from his walk. The exhaustion seeped back into his shoulders. They were still divided by a screen, a mirror, an unbreakable pane of glass.

“I have been asking that same question every day for the past two and a half months.”

Michael and Ryan seemed to notice now that Ray was back on screen, their heads perking up as they glanced over. Ray chewed his lower lip and felt his heart rate speed up. Michael nodded at Ryan and approached the screen as the gent called Geoff away. Geoff went, but he went reluctantly, slouching his shoulders and lightly touching the screen before withdrawing.

“Be safe,” he said. Ray nodded.

As soon as Michael sat down, Ray burst into apologies, the words spilling out of him in an uncontrollable gallop. Michael raised his hand in a stop motion, and slowly shook his head. “Ray, this isn’t the time to discuss that. We need more than a few minutes at a time.”

Ray bowed his head and closed his eyes for a few seconds. He took a deep breath. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re right.”

Michael sighed heavily and put his palm against the screen. He looked so very tired at that moment, and Ray’s heart hurt. “The scariest part of this is… the lost time. A few minutes for us is hours for you. A day for us is two months for you. Every time I see you, you’ve changed. And fuck, besides that, in those minutes, those hours, we might lose you. And we wouldn’t know. We wouldn’t fucking know. I—we want you to come home safe. We don’t know what we can do, but we just want you home.”

Ray’s throat felt tight. “I’m trying,” he said. This little chat session was lasting a long time, it felt, and he didn’t want it to end. Michael wanted him home. He still was one of his best friends. “I—but I—I’m not even sure I can.” His voice cracked, and his eyes pricked hotly with wetness. “I’m not sure I’ll make it anymore.”

Michael’s own brown eyes shone too brightly, and he blinked rapidly. “Please,” he said. “Please, be safe. Please find a way home.”

The mirror snapped back to normal, like a TV turned off. Ray took the moments to gather himself, some of the tears he blinked away plopping onto the surface of the mirror. He lightly covered it with his hand, steadied his breathing, then replaced it into his pouch. He hoped that he would have some warning before he died here, so that he may say goodbye for the last time, so that his friends wouldn’t forever never know.

A knock sounded at his door. He stood and called, “Come in!”

It was, as expected, Dan. Ray hadn’t seen him since the arrest, and he still looked rather large and intimidating in his guard garb, his green padded vest and steel pauldrons, greaves, and gauntlets. But Ray knew the gentle, seemingly hapless nature of the Dan back home, and could tell this Dan was much the same with the way he quietly shut the door behind him, and stood at the ready but didn’t snap to his position with the fierce vigor of the other guards. Ray couldn’t help but smile at him.

“His Majesty the King sent me to take you to his room,” he said. “If you would come with me, please.”


 

The most impressive thing in the king’s room was the bed simply for its size. It was circular with four massive oaken bedposts draped with heavy green curtains that were currently tied to the posts. The quilt was emerald embroidered with gold, the sheets a relaxing ocean blue. The headrest was carved with swirls and sea foam, with waves and fish and mermaids and other water creatures. This bed stood off to Ray’s right when he entered, centered on that right wall.

The entire wall across from Ray was peaked windows looking out over the gardens below and the forests beyond the wall. On a cloudy day such as this, the view was extremely limited, but he fancied on a clear day he might see for miles. But now, he could see that it had started to rain, and drops plunked against the glass.

The paintings that the king hung on his walls were of people—clearly people important to his life, including one of a preteen Gavin standing like those royal portraits Ray has seen in museums, one of Michael posing with one leg on a stone step in shiny new Captain’s armor, one of Ryan studiously at a cluttered desk with his face partially hidden by a hand resting on his forehead, and one of Jack smiling next to a window with sunlight streaming and catching the red in his hair. The last painting was hung over the fireplace and seemed recent, judging by the apparent age of Gavin in it. It was just as painfully posed as the paintings of young Gavin and of Michael, and depicted Geoff in the most elaborate and elegant kingly outfit possible sitting proudly in an ostentatious chair, with Gavin similarly decorated standing proudly and sternly beside him.

There was no painting of the Rose Thief.

There was a chest at the foot of the bed, as well as a large oak wardrobe on the wall with the door. On the other side of the wardrobe stood an armor stand with elegant plate armor, a green cape pinned underneath the pauldrons and cascading down the back, a gold crown embedded in the helmet. There was a door in the wall to the left that Dan informed him was a closet filled with more chests containing even more kingly garb. In that same wall was an unlit fireplace, in front of which lay a green rug with intricate geometric designs in blue and yellow. Partially on this rug squatted three plush armchairs, all green with golden leaf designs embroidered over the satin fabric. On the other side of the fireplace, near the windows, was the oak desk, of elaborate design with drawers and a carved backboard similar to the bed’s headboard. The bed also had a bedside table on either side, each with an oil lamp, one of them with a brown book and a small bottle of some sort of alcohol (“He likes to have a night cap,” said Dan).

“Is it to your liking?” asked Dan politely, when Ray stood in the middle of the room slowly spinning as he looked around for several minutes.

Ray shook his head. “I mean, it’s nice. But I don’t know what I expected.” Ray suddenly realized something that made him feel quite stupid for not having wondered it before. “He hasn’t moved rooms since the assassination attempt, right?”

Dan smiled slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching up. “No. He told me why you wanted to come up here. It’s been five years, mate, I don’t think any evidence would be left here. Even most of the furniture has been replaced by now.”

Ray hummed to himself. He knew Dan was right, but he didn’t want to admit it. He wandered over to the windows and put his face to a pane of glass, careful not to actually press his forehead against it. He wasn’t sure the king would appreciate him smudging the window. It was very high up, and though Ray wasn’t usually scared of heights, the distance to the ground made him feel a little dizzy. He did notice that the windows all had a little ledge, a narrow sill of stone no bigger than the width of a foot. It was definitely wide enough for someone to grab onto, if they got this high.

“Do all windows have a windowsill?” Ray asked Dan, looking over his shoulder.

Dan shrugged. “They’re all designed with one, yeah, as far as I know.”

Ray stepped back and examined the windows a little more. They all had hinges, so that they may swing inwards and let the air in when it got hot. It was then that he noticed another detail. There were no curtains, not even sheer ones, and Ray knew that every bedroom he had been in otherwise had had curtains. He asked Dan about this too.

“Has Geoff always not had curtains?”

His Majesty,” Dan stressed, “doesn’t like to have curtains. He says he likes the view.” He shrugged again and glanced away. Ray guessed he found it kind of weird.

Ray ambled around the perimeter of the room, running his fingers along the gilded frames of the portraits. They were really quite well done, as far as he could judge, made with what he guessed were oil paints. It was oil paint that made those thick brushstrokes, right? He shook his head and moved on.

He didn’t feel rude enough to rifle through Geoff’s chests and drawers, so he didn’t bother. He seriously doubted he’d find anything in there anyway, and he wasn’t sure Dan would let him besides. He stared at the painting of Michael for a while longer, appreciating how the artist caught the square curve of Michael’s jaw, the proud grin and sweet dimples, the way the light sparkled in his dark eyes, the hint of red in the brown curls. A helmet was cradled in the nook of his arm, carried carelessly but still conspicuously showing it off.

Ray sighed and turned away. He didn’t feel like he found anything useful here. It was an utter waste of time, simply meant to keep him busy. His last chat through the mirror still weighed on his shoulders, and he kind of wanted to go back to bed. But he also knew he had a duty, and wasn't it good that this task was keeping him busy and distracted? It beat feeling sorry for himself in his bed. It beat doing nothing. So, he decided, he would plow ahead to the best of his ability.

He approached Dan. “Hey, do you know where Ryan is?”

“He is in the War Room with the others, but His Majesty told me you might ask for some records. I can take you to the archives if you so desire, since that is where the trial was written down.”

Ray blew air through puffed cheeks.He didn’t like the idea of poring through delicate pages in dim lighting, but he supposed he should check it out. He had to keep moving.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not.”


 

Dan informed Ray pleasantly that the archives were below ground, which meant they had to go down several floors. Ray couldn’t remember ever going up and down more stairs than today. They reached the ground floor and headed down the halls for a second staircase, because apparently the archives had their own private sort of staircase.

In one of these halls, a boy called out for them to wait. He looked about 10 wearing the drab brown of servants and sporting an awful page-style blond haircut. “Message for Ray,” he squeaked, still huffing from his run.

“From who?” Ray asked.

“His Royal Highness, Prince Gavin,” the boy informed, puffing his chest out proudly. He then began to repeat his message, counting on his fingers as he recalled it. “He sent me, to tell you, that he don’t remember much of last night, but that, he remembers, you helped him out. And so, he says, that he’s sorry for anything he might’ve said, and thanks for the help. He also says, he would’ve said this in person, but he is required in the… the War Room all day, and is unable to leave.”

“What the hell have they been doing in the War Room…?” Ray muttered under his breath. Well, he might find out tonight, if they needed him. Whatever they needed him for. He shook his head and looked back at the boy. “Thanks for the message, kid.” The boy hurriedly bowed, his blond hair flipping up, and he turned and ran out of sight.

He supposed that was a good enough apology from the prince. His stomach still twisted at the memories of last night, about the cruel things Gavin had said, but drunkenness often made you say things you wouldn’t otherwise. And it had just devolved so pitifully… Realistically reasoning, he shouldn’t and didn’t want to hold on to a grudge. Especially when the other party didn’t remember it well. He didn’t want to needlessly start drama. He wasn’t happy about it, but the apology would have to suffice. Dan motioned to Ray to follow, and they resumed their path to the archives.

A small staircase near the back left of the castle wound down into a room entirely lit by oil lamps carefully placed in walls at regular intervals. An old man with a crown of thinning white hair and a short gray beard sat behind a stained wood desk, and Ray fancied he was sort of like a secretary for this room. Behind the desk, the room opened up into shelves of scrolls, scraps of parchment, and leather-bound books. The man was intently scratching a piece of paper with a quill dipped in ink, but when he saw Ray and Dan coming, he rested the quill in an inkwell and gently set the paper on top of a stack of blank sheets near the edge of the table.

“Ah,” he said in a thin, wavering voice. “I was told you would be coming.” He stood, and he wobbled so much, Ray thought he would fall over. Instead, he twisted around and shouted, “Steffie! Please show these gentlemen around!” He looked back at them with a broad, crooked smile. He was missing a few teeth. “Steffie is still learning the sorting system, but she knows her way around pretty well. This will be good practice for her.”

“Steffie, huh?” Ray mumbled. Sure enough, a familiar woman with a round face and dark brown hair styled in a manner that kept it fluffy yet out of her face appeared from around the corner, wearing a long green dress with short billowy sleeves that stopped just above the ankles to reveal brown pointed boots. She seemed startled to see Ray, but hid her wide eyes by bowing her head and quickly curtsying.

“Just tell me what record you need, sir, and I’ll take you there,” she said.

“Oh, right. I want to read the record of the Rose Thief’s trial five years ago.”

“Right this way, sir.” Steffie curtsied again and led Ray past a few bookshelves. Dan remained near the entrance and chatted amiably with the old man. Steffie brought Ray down one dimly lit aisle and skimmed the shelves, one finger on her lips as she studied the titles and labels. While she worked, kneeling down and searching, Ray glanced around at some of the other labels. They mostly seemed boring, having titles like Trade Output: Wheat and Taxes by Village, May 12XX. One book was labelled in Ryan’s sloppy script Astronomical Orbit 12XX. He slipped that off the shelf and opened it to a random page, which appeared to be an August calendar with a different phase of the moon on each day. Some of the days had little clouds drawn in the corner, which Ray assumed meant that night had been overcast.

“Please don’t do that,” said Steffie. Ray jumped and shut the book, realizing she had stood up again. Ray carefully replaced the book with a hasty apology. “That’s alright, but we don’t allow other people to take records off the shelf without permission. They might not handle it carefully enough.” She held out a tiny black book, titled Trial, XX August, 12XX in cursive, gold lettering.

“Oh, thanks.”

“You may sit here at this table, and when you’re done, you can just leave it there. I will shelve it again later.” Steffie curtsied once more and slipped out of the aisle, leaving Ray alone. He sat down at a nearby round table that had two chairs pushed into it. An oil lamp flickered happily in the center of it, though Ray slid it across the table so that he would have more room.

He tried to read the book, he really did, but whoever wrote it had the most illegible cursive he had ever seen. He skimmed the parts he didn’t think were important, and spent the most time deciphering Geoff’s testament, since he was the only one who saw anything anyway. It felt like it took hours to read it, but from what Ray gathered, Geoff hadn’t seen much at all. It was as the king had said before. Geoff woke up, and couldn’t see much, but could see the silhouette of a person standing over him with a dagger. He cried out an alarm, startling the assassin, and raised an arm to cast a spell. The assassin rushed towards an open window, but got his cape caught by a shard of ice plunged into the soft armchair. The assassin ripped it and jumped out, and a few moments later the guards came in. It had been too dark for the king to remember any identifying characteristics other than a top hat and a cape.

Ray flipped through the book and found a drawn picture of the supposed dagger. It was, said the text, found later in the Rose Thief’s room in one of his drawers. The picture depicted it as a double-edged blade with a simple handle wrapped in leather. The guard was hardly decorated; it could have been anyone’s, really. Ray remembered the Rose Thief’s daggers to taper more than that, and to be gently molded so that the guard looked like vines. It simply didn’t match style.

But then again, it was five years ago. Maybe the Rose Thief didn’t have his daggers back then, and only got them after he got his infamous title. Or, likely, the assassin bought or had this dagger made to avoid any associations if he dropped it on accident. Still, it seemed strange. An additional note, scrawled sloppily and in tiny handwriting underneath the picture, said that it wasn’t found until the day after the arrest was made, once they truly started searching for evidence. Of course, no one had been seen entering the room, so the idea that it was planted evidence, and not simply an oversight during the arrest when they initially searched the room, was unlikely.

Ray closed the book and sighed deeply, leaning back in his chair and pinching the bridge of his nose. This was stupid. He was stupid. Here he was, dallying around in a dimly lit dungeon and straining his eyes out to read this fucking stupid handwriting about a trial five years ago. It was exactly the same information he had gotten from King Geoff, with the addition of a dagger so bland it could belong to anyone. He was not smart enough for this, and he knew it. He didn’t know how to proceed.

How much time had he wasted here? His stomach was beginning to growl with hunger. He stood up and stretched, raising his hands high above his head and groaning softly. He stepped out of the aisle and returned to the front desk, where Dan was still waiting, leaning against the wall and still chatting with the old man. They stopped when Ray approached, however, and Dan helpfully handed him a bread roll.

“Are you done?” he asked. “Because a servant came down a little while ago and told me that you were to go to the War Room as soon as you were finished in the archives.”

Ray had just taken a bite of the roll when Dan said that, and he struggled to swallow it quickly. “So they do need me. What for?”

Dan shrugged. “I dunno, mate. Sorry for the lack of an actual meal, but they wanted you there soon.”

Ray chewed his lip and squished the roll in his fist a little bit, just to watch the crust crack and dent under his fingers. What could he possibly offer them in such an intimidating-sounding place such as the War Room—the place where all of them, really, had been spending the majority of their time for the past several days? They knew he was a mook, that he didn’t truly know how to fight, that he didn’t come from a world like this. It made him feel actually nervous, but he also didn’t have any choice. He swallowed hard and glanced away from Dan, back up the staircase.

“Well okay then. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

The War Room was on the floor beneath the ground floor, and as such had no windows. This fact, plus the sheer number of bodies in there, made the room stuffier and noticeably warmer than the rest of the floor. Ray couldn’t see much of the room from the entrance, but he could tell there were tapestries hung on the walls between the torches, all depicting scenes of battles, scenes of fighting. A guard at the entrance took Ray’s sword, and he suddenly realized how much he had gotten used to the comforting weight at his hip. Without the constant weight, he felt like he had forgotten something very necessary.

Dan pushed through the crowd of partially armored strangers, metal clacking and men grunting as they moved, leading Ray in his wake to the center of the room where the people Ray knew now resided. He could feel eyes on him. He was the center of attention, and he almost wished he had to push through the crowd, just so he didn’t feel this alienating distance.

The five of his duplicate friends were the prominent people around the round table, on which lay a map of the four countries, color-coded with ink. Ray realized that he had never before seen a map of this new world and looked it over with interest. The Ruby Kingdom, in red ink, was a small island in the northwest area of the map. Venator in green and Roosterteeth in gold were a part of the same landmass in the center, though Roosterteeth in the east was probably three times larger than Venator. Lastly, the Ender Kingdom, depicted in violet in the south, was very nearly a large island around the same size as Venator, if not slightly bigger, but for a couple strips of land connecting it to Venator and Roosterteeth like bridges.

They were staring at him. Even Ryan had made an appearance in the War Room, his back straight and his arms folded behind his back. He had on a leather armor chest piece with an enormous entwining tree embossed on the front. His expression was coolly and carefully composed, but he couldn’t hide how tired his eyes looked. The others had on very little armor as well, even Michael, who only wore his breastplate and pauldrons. The king and the prince, though they usually wore capes, wore none now, and wore easy tunics with short sleeves and high necks. Geoff’s had more lace and decorations than Gavin’s, and Gavin still decorated himself with his dagger belt across his waist and a leather bracer on each forearm. Jack, however, still wore a short blue cape that draped over one shoulder and arm as he leaned on the table. They all looked weary, their faces drawn and dark circles under their eyes.

Dan patted Ray on the shoulder and melted back into the crowd. Dan was gone, his sword was gone, and Ray was entirely defenseless in front of the studying eyes of doppelgängers.

“S-so, ah—um, what did you—uh—need me for?” Ray stammered, sweat already cooling the back of his neck. One hand toyed with the mirror’s pouch, flipping it open and closed again. He wished Dan hadn’t left. They were all staring at him so.

“Do you have any idea why we’ve called you here?” Jack asked slowly.

Ray shook his head and licked his lips. “Not a clue,” he said. Jack looked to Geoff, who sighed and gestured at the map.

“A war is brewing,” said King Geoff. “A kingdom we thought long dormant and merely filled with Endermen seems to be making a push, and we want to stop it before they organize and send actual troops past the borders.”

“I don’t—I, uh, I don’t understand. S-sir.”

The king brushed the tips of his fingers across the violet country before resting one on the border between the Ender Kingdom and Venator. “Oh Ray, I often forget how much you know. You know that a few generations ago, there was what we call the Ender War. Ryan fought in it as a Mage, and with his help, those Venator warriors subdued the Ender Kingdom. But they weren’t stopped, not completely. Every so often, they push again—Endermen cross the border and fight anyone who looks at them wrong. These are more than the stragglers who individually cross—they seem like troops, like they’re trying to expand. We’ve always managed to shut them down so far. But now we have reason to believe that they’re about to push again, the hardest we’ve ever faced.”

When Geoff paused, Ray said, “Okay…? But what do you need me for, I—I’m no soldier.”

Ryan said, “There’s some sort of magical field around the End’s borders. We… don’t know what it exactly does, but we hypothesize that it affects any who enter and prevents any from leaving the End. This appeared at around the same time as the Endermen, and very soon after the Ender Kingdom… ‘changed.’ That is, all communications were cut off, and they started attacking Venator. The barrier went up between battles, and suddenly we were dealing with Endermen as the people disappeared. But we now know that their Court Mage is still alive. And for whatever reason, he seems intent on you. What with the Endermen finding you, and the mirror incident…”

“Yes—but…”

“There’s… one more thing,” Ryan said quickly. He stared at the map as he spoke, and not at Ray. “Not many people know this, given that they weren’t around when the End started its war with Venator, but—there’s a dragon. We don’t know if it prompted the change in the End, or if it was attracted to it and the change was caused by something else. I saw it when I was on the battlefield. It remained far off in the End, hovering over the capital, but it was there. I—I could feel it, even from my distance. It’s likely that it’s still there, in fact, which is why I’m telling you.”

“Oh,” muttered Ray. “Of course.”

“So the Court Mage is after you,” said King Geoff. “And you’re highly resistant to all forms of magic. Reasonably speaking, you should be able to cross the barrier with little effect.”

Ray felt his heart stop beating, fall through his stomach, and roll somewhere around his feet. The stuffy heat clung close to his head and he couldn’t remember how to breathe. No, they couldn’t be saying… He took a step back. The action made his head spin dangerously.

“Ray, wait,” said Jack. Michael appeared incredibly pained, his mouth turned down and his brow drawn together. But he didn’t say anything. “Please don’t freak out. You won’t be asked to go alone. Magic users can’t cross the barrier, but all of the non-magical knights in this room will be going with you.”

“You’re crazy!” Ray cried suddenly. “You’re s-sending me into th-the hands of—of someone who’s been attacking me since I got here! Th-there’s a—a—a fucking dragon! You’re sending me to my death! To the Endermen!” They were staring at him. The heat clung to his head, clouded his mouth, scratched at his skin.

“We need you, Ray,” said King Geoff. The torchlight sparkled off of his crown and hurt Ray’s eyes. “We need to end this threat before it becomes more than a threat, and we need you to make sure our men get to the capital.”

“Don’t sugarcoat it,” Ryan snapped. “There’s a good chance he’ll have to be the one who kills Kdin and the dragon. We don’t know how our men will be affected by the End.”

“No,” Ray breathed. Gavin was the only one who hadn’t taken his eyes off him. Everyone’s faces started to blur. Their voices grew muffled. The heat clung to his head. “No, no, why, why, why?”

“This is the only way,” said Geoff. “If we wait, if we do nothing, they’ll just keep pushing. They’ll keep coming, and one day they’ll probably win. We might be able to end it this way, and maybe even get the Ender Kingdom back to normal. We’ve planned it all out for you. We need you to do this, Ray. You’re the only one who can put a stop to this.”

The room spun. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think. Ray stumbled, caught himself, then turned and fled. The crowd parted for him again as he sprinted for the stairs. Some people didn’t move fast enough, and he collided roughly into his shoulders, but kept moving. He couldn’t breathe, it was too hot, he had to get out. Air, he needed air. He tripped on the stairs, slamming his shins into the sharp stone, but he scrambled to his feet and kept running. Behind him, he heard Gavin snap, “No you don’t, you stay here.”

Ray pushed past the guard at the top of the stairs, eliciting a “Hey! Wait, what—?” from the man as he raced down the corridor and around the corner. He had one place in mind, one that would be empty of people and would be open to the air. He fixated on that space, regardless of other options. His pounding footsteps echoed across the stone castle, his breath rasped through the stagnant indoor air.

He stopped at a familiar pair of huge oaken doors, his lungs burning in his chest, and he yanked it open until he could slip through into the ballroom. The windows were dark gray, and he could hear the downpour even over his heaving gasps. His head still felt hot, and he couldn’t seem to shake the heated fog in his brain. He needed air.

He took the steps up to the inner balcony two steps at a time and burst through the glass doors to the outdoor balcony. He threw himself against the stone rail. The heavy rain poured down on him, splattering with gentle sounds against all surfaces. The water was cold against his skin, and droplets rolled down his face and dampened his hair.

He gripped the railing with white knuckles and leaned over it, his legs trembling with the exertion. He thought he might vomit. But the air was sweet and damp and drove away the fog in his head. He stared down at the ground three floors below him, catching his breath, his gasps forming white noise in his ears, before collapsing to the stone balcony floor.

He shoved his face against the railing. The task ahead of him was still present in his mind, and it made his throat close up again. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t possibly do it. He curled up on himself, gripping the railing, his thoughts a whirling typhoon in his head. He was soon very, very wet from the rain as he struggled to suck in air.

It was funny. For a long time, he had been resigned to die here. And now that death was presented to him on an iron platter, he feared it again. He didn’t want to go, not like this, in a strange land, his friends wondering for days if he was dead or just absent. He began to shiver violently, the rain chilling him to his marrow. He held on to the railing like his boat was caught in a storm.

He didn’t hear anyone approach him above the wind and thoughts in his ears until they spoke.

“Ray?” said a soft voice. Ray glanced under his arm to see the prince, and he shoved his face against the balcony railing again with a groan. Gavin, however, was not deterred of Ray’s reaction. His boots clicked against the stone as he walked through the open glass doors and kneeled next to Ray, heedless of the steadily increasing rain.

“Go away,” Ray said shortly. His voice came out strangled, and he flinched when he heard the hint of a sob. Ray didn’t really want to see the prince now, not when he was breaking down and cracking. Not when the last time he interacted with the prince, he had been drunk and angry. But it was Gavin… and no one else had followed. No one else was there. No one else regularly checked up on him… Gavin, meanwhile, paid his words little attention. He began pulling gently at Ray’s hands, tugging them away from their vice grip on the railing.

“Ray,” he said, his voice husky and low. “Ray, look at me. Look at me.” With his hands freed, Ray let them fall limply to his side. Gavin cupped Ray’s face and coaxed it towards him, putting one hand on Ray’s shoulder as well. “Bottling it up will do you no good.”

Ray couldn’t hold the sobs in. His eyes watered as he stared at the prince. “I—I can’t kill a—a—a dragon,” he stammered. He gulped and tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but speaking seemed to make everything worse. Hot tears rolled down his cheek, mixing with the rainwater. “I can’t do it, Gavin. I—this is beyond me. I don’t—I can’t—oh God, I’m just one man, Gavin. I’m just one man who can barely hold a sword right. I can’t do it. I can’t do fucking it! I’m just one fucking man. Please, I—I just want to go home.” His voice cracked. “Oh God, Gavin, I don’t… I don’t want to be a fucking… hero, or knight, or warrior, or something. I just want to fucking go home… I don’t want to fucking die.”

“Hey,” Gavin said now, after Ray was done. He held Ray’s gaze, green on brown. “No one said you’d be going at it alone. That’s bloody preposterous, expecting one under-trained man to face a dragon and a Mage alone.” His stare grew intense, a fire sparking behind his eyes. He grabbed Ray’s hands and pressed Ray’s sword into them, wrapped in a now-soaked tan cloth, something Ray hadn’t noticed he’d been carrying. “You can do it because you must. Others will be with you. I will be with you. You won’t be alone. You have a duty, a responsibility, but you won’t have to carry it alone. I know you can do it.”

Ray laughed a mirthless laugh and turned his head to the side, jerking it away from Gavin’s hand to stare at the balcony railing again. He sniffed and gripped his sword tightly, feeling its edges even through the cloth. “Your belief in me won’t keep me alive.”

There was a pause as Gavin struggled to find words to say. “Ray, you have to try. You can do this. There is more than just you at stake here. You can’t just shirk responsibility—”

“Am I just your responsibility?” Ray blurted.

Tower, Ray,” Gavin huffed. “People—people can’t just be responsibilities. You’re— yes, you’re a part of my responsibilities, but it’s like how I am a part of the king’s responsibilities, a part of Michael’s responsibilities. You’re more than that. You’re a unique person. You’re stubborn and resilient, and you’re a fast learner. You carry your sword naturally even though you’re still technically a novice. I know you can do it, Ray. People aren’t just—responsibilities.

Silence grew between them. Ray felt numb to the world, the rain soaking into his clothes and skin, to the emotions broiling in his mind. He shut his eyes and breathed. He knew now that this task was inescapable. He could run away, sure, but the Endermen would keep coming for him, not to mention he wouldn’t really be able to survive on his own, and he surely would never go home then. Kdin was waiting for him in the End, but so was his most probable way home.

The silence stretched on. Gavin seemed to be waiting for Ray to do something, to say something. The prince had seemed to hate him at first, but he kept returning. Gavin would be with him during the task, ensuring he stayed alive. And hell, Ray didn’t want to feel alone anymore. He wanted to have some goddamn thing he could rely on in this fucking world. Gavin kept returning. He forgave and returned.

Ray dropped his sword on the ground and threw his arms around Gavin suddenly, buried his nose in the wet fabric of Gavin’s sleeve. He felt Gavin jump a little in surprise, but he silently returned the embrace, hugging Ray tight to his chest and resting his cheek against Ray’s damp hair. Even through the rain and wet clothes, Gavin’s body heat warmed Ray’s skin. The whisper was nearly inaudible, if not for the vibrations of Ray’s voice in Gavin’s bones. It was simple, short, weighted with everything Ray couldn’t fit into words. Ray had no idea how long they stayed out there, Gavin holding him, but until Gavin finally encouraged Ray back inside, these two words were the only ones spoken in that silence.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Ray didn’t really remember the path from the ballroom balcony back to his room. He was in too much in a daze, still. All he was really aware of was the weight of his wet clothes on his shoulders, the edge of his sword sharp through the cloth as he gripped it, and Gavin’s hand on the small of his back. He shivered, trembled really, but Gavin’s hand was a spot of warmth. The task ahead of him was still overwhelming, and though he didn’t feel like he was being strangled by the air itself anymore, he found himself blanking out often as his mind failed to grasp its scope and feasibility.

Gavin’s hand slipped off his back, and Ray realized they were back in his room. Gavin stood by his side, cocked his hip and crossed his arms. “Well?” Gavin prompted after a few silent moments. “Don’t you want to get out of your wet clothes?”

The room was dark, and Ray could only see the furniture as shadows against shadows. The fire had been lit at some point, but now it was glowing embers and needed to be stoked again, casting a soft orange hue just a foot or two in front of it. The windows were dark with clouds and rain. Even their dark blue tinge couldn’t fully outline Gavin’s face, though his silver crown glittered faintly. Ray could understand why Geoff might not have recognized any assassin five years ago.

“Ray,” Gavin prompted again, and Ray realized he hadn’t moved since Gavin spoke last.

Ray made towards the bed, his steps slow and careful. He knew approximately where everything was, but he was still careful. When he started walking, Prince Gavin went over to the fireplace and prodded the embers with a fire poker leaning against the stone. Soon enough, the fire had revived enough for the light the catch the edge of the bed and bedside table, and Ray could see the sleep-clothes he had tossed carelessly on the covers earlier. Ray set his sword and belt on the table and peeled his wet clothes off, exchanging them for the soft fabric of sleepwear.

Gavin approached again when Ray sat on the edge of the bed and put his face in his hands. The quiet crackle of the fire mimicked the platter of raindrops against the window, and occasionally the wind whistled through the glass panes. It was not that late yet, and though Ray was exhausted, he didn’t feel much like sleeping. He remembered his hunger, now, and his stomach gnawed hollowly.

“Are you gonna be okay, now?” the prince asked.

“No,” Ray said into his hands.

He heard Gavin sigh. “Alright, you don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to for now, but Ray—tomorrow you’re going to have to go back and tell them what you’re going to do. We can’t wait for you.”

Ray dragged his hands down his face and let them fall into his lap. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness by now, and he could see the little lines and divisions in the stone floor. “I’m really gonna have to fucking do this, aren’t I.”

Gavin shifted his weight from one foot to the other and crossed his arms. “Ray, if you really don’t want to do it, then we can’t force you, and we have to move forward without your help. But we do need you.”

“Will I die?”

A pause. “Not if I can help it,” said Prince Gavin. Another pause. Ray fell back on top of the bed with a huff. “Do you… need anything?”

Ray considered it. He was really craving a burrito, or maybe pizza, but those things didn’t exist in this world. So instead, he just said, “I’m really starving.”

“I can get a servant to bring up some food,” said the prince, and he turned to leave. Ray lurched instinctively, his hand darting out to grab the hem of Gavin’s tunic. Gavin stopped when he felt the tug, and looked down at Ray. “What is it now?” he asked crossly. Ray turned his head away, his cheeks warming. He felt Gavin’s hands on his, trying to loosen his grip, though the prince didn’t seem to be trying very hard. “Do you want me to get you food or not? Use your words.”

Ray let go and turned onto his side. He ached with something that couldn’t be explained by his hunger. Gavin waited for him to answer, but Ray knew if he didn’t say something soon, the prince would leave and not return for the rest of the night. That was it—Ray didn’t want to be alone, not with his thoughts, not with the darkness, not with the wind and rain. The thought of being alone made him feel nauseous. It made death feel too close.

“Will you come back?” he asked.

“Is that what you want?” Gavin’s tone was that of disbelief, as though he expected Ray to be making a joke. How could Ray communicate to this copy of his friend that he could feel death climbing on his back? How could he communicate that he was suffocating in his thoughts when there wasn’t someone to distract him? He curled up tighter.

“Please, Gav,” Ray said.

A moment passed. Ray felt the silence settle between his shoulder blades, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The mood had changed. Gavin said, “Alright. If that’s what you want. I’ll be back soon. Unlike you, I’m still in wet clothes. Can you at least handle that?”

Ray nodded, and he listened to Gavin’s footsteps click across the stone, the door creak open and shut with a snap. He reached over to the bedside table and retrieved his mirror shard, clutching it to his chest as he rolled onto his back. He stared up at the ceiling, the jagged edges of the shard pressed against his palm, and listened to the wind push against the windows. He tried not to think until Gavin returned and climbed into bed with him.


 

Ray wouldn’t have known he was dreaming if it weren’t for the shadows throbbing around the edges of his vision, if it weren’t for the blurriness of everything he didn’t focus on. He stood on a flat crop of stone, which appeared to be the top of a mountain. More mountains were around him, but this mountain rose above the rest, and off in the distance he could see the beginning of a rocky, gray plains. The sky was a purplish gray, the clouds churning around a point directly above him.

And then the Endermen were there, seething around him. They grabbed at him, pulled at him, and he struggled, tried to yank his arms away, but they wrapped their long, cold fingers around him, pressed their oily skin against his flesh. His knees buckled, and he fell, slamming his kneecaps into the stone, the Endermen only half holding him up. The cold seeped into his muscle, made the air heavy and hard to breathe.

Their black bodies were all he could see. Hands curled around his throat, pushed against his temples and craned his head back. He wanted to scream, but no sound could be made. The clouds above him coiled in their helix, and as he watched the sky, a beam of icy blue light shot upwards, piercing the heavens with all the ferocity of a thrust sword. The clouds spun faster, broiling, tumbling. And then the Endermen’s bodies were in front of him again, fingers clutching at his face, his lips, pushing into his mouth.

It’s time,” whispered a voice, tinny and distant as though through a poor telephone connection, but unmistakably Kdin’s. “You’ll be coming to me, now. Don’t you think of running away, or else we’ll have to… use more force.

He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see. The blackness consumed him, the chill pierced down to his marrow, down to his core. He sunk, the Endermen clutching him sharply, whispers of something slipping into his ears. He felt as though he may never be warm again.

Gavin’s voice sliced through his dream, pulled him up like a lifeguard dragging a victim to the surface. “Drop it! Drop it, you loon! Let go before you hurt yourself!”

Ray gasped for air as he awoke, burning his throat as the warm breaths mixed with the cold. His muscles were so tense they hurt, and a chill made them unable to relax. The prince was on top of him, knees on either side of him, holding his arms by the wrists as Ray lay on his back. The clouds must have cleared, for the light of the waning moon streamed through the windows and illuminated one half of the Gavin’s anxious expression.

Gavin squeezed Ray’s right wrist, and a sharp pinching feeling lanced through it. His clenched hand released, and he was for the first time aware of how a cutting pain traversed his palm. Gavin released the wrist and swiped his hand to the side, sending the mirror shard skittering off the bed and clattering to the floor. Ray must have grabbed it while asleep.

The mirror out of Ray’s grasp, Gavin sat back with a huff and ran his fingers through his bangs. Ray started to shiver violently, a tremor he couldn’t control as he heaved for breath. He hugged himself tightly, but he was too exhausted to fight, too cold to relax. He gasped until his throat was dry, and couldn’t seem to do anything but shiver. He could still feel the oily fingers of the Endermen pressed into his skin.

“By the bloody Tower,” Gavin cursed, panting a little but not nearly as heavily as Ray. “You just—got all freezing all of a sudden, woke me up, you did. And then I noticed you had gotten the mirror shard somehow and were bloody gripping it like—Tower, like a suicide attempt.”

Ray rolled onto his side and cradled his hand, curling up in a futile attempt to get warm again. His hand smarted, and a jagged red line broke across his palm, beads of blood welling up. Gavin lightly touched a bit of bare arm and cursed again.

“Tower, you’re still so cold,” he muttered. He flipped the quilt over the both of them and gathered Ray into his arms, hugging him close. Ray allowed him to do so, the body heat more than welcome, and soon the chill began to seep away, replaced with warmth. Exhaustion pulled back at his lids, but he didn’t want to sleep again—not with the bitter taste of oil on his tongue.

“Should we see Ryan about this?” Gavin asked. “Ray, this is very strange, I’ve never seen anything like this happen before.”

Ray shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said, though he knew that was not completely true. Besides, he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone else who had been in the War Room yet. Not when none of them had promised to protect him—not when they wanted to send him into mortal peril. “We don’t need to bother him. It—it was just a dream, Gav.”

“A dream,” Gavin repeated. “What kind of bloody dream were you having that made you—made you react like you did, in your sleep?”

“It’s not important,” Ray hissed. “It’s just a dream.” Dreams didn’t mean anything at all. They were little exercises the brain did while one slept, and nothing more. No omens, no messages, nothing but fun little movies each night. He tried to ignore the taste of oil.

“If you say so,” Gavin relented. A beat. He gave Ray one last pat and sat up. “Come on, we should at least put something on that cut. So you don’t bleed all over the sheets. Good thing Ryan had the idea to keep some spare bandages in here. He sure likes to be prepared, he does.”

Ray reluctantly pushed up on his elbows, and Gavin slid out of the bed as he sat up and pulled the quilt tighter around him. The shivers had subdued, but his fingers and toes still felt cold, and he wanted to draw the remnants of Gavin’s warmth around him. He watched the prince step up to the desk, pull open a drawer, and pull out a long strip of cloth. Something about this scene bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it at the moment.

He glanced at the window, still dappled with raindrops. The outside was bright compared to when he had gone to sleep. The fire had died back down to glowing embers, but the light from the fat waning moon allowed him to see nearly everything. The wardrobe was a lump of shadows, only one edge of it catching the moonlight.

The wind was still blowing, evidenced by the tips of trees bustling wildly. He wondered where the Rose Thief was, and if he was somewhere inside. He looked at Gavin again, partially silvery blue as he tried to detangle one strip of cloth from another. He chewed his lip. He should let this idea go—it surely didn’t hold any water. But some vague memory was bugging him.

As the cold faded away, he became fascinated by the play of light on the prince, especially since before he had fallen asleep, the prince had been nearly unrecognizable in shadows. Perhaps he was just eager to forget his dream, to forget the task the War Room had set for him, but he didn’t want to leave this train of thought, or else it might derail.

“Gavin,” he said. “Was it overcast the night of the assassination attempt?”

There was a loud bang as Gavin jumped and hit his knee against the desk. The cloth slipped from his fingers and coiled back to the hard wood surface. “Why the bloody hell would I know?” Gavin snapped, hunching over to rub his knee as he grimaced. “It was five years ago. Do you remember the weather five years ago?”

“No, I don’t,” Ray admitted. Gavin picked up the cloth again and returned to the bed, sitting on the edge. Ray dutifully extended his right hand, and Gavin started to wrap it in the cloth. Ray was mesmerized by Gavin’s steady movements for a few moments, watching the moonlight dart across his hands, but then he remembered something. Just as Gavin tucked the end of the cloth into one of the folds, Ray blurted, “I know what does—Gavin, there’s something in the archives that recorded that stuff.”

Gavin jerked his head up and gave him a wide-eyed stare, his head tilted to the side. “What?”

Ray threw back the quilt, causing Gavin to lurch back to his feet. Ray swung his legs over the edge of the bed. “Ryan had recorded the moon phases in a little book, and if the sky was overcast, he marked that too. I remember picking it up when I was there to read the trial stuff.” He stood. “I gotta go back there now.”

“Now?” Gavin said. He crossed his arms. “The archives are locked, now. You’ll have to do it tomorrow. Why do you want to do it now?”

“I gotta do it now,” Ray pleaded. “I’m afraid I’ll forget, tomorrow, or that I won’t have time.” Gavin frowned. “Can’t we get the old man to unlock—?”

“The Archiver lives in the town,” Gavin said, his tone suddenly lofty. “He’s the only one with the keys, and we’re not waking him up in the middle of the night. Unless you want Geoff’s copy.” Ray flinched before he could catch himself. If his suspicions were right… “Didn’t think so.”

“Please, Gavin,” Ray begged, reaching out and grabbing Gavin’s shoulders. “Help me. Somehow. I need to do this.”

Gavin stared him down, trying to keep a stony face. But Ray won the staring contest. Gavin broke eye contact and glared at the window, making a little tch sound. “Fine,” he relented. His cheeks seemed darker, but in the moonlight, Ray couldn’t be sure. “We’re stopping by my room first, though. I need to get something.”


 

Ray didn’t know what Gavin had retrieved from his room until they had snuck down to the locked door of the archives. The prince also seemed to know the night patrol’s path down to the minute, and under his guidance, the two of them never were seen by a guard.

Now at the archives door, Ray held an unlit lamp as Gavin kneeled in front of the lock and withdrew two narrow objects, narrow like a needle. It took until Gavin had inserted this objects into the lock and started quietly scraping around that Ray realized they were lock picks.

“You’re picking the lock?” Ray whispered. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it wasn’t the prince of a kingdom acting like a thief.

Gavin glanced over his shoulder and raised a cocky eyebrow. “I was a little scoundrel before I was a prince,” he whispered back. “You pick up talents you don’t really forget.” He turned his attention back to the lock, the picks softly clicking against the iron. “Though it has been a while…” he added in a mutter.

The moments stretched on, and so did Ray’s patience. He resisted the urge to fidget, reminding himself over and over that if Gavin wasn’t worried a guard might pop up, then he shouldn’t be worried either. Finally, Gavin gave the picks a heavy turn, and Ray heard the lock slide out of place. Gavin stood, pocketed his picks, and brushed imaginary dust off the front of his shirt.

“There,” he said. “Unlocked. Still want to do this?”

That question steeled Ray’s resolve. He nodded, his lips pursed. Gavin sighed and swung the door open, ducking in ahead of Ray and not even bothering to hold it open for him. The inside was nearly pitch black, having no artificial light, and no natural light besides that streaming through the door onto the staircase landing. They paused at the top of the staircase, and Gavin withdrew a match from his pocket. He struck the match against the wall, and as Ray held out the lamp, he lit it, filling the dark space with a warm orange glow.

Gavin shut the door behind them as Ray started the descent into the archives. He shivered when he reached the bottom, raising the lamp in front of him. Beyond the Archiver’s desk—still messy, strewn with papers and quills—the shelves faded quickly into inky shadows. Ray couldn’t help but imagine this as a good location for a horror game.

Ray counted the aisles, trying to remember where Steffie had led him earlier that day. Christ, had it really been just a day? The events in the War Room had skewed his perception of time for this day. He shook his head and turned into an aisle. He had to focus. Gavin trailed behind him, and Ray could feel his eyes boring into his back, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Gavin had no interest in the records around him, and followed with arms crossed.

Ray set the lamp on the ground and studied the labels on the shelves, skimming over the books and scrolls for what he needed. He perused for long enough that Gavin sat down cross-legged on the floor with a sigh and rested his cheek on a hand. Ray ignored him.

Finally, he found it, Ryan’s little Astronomical Orbit 12XX book. He slid it carefully off the shelf, gently pushing against the other books around it so that they didn’t rub against each other too hard. When it was safely off the shelf, he turned and quickly found the other book, the one containing the trial. He double checked the date of the trial, and then sank to the ground with Ryan’s records and opened it near the lamp. Earlier, Steffie had interrupted him, but now he had all the time he needed. This was the records for the same year the trial took place, so all he had to do was find the month and the day…

There. He put his finger on the little square of the calendar, and double checked that it was labelled correctly. His heart thumped excitedly in his chest, its beats reverberating hotly through his entire body. This approximate week of August had been overcast for nearly every night but for an oasis of one night, where a nearly full but waning gibbous was drawn in Ryan’s careful pen. He stared at it until he could tell someone where exactly the imperfections in the paper lay without looking. Gavin stared at him, bored, until Ray raised his eyes, his finger still on the spot on the calendar.

“What?” Gavin asked. “What is it?”

“Geoff was lying,” Ray said.

Gavin’s mouth dropped open, and his eyes widened. Abruptly, he scooted forward, leaning over to look at the book. He studied the calendar, his face scrunching up into an expression of concentration, and after several seconds sat back to look at Ray again. His face was pale, almost waxen.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Ray tapped the spot on the page. “He said he couldn’t see the attacker,” he said, his words spilling into one another as he rushed through them. “But this was a night with no clouds, with a nearly full moon, and he doesn’t use curtains on his windows. There should have been light enough to see by!”

Gavin frowned. “You realize he probably had the curtains on his bed drawn?” he pointed out. “He still might not have seen the attacker that way.”

Ray chewed his lip, taking in this possibility. He set Ryan’s book aside and reopened the one containing the trial records. He skimmed the page, remembering the shape of the words and quickly finding the information he was looking for. “He has said several times that it was too dark to see the assassin. Dan told me—okay, sorry, Sir Dan—told me that King Geoff doesn’t have curtains because he likes the light. So why would he sleep with the curtains on his bed drawn? Even if we disregard that, even if we say he did maybe sleep with those curtains drawn, he saw enough to cast a spell as the assassin escaped. Wouldn’t he have seen the assassin then?”

“What are you saying?” Prince Gavin asked, his voice going flat. Ray felt a chill shiver down his spine, but he refused to break eye contact.

“I’m saying Geoff saw his assassin. He was lying.”

Chapter Text

“So—if what you’re supposing is true, if the king saw his assassin… What are you going to do? Are you going to confront him?” Gavin asked. The prince was as pale as ashes, his eyes unblinking. Ray himself felt cold as a ghost, and he let his hand hover near the lamp, the small flame scorching his palm.

“I…” Ray didn’t know. He wanted to. He wanted to put an end to this stupid mystery, to drag the king down and let the Rose Thief’s name—his name—be cleared.  But he couldn’t get the image of Geoff out of his head. He couldn’t forget the Rose Thief calling the king a father figure. He couldn’t ignore Gavin’s expression. Geoff was a father to all three lads. He withdrew his hand from the flame and hugged himself, pulling his knees into his chest and hunching over as his stomach twisted guiltily. Why did he feel so horrid?

“If you confront him,” Gavin said, his voice trembling at the edge of words but his pace quickening. “If you do, it might be considered high treason. If you do—if you confront the king and claim he was lying in court without any solid proof, he—and you don’t have solid proof, you have a supposition—you might be put on trial yourself, you might be properly sentenced to death, you…”

Gavin,” Ray snapped, and the prince finally stopped rambling. So he couldn’t go to the king quite yet. But there was still something missing. It felt close, but apprehension for some reason clung to his gut like rotting sweetness. He felt sick. “So I need to find the guy who actually did it. Bring him forward.”

“Maybe you’re wrong,” Gavin said quietly, glancing over his shoulder where the bookshelves disappeared into shadows. “Maybe Geoff really didn’t get a good look at his assassin. Maybe it really was the Rose Thief.”

“Maybe,” Ray admitted. He was convinced the Rose Thief didn’t do it, but he had to keep his options open.

Gavin stood suddenly, his face becoming richly shadowed as he towered above the lamp. “I don’t want to stay another minute in this dreary place,” he declared. “If you’re done here, let’s leave.”


 

They returned to Ray’s room. Ray wasn’t quite ready for Gavin to leave, though the prince did seem fidgety. He was selfish, he knew, but he requested Gavin stay, still. Gavin agreed with a huff. When they climbed into bed, Gavin lay on his side and put his back to him, immediately falling asleep. Ray lay awake for several hours after that, trying to think things through.

He had to admit to himself that he might be wrong. He doubted his memory now of his conversation with the king and the rest of his clue-hunting. Was he too quick to assume? Geoff hadn’t really given him a reason to believe he was lying. He wanted to confront Geoff, he did, but now Gavin’s words were making him realize how careful he’d have to be. He had been whipped before, here, by Michael no less, and they didn't seem too bothered—it was entirely possible that he could be persecuted for his accusations. Being needed for their plan wouldn’t save him.

But why would King Geoff lie?

He must have fallen asleep at some point, because it seemed like he blinked and then sun was shining through the windows. He rolled over, and Gavin was gone, the bed beside him vacated and cold. He didn’t feel rested at all, and sleep still dragged at his eyelids. Regardless, he shoved back the covers, swung his legs over the edge, and walked over to the wardrobe.

He pulled a sleeveless gray tunic over a short-sleeved white shirt and paused, peering through the gap the clothes now made hanging in the wardrobe. He reached out and placed his palm against the smooth wood in the back. He had forgotten about the false back—to his credit, he had been quite busy, but now he realized he never actually figured out what the false back was for.

He pushed against it, popping the back off and making it swing on its tiny, hidden hinges. Predictably, the false back hit the stone wall and stopped. Ray stepped into the wardrobe and put his shoulder against it, shoving against it with all his weight. He heard an alarming crack and felt a little give. He stepped back. There was a hairline crack, jagged and grinning, across the thin wood panel now. He felt his cheeks heat up despite being alone, and backed out of the wardrobe again. This was not the way to do things. Could he perhaps see the other side of the wall?

Ray marched over to the bedroom door, but it opened just as he reached the handle. Jack stood on the other side, and nearly jumped out of his brown boots to stop himself from colliding with Ray. Jack smoothed the front of his earthy green jacket as the two of them pulled apart again, leaving adequate space between them.

“Oh, hey Jack,” Ray said, forgetting for the moment all the suspicions Jack cast on him, all the narrowed eyes and watchful glances. Jack crossed his arms, but if something put him off, he didn’t mention it.

“You’ve been invited to breakfast with the rest of us,” he said simply. “I volunteered to come get you.”

“Oh,” Ray said again, and he glanced off to the side. “Okay.” It didn’t seem like he had much of a choice, so he followed Jack out and away from his room. Jack didn’t waste any time on pleasantries or awkward silences, but instead spoke bluntly as soon as the door closed again behind them.

“We’re going to need your answer by the end of breakfast,” said Jack. “About whether you’ll help us or not.”

Ray nodded, his mouth pursed into a thin line. He could feel Jack looking at him, but he stared out the windows they passed by. Outside some facing the front courtyard, he saw stableboys running back and forth with horses and packs, and though he didn’t watch for long enough to see exactly what tasks they were completing, Ray got the sense that they were preparing for the army’s trek down south to the End.

“And what were you doing with the prince last night?”

Ray tore his gaze away from the windows to make eye contact with Jack. They paused in a corridor, the sunlight bright and glinting off the jewels at Jack’s throat. Faintly, far off in the distance, a wolf howled. “Nothing,” said Ray, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “He was… helping me.”

“The guards tell me he spent the night in your room.” Ray toyed with the hem of his tunic and stared at Jack’s boots. Then, abruptly, Jack grabbed his chin and forced him to look up again, pinching his cheeks. “I don’t care what you two were doing,” he said, “but rumors are just as dangerous as truths. If you do anything to tarnish Gavin’s reputation, if you harm him, you’ll have me to deal with.”

Ray slapped his hand away and took a step back. “All I fucking asked was for him to stick around,” he snapped, making an effort to control his volume. “It’s not every day you’re asked to go after a fucking dragon, so sue me for wanting a friend to stick around.”

“A friend,” Jack repeated, and Ray’s tongue curled against the roof of his mouth. “He’s not your Gavin, and you’re not our Ray,” he reminded Ray.

That statement seemed unnecessary to Ray. He knew that. But it was the best he had at the moment. He turned away from Jack and started heading down the hallway, and after a beat, Jack followed. “Can we just go to breakfast now?”

Breakfast was a light meal consisting mostly of bread and sweet fruits, set at a square wooden table in a dining room smaller than the one used for feasts. A heavy atmosphere of weariness hung over everyone’s shoulders. It was clear that breakfast was meant to be a short affair. The more Ray thought about the end of breakfast, when he was expected to give an answer, the more he didn’t want to eat. He watched Geoff, laughing and chatting with Jack next to him and Michael on the other side of Jack, and forced himself to at least eat this apple.

Why would King Geoff lie?

He only realized he was being talked to when Ryan tapped him on the arm. Ray swallowed a bite of apple suddenly, and he felt it crawl down his throat, but he looked at Ryan, sitting next to him. “What?” he asked more crossly than he meant.

“The prince has just told me an interesting story,” Ryan said casually. “About a dream you had.”

Ray swallowed again, and he put the half-eaten apple down on his plate. “What’d he tell you?”

Ryan lounged easily in his chair, leaning against its back, his arms crossed and his hands pulled out of their long sleeves. “He told me in the middle of the night, your body temperature dropped at an alarming rate, and you clutched the mirror shard tightly. When you awoke, you reported dreaming. So, what I want to know, is what exactly you were dreaming about.”

Ray felt a flash of irritation, prickling up the back of his neck with heat. He could see Gavin glancing over to their conversation from the other side of Ryan. “It was just a fucking dream,” Ray hissed. “It’s not important.” He did not want to be there anymore.

“I don’t think you have the expertise to decide what’s important and what isn’t!” Ryan insisted. “Maybe you shouldn’t have that mirror shard anymore. I shouldn’t have let you have it in the first place, but the prince…”

Ray stood up so fast that his chair toppled back with a crash. Prince Gavin picked at his nails, eyeing the scene nervously. “You don’t have the right!” Ray claimed.

“Is everything alright over there?” Geoff asked shortly.

“We’re fine,” said Ryan, but he glanced and frowned at Gavin. “He came to me about it, and this is my advice. That mirror shard is no good. There’s magic at work, and it’s getting past my ward somehow.”

Ray looked at Gavin now, who stared back with a guilty expression. “Leave me alone,” he said. “I said it’s not important, so you can just fucking leave me alone.”

Ray made to leave, but then the king called out to him, standing as well. “Ray, wait. We need to know—will you help us fight the End?”

Ray paused at the exit, looking back over the room. The table laden with food and decoration, his lone empty chair fallen over, his five duplicate companions all staring at him. He fixed the king with a hard gaze. It was what he had to do; he knew that now. The Ender Kingdom was where his way back home lay, and there he will either go home, or he will die trying. It was the source of his current problems, and if he wanted to deal with it, he would fulfill his duty and help the people here. There was no avoiding it, and he had to accept it now. “I’ll do it.”

Geoff’s face relaxed, and he let out a pleased sigh and a thank you. He grinned at the other four diners, the tension in his expression leaving with Ray’s answer. Why would King Geoff lie? Something fell into place—here were four reasons why. Ray pressed his lips together and left.

Ray mused over the information he knew for certain and the information he assumed as he strode quickly back to his room. Someone dressed in the Rose Thief’s clothes—whether it was the other Ray or not—came into Geoff’s room, probably through the window due to the guards constantly posted outside. Geoff’s window is several floors off the ground, so they’d have some serious climbing to do—quickly, too, so as to not be seen by guards outside. Then Geoff awoke and claimed not to be able to identify the assassin, who then fled back out the window.  The scrap of cape Geoff managed to tear matched the style of the Rose Thief’s. The guards on that floor reported that no one entered or exited the Rose Thief’s room through the door during that time frame.

The initial search of the room had revealed no dagger. The room was watched closely, and no one entered or exited without permission, from either the door or the window, and the only people who did so were guards. But regardless, the next day, the dagger was found. The report chalked it up to overlooking it previously, but could it have been planted?

He did not actually go back to his room. No, he went to the room next door. He was going to the wall on the other side of his wardrobe. He opened that door and slipped inside, shutting it behind him. The walls were mostly empty, save for a few abandoned tapestries and small painted landscapes. The room was musty and cold, and the bed was bare of any cloth. There was a birch wardrobe, but gray dust coated its surface thickly. There were no chairs, but there was a window seat along the windows in the wall, a dark wooden box that probably used to have cushions.

The wall he knew to be the other side of the wardrobe had a tapestry hanging on it. It was a large one, taller than it was wide, but still nearly as wide as two Rays. It was a fantastic depiction of the golden Tower, carved with curling designs, perched on its obsidian block and shining with the brilliance of the sun. Miniature knights in armor gathered around its base, raising their tiny swords in reverence. At the top of the tapestry, a sun did hang there, its yellow beams merging with that of the Tower’s. Ray grabbed the edges of the tapestry and yanked.

It took a little bit of jostling, but Ray managed to pull the tapestry down off its hooks. The golden bar at the top clattered to the ground, the tapestry billowing behind it. He let it pile at his feet. His interest lay in the wall itself.

The inside walls of the castle, it may be recalled, were of stone brick. Some of these bricks, now, were displaced slightly, sticking no more than a centimeter out from the other bricks. But as he inspected the wall, he could see that the mortar was not as “filled” here, that there seemed to be some gaps in thickness.

Ray hunted around the room for something to jam between the bricks, something he could use as a lever or makeshift crowbar, but found nothing. The room was empty of anything that could be a tool. He’d have to use his hands. He grabbed at these displaced bricks, pressing the tips of his fingers against the hard, cold edge. He pulled, relying on the friction and pressure between his skin and the stone, and he spent several minutes pulling, readjusting his fingers, and pulling again to the point where his knuckles ached and protested.

Finally, once the stones got to a certain point, they swung soundlessly and easily outward like a door, so easy that Ray stumbled back with the force he exerted. He caught himself, and returned to the stone bricks, pulling it back farther until he could actually slide the bricks out of the wall entirely. A section of the wall came away, misshapen but approximately one meter wide and one and a half meter tall. He laid the heavy section of the wall on the ground, not caring that a part of the tapestry was crushed underneath.

The hole in the wall now revealed the back of the wardrobe in the Rose Thief’s old room. Ray reached for it and pulled at its edge, and predictably the wardrobe’s false back swung open now. He stepped through it, brushing past the clothes hanging there and entering the other bedroom. He felt in a daze, like this couldn’t be real. He went back through the wardrobe, reentering the room next door. He turned and faced the hole in the wall again and sat down where he stood.

With a jolt, he remembered that this room was the prince’s old room. Why would King Geoff lie? Four reasons. One reason. The only reason for which he would lie in a court of law. The answer had been in front of him the entire time. He had been still considering the Rose Thief, had considered the king himself, but hadn’t considered the person in front of him.

Ray stood again, moving robotically, and left the room, carefully shutting the door behind him again. He passed a guard, who shot him a strange look, but he continued on his way.

He descended staircase after staircase. He wasn’t sure where he was going. He went down a hallway and started climbing staircases again. He passed Michael, who stopped him, the two of them standing on the same stair.

“Are you alright?” Michael asked. “You’re pale.”

“Where are you going?” Ray asked.

“I should ask you the same question,” Michael said with a small smile. “I’m headed to the armory to check on how upkeep is going there. Arrows need to be made and swords need to be kept sharp for your journey. And you—are you alright? You didn’t answer me.”

Ray nodded. “I’m fine,” he said. His hands trembled, and he tucked them into his pockets. He didn’t want to be here. He had to get away from Michael. Anger and the weight of his information lodged in his throat like a fist. “I have to go,” he said, and without waiting for a reply, began climbing the staircase again.

“Ray…” Michael called softly, but he didn’t follow. He watched Ray leave for a few moments, and then continued on his original path.

Ray’s ears roared with blood. He found himself outside Ryan’s room, and he entered without knocking. He walked right by Edgar in his glass room, and headed for the door to Ryan’s study. He tried the handle, found it locked, and jiggled it helplessly. But, then, there was a click, and it unlocked under Ray’s hand. He entered the study and wove around the desk to enter the large laboratory.

He wandered over to a shelf on the side as if drawn there. He found the clay jar, labelled Congealed Magic in Ryan’s scrawling hand, and plucked it off the shelf. It was his anyway. It came out of him, after all. He took the jar and left, careful not to look at Edgar as he passed the cow on his way out.

He descended the stairs again and returned to his room. He set the clay jar on the small table next to his bed. He walked over to the wardrobe, stood in front of it as it hung open, staring into the abandoned room next door. He stepped through the wardrobe again. He stood in the middle of the prince’s old room and spun slowly in a circle. He sat down on the floor again and stared at the hole in the wall. The sun had moved in the sky and dimmed behind clouds that were rolling in. The room was awash in the gray light.

He heard his bedroom door open. He stood. “Ray?” called the man, the prince, the assassin. That was all he said. Ray heard footsteps approach the open wardrobe. He waited. Gavin appeared on the other side of the wall, of the wardrobe, framed by the hanging clothes and capes, and Ray knew he was similarly framed from the prince’s perspective. The prince froze, rooted to his spot, the only hint of fire in his green eyes.

“You,” said Ray.

“Oh,” said Prince Gavin.

Chapter Text

“It was you.”

Time was thick like fog and clung like cellophane. He felt it burning in his eyes and lungs and heart. It was bizarre. This mystery, it had little to do with him—and yet it had everything to do with him. A different him, a different time, a different world. But him all the same. And now he, Ray, of Achievement Hunter and not of Venator, was about to personally change everything.

The prince was swathed in green, cold fire sparkling off his gold and silver in the gray light. He was framed by the blackness of the hanging clothes, the darkness of the wardrobe, the paleness of the stone walls. Gavin’s face was ashen, his body still.

“Ray,” said the prince, his voice quivering. Ray could taste the lie before it even left the prince’s lips. How dare he try to deny it now! “You—you don’t know. It couldn’t have been me!”

“Then explain the hole in the wall!” Ray roared. He strode forward. Gavin flinched, tried to dart away, but Ray grabbed his wrist, squeezed it and yanked hard to hold the prince back. “Explain why Geoff lied! Explain why you all fucking betrayed me!”

“You’re wrong!” Gavin simpered. “You’re wrong! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”

“You can’t fool me,” said Ray. “You can’t fool me anymore. There is no one else it could have been.”

“Ray,” Gavin pleaded. “You’re hurting me. Ray, please.”

“We’ll see how Geoff feels about this,” Ray hissed, jerking Gavin towards the door. Gavin resisted, but Ray was stronger now, fueled by rage and a sense of justice. “Then you can tell everyone why you fucking tried to kill the king. Your father. And got the Rose Thief framed for it.”

“I’ll—I’ll have you hanged!” Gavin said. Ray pulled hard on the prince’s wrist, and Gavin staggered. Ray was merciless—mercy made little difference, now.

“I’d like to see you try,” Ray said. It didn’t matter. He was dead one way or another. By dragon or by rope, both ended his life. So, he thought, he might as well serve justice before his end. The Rose Thief, his other self, his doppelgänger—he deserved his life back. His Michael back. The Rose Thief deserved his family back. Besides—Jack’s words made his gut twinge horribly—it wasn’t Ray’s Gavin. He didn’t have the same attachments. There was no time to feel sorry for the groveling prince in tow.

Ray burst through the door of his room and into the hallway, his grip on Prince Gavin’s wrist still tight, still unrelenting. A patrolling guard startled to see the pair, nearly jumping out of his greaves.

“What’s going on here!” the guard blurted.

“Where is the king?” Ray snapped. “The prince has something to tell him.”

“The—the War Room.” The guard seemed too stunned to do anything, at least at the moment. As Ray dragged Prince Gavin down the hall, the guard stared. And what was he to do? Before he could decide, Ray and the prince were gone, turned down a staircase.

Gavin was squealing almost the entire way. For much of the travels through the castle, he stopped resisting—especially when going down stairs. “Let go of me!” he cried. “You have no right to treat me this way! I am a prince!

“You’re gonna fucking own up to what you did,” Ray said.

They approached the guard at the entrance to the War Room. Ray was slightly out of breath, his heart pumping strong and fast and hot. Like the other, the guard was surprised to see the pair in such a state, but unlike the other, this guard seemed more inclined to protect the prince.

“Halt!” said the guard. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Ray glared and did not slow, and the guard actually took a step back. “Let us through,” Ray ordered, firm and angry. Venom Ray had never tasted before dripped from his voice. The guard was as though under a spell, and Ray was able to slip by with Gavin in tow—though he heard the guard follow.

At the bottom of the stairs, the War Room opened up, a lot more spacious without the crowd that had been in there before. King Geoff, Jack, Ryan, and Michael stood around the map, though they weren’t looking at it, and several other men were at a respectful distance—troop leaders, Ray assumed. They looked at Ray and Gavin as they entered. Jack shuddered forward, hands flying to axes at his waist that weren’t there, taken by the guard at the door. Michael didn’t move. The Mage tensed, his mixed-wood staff appearing from somewhere to be held in his hands. But the king raised a hand, stopping all movement with just a single gesture.

When Gavin took in who was there, his struggles changed. He redoubled his strength, nearly pulled Ray down to the ground in an effort to stop moving. Ray had to adjust his grip, turn around to put his back into it. “No,” said the prince, close to wailing. “No, Ray, please, not in front of Michael, no, no, no, please Ray, please!

“You know, I think he needs to hear this too,” Ray said. For the first time, Gavin looked at Ray with something close to fear in his eyes. With a last surge of strength, Ray wrenched Gavin past him, so that he fell to his hands and knees, head bowed in shame, between him and the four men around the war table. Michael’s eyes glittered like the edge of a steel blade, but he waited. Jack stood at the ready, his feet planted, but ready to move. Ryan watched with a curious eye.

“Hear what?” asked King Geoff. He stepped forward smoothly, standing in front of the table, flanked by the other three. His voice was calm, but it carried something dangerous in its tone, like the echo of approaching rapids unseen around a river bend. “What’s going on, and why are you abusing my prince?”

“Go on,” said Ray. “Tell him. Tell him about the hole in the wall. Tell everyone the truth about five years ago.”

Gavin shook his head miserably and withdrew into himself, his shoulders hunching. The four other men, as well as the strangers lingering, were rooted to their spots.

King Geoff’s voice was a fair bit softer that Ray’s—curious, afraid of being disappointed, maybe. “Gavin…?”

When Prince Gavin spoke next, his voice was thick and cracking. “I—I don’t bloody know what he’s talking about!”

“Well, what is he talking about!” Michael snapped. Ray could see his face beginning to flush red, and his breathing had turned shallower. He looked at Ray, the action prompting him to speak.

“Oh, he knows perfectly well what I’m talking about,” Ray said, rolling his head and crossing his arms. “He knows who tried to assassinate Geoff five years ago, and he knows who framed the Rose Thief for it.”

Gavin flinched at every other word. His façade, his five-year façade, was crumbling—had been crumbling for the past few days, and now it was shattering completely. Ray could find no sympathy for him. Justice was five years overdue.

“I think it’s time you stopped manhandling my prince,” Geoff said, but Ray knew his quirk. Geoff’s voice was tight, a few notes higher than usual. Ray glared at him, straightened his back, squared his shoulders. He wasn’t going to let Geoff lie this time. “I’ll give you one chance to—”

“You found the truth?” Michael blurted. He glanced at the king, but quickly returned his attention back to Ray and Gavin. “Tell me.”

“What could he know?” the king insisted, his voice nearing screeching levels. “Ray, because I’m nice, I’ll let you go with just a warn—”

Michael put out a hand, stretching it out to hold in front of Geoff’s chest. The king’s voice strangled off.  “Tell me,” he repeated.

“Go on, Gavin,” Ray seethed. “Tell him. Tell Michael.”

Gavin tore at his hair, his elbows almost touching the floor. “The—the Rose Thief didn’t try to murder the king, five years ago.”

“And you know this how?” Michael asked. He was getting riled up. His fists clenched at his sides, his knuckles white. His voice was getting louder, hoarser. Ray shivered to hear it. He looked into Michael’s furious face and suddenly regretted doing this. He ground his teeth. It was too late to turn back now.

Gavin put his hands to the floor and craned his neck to look at Michael with glistening eyes. The others were quiet, stoic, waiting. Jack’s expression was unreadable, but he seemed to have joined the shadows somewhat. Geoff was the only beacon of movement, and he rocked from foot to foot. But he couldn’t find the words to say.

Gavin had to work his jaw a while before he could get his tongue to work. And then, once the words started, they kept spilling out, to the horror of the small crowd. It was like the fire had finally sparked to life. “I—It wasn’t—I know it because—I was—He didn’t do it, because it was me. Okay? I did it, and I framed Ray. I planted a dagger in his room; I stole his clothes and blamed it on him.”

There was a beat of silence. Then Michael’s laughter, harsh and humorless, burst out, echoed in the chamber. “You!” he cried. “Frame Ray for murdering your father the king! Hahahaha! Hahaha!” The laughter died abruptly. No one spoke. Hardly anyone breathed. Michael’s face was red. He huffed like it was the heat of battle. “If you’re the one who did it, then how did you get to Geoff’s room, huh? How did you fucking get in and out?”

“The window,” Gavin said. He sat back on his heels, hunched over and hugged his stomach. He was trembling, pale. “You know how we always climbed over the windows when we were younger. I snuck up to the room above Geoff’s, and dropped down to his window. And once he woke up, I got out and dropped down several floors to Ray’s room. You know how he’s a heavy sleeper—”

And?” Michael prompted.

“There’s—I discovered a long time ago some loose stones in the wall between our rooms. Ray’s wardrobe was right in front of it, and so I messed with the back of it so it’d swing open when I took the stones out. I used to use it to play pranks on him a little—but this time I used it to disappear, and plant the dagger the next day.”

“You left out the best part,” Ray said. He wanted to stop, but he couldn’t seem to.

Gavin twisted around to glance at him. “Wh-what?”

Ray fixed Geoff with a hard stare. “The part where Geoff knew this entire time that it was you.”

The world turned towards the king. He sputtered. “What—? He’s lying, he’s making it up!”

“Oh please, Geoff,” said Ryan, speaking for the first time. “You’ve always been the worst liar.”

Geoff didn’t respond, but he looked now to Michael. Ray realized with a jolt that Michael’s cheeks were wet, and he was blinking hard. Oh, he didn’t mean to be this cruel. Michael stared at his king.

“Why?” Michael croaked.

Geoff drew himself up tall, but he avoided eye contact with Michael now. He looked down his nose at Gavin. He took a moment to answer. He looked very, very tired now. “Sometimes, as king,” he said finally, “you have to decide between what’s right, and what’s best at the time. I couldn’t lose my prince.”

“You were going to let Gavin kill you!” Michael said. It was like he was trying to shout, but he couldn’t get the volume out around the blockage in his throat. “You were going to let Ray die on the gallows!”

“I knew he’d wake up!” Gavin blurted. “I—I was never going to actually…”

Michael did shout this time. He let out a wordless roar, a war cry. In a flash of light, he pulled a sword out of his arm and charged towards Gavin. Ryan raised his staff, but Geoff was quicker. He flung his hand out, and one of his tattoos flashed pale blue. The prince scuttled back, using his hands and feet to bump into Ray’s shins. Geoff’s spell froze Michael’s back foot to the ground in an encasing of ice. Ray stumbled with Gavin’s momentum, but he regained his balance and stepped back, away from the traitorous prince.

“You tell me why!” Michael screamed. He leaned against the ice, but his foot was stuck fast. “You get up off your ass and fucking tell me why!”

Gavin shook his head, one hand clawing into his cheek, his eyes wide. Ray had left his voice somewhere a pace behind Michael. He kept his face neutral, but he felt sick. He didn’t mean for it to blow up. He had been angry, boosted by the revelation, and he had supposed justice would right everything—but now, everything seemed wrong.

Geoff spoke, having regained his kingly composure, though his voice still tremored slightly. “Michael, that’s enough. We’ll sort through this later, when we’ve calmed down—for now, everyone here needs to take an oath of secrecy.”

“Michael,” Gavin pleaded, quietly, through building sobs. His cheeks had turned ruddy. “Please, I—I regret it so much. I didn’t want—I love you—I’m so sorry, Michael, please…”

“You’re fucking sorry!” Michael screeched. “You nearly got Ray killed! You exiled him for all these years! And you won’t even tell me why!” With another guttural roar, he twisted the sword in his grasp and slammed the tip of it into the ice around his foot. The spell shattered, and he charged towards the prince, who flinched and recoiled but didn’t retreat.

But then Michael was hanging off the ground, his arms bound to his sides by thick wooden vines. Ryan had both hands on his staff as he pointed the end of it at Michael, and the wood now sprouted from the end to wrap around Michael. Michael kicked and struggled and screamed. Ryan hoisted Michael back, sliding him through the air.

“Fuck you! Mage! Put me down! I’m gonna—fucking punish him!”

“Help me!” Ryan grunted. “I can’t hold him forever!” Half the people in the room converged suddenly, pulsed into motion. Gavin stared at Michael for a few moments more, and then shot to his feet and bolted out the room, shoving past the guard now standing at the bottom of the stairs. Ray accidentally made eye contact with Ryan as he watched the commotion. Ryan’s face was tense and furrowed with concentration, but he rooted Ray to the spot with his gaze. Then, with a nod, unnoticed by the people around him, he gave Ray leave to go.

Ray didn’t need another signal. He turned and fled.


  

Ray chased after Gavin all the way back to the prince’s old room. He was hunched over, collapsed halfway onto the bare wooden window seat. He looked over his shoulder when Ray entered. His eyes were rimmed red, and tears rolled freely now down his cheek.

“Is this what you wanted?” he accused, spitting as he spoke. “You've broken us apart. Is this what you bloody wanted?”

Ray stayed by the door and made no effort to approach Gavin. “You dug this grave for yourself five years ago, and it was only a matter of time before you lay in it,” he said. “I wanted to find the truth, and I did. I wanted to clear my name, and—I guess—I did.”

Gavin squeezed his eyes shut and whipped his head down to shout at the window seat. “We could have been happy! You didn’t have to do a bloody thing! Why couldn’t you have let things lie!?”

Ray moved farther into the room. He felt gleefully in power—a dangerous feeling. He was in a position of cruelty, but didn’t the prince deserve this misery? The Rose Thief, after all, had been miserable for five years. Everyone had been affected by the assassination attempt. If it had to be someone, let it be the perpetrator. Gavin was—just being a coward.

“He wasn’t happy, and you know it. Not completely,” Ray spat. Gavin flinched, tensed and withdrew into himself. “He could forget about it for a time, but the moment there’s a reminder, he’s miserable again. And—and let’s not even forget about the Rose Thief!” Ray let out a bark of a laugh that made the prince jump. “You ruined his life completely! Gave him scars that will never heal, and tried to cover up your little plot for five years. So yes. I had to do something.”

Ray glanced at the wall, where the hole still stood gaping, the tapestry fallen and the stones on the floor. He felt as though he had gone too far. There could have been a way to expose this without blowing up in a room full of people. He felt an itch under his skin. But maybe not. It was too late to tell. Either way, he couldn’t stay here anymore. He turned, heading towards the exit.

“Don’t be a coward,” he hissed. “Everyone’s still alive. So do something about it.”

He left the room without waiting for a reply, slamming the door behind him.

Ray didn’t even pause outside the door, but strode with purpose down the hall. He descended the stairs, taking a somewhat long route. He didn’t want to see anyone. He didn’t want to be found if he was being looked for. So he avoided the well-travelled halls in the castle as best he could, and didn’t see anyone more than guards and servants who had no idea what had just transpired.

He exited the castle and crossed a small dirt courtyard to the stables near the walls, where boys clad in brown and soft leather were scurrying about. The gray clouds were heavy with the promise of rain, and the air was getting to be muggy. He could smell manure and hay wafting warmly out of the squat but long wooden building with a slanted shale roof and smooth stone floors. The inside was dim, illuminated only by the natural light entering through the broad glassless windows. The dull thuds of horses stomping their feet, and the gruff snorts of the animals carried across the yard.

Ray strode right up to a stable boy who appeared to be taking a small break, leaning against the doorway of the main entrance. The boy startled to see him, snapping to attention with wide eyes, and when he saw who it was, quickly bowed. Ray didn’t waste time on manners.

“I need a horse, as soon as possible,” he ordered. He had seen the active stables from the windows in the castle. Surely they were ready enough to supply him a horse now. The boy started fidgeting and dry-washing his hands.

“Um, sir, all the horses are being prepared for the march south…”

“I know,” Ray snapped. “One of them is for me anyway. I’m just leaving a couple days early. Can you get a horse packed up for me within the hour? Prepare it for travel.”

The stable boy nodded quickly and bowed several times. “Yes sir, we will try, sir.”

“Good,” said Ray shortly. “I will be back soon.”

He left the stables and returned to the castle, once more taking a longer route than necessary. His ears strained as he traversed the halls and stairs, listening for pounding footsteps, for people looking for him. The itch under his skin never left, and he found himself gripping the handle of his sword tightly as he approached his room again.

He opened the door slowly, but all was silent. He crept up to the wardrobe, and peered through it to the other room. The prince seemed to have gone. Ray dug through the drawers, found a pack to sling onto his back, and grabbed a lighter outfit and a heavier outfit. He rolled and folded them and shoved them into the bag.

He didn’t have anywhere to go, so he supposed he was going to the Ender Kingdom. He had no idea what weather he would meet on the way. He didn’t even know if he could reach it on his own. All he knew was that he had to leave, so he might as well try to get home. And currently, his only way home lay on the other end of the quest in front of him.

On impulse, he snatched the clay jar of congealed magic off his bedside table and squeezed it carefully into his bag, cushioning it with his clothes. He double-checked the pouch at his belt, made sure the mirror shard was still there. He patted his sword, and slid his arms through the straps of the pack.

With one last look around the room, he left.

He took a direct path to the stables this time. He just needed to get out as soon as possible. Fuck everyone who tried to stop him now. He crossed the packed dirt and marched up to the entrance of the stables, looking for the boy he had talked to before. Small dark spots on the dirt promised rainfall any moment.

The boy was patting a horse on its snout over the short stall door, but he saw Ray come up and jogged over.

“I have a horse ready for you, sir,” he said with a bow. “Come this way.”

He led Ray to the horse he had been patting. It was a light brown mare, with a long patch of white on her snout and a dark brown mane and tail. She was sturdier than she was lean—not meant for racing, but for travel, or work. She snorted as they approached, and stuck her nose out of her stall. She had a saddle and bridle on already, and a few packs were hooked onto the sides of her saddle.

“This is Spirit,” said the stable boy. “She was marked for you when the War Room decided they needed you. She’s calm, she don’t spook easy, so she won’t run away. She’s smart too; she’ll find food for herself if there’s anything to graze, but we packed some oats just in case. We put some flasks of water on her, and some packs of food for travel. The food is a type of bread that don’t spoil fast, and has lots of energy, so you only need a little bit at every meal. And in the last pack, there’s some camping gear in case you don’t find nowhere to stay.”

“Thank you,” said Ray.

The stable boy opened the stall door and led Spirit out. Ray walked alongside them as they left the shelter of the stable. “You’re lucky we were almost all done here,” said the stable boy. “All we really had left to do was pack up the horses when it was time.”

“I figured,” said Ray.

They stopped in the middle of the dirt courtyard. Ray took a deep breath, put his hands on the horse’s saddle, hooked his foot in the stirrup, and hoisted himself up. It was a little awkward, but he could do it without help. He settled into the saddle, adjusting his sword so it didn’t injure the horse.

“Are the castle gates open?” Ray asked the stable boy. The boy squinted at him, like he thought he was foolish.

“They’re always open in the day,” said the boy. “At least, the big ones.”

“Thanks,” Ray said. “Oh, and don’t tell anyone I left yet. If you’re asked directly, I don’t care what you do. But don’t spread it around. Got it?”

The stable boy bowed. “Yes sir. Of course, sir.”

As soon as the boy had turned and started scurrying back to the stables, Ray squeezed his heels gently into the horse’s side and leaned forward, patting her neck. “Okay, Spirit,” he said, “Let’s get going.” The horse began to walk forward, but not fast enough for Ray. He had to get out of the city quickly, and he wasn’t going to be leisurely about it. He squeezed his heels again and mimicked what he saw the Rose Thief do, what he saw others do. He snapped the reins and ordered, “Hya! Come on, girl!”

Spirit jolted forward. Ray leaned into her neck to regain his balance, and hugged the horse’s sides with his legs. She seemed to know where to go from here, so he had to do very little coaxing. Spirit followed the castle walls, curving around a part of the castle to reach the front gates. He passed through the gate with ease; no one gave him a second glance.

The main road of Achievement City was paved with cobblestone, and was a wide street that ran straight from the southern gate right up to the castle’s front gates. The houses ranged from fine establishments of stone walls and wooden roofs to simply built wooden structures. The farther away from the castle and main road the building was, the cheaper it was made. The main road, judging by the numerous signs sticking out from above doorways, was mostly edged by inns and shops anyway.

The road had only some people milling about it. Ray could imagine it would normally be busier—on a nicer day, maybe. As it was now, there were few enough people that Ray could speed down the middle of the street without needing to worry too much about trampling some civilian. As it was, he didn’t quite reach full gallop, but Spirit cantered down the road, her hooves clapping against the stone. It was at this speed that he passed under the final gate and exited the city.

The road changed quickly to packed gravel and then to dirt. On the southern end of the city, the road soon began to skirt the edge of a forest on Ray’s left, and opened up to fields to his right. He could see down the road that the forest thickened and then began to grow on either side of the road. The kingdom sure didn’t seem to mind keeping forests around almost right up to the castle gates.

He had gotten maybe a hundred yards away and was just started to slow when there was a gust of wind, a scent of roses, and the flapping of a cape. He pulled on the reins, and Spirit, stopped almost immediately, turning slightly to the side to avoid stepping on the Rose Thief. Ray’s doppelgänger glared up at him from behind his white mask.

“Where are you going?” asked the Rose Thief sharply. “Did you steal that horse?”

No,” Ray said immediately. A pause. “Yes…? Maybe.” Spirit was meant for him to take to the End, though perhaps not quite so soon.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the Rose Thief demanded, pointing angrily up at Ray. “You’re supposed to be clearing my name, not fucking running away!”

“I did,” Ray snapped. “Well, sort of. Listen, I solved the case, and I have to get away. You can sneak in there and find out what happened from them.”

“You did!? Wait. Get away?” the Rose Thief said. “Why?”

Ray shifted uneasily, and Spirit stomped her feet. “I—I can’t explain it right now. But I’ve done what you’ve asked of me. So, I’m—I’m gonna go home.”

“Home,” the Rose Thief repeated. He stared past Ray now, his eyes glassing over. Ray didn’t wait for another opportunity. He didn’t have time to explain, and he didn’t want to. The Rose Thief could find out on his own. Cool raindrops splashed on his cheek. He snapped the reins and his horse cantered around his doppelgänger.

Several yards later, Spirit slowed to a trot. When Ray looked back, the Rose Thief had vanished.

Chapter Text

The Rose Thief stayed hidden on the rooftops of Achievement City. He hurdled from roof to roof, with measured jumps and careful footing. The few people on the street didn’t even look up as he flitted across the city towards the castle. Rain began to fall steadily, now.

He reached the last building before the wall separating the castle courtyards from the city itself. The smooth stone castle scraped the sky, fading into the low clouds. Its height has never intimidated him; he did not fear it. Yet his heart was pumping hot in his chest and throat as he looked upon it.

The castle wall was tall enough that a normal man couldn’t jump from the last roof to the top of the wall. But the Rose Thief was not a normal man. He sprinted, leaped for the top of the wall, and felt the magic in him flow freely. The spell on his right hand burned beneath his glove, but not unpleasantly so. His foot met the shield of hardened air right where he expected it to be, and he boosted himself up to the top of the wall.

He didn’t stay up there, but quickly flipped over to the other side and dropped down. The spell on his left hand caught him, the rose-scented air cushioning his fall slightly. At the bottom, he rolled on the soft green grass, hopping quickly to his feet and slipping behind a tree before anyone saw him. It was practiced, easy.

The Ray from another world had told him to sneak in. He figured this meant that some people knew the truth, but most didn’t. His gut twisted a little to think of the other Ray. He felt guilty for letting him run away, but his heart burned to return to the castle—to see if he really was found innocent. The wisp of hope that had been snuffed out for five years had life breathed back into it.

He peeked out from behind the tree. The tree was one of several that lined this part of the wall, on the right side of the gate. In front of him stretched the prim lawn, right up to the paved walkways and the fountain in the middle of the front courtyard. He watched for the guards, though it seemed to be surprisingly empty today. At least at the moment, there were far less numbers patrolling the walls and walkways than usual. When no one was looking, he bolted for the entrance.

The entrance was an enormous pair of oaken doors, nearly as tall as the first story, but these doors were rarely opened for anything other than something ceremonial. Instead, there was a human-sized door on either side of the massive entrance, and it was through one of these that the Rose Thief slipped through silently and into the entrance hall.

The entrance hall had a long green carpet that stretched across the middle of the room to a staircase at the end, as well as splitting off in the middle to lead to a door to the left and right. The Rose Thief trod along this carpet, hooking right and going through the door in that wall.

There, he passed a guard. The guard merely glanced at him, but when they had nearly passed each other, the Rose Thief called out, “Hey, where is the king?”

“Still in the War Room I presume,” said the guard lazily. He did a double take. “Hey, wait, you’re not…”

But the Rose Thief was already gone, dashing into a narrow hall as soon as he had his answer. He sprinted lightly now, his feet only softly tapping on the stone, or making hardly any noise when he was on carpet. He raced around corners, passed more guards who didn’t give him a second glance, except to perhaps watch him go by with curious interest.

He found the stairs and was surprised to see there was no guard in front of it. Usually this would mean the War Room was empty, but still he pounded down the stairs, his heart moving faster than his feet. He got to the bottom and stopped, panting at the edge of the room.

Whatever speaking, whatever movement had been going on had all ceased now. Lieutenants that the Rose Thief both did and did not recognize were scattered about the room, pressed against opposite walls like they loathed to approach the table in the middle, but could not leave. The table with the map on it was exactly as the Rose Thief remembered it. And in front of it, huddled together, were Ryan, Jack, King Geoff and—Michael.

Michael’s face was red and wet, and thin wooden vines were wrapped around his torso like rope, pinning his arms to his sides as he sat on the floor. Ryan stood over him, his staff at his side. Jack and Geoff crouched on opposite sides of Michael, but whatever they were doing, the Rose Thief wasn’t sure. Whatever the case, they were all looking at him now.

Then Michael twisted and kicked. “Let me go, Ryan,” he demanded. His voice was hoarse. Had he been screaming recently? “Let me out of these fucking vines!”

“Is it true?” the Rose Thief said, quietly. Michael stopped struggling, and Ryan shifted his grip on his staff. “My name is clear?”

Geoff and Jack looked at each other across Michael. Then Geoff glanced at the floor, his shoulders slouching. Jack sighed and looked at the Rose Thief. “In short,” he said wearily, “yes. Not everyone knows yet, but yes—we know you’re innocent.”

“He did it,” the Rose Thief whispered. He closed his eyes. “He really did it…” He reached up behind his head and untied the mask. The white cloth fell from his face. The mask drifted down, its ribbons fluttering in the air as it settled noiselessly on the floor. He reopened his eyes. He knew something wasn’t right, he knew that this wasn’t the perfect moment. But still, he smiled.

The vines withered and fell from Michael’s torso. Michael sprang to his feet, and the Rose Thief started running when he did. They met in the middle, hardly slowing before their bodies clashed together and their arms wrapped around each other. Michael hugged him so tightly he could barely breathe, but he did the same to him. He buried his nose into Michael’s shirt and inhaled deeply, smelling the sharp scent of sweat and Michael’s natural musk. He felt Michael fold his head onto his shoulder.

“I missed you,” Michael croaked.

“Every day,” the Rose Thief agreed.

The last time the Rose Thief had seen Michael had been the night the Enderman had broken into the castle, and the assassin he had hired had been killed. Not the ideal night, but he had held Michael for a while then. Selfishly, he knew even then. But he held Michael now with a different state of mind. Relief relaxed his back and shoulders. He could finally return home.

Finally, they stood apart. The Rose Thief reached up and touched Michael’s face gently. Michael smiled at him, but the smile was mixed with a grimace, like he was in pain. The Rose Thief looked over Michael’s shoulder and realized someone was missing.

“Where’s Gavin?” he asked.

The air in the room became heavier. Michael turned his head against the Rose Thief’s hand, and no one looked at him. Jack and Geoff were standing now, but Jack was the one who spoke. “We’ll… deal with him later. There’s some things that need sorting out, but someone’s looking for him now. We’ll explain shortly.”

“I don’t want to deal with him right now,” hissed Michael, glaring at the floor. “He can fuck off.”

The Rose Thief frowned. But Jack didn’t give time for him to wonder. He approached him and embraced him tightly. “We’re glad you’re back, Ray. We’ll get word out that you’re innocent as soon as possible.”

They, too, pulled apart, and the Rose Thief stepped back to take in the room at large. Jack beamed at him. At the War Room table, Ryan ran a hand through his hair, but nodded curtly and flashed a smile. Geoff still stared at the floor, but he leaned against the table, his posture relaxed. Michael finally looked back up at him, and a slow grin crept across his face as they made eye contact.

The Rose Thief couldn’t help it. He burst into tears.

A guard thundered down the stairs, huffing and panting like a horse. He put a hand against the wall at the bottom of the staircase to steady himself as he wheezed and bent over, his face as red as a tomato. After a few seconds, he straightened, and managed to get a few words out.

“I cannot find the prince,” he gasped. “He’s not in any of the likely places, and his room is a mess.”

What?” King Geoff cried, lurching up from the table. The king strode over to the guard, and the Rose Thief stepped to the side. The air suddenly felt very cold. “What do you mean? Where did he go?”

“Your Majesty,” the guard said. “I cannot find his Royal Highness. I fear he is missing.”


  

Ray was several miles away from Achievement City. Spirit swayed underneath him, and in the passing miles, he had started to figure out how to move with the horse’s trot. It was exhausting, but better than being bumped up and down with every step. His thighs and abdomen were starting to cramp; he’d been on the horse for perhaps an hour. Not to mention that he was now quite damp. The rain had begun to steadily drizzle not long after the Rose Thief went home.

“Hey,” he said, leaning close to the horses ears. “Don’t you have a smoother way of walking?”

The horse threw her head and snorted in response. She slowed down just slightly, but her gait had changed to something much less rocking. Ray sighed, relieved, and sat back in the saddle. He gazed lazily at the trees around him. The forest around him had thickened as the miles passed by, and the trees—maple, oak, pine, and more—reached up into the sky and obscured the castle from him before the second mile had been completed. Dark shrubs and bushes lined the path, and they rustled with the slightest breeze, even when Ray couldn’t feel one himself. He shivered. He was starting to feel like the forest was pressing down on him. He urged Spirit on.

A low white shape flashed in front of them. Spirit whinnied, and stopped with a jolt, her front legs lurching off the ground. Ray nearly lost his balance, tilting alarmingly to one side, but he lunged forward onto Spirit’s neck. The bushes shook. Several dark shapes shot across the path, behind and in front of the horse, but they moved too fast to see clearly, disappearing into the forest again.

Spirit reared up high, her neighs piercing the gray and wet air. Ray couldn’t hold on, and fell. Spirit bolted, charging several yards down the road before slowing and beginning to pace in circles across the path, her tail flicking nervously.

The wind flew out of Ray as his back slammed into the ground. He gasped for air, black stars popping into his vision. His back jabbed with pain, but he lay there staring up at the sky and let the ache ebb. He supposed he should be lucky he wasn’t more injured, but at the moment he could only let out a groan like a dying whale and let rain fall on his glasses.

The bushes shook. This was just great. He broke apart the family back at the castle, ran like a bitch and a coward, and then fell off his horse an hour’s ride away. And now he couldn’t even find the desire to get up again.

What the hell was he fucking doing, running away? He’s leaving the only safe area and plunging into the wilderness, knowing nothing except to head south. Towards the End. Alone. A powerful, old wizard waits for him on the other end of his journey, as well as a fucking dragon. He wasn’t riding towards home. He hoped he was, but something dark and cold inside of him knew his hope was baseless. He was riding towards his death.

He knew the beast by its limp. A great white wolf padded out of the bushes, his hind leg held gently. He prowled towards Ray, a soft rumble in his throat, his yellow eyes locked on Ray. Ray merely waited, waited until the wolf was standing over him, breath hot on the skin on his throat.

“Go ahead,” Ray said. “I’m not even the one who did anything to you, but hey, if you want to go for it, then fucking go for it, man. I’m headed towards certain death anyway, so you might as well make it quicker for me.” He didn’t know why, but he kept rambling to the wolf, and the wolf kept staring. “I can’t go back. I’ve done an irreparable thing, big guy. I—I see my friends, from back home, I still see them when I look at them. But they’ve got different memories, and experiences… so it’s not really them. What right did I have? Doing that to them? Is… the truth really better if it hurts?

“All I’ve wanted to do is go home, and I don’t think I’ll even get there anymore. I’m at the end of my rope. In some ways, it’s a fucking relief to be out of there. It’ll be some great irony, dying a few miles away from the place I was fleeing from. Pitiful. But I figure I won’t care after you deal with me. So I don’t fucking know, man. I don’t know your beef with me, but I’ll take whatever comes. Just do me a favor and get it over with quick.”

The wolf hovered over him, muzzle inches above his exposed throat. He longed to see his Michael one last time, and he was struggling to come to terms with the idea that that won’t happen now. His throat was tight. His eyes burned hot and he didn’t fight back the tears at all.

Despite all his passivity, he did not actually want to die. But he was too weak to fight. Too weak to battle his way back home, back to his friends, back to Michael. So he cried, on his back, in the rain and wet dirt, with a wolf hovering over him.

The hot breath of the wolf left his neck. With a little huff through his nostrils, the wolf thumped down to lie next to Ray, its head raised proudly. He looked a bit like a sphinx, or perhaps a sentinel. He looked at Ray with amber colored eyes, and Ray didn’t understand, but he was still crying and couldn’t find the energy or the will to stop. So he let the wolf look at him, and let the cool rain fall on his face, and he laid there and cried.

Spirit inched her way closer to Ray as he let his emotions run their course. Soon she was only two or three yards away, not willing to get very close to the wolf, but not wanting to leave her rider. The clouds broiled above, a long sheet of gray and rain. So the wolf wasn’t going to fucking rip out his throat. He steadied his breathing, inhaled and exhaled. It seemed he would have to do this quest anyway. There was nowhere else for him to go, and there was no easy way out.

There were noisy commotions in the woods around him, mixed with the rushing wind as he lay there, pondering the clouds and rain. It was occasional, but there were several flurries, the snapping of teeth and low growls of the other wolves. Were they perhaps fighting something? Ray didn’t know. He didn’t care enough to find out.

He eventually ran out of tears, so he closed his eyes and listened to the wind, to his own breathing, to the wolf next to him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been there. Long enough for chill to seep under his skin. He sat up, sniffing and wiping his face with his hands. He looked to the white wolf, who watched him curiously.

“You are certainly strange,” Ray told the wolf. The wolf didn’t respond other than flicking his tail once. Raindrops beaded on its snowy fur, matting the tips together. Ray lifted a trembling hand and reached to pet the wolf’s head. He stopped when the wolf’s hackles raised, and let his hand fall back to the dirt. “Sorry, yeah. You’re still wild, aren’t you.”

The wolf shook the water out of the fur on his head and neck. Ray didn’t think that was an answer.

“Who are you?” Ray asked softly. The wolf stared at Ray, his amber gaze boring into Ray’s eyes. Then, the wolf’s ears twitched, and he turned his nose to the road behind Ray, back towards Achievement City. A few seconds later, Ray heard pounding hooves, followed soon by gentle tremors in the dirt. He twisted around, and shot to his feet, the wolf rising with him, when he saw who approached.

The horse was tall and slender, with a coat like spun gold, a pale tail and a braided mane. It galloped towards him, bearing the green prince on his back. Ray felt the fury, quenched by the rain, rekindle in his heart. The white wolf growled and lunged forward, standing in front of Ray.

Prince Gavin reared the horse to a stop and flung himself to the road as soon as it was still. He fell to his hands and knees. He was soaked, his hair matted and dripping with water as he bowed his head low. He still wore princely gear, but of a simpler, more durable make—meant for travelling—and he did not carry weapons on his body. He did not wear his silver crown. The wolf snarled so ferociously that Gavin’s golden horse whinnied and skipped backwards a few steps.

“Mercy, Ray! Mercy!” Gavin cried. He craned his neck, his eyes flicking to the wolf but then to Ray. “Please have mercy!”

“What for?” Ray snapped. “You don’t fucking deserve it after what you did.”

Gavin bowed his head again as the wolf took a step closer. “I know,” he said mournfully. “I know! But I—I…”

“Go home, Gavin.” Ray turned away.

“I can’t!” Gavin sputtered. “I can’t go back there! M-Michael hates me, and—and everyone else probably does too. I did bad, Ray, I made a mistake, and I don’t—”

“A mistake!” Ray roared suddenly, turning with his voice. Gavin cringed. The wolf crept closer. “Plotting this whole fucking framing is what you call a mistake? Hiding it selfishly for five years while people suffered is what you called a mistake? You’ve ruined lives, Gavin! You’re not going to get off easy just because you regret getting caught! And now you’re too cowardly to face the consequences. Go home!”

“No!” Gavin wailed. His fingers curled into the soft dirt. “Ray! Please—call off the wolf, c-call off Beskytter. Ray, I—I can’t go back, not now! Not now! Let me—please let me come with you!”

“You’re fucking insane!” Ray’s voice pitched high.

Gavin flexed his hands, digging fresh into the dirt. He watched the wolf as he spoke. “You can’t do it alone, and you hardly know where you’re going. Ray, please, let me help! I—I promised I would be with you. Let me—prove myself. Let me redeem myself. At least—let me try!”

Ray’s voice choked as he stared at Gavin, and for a moment he couldn’t move words past his throat. He realized that Gavin didn’t expect much more out of this quest than Ray did. That is, he fully expected to die. And dying while fighting an incredible adversary—a fucking dragon, even—would be much nobler than… other options. And it was true—Ray didn’t really know where he was going. Gavin knew the maps, knew the way, and knew how to survive until they got there.

It left a bitter taste in Ray’s mouth. What would Gavin do if he continued to refuse? He didn’t know. The prince would probably try to follow him anyway. As horrid as Gavin’s past actions have been, as much as he deserved retribution, he did have skills Ray could use.

“Yo, wolf,” Ray snapped. “Back off.” The wolf looked back as if to double check. Ray nodded. “Go on. It’s okay.”

The wolf bowed his head and bounced away, pausing one last time at the edge of the road before slipping into the bushes. His movements blended with the leaves swaying in the wind, and he soon disappeared.

The air and tension left Gavin’s body in a single huff. His eyes shone as he stood, but his head drooped meekly. He no longer held himself proudly as a prince.

“Thank you,” Gavin told the ground in a tight voice.

“I’m using you,” said Ray coldly. “This is not forgiveness.”

Gavin’s green eyes flicked up to meet Ray’s. Without any hint of pride, he said quietly, “I know.”

Chapter Text

The Rose Thief wiped at his face in stunned silence as the lieutenants in the War Room were spurred into action by the king. King Geoff shouted at them, ordered them to search the castle thoroughly. He felt Michael’s arm at the small of his back, leaned into his weight as the room slowly emptied. Then it was only the five of them.

Geoff returned to the map table and gripped the edge of it, hunching over and letting his head hang. Jack stood a few paces away from the Rose Thief, as though unsure of where he should be. Ryan stepped away from the table and sank to the floor, gripping his staff so that it stood tall. The Mage closed his eyes and bent forward, touching his forehead to the twisted wood.

The Rose Thief felt the excess magic run over his skin like a light breeze, making the hairs on his arms stand up. Ryan was sending out a massive quantity of magic, and the Rose Thief could see the magic wind up out of the top of the staff. The magic presented itself as several pale translucent tendrils, and they drifted up and out, plunging into the ceiling.

The Rose Thief looked at Michael, worry and confusion making his face tense. Michael glanced at him, but then his eyes flicked down and he slowly shook his head before leaning his forehead against the Rose Thief’s shoulder. The Rose Thief slipped his hand up to Michael’s back and rubbed it once. He looked up to Jack, searching for answers.

Jack saw the Rose Thief, glanced once at Geoff, and chewed his lip. Then he sighed heavily. “There’s no easy way to explain this,” Jack said.

“No, wait,” Geoff said suddenly, pushing off of the table and turning. “Let me explain, Jack.” He leaned against the table again, putting his back to the map, and looked the Rose Thief square in the eye.

“Just someone do it,” Michael growled into the Rose Thief’s shoulder. “No easy way? It’s fucking simple.”

“Hush!” King Geoff snapped, but his eyes never left the Rose Thief’s. “I ask you not to judge him so harshly. But… it was proven that you were framed because—Gavin came forth at the behest of the other Ray and confessed.”

The world dropped out from under the Rose Thief’s feet, and his heart fell with it. “Gavin?”

The king nodded. His blue eyes glittered. Michael’s hand tightened on the Rose Thief’s waist. “The prince framed you. We—don’t know why, at the moment. But he’s missing and we can’t sort it out without him.”

“Gavin,” the Rose Thief repeated. He felt like he should be furious, hot with rage, but instead it was just cold shock. His left hand burned. He couldn’t comprehend this. Prince Gavin, who had been his and Michael’s friend since Gavin’s arrival at the castle. Sure, they weren’t always on the best of terms, not like Gavin and Michael. But they had still been close friends. Why would Gavin do such a thing?

His face felt cold. Gavin betrayed him. There was no doubt, no other way to phrase it. The man he thought he could trust—maybe even with his life, despite their numerous squabbles—had been the reason he was exiled and vilified for five years of his life. And for what? For what?

He thought he had been done with the anger, the distrust, the loathing. Five years was too long to hold a grudge—and yes, at times he had slipped; at times jealousy and grief had driven him—but ultimately his exile hadn’t really been anyone’s fault. Everyone had been doing what they must. That is what he had eventually come to believe. But now the negative emotions resurfaced with a vengeance. He trembled and shook.

It was cold like an autumn wind whipping the tress at night. It was a storm, a howl, barely contained under his skin. Winds coursed through his veins and lifted his clothes and hair. His nails dug into his palms; his teeth ground into each other. The glyph on his left hand glowed bright and hot, uncontrolled. His eyes were wide but he could not see through his veil of rage. He trembled. He shook.

Five years, gone. His back scarred. His love lost and betrayed. And now the coward that caused it wasn’t even here, run away to avoid his wrath. His terror. His loathing. He would find that coward. He would make him truly rue his decision five years ago, and his decision to keep it hidden. He would pay back his five years of pain.

A hand snatched at his wrist, and the wind spell suddenly died. The Rose Thief blinked, the veil lifting from his eyes. Jack lifted his hot hand and squeezed it hard, staring, pleading into the Rose Thief’s eyes. Michael was a few steps away, his hair windblown, his gaze sympathetic and drained. Miserable, even. Ryan was standing now, but his face was set and neutral. Geoff carefully didn’t look at him, and focused on smoothing out the map on the table.

“Please don’t,” Jack said softly, gently.

He trembled now for a different reason. Exhaustion seeped into the core of his muscles. He was angry! He had suffered! He was weary. He was tired. He bowed his head and allowed Jack to pull him into a hug. He clutched the back of Jack’s shirt with hands wishing for peace. He was weary. He was tired.

“Please don’t,” Jack repeated, and now the Rose Thief could hear the pain in his voice. The Rose Thief wasn’t the only one suffering now. But “don’t” asked a lot of him. It made his head feel heavy. Don’t loath him. Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t do this to me, to us. Jack’s voice rumbled deep in his chest, and the Rose Thief closed his eyes against it. “We will figure it all out.”

Ryan coughed once, awkward but needing attention. “I’ve scried as far as my power would allow. The prince is nowhere within the boundaries of my ward.”

“It is as I thought, then,” King Geoff said gravely. Jack pulled away from the Rose Thief and allowed Michael to hold him in his stead. “Where do you think he has gone?”

Ryan shook his head. “That, I do not know. The scouts may soon arrive with a clue.”

Indeed, soon after he said that, one of the lieutenants returned, speeding down the stairs. When he reached the bottom, he bowed deeply, and took a moment to catch his breath.

“Your majesty,” he said finally. “I checked the stables, and the prince appears to have packed up his horse and taken it.”

“Great,” said the king flatly. “He might have gone anywhere.”

“That’s not all I discovered, your majesty,” said the lieutenant. “The horse meant for the guest is also gone, and one of the stable boys tells me he left for his journey a few days early.”

Something clicked in the Rose Thief’s mind, and he jerked his head up. “My double! He said he was headed for home.”

“Home…?” Ryan muttered. “Regardless, he must be heading south towards the End. I fear that our prince may have decided to follow him.”

“But that’s a suicide mission alone!” Jack cried.

“Yes,” said the king softly. “But noble.”

There was a great pause. Part of the Rose Thief—a significant part—wanted to just let the prince ride to his certain death. But he knew his family would never be happy that way. Not without resolution. But damn it all, he just got home!

Jack squared his shoulders. “I will go after him,” he announced.

“No!” Geoff cried immediately. He marched forward towards Jack. “Absolutely not! We’ll send someone else, we’ll send…”

“My king,” Jack said firmly. “Please allow me to do this. Someone who knows what has happened must go. I have sworn to protect the prince, and he might trust me yet. Anyone else might not have the required influence.”

“So then we send…”

“Geoff,” Jack said. The king shook his head, and seemed unsure what to do with his gesturing hands. “Listen to me. One person can move faster than even two. He’s probably chasing after Ray, but we’re not certain. If they’re going to the End, then on the slim chance they make it there before I catch up, then we need a non-magical person. I am the best choice.”

Geoff searched Jack’s eyes. He sighed a heavy sigh. His hooded eyes drooped, and he looked at one of his hands. He plucked one of his many rings off his thumb, one with a wide yellow-gold band and a round, faceted emerald. He lifted Jack’s right hand and slid it onto his middle finger. Then he folded his hand over Jack’s, and lifted his eyes again. They flittered in the dim torchlight.

“Go, then,” he said slowly. “Bring our prince back safe.”

Jack searched Geoff’s eyes, his face grim. Then he nodded sharply, and slipped his hand from Geoff’s. He strode out of the room without a backwards glance.


 

Prince Gavin seemed convinced that people were hot on his tail. He urged Ray to adopt a quicker speed, at least initially to make up for the time lost talking. They rode at a quick trot, the rain smacking their faces, Spirit and Gavin’s horse Sunstepper side by side. The woods around them thickened but allowed the road to stretch onwards undisturbed. Several roads branched away from the path, but Gavin led the way confidently. When they passed these alternate routes, a few wolves flitted across the path not taken to dive back into the undergrowth.

Ray wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Gavin finally allowed the horses to slow to a more manageable trot. At this pace, Gavin twisted in his saddle to pick his dagger off the side of his horse and sheath it at his lower back. He attached his quiver to his belt and carried his bow now, but left his sabre tied to his saddle bags. Ray lightly touched his own rapier, but did not share Gavin’s tense alertness.

The ride was uncomfortably silent. Ray didn’t feel much like making conversation with Gavin the traitor, and the prince made no attempts to speak either. After what must have been a few hours of riding, they stopped at the side of the road for a light meal. On this part of the road, the forest receded a little bit, allowing for a short strip of grass and leaves between the dirt road and the tree line. They let the horses nuzzle the ground, and they themselves found a relatively dry patch of land underneath one of the trees.

They were soon joined by the wolves. Most of the pack remained hidden, but Ray could occasionally see a brown face with yellow eyes peeking out of the bushes at him. The white wolf showed himself completely and lay down several paces away in front of the tree line. Gavin was at first jittery and on edge with the presence of the wolves, but when the wolves continued to nothing aggressive, he reluctantly relaxed a little. When Gavin finished eating, he took out a whetstone and began scraping it along his dagger blade. Ray took his time, relishing the chance to stretch his legs.

“I haven’t seen a single beast other than those bloody wolves,” Gavin remarked suddenly.

“Have some respect,” Ray said crossly. Gavin flinched and slouched again. Ray did feel a little bad at that, but any guilt was quickly squashed by resurfacing anger. Gavin didn’t deserve pity. “What’s so unusual here?”

“We’re outside Ryan’s ward,” Gavin told his whetstone. “And it’s rather dark because of the rain. Usually there’s more… adversaries.”

“Right.” Of course. Minecraft. He wasn’t just in a different universe, he was in a universe based on a game. How could he have forgotten? He glanced over at the white wolf and watched the beast scratch his face for a few moments. “Do you think the wolves are keeping them away?”

Gavin shrugged, intent on his sharpening. “I suppose it’s not impossible,” he said. “That would be weird though.”

Another pause. “What was it you called the white wolf? Biscuit?”

“Beskytter,” Gavin said absentmindedly, dragging the whetstone over his dagger in long, slow strokes. “The people gave him that name. He’s the only white wolf in his pack. Seems a bit bigger than the others too, more prone to leading them. Folks like to make him mythic or something, but he’s only a bloody wolf…”

Ray pursed his lips. He could still see the spot on the wolf’s hindquarters where Gavin’s arrow had struck him, not quite so long ago. “Then why were you hunting him?” Ray asked, judgment seeping into his tone and making it dry and flat. Gavin stopped sharpening his blade, but he didn’t look up. There was a subtle change in his posture, and he seemed to hang his head lower.

“I thought he was a bit of a problem. I mean, he did lead his pack to attack livestock all the time. But I guess I… wanted to prove he wasn’t so mighty. He’s—just a wolf.”

“I see,” said Ray venomously, watching as Beskytter raised his head and looked at him. “It’s more of your fucking pride. Being so full of yourself and needing to prove it.”

Gavin wedged his dagger into the ground and twisted it. “Yes,” he agreed, watching his dagger churn up dirt. “You’re right.”

Ray let that sit for a while. He took no joy from watching Gavin wither in front of him. It wasn’t fun, having this power over the prince, over this shadow of his friend. But it was not the time for mercy. Not at all. He looked back at Beskytter, watched the wolf lick his forepaws.

“I think he likes me,” Ray said finally. “Biscuit.”

“Beskytter,” Gavin corrected automatically. He was watching the road now, carefully avoiding looking at Ray. “That’s…” He stopped himself. Ray guessed he was about to say something like “That’s stupid.” Instead, Gavin asked, “Why do you say that?”

“Well, he had the chance to kill me twice, and he didn’t.”

Gavin chewed on a nail as he became very interested in the trees across the road. “Doesn’t seem like very high standards.”


 

Several hours had passed since the prince’s flight was confirmed. All of the guards in the castle and castle grounds were informed of the Rose Thief’s innocence, but they were not told why, and they were sworn to secrecy. The public did not know yet. As such, the Rose Thief was essentially under house arrest. Not that he minded, for now—he was home, and he could forgive it a little while if it meant free roam of his castle.

The Rose Thief retreated with Michael to Michael’s room. They spent the hours there, undisturbed. They sat on the bear rug in front of the fireplace and chatted, catching up on the last five years somewhat. Sometimes Michael’s hand flitted over to touch the Rose Thief’s knee, or hand, or arm, but it was as if he was suddenly shy.

And then Michael yawned, and the Rose Thief smiled gently.

“Tired?” he asked in a soft voice.

Michael raked his fingers through his hair. “No, it’s just—well I guess you could say that, actually. I’m sorry. I keep thinking of Gavin.”

The Rose Thief pressed his lips together and let himself think about his words before blurting anything stupid. “It’s… quite a shock, to say the least.”

Michael shook his head, his gaze downcast as a sheepish grin tugged at his mouth. “Yeah. I was… furious. When I found out. But now I’m just… tired.”

The Rose Thief held out his arms, and Michael scooted into them. He held Michael’s head to his chest, and bent his cheek to rest it on Michael’s hair. He missed this. These physical moments. Sure, the topic of conversation could be better. Maybe things were a little awkward. But he missed Michael’s voice, his companionship. And it was clear to him that Michael had missed his.

“I’m sorry,” Michael said again.

“Why are you sorry?”

“I’m still… I’m so fucking glad you’re here again, but… I can’t stop thinking about him, now. In your absence, I did love him. And just as a part of me always loved you, even when you were… gone and betrayed, a part of me refuses to let go of him now.” His shoulders shuddered, and the Rose Thief realized he was holding back tears. “I’m fucking stupid. I can’t fucking let go, even though I know I should.”

“You’re not stupid,” the Rose Thief said automatically, but he meant it. He took a moment to respond further. Personally, he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive Gavin. He couldn’t be blamed for that. But Michael… Michael was having a harder time. And he could understand it—it was a hard blow, learning of Gavin’s betrayal. It was all so bewildering. Unfeasible. Still, he was furious. But Michael…

“You’re not stupid,” he said again, stroking Michael’s hair. They were both flawed. The Tower knows he didn’t want to feel resentment for another several years. And here, Michael couldn’t seem to believe the wickedness in those close to him again. “You need time to process it. We all do.”

Michael sighed and shifted, putting more of his weight and body against him. His anger smoldered, but Michael’s heart bruised.

Chapter Text

Gavin urged them onwards. Ray was not pleased to get back on the horse, as gentle as Spirit was, but Gavin was restless. He tapped his arm repeatedly and checked the road behind him every few seconds until they were moving again. The wolves disappeared back into the brush. Ray admired their endurance, and wondered how large their territory was. How long would they stick with them? Surely not until the End.

Gavin allowed them to stop only when it was well after dark. The rain had finally stopped, perhaps an hour before, but the sky was still overcast. The trees were thinner here, the underbrush sparser. He told Ray that they would rest only a few hours. Ray didn’t see the point in arguing, and settled back with a cape rolled up under his head.

He slept lightly, but still he dreamed, shallow but strong. He was back on the mountaintop, the flat rock crowded with the milling wispy shadow of unnaturally tall, lanky people. Kdin stood at the edge of the mountaintop, and Ray couldn’t seem to focus on him. All he could comprehend was purple cloth and flashes of gold. Near Kdin was a second figure, one Ray couldn’t identify, but could only see a shock of red, a body of black fabric.

The shadows pressed closer. Ray’s limbs felt like ice, and he couldn’t move. He thought he could feel a third presence, watching him, but he couldn’t see anyone else.

Ray opened his mouth and it took him too long to speak. It was like he was trying to speak around a pillow stuffed into his mouth. “Send me back!” he cried. “You brought me here! Send me back! Kdin!”

Kdin’s voice rang in his head, and though he covered his ears and winced, it did not get any quieter. “Yes, I brought you here. But there is use for you yet.” Kdin’s voice turned muffled now, like several doors had closed between the two of them. “I said come alone. But perhaps I shall have a gift for your friend.”

Something bright sparked to the right of Ray. He looked and was blinded by white light. Hot air blasted across his skin.

He awoke, sweating and breathing heavily. The air was cool, and a clean breeze brushed across Ray’s face. The world was gray with a dawn that had not yet broke. Gavin sat with his back against a nearby tree, one hand propped on a bent knee, and watched Ray with pain in his eyes. A sharp pinch in his palm alerted Ray to the mirror shard in his fist. With great effort, he opened his fingers and let the shard fall to the earth. Ray sat up and rubbed at his face before looking back to the prince. Red and purple shadows darkened the skin under Gavin’s eyes. Ray did not think he slept at all.

“Another bad dream?” Gavin asked quietly.

Ray’s heart skipped a beat, and he shivered, hugging his knees to his chest. “It’s nothing,” he said. It was just a stupid dream. But it made him… fear for Gavin. He shouldn’t have let the treacherous prince tag along. He shouldn’t let him ride to his death with him.

But no. Gavin had to atone for what he did one way or another. Ray closed his eyes and put his forehead to his knees. He didn’t want to look at him. He heard bushes shake, and knew the wolves were watching. He inhaled deeply, and let his breath out slowly. He should have sent Gavin back. He should have tried harder. Why did he let Gavin tag along?

“If you say so,” said Gavin. The prince grunted, and with some shuffling, Ray heard him stand. “We have to keep moving,” he said, haltingly, his voice starting to waver. “Ray? Please?”

Ray jumped to his feet. “Fine,” he snapped. “If that’s what you want.”

They rode on again. The clouds obscured the dawn, and the air around them only slowly brightened. There was no conversation between them for a long time. Gavin seemed to have accepted the wolves has protectors, and spent his hours with his eyes downcast, occasionally stroking his horse’s pale mane.

Ray couldn’t exactly explain it, but he felt terrible, watching the prince be so meek. Gavin had been proud, so proud, and now his character showed sharp contrast. Had it really been the right thing to do? Was Ray right to take that power and use it to shatter Gavin’s lie? He tightened his grip on Spirit’s reins. He had been tasked to do it by someone who had been wronged by Gavin’s past actions. This was justice. This was justice.

He squeezed his eyes shut tight and bowed his head. Gavin had been kind to him during his stay, even if initially it was begrudgingly. And his lie… it hadn’t affected him. Not directly. It was his doppelgänger’s burden, but he had taken it because no one else could. He was angry on behalf of people he felt he knew, but he only knew their counterparts. Prince Gavin had been the only one to comfort him as he struggled. Prince Gavin had done wrong. This was justice.

“Why did you insist on coming with me?” Ray asked suddenly. The prince slowly turned his head, his bangs hanging into his eyes. “Do you really think helping me will redeem you?”

“That is not in my power to know,” said the prince. He looked back at his horse’s mane. His voice trembled. “I can’t ask you to name a task, and simply have me complete it to achieve redemption. It is others who will decide if I have succeeded in proving my shame and repentance.”

“You probably won’t get there,” Ray said. He didn’t expect either of them to reach the end of the journey, really.

“I know,” said Gavin.

“Then why try at all?” Ray pressed.

Gavin looked at him again, his eyes rimmed with red and the shadows under his eyes seemingly darker. “Because I made a mistake, and it affected everyone I love most. And I covered it up, because I was selfish, because I was cowardly. This is all I can do to help make it right, though I don’t think it ever will be again. Not completely.”

Ray chewed his lip and looked down the road ahead of them. The prince had five years of guilt to make up for. But would he ever reach redemption? If he did, will he have learned his lesson? He lied for five years, and who knows what other grand lies he had told in the rest of his life. What if he lied right up until someone declared him redeemed?

“And I’m still a coward,” Gavin said softly. “I can’t even face them. What a fool I am.”

Ray didn’t say anything.


  

The Rose Thief eased into wakefulness, waking with luxurious slowness that he had not truly known for many years. The sheets were soft, and he curled his fingers into them as he pressed his cheek into his pillow and breathed deeply. The bed had that distinct smell that was incomparable, and could only be described as Michael’s scent.

He reached out to the side, but the second body was not there, the bed still half-warm where the body should have been. It was then that he was aware of the sound of footsteps, of bare feet tapping across stone floor. From the windows, to the base of the bed, back again, back again. Pacing. He blinked his eyes open and pushed himself into a sitting position.

Michael watched the floor in front of him, pacing back and forth, his curly hair a tangled mess. One arm bent across his bare chest to grip the other elbow; his other hand held his chin. All he wore was what he wore to bed: a pair of faded yellow pants.

“Are you still thinking about Gavin?” he asked. Michael stopped his pacing, halfway between the bed and the windows. The gray of morning formed no square of light on the floor, but still illuminated the room well enough.

“You could say that,” Michael admitted, finally. “But it’s…” He trailed off.

The Rose Thief drew some of the sheets back over his lap. “You don’t have to feel so guilty,” he said, one hand toying with the cool fabric until it grew warm. “I understand.”

“It’s not that!” Michael blurted, resuming his pacing. Now his fingers were entangled in his hair, and he watched his feet. “It’s not that.”

The Rose Thief sought another cool patch of sheets to toy with. “Then what is it? Michael, talk to me. I don’t like seeing you distressed.”

Michael’s pacing took him back to the bed, and he gripped the metal baseboard. His eyes searched the Rose Thief’s face, narrowed as if in pain. “It’s just… I’m not sure if I should tell you. If I’m allowed to tell you.”

The Rose Thief pursed his lips at that. His hand tightened on the sheets, the fabric forming hills and valleys under his fist. What a thing to wake up to. “I will not have secrets kept from me, Michael,” he said.

Michael came around the corner of the bed and sat on the side. The Rose Thief kicked off the sheets and slid over next to him. Michael picked up his hand and kissed the back of it almost absentmindedly as he stared distantly out the windows.

“I’m sorry,” said Michael. “And secrets shouldn’t be kept from you. But they didn’t tell you earlier, when you returned, so I…”

“Michael.”

Michael looked at him now. His expression had softened, but tenseness still showed in his brow. “They didn’t tell you the other part of it. That Geoff knew it wasn’t you.”

“Oh.”

The Rose Thief stared at his knees now. After the shock of Gavin, this additional information just made him feel sort of… empty. He wasn’t sure how to digest it. It meant that the king had also lied. It meant that the king had been a passive player in Gavin’s scheme. He supposed he should feel angry about that too, but he couldn’t muster up the emotion. He felt Michael’s hand rub across his shoulders, massage the back of his neck. Carefully avoiding touching the scars.

“Well,” said the Rose Thief. “Surprised the king didn’t run off with the prince.”

“Gavin didn’t know either, until he confessed,” Michael said. “Geoff regrets it very much, he says.”

“Glad to know he’d choose Gavin over me. Glad to know the law has no power over royalty.”

“Ray…”

The Rose Thief stood suddenly, and Michael’s hand dropped away. He strode to the window, leaning on the still and pressing his hands into the stone. He put his forehead against the glass and looked out onto the gardens below. A gardener was amongst the rose bushes, ripping off dead leaves and slicing stems with a short knife.

“I know,” said the Rose Thief. “I know. He couldn’t lose his prince, so he played the game. I fucking know.”

“Please don’t be mad at Geoff,” Michael said hoarsely. “He tried to protect his only heir. I can’t… I can’t have my family so…”

The Rose Thief sighed loudly and closed his eyes. “Looks like his only heir is gone anyway.”

“Jack’s going to get him back,” Michael insisted. The Rose Thief looked over his shoulder. Michael had put his head in his hands. “We’ll—we’ll fucking sort this out.”

The Rose Thief put his back to the window and rubbed his eyes. Michael’s family was breaking in front of him, and he wasn’t able to do anything about it in the current situation. The Rose Thief wouldn’t be one of those who encouraged it. He knew that, now, Michael would likely choose him over the others, but he also knew Michael couldn’t bear to have to make that choice again. He couldn’t do that to Michael. He suddenly wished he could take back all the bitter words he had uttered that morning already. He hated this venom inside of himself.

“Yes,” he said, his voice flat. “We’ll… figure something out.”


 

 Ray and Gavin rode for a few more hours in total silence.

The clouds thinned but were unrelenting in their coverage of the sky. Occasionally the air brightened enough for a faint shadow underneath the horses and trees lining the road, but then the sun would retreat again behind a thicker part of the clouds. And then, finally, visible further down the road, perhaps just a mile, the trees scattered and became sparse, eventually transforming into rolling hills.

It was here that several wolves darted in front of the horses again, forcing the two of them to stop. Most of them disappeared back into the trees and bushes, but a few of them remained and sat on the dirt facing Ray and Gavin. Gavin clucked his tongue and put a hand on Sunstepper’s golden neck.

“What is it now?” the prince hissed, but then bit his lip and glanced at Ray. “We have to keep moving. Why are they stopping us?” he asked, now keeping the complaint out of his tone.

“I don’t fucking know,” Ray said, throwing his hands up. He leaned forward, bracing his hands against his saddle, before swinging one leg over Spirit’s back and sliding off her.

As he dismounted his horse, the great white wolf limped out of the bush, carrying something white and hard in his mouth. Beskytter sat in front of the darker wolves on the road and waited. Ray shared a confused expression with Gavin and walked in front of his horse to stand face to face with the white wolf.

The sun suddenly burst out of the clouds, throwing the world into bright daylight. Ray squinted, but kept his eye on the white wolf. Sitting, Beskytter’s head nearly came up to Ray’s chest. There was only a pace or two between the two of them. A cool wind slid across Ray’s face like silk and rippled across the wolves’ fur. Then, the white wolf lowered his head and placed his object on the ground.

It looked like a thick bracelet of some white material. Ray took a step forward, meaning to take it, but then Beskytter stood again. The wolf closed the distance between them with a measured trot. Ray barely had time to raise a hand towards Gavin, silently instructing him not to shoot as the prince’s hand lurched towards his bow, before Beskytter had jumped up and placed a front paw on each shoulder.

Ray staggered under the wolf’s weight, and he instinctively grabbed Beskytter’s chest to hold some of the weight and balance himself. He thrust his head back, exposing his neck as the wolf shoved his nose towards his face. Ray felt the wolf’s cold, slimy teeth brush against his skin.

He waited, keeping his breathing steady. His legs, and his arms, and his back began to burn with the effort of supporting the wolf. But he didn’t fear.

“Ray…” said Gavin, his hand still gripping his bow. “Are you okay? I don’t—know…”

“It’s fine,” said Ray. The wolf’s breath was hot. He didn’t fear, because he was more familiar with the wolf now. “Biscuit is saying goodbye.”

Almost as soon as he finished saying that, Beskytter withdrew his teeth and pushed away from Ray, landing back on all four paws. The wolf limped back towards his waiting pack. He paused, looking over his white shoulder, his amber eyes glittering at Ray. And then, he and the other wolves dashed into the forest and were gone.

“We must be at the edge of their territory,” Gavin said. “What a weird set of wolves.”

Ray massaged his neck as he walked towards the wolf’s gift. He picked up the bracelet and studied it. It was actually slightly off-white, tinted yellow, and was a complete circle, rounded, wide, and thick. Carvings interlaced across its outer surfaced, marred by numerous scratches, some obviously made by teeth.

“What’d Beskytter give you, anyway?” Gavin asked, dismounting his horse and approaching Ray.

“Some sort of bracelet?” Ray said with a shrug. He gave it to Gavin, who turned it over in his hands, using the tips of his fingers like he didn’t really want to touch it.

“What was a wolf doing with a bracelet of ivory?” ask the prince.

“Beats me.”

Gavin handed it back to Ray, chewing his lip. “Obviously, he wanted you to have it. A Mage would be able to tell you if it’s magic or not, but unfortunately, we’re a little short on those right now.”

Ray narrowed his eyes. He slipped the bracelet on his left wrist, forcing it over his knuckles. Otherwise, it fit perfectly. He strode right past Gavin back towards Spirit, and put a hand on the mare’s neck with the intent on climbing back in the saddle, but paused. He stared down the road, back towards where they came from, and shielded his eyes with his other hand.

A mile away, clear in the morning sunlight, a single man on horseback was riding like mad. Even from this distance, Ray could see the wet dirt kicked up by the horse’s hooves. He was aware of Gavin stepping up next to him, hands clasped with white knuckles in front of his chest as he stared. The prince’s whole body was trembling.

“Oh no,” Gavin whispered. “It’s Jack.”

Chapter Text

“We need to go,” Gavin said, his tongue starting to trip over his words. He lurched for Sunstepper’s saddle and reins, but his hands couldn’t seem to grab the strips of leather at first. “We have to go, we can’t let him catch up—Ray! He’ll take me back! He’ll take me back!”

Ray crossed his arms. His new bracelet pressed into his side. “I think we’ll wait,” he said.

Gavin threw the reins down and grabbed at Ray’s shoulder, pushing and pulling. Ray slapped his hand away and faced him in the same motion, eyes wide in sudden anger.

“Don’t touch me like that!” Ray spat. Gavin took a step back, cowed. He dry-washed his hands, which were shaking like mad.

“I’m sorry—Ray, please, he’s going to take me back, I—I can’t go back just yet. I haven’t…”

“I know,” Ray snapped. Gavin’s gaze flicked down, his bangs hanging in front of his eyes. “But we’re going to wait for him. It’s only Jack, it’s not like he brought an army with him. Besides, I don’t think we can outrun him at this point, if he caught up this quickly.”

Gavin gave a cry and clutched at his hair, falling to his knees and bowing his head down so low that it nearly touched the dirt. His golden horse stamped its feet and whinnied, tossing its head. Spirit started to wander, heading for the grass on the side of the road with her head hung low, her nose searching. Ray crossed his arms again and watched Jack approach.

When Jack realized they were waiting for him, he slowed his pace slightly, but he still thundered up the path and reined his horse in sharply. He rode a sturdy brown steed, a white star streaking down its nose. Jack had packed lightly, and wore plate armor under a loose brown and green sleeveless tunic, embroidered with a green star. His pair of throwing axes were strapped to the saddles, and his long battleax’s handle protruded over his shoulder.

The horse reared slightly with the suddenness of the stop, and Jack jumped off before the horse had even stopped moving. The horse snorted, its hide shiny with sweat.

“There you two are,” he said. He marched over to Gavin, still on the ground, without hesitating. He reached down and grabbed the prince’s arm, hoisting him up as Gavin squealed. “I’m taking you back to the castle.”

“No!” Gavin wailed, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet but struggling against Jack’s grip. He yanked his arm, but Jack planted his feet and didn’t let go. “You can’t take me back! Jack, stop—I order you to let me go!”

“Absolutely not!” Jack said. Gavin finally got his arm free, and he stumbled back. Jack swiped at him again, but the prince darted out of his reach. Ray watched, passive. He shouldn’t get involved in… family squabbles. “Gavin, get back here. Everyone’s waiting for me to return with you.”

“No!” Gavin cried, taking another step back. He massaged his arm where Jack had grabbed him. “I can’t go back yet!”

“Gavin! Tower…” Jack slapped his thigh and strode forward. Gavin scurried to the side and put Ray between them. Jack paused again. “Damn it, Gavin! We’re at a standstill because of you. You shouldn’t have left! We can’t move forward without you there!”

Jack feinted to one side, and then shoved past Ray when Gavin reacted predictably. Ray sidestepped Jack as he tackled Gavin to the ground, twisting the prince’s arm behind his back and holding him town. Gavin’s cheek pressed into the road, dirt sticking to his skin wetted by tears.

“I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said grimly. “Ray, on the left side of my saddle there’s some rope. Could you hand it to me, please?”

“Wait!” Gavin cried. “I have to help Ray, I—I promised!”

Ray pursed his lips, and didn’t move yet. Jack hesitated as well. Gavin jerked and squirmed under him suddenly, but Jack shoved him back down and kept his weight on him.

“Of course you did,” Jack said. “Ray, the rope?”

“I did!” Gavin insisted. His short breaths disturbed the dirt in front of his face, and his voice was thick. “I swore to him, Jack. I swore to him that I—that I would get him safely to the border of the Ender Kingdom. You have to let me go that far. I can’t break my oath, Jack, at least let me go to the border!”

Jack made a tsk down and glanced at Ray, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. It was mostly a lie, Ray noted. Gavin had insisted on coming with him, and Ray knew he meant to the end of the quest, not just to the border of Venator and the Ender Kingdom. Ray could tell Gavin was trying to buy more time with him. It was another lie.

Jack prompted, “The Ender Kingdom?”

Ray nodded. “I mean to find my way home. Kdin brought me here, he can send me back. Gavin—he promised to lead me through Venator. Give him a chance to redeem himself a little for his past actions. I said he could.”

“I see…”

Jack looked back at Gavin, staring at the back of the prince’s skull. The silence hung heavy among them, made the air feel like lead. Ray couldn’t believe he was helping Gavin lie again… but he still needed Gavin’s help, and Gavin was just so distraught. It was pitiful, seeing him pinned by Jack and unable to move. Ray honestly didn’t think he deserved such treatment before he even had the chance to complete his mission.

Finally, Jack got back to his feet. Gavin remained laying on the ground, as though disbelieving Jack’s action. He panted, struggling to regain his breath.

“Fine,” said Jack. He brushed off his tunic and turned back towards his horse. “But on two conditions. One, I am coming with you. I swore to protect you, Gavin, and I’m making sure you’re coming back after you’re done helping Ray to the border.” He paused. Gavin managed to push himself onto his hands and knees, still breathing quick and gasping. “Two, we’re stopping at Synnefa. It’s a town just over the hills there—you were planning on skirting around it, too, weren’t you Gavin?”

“What’s in Synnefa?” Ray asked before Jack could interrogate Gavin further. He was getting tired of this tension. He wanted it done. He wanted to be on his way. He wanted Gavin to stop being so pitiful.

“If I’m coming with you, I need to send a message back to the king,” Jack said, pointing over to the hills. “Synnefa has messenger birds. I must inform the king of the current situation, and that I will be back much later than intended.”

“Sounds good,” Ray said. Jack nodded curtly, and then turned back to his horsed to focus on adjusting one of his saddlebags. Ray walked over to Gavin. “Dude, get up. We’re going.”

Gavin stood, wiping at his face. Dirt smeared across his cheek, but most of it came away with his fingers. Ray patted some of the dirt off Gavin’s shoulder and leaned in close to speak in Gavin’s ear.

“This conversation isn’t over between you and me,” he hissed. Gavin nodded, keeping his eyes trained on Jack. Ray gave him one last brush and turned away.

They mounted their horses, and then the three of them were off.


 

After an hour of riding, they were forced to stop for a rest. Lapis, Jack’s horse, refused to go on further, and Jack admitted the horse needed a break, that he’d been driving her pretty hard recently. They took an hour, eating a light lunch and sitting in unbearable silence. Gavin avoided eye contact with Jack as much as possible, and sat huddled against a tree. Ray mostly watched the horizon, memorized the rolls of the hills they were about to cross over, and rubbed his thumb over the carving and scratches on the ivory bracelet.

Due to the delay, they didn’t reach Synnefa until the sun was dipping towards the horizon, in the late afternoon. They rode between some hills and crested several others, and at the tops of the taller ones they could see for miles. Beyond this area, the hills rapidly faded into flat farmland, with just a few hills plucked up from the earth far in the distance like the folds of a quilt. Finally they arrived at the base of what seemed to be both the tallest and the most southern one.

Synnefa was partially carved into the side of this hill, cobblestone pathways flat and winding, never too steep. A few houses speckled the side of the hill, partially dug into the dirt, with thick stilts crossing underneath them where they stuck out. The village proper was right at the crest of the hill, a bundle of buildings all crowded together.

At the bottom of the hill, a familiar man stood with his arms crossed in front of his stomach, tucked into the long sleeves. He wore a snug gray vest embroidered in emerald and gold, and black pants tucked into worn leather knee-high boots. His shirt was undyed linen, but his billowy sleeves were edged in gold ribbon. His shoulder-length black hair was tugged by the wind that pushed between the hills.

“Greetings!” Jon said, raising his hand to wave as they approached. His sleeves only barely covered the tips of his fingers when they hung at his side. “I recognized Sir Jack, and Your Highness Prince Gavin, but who is this third?”

“Ray,” said Jack impatiently when it was clear neither Gavin nor Ray were going to answer. “I didn’t know you were in Venator.”

Jack and Gavin dismounted their horses, and Ray followed their lead. Jon grimaced and gestured, starting to lead them up one of the paths.

“Yeah… Been here a few years now. It’s—embarrassing really. You misread the clouds one time and suddenly five lords and their knights are pissed.”

Gavin raised an eyebrow and snorted. “Must’ve been a really bad one time.”

Ray eyed him and realized he was standing straight again, his chin held proudly. The way he kept glancing at Ray, however, told him it was an act. To prove it further, when Jon turned his attention to the road in front of them, Gavin dropped his shoulders again and shot Ray an apologetic look. Ray shrugged, and Gavin relaxed visibly. He didn’t really care if Gavin wanted to act like nothing horrible had happened around outsiders. In fact, he preferred it. It meant questions wouldn’t have to be asked, and situations could be much less awkward.

“So what brings you three to Synnefa?” Jon asked. “I knew three people from the castle would be out this way today, but I wouldn’t expect to see the prince out this far without several more guards. Unless this Ray has some hidden talent. But I don’t read any magic on him?”

“Castle business,” Jack said. “We need to send a message, though.”

“Of course. And then stay the night at the inn, I presume?”

The road was angling upward, still not terribly steep, but Ray saw why they got off their horses. He was going to be so out of breath by the time they made it to the top. He was glad he wasn’t expected to take part of the conversation just yet. He focused on leading Spirit and not stumbling on the cobblestone.

“Preferably,” answered Jack. “At this point, we wouldn’t get far into the plains before we’d need to stop for the night.” Seemed good to Ray. He’d appreciate sleeping in a bed tonight—for the whole night. Who knows when that would happen next?

Jack and Jon walked side by side, and Gavin hung back next to Ray. Behind Jon’s back, Gavin resumed his slouched, meek stature, and watched the two men ahead of him with vague interest.

“Hey,” said Ray in a low voice. “Gavin. Is Jon a… Mage?” He felt silly for asking, but Gavin nodded.

“Yeah. Used to live in Roosterteeth, but I didn’t realize he had moved down here.”

“Didn’t realize…? You guys seem to know each other though.”

Gavin shrugged, and gave Sunstepper’s nose a pat when the steed tossed his head. “Yeah, I mean, the royalty in both our countries know all the officially trained Mages between us. But he’s pretty weak, and weak Mages tend to live in towns, serving lesser titles rather than living in the castle. They don’t tend to be closely monitored by the kings, is what I’m getting at.”

“You say weak… I thought all Mages had unlimited power.”

“Well… sort of. It’s um… Look, this isn’t my expertise, but I always thought of it as like ponds. They’re all different sizes, and you could take buckets out and it wouldn’t seem to get any shallower. But some still have more water than others. Even the weakest mage has more power than those who need spells tattooed into their skin, though. And you can train it a little, you know, expand your pond over time.”

“…Sure.”

Ray thought he got it. He compared it to video games in his mind, where different characters would have different mana bars. Levelling up increased the amount of mana the character had, and the character could learn any multitude of spells. But he couldn’t ask Prince Gavin if his metaphor was close to the mark.

His lungs started to burn. They were maybe halfway up the hill, and Ray resisted the urge to groan. He raked his fingers through his hair and glimpsed at the white bracelet on his arm.

“Do you think he’d know if this bracelet does anything?” he asked Gavin.

The prince shrugged, his eyes boring into Jon’s back. “Maybe. I doubt it. But who knows what a Mage knows until you ask them?”

Ray didn’t speak for the rest of the trip up the hill, gasping too hard to make conversation worthwhile. None of the others seemed as winded. Soon they were passing the first houses, small buildings with walls of smooth white stone and clay, the roofs shingled red. A few narrow and bent trees tossed shade over the crisp emerald grass. The higher they climbed, the windier it got, which Ray was thankful for.

The number of buildings increased. Then, suddenly, the path flattened out entirely, and widened into a flagstone main street. Signs swung from posts over shop doors, proclaiming mostly in pictures what one could find inside. Most were shops of some king, though some seemed to just be houses, and the whole street had a small crowd of people going in and out of the shops. They stopped at a building with a crescent moon and three clouds on its sign.

Jack stepped inside, instructing Ray and Gavin to wait with the horses. Jon waited with them and rocked on his heels.

“You seem awfully familiar,” Jon said to Ray. Ray’s face flushed warm, and he looked down the street. “But I can’t place it.”

“I get that a lot.”

Jon paused, humming to himself. “I’ve probably just seen someone who looks like you.”

A few people passed by, men and women in brown and pale clothing with shocks of green. Anyone who made eye contact with Jon bowed their heads and hailed him as “Master Mage” or “Master Cloud Reader.”

“Hey,” said Ray. “Jon. You’re a Mage, right? Some wolves gave me this bracelet…”

“Some wolves? A gift from…? Well, that’s something you don’t hear every…”

Jon’s words choked off when Ray held up his wrist. His eyes went wide. Ray frowned and glanced at Gavin, who shrugged.

“You didn’t tell me it was bone,” Jon said accusingly.

“So you know about this bracelet?”

Jon shook his head, his black hair whipping against his cheek, and he raised his hands defensively. “No. Not specifically. All I know is that you don’t work with bone. Not if you’re any decent Mage.”

“Why?” pressed Gavin.

Jon shook his head more. “Look, bone wasn’t my focus. I barely touched upon it in my studies, and you’re in the wrong town for that kind of research. All I know is that it’s bad luck, and it’s not decent. And you got that from wolves? I don’t want anything to do with that bracelet.”

Okay,” Ray said, withdrawing his wrist and folding his other hand over the bracelet. “Jeez, alright. Sorry I asked.”

At that moment, Jack came back out from the inn with two young men in brown clothing at his heels. At Jack’s direction, the strangers took their horses and led them around the side of the building, presumably to a stable. If Jack knew or inferred that an awkward exchange had just happened, he didn’t show it. He gestured at the three of them to get moving, and they started down the street.

“I got us a room with three beds,” Jack said. “We’ll stay the night and leave at dawn. I intend to get this journey over with as soon as possible.”

“I’m afraid I have to leave you once I show you to the messenger birds,” Jon said. “Business, you know. But before you leave Synnefa, let me read the clouds for you.”

Ray didn’t really know what that meant, despite this “reading of clouds” being mentioned several times now. Did he see the future in the clouds? Regardless, Jack accepted it graciously, and agreed to meet Jon at the southern exit of Synnefa.

The messenger birds were housed in a square tower on the western edge of the hill. It was unlike the other buildings in Synnefa, made up of smooth but separate stones, held together with some sort of cement-like material. Narrow glassless windows dotted the sides. It was partially into the side of the hill, its entrance a few yards downhill, and Jon stopped before the path dipped down.

“This is where I leave you for now,” he said. His gaze swept across the three of them, and paused on Ray. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Ray shivered under his gaze, and when Jon turned away and Jack started heading down the hill, Gavin patted Ray’s shoulder and squeezed. Ray stiffened under his touch, and Gavin quickly took his hand away. Jack paused at the entrance, an unpainted wooden door.

“You two don’t need to come in with me,” he said. “Stretch your legs a little, enjoy the sunlight. I’ve yet to actually write the letter itself, and it’ll be smelly and cramped in there.”

Ray shrugged, and the prince didn’t say anything. “Whatever,” said Ray. “I don’t feel like stepping in bird shit anyway.”

Jack grinned and then disappeared inside the tower. The door creaked shut, and had to be yanked back into its frame. Ray and Gavin moved a little further downhill, stepping off the path to sit under a tree, its green leaves fanning out above them. The grass was long here, and small white wildflowers dotted the western side of the hill. The sun was dipping towards the horizon, but the sky had yet to redden with dusk.

Smaller hills plucked up from the earth and faded into plains and farmland. There wasn't anywhere like this that Ray had seen in his world. His chest ached like it was hollow, and he ripped at the grass at his side. The mirror hadn't shown him Michael or anyone during the journey so far, and he wondered if he'd ever get the chance to say goodbye. Or get the chance to see Michael one last time before facing a dragon and a Mage. He missed the city. He missed his home and job. He missed his friends and Michael. Michael, even though he wasn't sure where they stood yet in their relationship. 

He shook his head. He had to focus on the present. One step at a time.

Ray let the wind cool his face for a while before speaking again. Gavin had his knees pulled up into his chest and his chin resting upon his arms, staring out at the landscape in front of them. 

“I’m not going to help you lie again,” Ray said.

The prince winced and didn’t look at Ray. “I didn’t want to,” he said after a beat. His voice sounded tight. “Not to Jack. But I can’t leave you, Ray. Not yet.”

Ray licked his lips and looked out at the hills. He thought he saw a black shape, but it was gone as soon as he saw it. A trick of light and shadow. But he had an idea, and it seemed perfect to him. He regretted bringing Gavin along, because he didn’t think it was right for him to lead another person into such danger. Neither of them really deserved that. But the prince still had a promise to fulfill, and redemption to seek. So…

“It doesn’t have to be a lie,” Ray said. “You’ll do as you said. I’m sure you’re intending on ditching Jack at the border, but you won’t be doing that. You’ll take me to the edge of the Ender Kingdom, and you’ll turn around and head back to the castle with Jack. To deal with your mistake. You understand?”

“I—yes, I do,” Gavin said. He did look at Ray now, his chin hidden by his arm. “You’re right, I had been hoping to do that. Why can’t we?” He dropped his arms, pushing his hands into the grass to twist towards Ray. “My oath, my quest, it lies with you. I…”

No,” Ray snapped, glaring. Gavin withered. “Don’t argue this. I’m not helping you deceive your friends and family again. Haven’t you fucking learned? Haven’t you learned from your past mistakes already?”

Gavin threw himself back onto the grass and covered his face with his hands. “Oh, why do you have to be right,” he groaned. Ray took a deep breath, wishing the burning poison in his heart would die down. He hadn’t meant to lash out at Gavin like that, he had meant to be stern and stubborn. Strict, not mean.

“Do you think it will be enough, though?” Gavin asked, his voice quiet and slightly muffled by his hands. He uncovered his face and folded his hands over his chest as he turned his head towards Ray. His eyes gleamed. “Escorting you through Venator. Ray, I—I won’t argue anymore, but I fear it won’t be enough. I’ll just be a fool who ran away, and didn’t even do anything to excuse that except cowardice and shame.”

Ray sighed and lay back down on the grass, squinting up at the bright sky through the leaves. “I don’t know, Gavin,” he said. “That’s something you’ll have to find out yourself. I don’t intend to stick around, one way or another.”

A white dove fluttered out of one of the windows of the tower and then flew over them, a blue ribbon attached to one of its feet and trailing behind it as it turned towards north. Distantly, they heard the wooden door creak open. A few seconds later, Jack was calling down to them, waving.

“Hey boys,” he said. “Who’s ready for a nice hot bath at the inn?”

Chapter Text

Ray was back on the shorn mountain top, but the world was blurry and dark. Two figures stood in front of him, at the other side of the flat rock, just two messes of color like he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Once more, he felt a third presence, but couldn’t see where it came from. His joints felt like cement, his jaw clamped tight, and he couldn’t move or speak.

“You’re building a little army now aren’t you?” crooned Kdin. The voice was right in his ear, but still sounded far away and full of static like an old telephone. “More lambs to the slaughter?”

Ray tried to squeeze his eyes shut, but the motion didn’t work. A woman’s laughter pealed across the mountains, familiar and terrible and cruel. You just want to bring them all down with you! Kdin’s voice echoed, voiceless but loud. A screech, like an eagle’s perhaps, but fuller, larger, from everywhere at once. And then the scene around him grew saturated, the colors bleeding together and then bleaching white. The white stretched away into black, and then Ray was gasping awake.

His left hand was gripping another hand so hard his arm hurt, and he felt the bones grate underneath his palm. He blinked rapidly, finally taking in the wooden ceiling above him and Gavin kneeling next to his bed. He released Gavin’s hand and scrambled back to sit at the head of the bed, still trying to catch his breath. Jack slept soundly on the other side of the small room, a lumpy blur to Ray’s eyes.

“Y-you were squirming and gasping in your sleep,” said Gavin quietly, shaking out his hand. “And--when I got the shard out of your grip, you grabbed my hand instead.”

Ray rubbed his face. The mirror shard lay on the mattress, glittering in front of where the prince knelt. The inn’s room was just big enough for three beds, a washing stand, and a fireplace, in which dying embers still glowed. There had been a mirror, but they had it removed, remembering too clearly the time Ray nearly got pulled through one. Gavin stood up. His face was pale in the flickering embers’ light as he massaged one hand with the other.

“I’m sorry if I stepped out of line,” Gavin mumbled.

“No,” said Ray. He took a deep breath and looked at the prince. “Thanks.” Gavin flashed him a smile, but the expression quickly fell from his face.

Ray opened his mouth to speak again when a flicker of movement from the mirror caught his eye. The mirror no longer reflected the rough wood of the ceiling, but Michael stood, his face angled away as he pointed at the computer screen in front of him. Ray lurched for the mirror shard, and Gavin hovered, watching with wide-eyed interest.

Michael in the mirror—Ray’s Michael—fuck, it had only been three days for Ray but it felt like forever. Michael’s head whipped around, and he dropped back into the chair, his face relaxing in relief. Ray’s Gavin appeared over Michael’s shoulder, to the curiosity of Prince Gavin. The prince pointed, and glanced at Ray, but didn’t say anything.

“Ray!” Michael cried through the mirror. “Thank fuck…”

“Shh,” Ray hissed, glancing at the sleeping Jack. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, but he didn’t want this Jack to wake up and join them. Maybe it was the way he treated the prince earlier, maybe it was something else. “You’ll wake, um, our friend.”

Michael frowned and narrowed his eyes in confusion, but didn’t press. No one know how much precious time they had at this moment. Mirror Gavin mimicked the prince, pointing at the screen.

“It’s me!” the two Gavins whispered at the same time. Ray waved his hand frantically, not willing to deal with their discovery of each other.

“I’m on route to a—possibility,” Ray said. “To get home. I don’t know if it will work. But I figure, either it’s going to work or I’m gonna fucking die.” His voice cracked on the last word, and tears sprung to his eyes. Both figures in the mirror looked pained—Michael’s eyes looked red and tired.

Mirror Gavin put his arm around Michael, who coughed once. “I spent so much fucking time in front of this computer,” he said, “that I got all the weird symbols that keep flashing across the screen down. Ryan thinks it’s a cipher, he’s back there trying to fucking translate it. I don’t fucking know what we can do, but…”

“It’s something,” Ray said.

“Don’t die, Ray,” said the Gavin in the mirror. His eyes flicked to the prince.

The mirror shut off, its glossy surface returning to normal. Ray squeezed it, then chucked it at the foot of his bed. It bounced and hit the footboard with a dull clatter. He pushed his palms against his eyes, as though trying to push the tears back.

He jumped when he felt a light hand on his shoulder.

“That was… your Michael?” the prince asked in a low voice.

Ray wiped at his eyes and pulled his knees into his chest. He folded his arms over his knees and rested his chin on them, staring at the embers of the fire. He nodded. Gavin sat on the edge of the bed, but didn’t touch Ray again. The prince’s hand instead curled on the sheets.

“They care about you deeply,” he said. Ray nodded again. Seeing Michael again had… hurt, surprisingly. He had expected relief, but Michael looked exhausted, and in pain. He had to get home. He had to. He squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t keep his best friend, his stubbornly compassionate and steadfast best friend, in pain like this. Oh, was it all even possible?

“I’m sorry you got tangled up in all this,” Gavin said. “I really am. You deserve to be—back home.”

Ray opened his eyes again and looked at the prince hunched on his bed. The shadows were deep under Gavin’s eyes, dark like bruises, as he stared at his lap.

“You should get back to bed,” Ray said with a sigh. He didn’t feel like talking about… home. And Michael. Not in the middle of the night. “I mean it,” he added, when Gavin only stared, showing no indication of following orders. “Get some rest.”

Gavin glanced away, over at Jack’s sleeping form.

“I can’t.”

Gavin twisted to look at Ray again, eyes glistening, brow drawn together. He just looked so exhausted. Impulsively, Ray leaned over and embraced Gavin. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and God knows he could use a hug at this moment. The prince didn’t seem to react in surprise at all—too tired?—and just melted into Ray’s hug.

Ray patted Gavin’s back and broke the hug. “At least go close your eyes,” he said.

Ray felt like there was something unspoken that needed to be spoken, something that Gavin wanted to say, but both of them were silent. Ray wasn’t going to pry. He had been mean enough to the prince already that day.

Finally, Gavin nodded. He stood and wandered over to his own bed, flopping down and laying still. His face angled away from Ray. Ray rubbed his eyes and lay down as well, turning his back to the rest of the room.

So much for a good night’s rest.


 

Morning dawned chill and pale. Ray was not ready to wake up, but Jack was shaking him relentlessly. After a quick breakfast in the inn’s kitchen, it was time to go.

They packed up and retrieved their horses from the stable around back, where the workers had already saddled them. Jack’s horse had more bags than before, apparently to hold some food purchased from the innkeeper. They led the horses back between the inn and the shop next door to the main street, then headed towards south. The flagstone ended in a circle with a low stone wall, almost like a balcony for the entire village, overlooking the rolling plains beyond. Cobblestone led downhill from that, eventually branching once or twice further down. Jon waited for them there, sitting on the low wall.

The morning was slightly chilly, and Ray rubbed his arms as the cool breeze tousled all their hair. Jon did not seem bothered by the wind, and did not give any clue as to how long he had been waiting. But the Mage stood when they approached, and greeted them with a small smile.

“Here to see you three off,” he said, reaching out and shaking Jack’s hand with a firm grasp. He glanced at Ray, his eyes flicking down to Ray’s wrist. Ray crossed his arms and tucked the ivory bracelet against his side. “I wish you safe and speedy travels, though I know not what your business is down south.”

“Thank you,” said Jack. Gavin busied himself with his horse, who was stepping and bouncing as if eager to be off. “Have you read the clouds for us, as you said you would?”

Jon nodded, and once more glanced at Ray, but didn’t let his gaze linger. “I have. I’ve done the best I can, though I must warn that clouds are very temperamental, and any method of divination is only somewhat reliable, really.”

“We’re well aware,” Gavin said suddenly, squaring his shoulders and jerking Sunstepper’s reins. The horse stood still again. Jon bowed, hiding his face from the prince’s impatience.

“Of course, you want to be off quickly. Well.” He straightened and smiled at Jack again. “You, my friend, will find a companion in an unlikely place, where you’ll least expect it and most need it.” He looked to Gavin. “For Your Highness, all they say is that you will go back. If I had more time, I could have been more specific, but that’s all I can read. There are some… blind spots making it harder on me.”

“Blind spots?” the prince asked. Ray noticed he was leaning forwards a little.

“Yes. I’m assuming it’s because your path is tightly intertwined with him.” He pointed at Ray, and Ray jumped. “I cannot see him at all.”

Jack and Gavin turned towards Ray. Ray hugged his arms closer to his chest and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Well that’s hardly surprising at this point,” he muttered.

“Thank you, Jon,” said Jack, inclining his head in a slight bow. “Your hospitality has been greatly appreciated, but we must be on our way now.”

“Of course,” said Jon, bowing lower and sweeping his arms out to the side. “May the Tower shine on you.”


 

The Rose Thief hesitated outside the king’s bedroom door. His cape hung heavy on his shoulders. He had slipped away from Michael after breakfast, and he knew the Captain would be angry with him later. He wasn’t going to keep his little visit a secret from Michael, but he also knew Michael didn’t want him to confront the king. They had discussed it briefly yesterday, but he had quickly stopped when Michael grew upset.

But he was still hesitating. He shouldn’t be. He was determined to confront King Geoff about his hand in his sentence and exile. He beat the base of his palm against his temple. So, then, why was he hesitating? Stupid, stupid! Just fucking do it!

Before he could hesitate again, his fist was pounding on the wooden door. He heard Geoff squawk on the other side, and before the king could finish saying “Come in,” the door swung open on its own underneath his hand. His fist hovered in the air, waiting to strike a door that was no longer there to meet it.

The king sat at his desk near the windows across from the door, but he said perpendicular on the chair, one arm slung over its back. He had taken off the majority of his royal garb, leaving him in an ocean green tunic with a scalloped hem, black pants, and black boots with the tops turned down at the calves. Ryan stood a few paces away from him, holding a silver hand mirror. He had evidently been staring out the window, but now he turned to look at the Rose Thief. His long sleeves split at the elbows, and he still wore his favored orange half-skirt. The Rose Thief bit his tongue at that. The Mage was so attached to his outdated fashion.

“Can I help you, Ray?” asked the king, just barely keeping the annoyance out of his voice.

 “I know about your hand in my exile. Michael told me.” His voice shook as he spoke, and he hated it. King Geoff’s eyes widened, then his eyelids drooped and he glanced at the corner of his desk. “Were you going to hide it from me forever?”

“No!” Geoff cried immediately. Then he sighed and stood. He walked over to one of the three plush armchairs in front of the fireplace and motioned for the Rose Thief to join him. The Rose Thief strode over to the chairs but didn’t sit down, electing instead to stand behind one. Ryan watched them both with a glittering eye.

“Look, Ray,” said the king. He looked at the Rose Thief now, square in the eye. “I should have told you upfront, I know. I hadn’t wanted to anger you further, when you learned about Gavin’s confession. I wasn’t sure when to tell you, but it seems you found out on your own anyway.”

“You wanted it,” he accused. “You wanted me gone.”

“No, I did not,” said the king. He didn’t raise his voice again, though he did blink more than normal. “I’m sorry things turned out like this, but I—I made mistakes of my own, five years ago. I pretended to have no clue who it was so that the dice might have fallen where they may, and it looks like you were the one who lost. I truly am sorry.”

“You were going to let me die!”

King Geoff closed his eyes and rubbed his chin as he looked back at the fireplace, unlit in the early morning. “No one wanted to see you die, Ray.”

He gripped the back of the chair, his fingers digging into the green cushion. “You lie! Your inaction nearly cost me my life!”

“He called off the guards early,” Ryan said suddenly. He whipped his head to glare at the Mage, his eyes burning. “When Kerry had gotten you out, he gave up the chase very quickly. I myself tripped many of the guards with some, ah, inconspicuous tree roots. I know Jack bumped into a few and ‘accidentally’ pushed them off balance.”

“For all the public knew, you were guilty of trying to kill me,” said King Geoff. “And, at least without my help, we couldn’t prove otherwise.”

He swallowed hard. “But I—still don’t understand why.”

Geoff shook his head slowly, and Ryan turned the mirror over in his hands. “I have no excuse,” said the king. “I was wrong. I am sorry.”

He blinked hard, wishing the tears would go away. He glared at the golden embroidery under his hands, scratched at it with his thumbs, feeling the resistance of the threads against his nails. Nothing made sense. Geoff had chosen his prince over him, and while he knew he should expect that of the king, he still resented that. He had wanted closure, confronting the king, but he just felt more confused. He felt like the less favored son.

A sharp tapping sounded from one of the windows. All three heads turned to find the source of the noise—a white dove with a blue ribbon tied to its leg, rapping its beak against the glass as it perched on the sill. Ryan, the nearest, lurched for the window and pulled it open. Geoff stood, a hand trailing on the armrest absentmindedly.

“A Synnefa messenger,” said the king breathlessly. “You said the other Ray was in Synnefa. I’m surprised it flew right here…”

Ryan nodded as he grabbed the dove. It cooed in Ryan’s hand, completely unbothered by being handled. It even stuck out its leg, showing off the note tied to it. Ryan took the note from the bird, then tossed it out the window. It fluttered, catching the wind beneath its wings, and flew up, seeking out the aviary in the castle.

“It’s from Jack,” said Ryan.

“Well, go on, read it already!” said the king. The Rose Thief waited, and they didn’t seem to mind that he stuck around.

Ryan cleared his throat and began reading. “‘My dearest king, I managed to catch up to the prince on a southern road. He has indeed joined up with the other Ray, who claims the Ender Mage can send him home. Regardless, Gavin tells me he made an oath to escort Ray to the border of Venator and the End, at which point he will return with me. I know he is lying to me. I think he intends to ditch me at the border, and seek at least honorable death fighting the dragon with Ray. I might suggest bringing backup, as I am not sure I will be able to stop him on my own. I do not wish to make him my prisoner. Give us a couple days head start, as I would not want whoever you send to catch up and make matters worse before we are ready. It is mostly the End I fear. Yours, Jack.’”

Ryan rolled the letter back up and looked at the king. Geoff curled his moustache with a thoughtful finger and leaned against the armchair.

“He’s asking for the army, in his cute way,” said the king with a small smile. Then the smile faded. “He’s essentially advising me to start the march on the Ender Kingdom soon.” He flicked his gaze up to Ryan. “We may need to bring everyone.” He glanced at the Rose Thief. “We’ll have to adapt. We can have our little reunion at the border.”

The Rose Thief pushed away from the chair and marched for the door, his cape billowing behind his steps. He was done here. Well, Geoff was done with him, and so he was done. But he heard the king’s voice behind him and he still stopped at the doorway.

“Ray,” called King Geoff. “That means you, too. I want you with us when we go.”

The Rose Thief breathed deeply and let out the air in a huff. If this was part of Geoff’s plan to make it up to him, it was an odd part—“hey, join the army as we march towards a battle!”—but he was being included. He saw that Geoff was trying, saw that Geoff still thought of him as family.

The Rose Thief glanced over his shoulder and nodded curtly before leaving.


 

The plains slipped by quickly. Fog lay in the sloping dips in the plains, but as the sun rose and warmed the air, it burned away the silver mist. There wasn’t much to look at, as the plains slowly leveled out to the flattest landscape Ray had ever seen. Occasionally a farmhouse would be spotted, miles away, but they never went near a building, and Ray didn’t see another village for a very long time.

Ray rode between Gavin and Jack, and they didn’t talk much while they journeyed. The days began to slip by indiscriminately along with the landscape. Whenever Jack tried to start a conversation with Gavin, or stutter an apology for the rough way he handled him the other day, the prince would turn his back and pretend not to hear. Ray was inclined to take Gavin’s side on this one; he understood the prince’s scorn. Besides, trying to help in this situation was likely to make things worse. Best to just wait it out.

In the plains, shelter at night was hard to come by. It rained the first night, and the three of them were forced to huddle close together, Ray sandwiched between Jack and Gavin under a blanket charmed to deflect water and propped up on whatever they could find. None of them slept much that night. Luckily, it didn’t rain after that night.

Ray dreamed more, at night. Each time, he awoke with his hand clutching the mirror shard. Each time, he awoke with Gavin watching him, whether or not it was the prince’s turn to be the lookout. Finally, on the third night, Ray thrust the shard into Gavin’s hands. Just for the nights, he said. The prince didn’t argue. Ray didn’t dream those dreams as long as Prince Gavin held his mirror shard at night.

The flipside of traveling through endless, flat plains was that they didn’t come across many enemies either. Nighttime brought engorged hunting spiders the size of wolves, brought weird humanoid skeletons that wriggled out of the earth and collapsed into dust when hit with an arrow or slashed with an ax. Jack explained that the skeletons were not true undead, like what necromancers might raise, but natural magic constructs formed from the countless dead things in the earth. Still, these monsters were few and far between, and they could see them coming from far away. Ray didn’t do much other than brandish his rapier, but Gavin hardly left his side and protected him with bow and saber.

It was maybe the fourth or fifth day—Ray was losing count already—that the prince’s head drooped suddenly, and he would have toppled from his saddle if Ray hadn’t caught him. They all slowed to a stop and hopped down off their horses. Gavin swayed but was indignant.

“I’m fine,” he snapped irritably, slapping Jack’s hands away. Ray stepped between the two.

“You’re falling asleep on your feet!” Jack said. “Ride in my saddle with me, Ray can lead Sunstepper until we stop for the night.”

“Absolutely not!” Gavin said. “I can ride fine on my own! I don’t need you.”

“Oh, clearly. Gavin, how many times to I have to say sorry…”

“Stop fucking arguing,” Ray cut in. “Gavin can ride with me. Jack, you lead his horse.”

Jack’s expression turned sour, but when the prince reluctantly agreed to that arrangement, he didn’t argue. He just wanted to make sure Gavin didn’t fall off his horse again. Jack grabbed Sunstepper’s reins, and the prince jumped up behind Ray on Spirit’s saddle.

They traveled several more miles like that. They passed through a few copses of trees, but still it was mostly farmland and plains. Gavin held onto Ray securely, wrapping his arms around Ray’s middle. With the way Gavin rested his head on the back of Ray’s shoulder, Ray wouldn’t have been surprised if he had slipped into light sleep. The prince certainly was quiet for the rest of the day’s ride.

The sun was half-set, dusk burning the sky red and orange, as they left the most recent copse behind, intending to make it a few more miles before stopping. Jack was several paces ahead with Sunstepper, and Gavin shifted behind Ray. He sighed, then spoke in a low voice that Jack wouldn’t overhear.

“Ray,” he said. “What do you do when… you love a person more than they love you?”

Ray blew air out of puffed cheeks and squinted at the sunset off to his right. What a question to randomly ask! It was a question that hurt, that reminded him too much of confessing too soon to Michael and probably scaring him off. He said, “Sleep, mostly.”

“And—what if you can’t sleep?”

Oh.

“I don’t fucking know. Distract myself, I guess.”

Gavin sighed again and adjusted his arms around Ray. Guilt pulled at his gut; was that what was keeping Gavin up at night?

“Sorry,” Gavin mumbled.  “I just keep thinking about Michael and… Tower. Forget I said anything.”

Ray felt like Gavin had been on the verge of confessing something, but changed his mind. He bit his lip. Something was clearly eating away at Gavin. Was it simply lingering jealousy, an unhealthy fixation on the guy he loved being together with the guy he framed five years ago? Or was it something more powerful? More passionate, more complicated?

Gavin’s arms relaxed around Ray’s torso, and he slumped more heavily against his back. The prince had dozed off again.

Chapter Text

The first time Ray saw a Creeper was three nights later. They stopped to camp half a mile before a large clump of trees. The sun had gone down an hour before, and they didn’t want to brave the trees when it was so dark. The sky was clear and there were so many stars Ray thought someone spilled glitter across an inky table. Jack still had some wood strapped to his horse from the last copse for a fire, and set Gavin to working at it.

Ray stretched his legs for a while, rolling his shoulders and staring up at the sky. When he heard Jack’s deep little Oh, he turned and squinted to where Jack was looking. Gavin had sparked the fire to life, but he remained where he crouched, staring at the trees. A figure, lean and a meter and a half high. It moved awkwardly, its body too long for its four short legs. Its head swayed as its legs pulled it across the grass like a four-legged spider. It was maybe a hundred yards away and moved slightly slower than a running man.

“Gavin,” Jack said in a low voice. “Get your bow. Now. Before it gets much closer.”

All three of them kept their eyes on the Creeper as Gavin crouch-walked the few paces to where his bow and quiver lay. Ray knew he should probably feel afraid, but he watched with tense curiosity. The giant spiders were one thing, and the skeletons wriggling out of the ground were another, but this was the infamous Creeper. How did the world explain this one?

Gavin stood, an arrow nocked, and he pulled back the bowstring. Ray watched the prince blink slowly, pale and shadowed with bags under his eyes yet. The green fletching of the arrow brushed against his cheek. Ray did not think Gavin was sleeping any better. Gavin waited, allowed the Creeper to scuttle closer.

He let go of the bowstring, snapping the arrow forward. It whistled right past the Creeper, clear to the left of it, to land somewhere in the grass behind it. Jack cursed and put a hand on one of the throwing axes belted to his waist, but the Creeper was still too far away. 50 yards. Gavin fired another arrow. It sailed over the Creeper’s head. 40 yards. Ray hadn’t ever seen Gavin miss before, now that he thought about it. A third arrow hit the ground in front of it and to the right.

Damn it, Gavin,” Jack growled. 30 yards. “You’re better than this. Hit it! Don’t let it get too close!”

“I’m sorry,” Gavin moaned. “I just—I can’t focus my eyes…”

Ray cursed under his breath and strode over to Gavin as he nocked his fourth arrow and raised his bow. He went right up to his back, put his mouth right by Gavin’s ear, and looked down the shaft of the arrow with him. He felt Gavin tense underneath him, as he put a hand on Gavin’s waist to steady himself and stretched out his other arm to guide Gavin’s wrist. Gavin then seemed to understand what Ray was doing, and relaxed again, refocusing his attention forward.

Jack loosed a throwing ax from his belt and held it in one hand. Ray and Gavin waited, breathing steady together. Ray had played enough video games in his life to have decent hand-eye coordination, he thought. At the very least, when Gavin had taught him a little archery earlier, he had been basically on target—just not strong enough. But the prince was trained, even when exhausted, and could do the rest without Ray.

Less than 20 yards. 50 feet. Ray could see dim firelight reflecting off of coal-like eyes. He aimed for them, guided Gavin’s hand. And he whispered, shoot, and Gavin loosed the arrow.

The arrow got the Creeper right between the eyes, plunged deep inside the head. It hissed like a fuse lighting. The Creeper wobbled back with the force, threatened to topple, and before it could resume its approach, a second arrow hit it in its elongated body. And then finally, Jack sprinted forward, planted his feet, and chucked his ax as hard as he could. The ax head buried itself in the target’s head, next to the arrow, and the Creeper fell finally, slumping to the ground with limp finality.

Ray dropped his hands from Gavin’s body and stepped back. He watched Jack slowly approach the form on the ground. “Is it dead?” he called.

Jack planted his foot on the corpse of the Creeper and yanked out his throwing ax. He slipped it back into his belt, then bent down and wriggled the two arrows out as well, and started heading back towards the campfire. That was enough of an answer for Ray, but Jack still replied when he returned.

“Creepers don’t ever stop moving towards a target until one or both of them are dead.”

Ray continued to study the shadowy corpse from afar. He knew it was a Creeper, and yet he couldn’t imagine how it might appear in this world. Certainly it wasn’t be the blocky creature he knew from Minecraft. Even now its silhouette was organic, like a true creature.

“Do they still—Ah, do Creepers blow up?”

Both men looked at them like they shouldn’t have to answer that, given what he just said.

Gavin tossed his bow aside and stooped next to the fire to pick up a makeshift torch. “Would you like to look at it?” he asked. “As dangerous as they are, they’re pretty rare. And harmless after death. This might very well be the only one we see. They lose their shape after a few hours—you’ll understand once you see it.”

Ray agreed, and tried to ignore how the torch shook in Gavin’s hand. Jack let them go, sitting down heavily next to the fire, saying only that Gavin can find his missing arrows in the morning, let’s not waste time in the dark. The two of them walked outside the range of the firelight, towards the corpse. Ray kneeled next to it as Gavin held the torch over them, a small radius of orange light flickering over them.

Ray wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The Creeper’s body appeared to be made up of tightly entwined vines, dark and green and pale and so skinny that from far away they’d all bleed together. Leaves seemed to stick out from all over, squeezing out between the vines and lying flat over them, glossy and reflective in the firelight, but when Ray touched them they were hard like scales. The four curving legs ended in two hard black talons. The body hid its wounds well, the eyes were blank and dark like obsidian, and its mouth was a sunken shape in the vines. Ray studied the wounds and found they leaked not blood, but… gunpowder? The wind whisked the powder away.

“No one knows where they come from,” Gavin said suddenly. “I studied them a lot. They run right up to people and explode, killing themselves as well injuring the victim. We don’t even know why they explode, though I’ve tried to find out. They just appear, die, and decay.”

Ray stood and peered into the darkness beyond, towards the trees in the distance. Nothing moved except the leaves on trees, though shadows danced and oozed in front of Ray’s eyes. Jack called out to them again, raised his voice to be heard.

“Gavin, come back and get some actual sleep now.” The silence in the beat afterward held what Jack didn’t say. We don’t want something like this to happen again. We don’t want something worse to happen because you’re too tired.

“Yeah, yeah!” Gavin shouted over his shoulder.

Ray waited, and Gavin didn’t show any inclination of going back to the campsite. The torch was held between them, casting their faces in a warm orange. The fire flickered and pulled in the breeze. Gavin took a deep breath, opened his mouth, then jerked his head away and started back towards the campfire. Ray paused before following, wondering what Gavin had been about to say.


 

With the cloudless dawn, the morning sunlight revealed a brown decaying and altogether shapeless mass where the Creeper had fallen. Gavin explained that in a few hours more, the Creeper’s corpse will have completely decayed away.

Gavin jogged away to retrieve the three arrows that had missed last night. Ray watched him go, eyes narrowed, as Jack kicked dirt over the campfire and rolled up the blankets. When Gavin returned, Jack tossed Gavin’s blanket roll at him. Gavin fumbled it and nearly dropped it, and then glared at Jack.

“I think you should ride with me again, today,” said Ray. Now he received Gavin’s glare.

What?” he cried. “I’m not tired, I can ride just fine! I don’t need you to coddle me.”

“Enough of your pride,” snapped Jack. Then his expression softened and he took a few steps towards Gavin. “I think Ray’s right.”

Gavin puffed out his chest and jerked his chin up so he was looking down his nose at them. His heavy breathing, however, betrayed his emotions. Jack stopped in his tracks. “Don’t you even think of touching me, Jack.”

Jack sighed and glanced off at the horizon. “How many times to I have to apologize, my prince?” he said softly, sounding surprisingly wounded and, well, sad. Gavin’s façade began to crumble, though he kept his shoulders squared and proud. Jack met the prince’s eyes and didn’t waver. “My only thought is getting you back to the castle safely, back to the king and back home. It was very reckless of you to go chasing after Ray, but never mind that—my sworn duty is to protect you. I… might have gone about it wrong, yes. But that’s why I’m still here, instead of back at the castle with you in ropes. I’m sorry.”

Gavin stared at him for a few seconds, then abruptly turned his back and sat down on the ground. Jack took a step, but Ray raised his hand and stopped him. He had sat on the sidelines long enough. Ray went over and crouched next to the prince. Gavin didn’t react when he put a hand on his shoulder.

“You know he’s trying his best,” Ray said in a low voice. “He’s been trying to make it up to you this whole fucking time, though you haven’t been making it easy. Don’t you think you should at least try to start fucking forgiving him?”

Gavin inhaled sharply through his nose, staring hard at the grass. “I suppose if I want… forgiveness from others, I shouldn’t hold grudges myself,” he muttered. Ray patted his shoulder and stood up. Jack watched with one hand gripping his other arm, the morning sun sparkling on his visible plate armor like a gemstone.

Finally, Gavin stood again and turned towards Jack, eyes downcast and the blanket roll clutched close to his chest. “I’m sorry, Jack,” he said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I overreacted, I—perhaps I will ride with Ray today.”

A smile dawned on Jack’s face, and he now did walk close to Gavin again to clap a hand on the prince’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but Gavin relaxed visibly, chewing his lower lip. Jack trotted back to his horse and swung up easily, Lapis dancing slightly underneath him.

Gavin went to tie his blanket roll behind Sunstepper’s saddle, and finally replaced his three arrows to his quiver, which he now transferred to Ray’s horse. He waited for Ray to get in the saddle (with significantly less grace than Jack) before hopping up behind him. A few moments later, they were off again, Jack holding Sunstepper’s reins.

Within the hour, Gavin was dozing again.


 

It felt weird to have the mask on again. The Rose Thief could not be expected to ride out with the army, since the public still did not know of his innocence. Yet, it was his idea to don the mask again. He could sneak out of the castle and ghost through the woods until they were well out of the town. All the army had to do was have an extra horse for him. Simple enough, though he couldn’t seem to sit still again with the fabric against his cheek.

He lay flat on a peaked rooftop to watch the massive gates in town groan open. The army spilled out onto the wide main street of Achievement City, a lead guard of about twenty people on horses followed by King Geoff, Court Mage Ryan, and Captain Michael in a little pod by themselves and two squires. Ryan wore no armor but the leather chest piece with the tree stamped into the front, his wooden staff carried in his folded arms so that it stuck up over his head like a flagbearer’s pole.

Michael’s armor glittered so much in the sunlight that it hurt to look at him for too long. It was polished and perfect, his helmet donned with its red-orange plume assuring that he would not be lost amongst the rest of the armored units.

The king was as always graceful and cold, wearing less armor than Michael but making up for it in grandeur. He wore the helmet with the golden crown fused to it, and all of it was made with a curving delicacy that hid its sturdiness. His dark green cape rippled behind him, flowing over his white gray-dappled horse.

Behind the little royal pod was the second cavalry unit, armored similarly to Michael and the first cavalry unit, and a little larger besides. Behind that, the foot soldiers marched with padded vests and steel, some of them leading horses and mules laden with supplies. The people of the city crowded the sides of the street and bent out of windows and doors to watch the procession. Women flapping handkerchiefs and children watching with wide eyes, men halting their chores. It wasn’t something that was seen very often, especially in this time of relative peace. The army hadn’t been needed in perhaps twenty years or more. As it was, it probably wasn’t quite as big as Roosterteeth’s, or even as big as Venator could muster if times were direr.

The Rose Thief watched, hidden, until Michael was lost behind the buildings. They would be leaving the city gates soon. He pushed up and, still crouching low, lightly sprinted across the roof and leaped across buildings until he got to the city wall. He jumped over it, using the wind to soften his fall to the other side. The army was going to be somewhat slow, at least in the beginning, but he still shouldn’t dally.

He followed the army for a mile or two, hopping from tree to tree and using his breeze to make jumps that normal men would struggle to make. He saw a brown wolf run underneath him once while he did this, but it merely glanced up at him and continued on its way. He caught up to the soldier leading his horse and squeezed between the men. They barely broke rank to admit him, but they gave him plenty of space. He took the brown and white horse from the man, thanked him, and then wasted no time in racing up to the front to join Michael and the others.

Michael grinned at him when he joined their ranks, and the Rose Thief rode up right next to Michael’s horse. He leaned over, and Michael met him halfway for the kiss, a passionate but quick affair that would have likely gone on for longer had the threat of losing balance not been so prevalent.

King Geoff coughed once, and they broke apart. “Glad you could make it,” he said simply. The Rose Thief rolled his eyes as Ryan raised a hand to cover a small smile. He gave Michael’s horse a little space and untied his mask, tucking it away in a pocket. The breeze felt good on his exposed cheekbones now. He had worn his mask for so long…

They chatted idly amongst themselves as the sun crawled across the sky. The Rose Thief relished it all. He was outside, riding next to Michael and, amongst the army anyway, he was free. It was a warm feeling that settled right under his heart, and for the first time in five years, he was smiling more often than not. He really felt like he had his life back, at least at the moment.

Some of the soldiers tittered and cried out, and one or two of them drew their swords. An enormous white wolf loped out of the forest and easily kept pace with the horses, running right next to Ryan’s black stallion. Geoff and Michael both lurched for their swords, but Ryan stopped them.

“Woah, hold on, don’t you hurt him!” said the Mage. He rolled up one long sleeve and held his staff in the other hand. He leaned down, putting his head right next to his horse’s neck and reached lazily, nearly touching the wolf’s neck. “Lykan! What are you doing here?”

The others glanced at each other in silence, waiting for Ryan to finish. The Mage was silent as well, staring intently into the wolf’s eyes. He was muttering, and the Rose Thief could make out small exclamations like you don’t say and really now. Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, the wolf slipped between the horses and loped back into the forest, disappearing. Ryan straightened and readjusted his grip on his staff. Michael and Geoff and the other soldiers only relaxed when the wolf was out of sight.

“Lykan?” King Geoff prompted.

“Ah, yes,” Ryan said. “You’d probably know him as Beskytter nowadays.”

“Beskytter!” Michael cried. “Ohh, I know him, fucking beast likes to attack livestock…”

Ryan hushed him. “Lykan is older than all of us, probably older than even me. Honestly I didn’t realize he had moved to Venator, but…”

“Wait, moved?” gasped Geoff.

Yes, if you’d let me explain,” Ryan said, exasperated. The Rose Thief couldn’t help but smile. This was the family he knew, even if… two members were missing were right now. “Don’t you think it’s weird that there’s only one white wolf here? He’s an Ender breed, and some Mages of my time even theorized he was one of the First. I don’t know about that, but he’s certainly special. He’s got many names I’m sure, but the Venator of my time called him Lykan.”

“What did he say to you?” asked the Rose Thief. Ryan hadn’t changed much; the Mage still threatened to ramble on.

Ryan hummed to himself. “Actually, Ray, he seems to have taken a liking to the other you. He seems to know that that boy is instrumental in getting his home back, and he thinks he’s kind of funny, but good at heart. He told me that he and his pack made sure Ray and the prince got to the edge of their territory safely. And…” he shivered and stared off into the distance. “Gave him a gift.”

“A… gift?” Michael repeated. “What kind of gift would a wolf give?”

Ryan shook his head. “It doesn’t matter to us now, but Lykan said it should help.”

It was clear the wolf’s gift made Ryan uncomfortable. They didn’t press.


 

Four more days passed. After the Creeper, Gavin seemed to sleep a little better. He still looked tired, but he could ride his horse without threatening to fall off, and he could shoot his arrows reliably again. Despite the boring, flat landscape, the ride was almost nice. Everyone was on more or less pleasant terms again, and if it wasn’t for the border of the Ender Kingdom coming ever closer, it might have been just a regular outing with friends. But the horses started growing nervous with every mile four days after the Creeper, and Jack informed him that they were close to where they must split up.

And then, six days after the Creeper, they came across the ruins of the town.

The air was heavily perfumed and hot with afternoon sun. Ray slid off his horse and left her behind, walked as though in a trance. Gavin hopped off his, but Jack did not, and both of them remained where they were and watched Ray enter the town.

There was not one building that remained whole. Where it had not been damaged by fire or battle, vines grew and pulled the stones from the walls. From every one of these vines, blood red roses bloomed, dark and soft, with long and curving thorns. Ray followed what used to be a street past a fortified wall that was little better than a pile of rubble, though still tall in some places, past buildings that were mere lots of broken wall and burned roof, past buildings with scorched cobblestone and caved-in floors.

The street took him to the main square. The center of it was a cracked and dry fountain of three layers, though the topmost one lay shattered in the wide lower basin. The diameter of the fountain had to be at least fifty feet, and dozens of white and gilded gold statues circled it, most of them tossed down and destroyed. Dryads with flowers and slender rapiers, dainty women and men with insect wings, giant hummingbirds and winged horses. Now there were just dark red roses everywhere, sprouting from every crack, tossing their perfume into the air and fluttering their leaves, brandishing their wicked thorns.

And across the fountain from Ray was the remnant of a mansion. The stone first floor walls were barely visible through the rose vines, and the floors above it had tumbled, the second floor walls thrusting jagged teeth into the blue sky above it. One of the only buildings with paned windows, the glass was shattered, dusty and sharp and still clinging to their frames. Ray walked straight across the fountain, picking his way around the roses and decrepit broken statues, and paused in front of it.

He felt like he should know this place, but it was all new and unfamiliar. He felt cold despite the sun. He should know it.

A hand on his shoulder made him jump. Gavin had found him again. A quick glance told him that Jack waited on the other side of the fountain with all three horses, at a respectful distance but with a watchful eye. The sun was closing in on the horizon. Gavin quickly took his hand away, but Ray was thankful he didn’t retreat at all otherwise.

“Th-this is my—I mean, this is the Rose Thief’s…”

Gavin nodded, his face grim. “So you know a little of it.” After a beat, he said, “You know, I’ve never visited Trianta, not when it was prosperous, and not in the aftermath of the Enderman attack.” Ray finally tore his eyes away from the mansion and found Gavin staring at him. “Michael visited it plenty of times—you know, his hometown is only a day’s ride or so that way. But I arrived at the castle after Trianta’s destruction. And in the aftermath, only a few people from the castle were allowed to go, and I wasn’t one of them.”

“It’s not fair,” Ray said. “I don’t understand. It… I…” His shoulders slumped. He didn’t know what he wanted to say.

“Trianta is only a few miles north of the border,” said Gavin. “And sure, they could handle the stray Endermen that occasionally threatened them, but this was… They were overwhelmed and couldn’t escape.”

A few miles. The thought didn’t even process in his mind. He was rooted in this town, in Trianta, and wouldn’t move, wouldn’t think for a while. It was all so unfamiliar. His family had lived and died here. He didn’t know any of the buildings but he could imagine them reconstructed, could imagine him walking through the square. Entering the door that hung splintered off its hinges, calling out to his family, I’m home, I’m back, I’m home. The sky burned purple as the sun set. The growing shadows groaned and stretched, and Gavin tentatively reached out to put an arm around Ray’s shoulders. He didn’t refuse him.

The roses smelled like death.

Chapter Text

They didn’t camp in Trianta. Even if there weren’t a thousand pungent roses over every surface, their thorns making it hard to find a place to lie down, it was still a ghost town. The entire town ached with its loss, its windows and doors hollow, the loose stones and collapsed rubble decrepit and dusty. They camped just south of it, next to a wide circular wall that used to be a watchtower. Every breath of wind brought the roses’ smell.

Between the dead town and the border of the End less than five miles away, none of them slept much that night.

The morning came, and no one wanted to get going right away. They moved slowly, taking their time and chewing their special travel-bread for breakfast as if its dry taste was suddenly succulent and new and didn’t taste like cardboard after two weeks of eating almost nothing but. But the sun never stopped climbing higher, and they had to get to the border. With sighs, they packed up and left their campsite.

Three miles south, there was one last, long hill. At the top of this was another fallen watchtower, its stones toppled down the slope, half hidden amongst the overgrown grass and camouflaged by lichen. They led their horses up the surprisingly steep and tall slope and were greeted by a blast of wind. When it died down and he could finally open his eyes again, Ray gasped.

He hadn’t expected to see any difference between Venator and the End. He had expected just a smooth transition of plains. Instead, what he saw was an absolutely massive river, and if it weren’t for the fact that he could just barely see land beyond it, he might have called it a lake or a sea. Almost directly in front of them was a huge land bridge of mud and gravel, perhaps only a hundred yards wide at its narrowest point, three hundred yards at its widest, with only straw-like reeds growing on its edges.

Not even a quarter of the way across, Ray could see the border. A marked change in color defined it; the other side seemed desaturated, and Venator seemed too bright, too vibrant in comparison. The reeds on that side quickly petered out, and what should have been green grass above the rocky beach on the other side was yellow and brown.

“Well,” said Ray. He took a deep breath and squeezed Spirit’s reins. “There’s the border.”

“I guess this is where we leave you,” Gavin said, drawing a look from Jack.

Ray caught the faint scent of salt water as the wind gusted again. Looking at the gray landscape across the land bridge, Ray was suddenly overcome with a terrible sense of loneliness. He was about to strike out on his own, navigate the unknown and unfriendly landscape with only himself. But he had to do it alone. He couldn’t ask to be accompanied by just one or two other people. An army, maybe, but what difference would one or two people make?

“Do you know where to go from here?” Jack asked.

Ray sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “I’ll figure it out. If Kdin wants me as much as he’s shown, I’ll get there. But um… could you guys walk with me a little farther?”

They agreed. It was not far to the land bridge, and no one was in any hurry, so they led the horses as they walked. The distance was still much too short for Ray’s liking. As they came closer to the land bridge, the smell of salty water grew stronger, a refreshing scent after all the roses. They paused again at the beginning of the land bridge.

Ray turned to the other two. “Well. This is it. Thanks for coming with me this far.” He shook Jack’s hand, then Gavin’s hand. The prince held on for longer than Jack, and seemed on the verge of saying something.

“Come on, Gavin,” Jack said. “It’s time to go back.”

Gavin nodded and licked his lips. “You could stay here,” he said to Ray. “With us. You don’t have to throw your life into the hands of the Ender Mage. We’ll fit you in back at the castle.”

Ray took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “I don’t belong here, Gavin. My life is back home.”

Gavin blinked hard and averted his gaze up to the sky. Jack waited patiently, but his drawn brow belied his worry.

“Safe travels, Ray,” Jack said.

“You too,” Ray said. “You and Gavin get back safe and… work on fixing things.”

He turned away from them now, faced the End and started walking, tugging Spirit along. She was reluctant, but she followed. She was all Ray would have for company for what could be quite a while. Gravel crunched under his feet and her hooves, and the wind was blowing as often as it wasn’t. The border was maybe half a mile away, but he’d made it a hundred yards when he heard Gavin shout behind him.

“Ray! Wait!”

Ray turned and Gavin was sprinting towards him, his horse left behind with Jack. Ray took a few steps towards Gavin, but let the prince close the distance. Gavin hardly slowed as he approached and threw his hands around Ray’s neck, staggering him as he buried his face in Ray’s shoulder. Ray hugged him back tightly until Gavin pulled back and held him at arm’s length, hands on Ray’s shoulders.

“You have to go back with Jack,” Ray said. “You promised.”

A sheepish smile tugged at Gavin’s mouth. “You know, not so long ago, I promised to be by your side when you challenged the dragon.” His smile fell, and his gaze lowered to his feet. “But things have changed since then. No, I’m not trying to lie again. Habits are hard to break but I want to make things right. I’m going back with Jack.”

He took a deep breath and looked up at Ray again. “I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to do this in front of the others, but I wanted to at least confess to you. Why I did it all.

“I was… jealous. That’s what it all boils down to, I guess. I fell in love with Michael very soon after I arrived at the castle as Geoff’s prince. I was bloody shy back then, and it didn’t help that I was a new kid in a new place with barely any idea of who I was. But Geoff didn’t like the idea of both of us. He never said it outright but I knew. And, of course, Michael only had eyes for the other Ray. From the moment I met the both of them, I could tell they loved each other very deeply. And I was jealous.

“I did my best on my own. I tried so hard to get Michael to look at me the way he looked at the other Ray. It affected my own relationship with Ray. We teased each other all the time regardless of circumstances, but my initial feelings towards him went from friendly acquaintanceship to tolerance to hidden dislike and even loathing. I felt like there was no one else in the whole world I could love as much as Michael, and he was with someone else without any signs of drifting.

“So I got rid of him. I got rid of the other Ray. I devised this whole plan and laughed at how bloody simple it was! And the worst part was, it worked! I didn’t have any regrets until a day or so later. Everyone was just so distraught, and Michael… I realized what an unspeakable thing I had done. But I was too afraid to own up to it, too ashamed. I couldn’t even show up for the lashings. I could barely watch at the execution. I remember thinking, once it’s over, it’ll all be over, and we won’t ever have to think about it again.

“And then he escaped. I didn’t know if I was happy or angry about that. I had just wanted it over and done with. At least the others seemed a bit relieved. But either way, I was the one who was there for Michael now. I tried to be the best partner I could be for him. And by the Tower, my plan still worked in that regard. Geoff backed off of my interest in Michael, and Michael finally looked at me. Not… not quite the same way as he looked at the other Ray. But close enough.

“Ray, I—I hurt a lot of people because I let jealousy control me for years. I lied about it and tried to cover it all up because even when he escaped alive I was too cowardly to confess. I even lied to myself. I caused so much pain. What kind of person am I to have done that to the people I love? And I—I don’t know if I’ve done enough here to earn at least some redemption. I certainly don’t feel like I deserve anything. But I—I’d give up all my years with Michael to undo it all. I’d give up everything to undo it all.”

Gavin blinked rapidly and tears rolled down his reddened cheeks. He watched Ray’s face with terror in his eyes, but Ray couldn’t stop grinning. He supposed he should be angry—Gavin certainly seemed to expect him to be. What Gavin did still wasn’t okay; things wouldn’t be fixed with a simple apology, but…

“Why are you bloody smiling?” Gavin asked, wiping at his tears with jerky, quick motions.

“Because,” said Ray, still grinning, “if that’s not true remorse, I don’t know what the fuck is. There’s hope for you yet.”

Gavin let out a small laugh, and smiled back at Ray. “You are, as always, an interesting person, Ray,” he said. “I’ll be sorry never to see you again.”

“Well you’re in luck,” said Ray.

“No,” said Gavin. “Not him. You.”

The grin slipped from Ray’s face. But Gavin’s face was completely serious, if not a little sad. Ray saw the red seep from Gavin’s cheeks, and couldn’t seem to look away from those green eyes, the eyes that always saw the difference between him and the Rose Thief. The eyes that now held so much sadness.

The eyes that widened and saw something over Ray’s shoulder, just as he heard a sucking, warping sound and a pop. And then Gavin was crying “Look out!” and was lurching forward. He grabbed Ray and spun them both 180 degrees, holding him up so that suddenly Ray was nearly face to face with an Enderman that had teleported behind him. Ray had barely registered the glassy purple eyes, the stretched oily skin, before Gavin let go of him and both the Enderman and the prince disappeared with another warping pop.

Ray was dropped on his ass. He forgot how to breathe for a moment and only faintly registered Jack shouting behind him. He scrambled to his feet, his hands and shoes scuffing against the slippery mud and gravel. He breathed like he had just run a mile, and he searched for where Gavin had gone, Ryan’s words from a while ago echoing in his ears. I’ve never seen anyone survive being grabbed by an Enderman… oftentimes they just… go to sleep and drop off.

He didn’t have to look far. The Enderman had reappeared a hundred yards away, holding Gavin by the collar of his shirt. Gavin was kicking, but before he could cry out, the Enderman was gone again, teleporting another hundred yards closer to the border.

Ray cried out, a guttural No ripping from his chest. He mounted his horse the fastest he had ever mounted her. His sword was already in his hand; he didn’t remember drawing it. Spirit took off, spewing up gravel and mud under her hooves. She galloped down the land bridge, and Ray was standing in the stirrups, the wind cold in his face.

The Enderman teleported several more times until it realized it was holding the wrong person. It threw Gavin aside just a dozen yards from the border and cracked its jaw open to wail its terrible, scratching wail. Ray willed Spirit to go faster.

His vision zeroed in on that tall black form, that stretched, lanky figure. He was driven by a primal fear, a primal anger. Ray was still a few seconds away when Gavin lunged towards the monster, his knife from the scabbard he always wore at his back flashing towards the Enderman’s leg. It sank into the back of the Enderman’s knee.

The Enderman staggered, its knee buckling beneath it, but then it spun in the same movement and swung its arm towards Gavin’s face. Its hand hit him in the face, and Gavin was knocked to the ground, his head whipping to the side with the force as he crumpled.

The Enderman turned its eyes to Ray, but the paralyzing fear from that gaze slid right over him. And then, in the blink of an eye, the Enderman disappeared. Spirit reared slightly, skidding to a stop. Ray held on to the reins with one hand for dear life, his muscles threatening to pull as he kept himself from falling.

He let out a wordless roar. Gavin still lay several yards away from him, and he hadn’t moved. “Come get me, bitch!” Ray screamed hoarsely.

Spirit danced beneath him, turning him in a slow circle. His eyes narrowed, his ears pricked for any sound of the Enderman’s return. Faintly he was aware of Jack galloping towards him on Lapis, but the man was still a hundred yards away. Sunstepper seemed to think it was a game of sorts, and trailed behind Jack.

And then, it was there. Ray knew the Enderman’s tricks. The moment he heard the sucking, warping sound behind him, he twisted around and was thrusting his sword up before he even saw the creature. The rapier’s blackened blade pierced the Enderman’s head through the roof of its mouth. It screeched, its dark purple blood seeping down the blade and dripping down its skull from its topmost wound, rivulets of blood finding tracks across the oily skin. It convulsed, its whole body wracked with spasms, but Ray kept his sword there, held the Enderman up by its own head. And then, the light faded from its eyes. Ray yanked his sword out as it sagged and fell.

Spirit pranced away from the corpse, and as soon as she was still enough, Ray was off her, dropping his sword to the ground to dash to Gavin’s side. Jack was there soon after, falling to his knees on the other side of Gavin. The Enderman’s claw-like nails had scored four deep tracks across Gavin’s cheek, black and dark red and sticky like clotted blood. The top mark ended right under his left eye, and the bottom two barely missed slicing his lips by a centimeter or two. The prince was ghastly pale, his eyes closed. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t…

Gavin groaned. His eyelids fluttered and opened, and relief flooded Ray’s system, if only temporarily. He rolled limply onto his back, his eyes roving between looking at Ray and looking at Jack. He raised a hand to his cheek, feeling the scratches left by the Enderman’s nails.

“Whoops,” he said in a soft voice. He talked like his tongue was half numb. “I bloody fainted now, didn’t I? Do you think it’ll scar?”

A laugh of relief bubbled up from Ray’s chest, and he glanced up to see Jack smiling in relief as well. The smile quickly fell when Jack gingerly touched Gavin’s forehead, brushing the prince’s bangs aside. He winced.

“Gavin, you’re freezing,” Jack said.

“Yes,” said the prince. “It is rather cold.”

Jack shared a worried glance with Ray. The two of them each looped one of Gavin’s arms over their shoulders and hoisted him up between them. Gavin’s knees buckled suddenly, his head dropping as he fainted again, but they caught him. He moaned.

“Just… a little light-headed,” Gavin mumbled.

“I’m taking you back right now,” Jack said in a tight voice. They started dragging Gavin towards Sunstepper, who restlessly roamed near Lapis. “The army should be most of the way to the border by now, and Ryan is probably with them.”

“Wait, what?” Ray asked. “How can you be sure?”

Jack grimaced and fiddled with a ring on his middle finger with his thumb, spinning it around. “I didn’t just send a letter to the king, I asked him to send the army after us. I didn’t think Gavin was actually going to come back with me.”

Ray rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “I would get mad,” he said, “but his initial plan was to ditch you at the border.”

The wind was heard before it was felt. A roaring picked up, far off in the End, and rapidly grew louder. Behind them, the reeds waved and then flattened, and they only had a few seconds to brace themselves, clumping close to Gavin. Even so, Ray was not prepared for the force of the wind, which pulled the hair back from his forehead and grabbed at his clothes as though trying him to yank him along the land bridge. It was a cold wind, and chilled Ray to the bone instantly, and almost seemed to carry faint, echoing laughter.

The wind faded, but then the earth rumbled. Gravel shook and clattered against each other, and the horses whinnied and danced. Ray and Jack dropped to their knees for balance, lowering Gavin with them, whose head lolled again. Fear and dread clawed at Ray’s gut. He had a feeling he knew what was causing this.

“We gotta go!” Ray shouted. “Come on!”

With a sharp nod from Jack, they stood again and staggered over to Gavin’s horse. Ray’s teeth rattled in his skull. They just reached Sunstepper when there was a massive fwoosh back towards the northern end of the land bridge, and the earth trembled back to stillness. Massive purple flames as tall as a house erupted from the gravel itself, a violet crackling fury. Even from this distance, looking at it, Ray could feel the heat on his cheek. The water at the banks of the bridge steamed and churned away from it, a fine mist billowing out over the surface. Even worse, the fire was coming closer, sweeping over the land bridge, herding them towards the End.

“Go, go!” Ray cried. Jack gave Ray all of Gavin’s weight and then jumped onto Sunstepper’s back. He reached down and with Ray’s help hoisted Gavin onto Sunstepper in front of him. Gavin allowed himself to be draped across Jack’s lap. Had he fainted again?

Jack didn’t wait for Ray. He gave a shout and spurred Sunstepper on, and the golden horse was only too glad to gallop off, racing away from the flames and over the border. Ray sprinted for his sword, scooping it off the ground. He passed Lapis and slapped her hindquarters, crying “Go!” and she, too, took off towards the Ender Kingdom after her master.

Ray hurried back to Spirit, sword still in hand, its blade coated in dark purple blood. He squinted back at the fire. He could definitely feel the heat now, and it showed no signs of slowing. He could hear the hiss of evaporating water now, underneath its crackle and roar. He scrambled into Spirit’s saddle and whipped the reins. She was galloping after Jack before he even completed the movement.

He felt the transition from Venator to the Ender Kingdom. Time seemed to slow down for a moment, almost holding him in place, and he felt thick, cool air slide over his skin like silk. And then, he broke free, and he was racing down the Ender side of the land bridge, and he and Jack didn’t stop until they reached the land on the other side. All the while, despite the chill wind in his face, the heat on the back of his neck steadily grew.

Jack waited for him at a spot a couple hundred yards away from the land bridge. Spirit leapt to a stop in a couple jolting paces, and Ray turned her around to watch the fire. The violet flames crawled all the way to the end of the land bridge, their tongues licking the rocky beach beside it. It gave one last final surge, flaring smokeless up into the sky, and then abruptly extinguished.

The entire land bridge was blackened with soot. The earth rumbled again, and the water around the land bridge rippled and splashed against its shores. Starting from the Venator side, the gravel and mud trembled and split, sinking deep into the tumultuous waves. Like a domino effect, the entire land bridge crumbled into the salty water. There would be no going back.

The wind gusted again, carrying the distant sound of laughter. With the fire gone, it felt icy, and it roared in Ray’s ears. But this time, he roared back into it, turning towards its southern origin and letting out a guttural yell before shouting.

Enough! I’m coming! I’m coming!

The wind died, and Ray gasped for breath. The air on its own was several degrees cooler than in Venator, and even without the occasional breeze that still lifted their hair, it was chilly. The ground here was covered in thick, dry grass, and everywhere there were stones. Pebbles, boulders, flat rocks that jutted up out of the ground. Off to the east, a forest stretched across the horizon. To the south and west, beyond the rocky plains, mountains thrust up, ghost-like against the atmosphere, and all tall and jagged. But, to the west-southwest, the walls of a city or town perched on a distant hill, bare except for less than a dozen scraggly and crooked trees.

“This Ender Mage wants you bad,” Jack said. The color had drained from his face, and his eyes were wide as he stared at Ray. Ray felt guilt like a punch to the gut. He had roped the both of them into this quest for good, now. Gavin needed help and the land bridge was gone, and there was no way to tell how far behind the army was. If there was another land bridge, it was not in sight. Not to mention that what happened here would probably happen there as well.

Ray pointed to the distant town.  “There,” he said. “Maybe someone can help Gavin over there.”

Jack licked his lips and hesitated, one hand resting on the prince’s back. “Ray, no one’s seen an Ender citizen in nearly two hundred years. And you know there won’t be any Mages…”

“Oh, so I suppose you want to take care of Gavin right here?” Ray said with a scowl. Jack sighed and looked at the prince laid across his saddle. The hand on Sunstepper’s reins tightened with a creak of leather.

“Alright,” Jack said. “We’ll try the town.”

Chapter Text

They went slowly, both for Gavin’s sake and for the horses’ sakes. The horses were tired after their gallop and after the fear they had just experienced. But they had to keep moving. Ray had to believe that the town on the hill would have someone who could help Gavin. And then Jack and Gavin could wait there until the army comes, or forge the river somehow.

Occasionally Gavin would groan weakly, but he still yet hung limp over the saddle. If Gavin got worse… Ray couldn’t bear to watch his friend die. He couldn’t stop himself from having such morbid thoughts. Jack’s silence only encouraged his catastrophic thinking. Jack only seemed capable of fidgeting with his emerald ring. No, he had to believe there were still people in the village. People who could help.

It wasn’t cold enough to worry about freezing, but after riding for weeks through mostly warm sun, it was a shivery difference. Ray wished he could change into the warmer clothes that he had packed, but he couldn’t waste that time. When Gavin was on the mend, yes, then he could have warmer clothes. As it was, he had only allowed himself to wipe the Enderman blood off his blade on the grass before they started for the town.

The land was empty. Dry. There were no insects, no birds, no critters that Ray could see. Everything seemed so dull here. The sky was a pale blue, dreary after the days under the brilliant azure of Venator. Even the yellowish grass seemed to have gray in it. Ray would glance at the blooming rose pommel of his sword just to remember what vibrancy was like.

Occasionally he would catch glimpses of lanky shadows out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned his head, the shadows would be gone. Whether they were real or imagined, Ray couldn't tell. He ran his thumb over his ivory bracelet and tried to ignore the constant feeling that he was being watched.

Ray flipped open the pouch on his belt and lightly touched the mirror shard inside. He wished they could move faster.


 

 The army didn’t stop except to sleep at night. They ate their meals on horseback, meals consisting of only some water and their high energy travel-bread. They didn’t go through any towns; the army was too big to file through those streets. Yet, that was something the Rose Thief was glad about, because that way he didn’t have to put the mask back on. Even the camping at night wasn’t as bad as when he was on his own. They had tents now, rich well-crafted tents that cut the wind and kept the bugs out. He shared one with Michael. They didn’t talk about Prince Gavin at night.

They were somewhere in the middle of the flat plains, miles away from any sign of a town, when King Geoff and Ryan got into an argument.

“I need to know where they are, Ryan. I need to know if my prince and my first adviser are okay.”

“I know,” Ryan growled, staff in the crook of his arm and one hand gripping the silver hand mirror. “I’m doing the best I can. Long distance spells aren’t my specialty!”

The Rose Thief and Michael hung back, rode side by side as they watched Geoff and Ryan converse heatedly. Michael reached out his hand, and the Rose Thief took it gladly. They were not close enough for it to be comfortable—both of their arms were nearly at full extension, their fingers loosely entangled—but they didn’t care at the moment.

King Geoff threw up his hands. “What are you even good for!” he said. Ryan’s eyes flashed.

“Even Mage Kdin cannot track someone from afar without help, and Kdin’s specialty is long distance,” Ryan growled. “I know you’re stressed, but I’m doing the best I can.”

“You didn’t seem to need help before!” Geoff complained.

Before I was searching within the confines of my ward for someone whose signature I was very familiar with. That was my help. Now if we’re lucky then…” Ryan cut himself off with a shuddering breath, his eyelids fluttering. “He’s touched the mirror,” he said quickly.

“Tell me!” King Geoff demanded. The Rose Thief and Michael leaned forward a bit on their horses.

“The other Ray is a few miles into the Ender Kingdom. He’s very intent on heading somewhere… very anxious. Hyper focused on something, like someone’s been hurt.”

Who?” Geoff pressed. But Ryan twisted the silver-framed mirror around in his hand and shook his head.

“He only touched the mirror briefly. Even if he held onto it, I cannot read minds.”

King Geoff sat back in his saddle and crossed his arms. He stared at his horse’s mane, grumbling. Ryan raked his fingers through his hair and touched his staff, looking off towards the southern horizon. The Rose Thief glanced at Michael and found the Captain’s face was pale. He gave Michael’s fingers a gentle squeeze.

“I hope they’re all okay,” said Michael in a low voice. “I wish we could go faster, get there sooner.”

The Rose Thief sighed and let his hand drop. They wouldn’t get to the border for days yet. Whatever their condition was, it would likely change between then and now. He leaned back and squinted at the sun. He better not die before he gets a fist to his stupid big nose. He better not die before Michael is fully happy and they can finally put this all to rest. Before he can finally stop being angry.

 “Me too,” he said finally. “Me too.”


 

The streets of flagstone were as empty as the rocky plains. The buildings were made mostly of wood, with peaked tiled roofs. Some of them had stone bases, but most were just pure wood, the logs and planks forming pleasant patterns and doorways. Ray went into one of the first ones alone, one that looked slightly fancier than the ones around it, and left Jack outside to stay with the horses and with Gavin.

The inside was dark, the only source of light being the windows. Even with the sun inching towards the western horizon, though, Ray could see well enough once his eyes had adjusted. The room he entered was a single room that seemed to contain the kitchen, the eating area, and the lounging area all in the same location. An earthen stove was off to the side, and a round wooden table had four chairs around it. Two chairs that seemed more comfortable, being cushioned, were on the other side with a fireplace and a plush rug. In the back, stairs led up to a second floor.

Dust coated everything. Hardly a breath of air had stirred anything inside. Plates and cups rested on the table with bread and cheese and meat as though it was someone’s dinner, the food all under layers of dust too but miraculously not rotten. Ray called out on the chance that people were upstairs and would hear him and come down. He knew that wouldn’t happen. No one answered him. He didn’t want to check upstairs, afraid of what he might find. He left the building quickly.

“No one home?” Jack asked. Ray shivered.

“Doesn’t seem like it,” he said, and told him about the dust.

Jack hummed to himself and looked at Gavin. “I fear the other houses might be like this. But let’s see if there’s a mead hall, or a lord’s house perhaps. This town is big enough to have one, and if anyone is left in this place that can help us, they’ll probably be there. If not… well, we can use their beds.”

They led the horses, their hooves clicking against the flagstone wearily. Ray stayed near Gavin as Jack led the way, and each time Gavin shifted or moaned, Ray’s heart leapt. He was still alive, but to Ray it didn’t seem like the prince was getting any better.

The center of town was dominated by a large building with a convex peaked roof that reminded Ray somewhat of an upside down ship. The cobblestone walls had thick stilts angled outwards, forcing the other houses back, and even just one of the double doors was bigger than any other door they had passed. The stained windows were paned and narrow, with iron latticework crossing over them. The building was remarkably undecorated, despite painted letters on a sign above the doors proclaiming the building to be called Morherren.

Ray went inside alone again. Even if nothing moved outside except the wind, it felt wrong to leave Gavin without any lookout, and they didn’t dare move him somewhere they weren’t sure was safe.

The door swung heavily shut behind him. The inside of the building seemed to be entirely one room. Thick wooden pillars stood at regular places with some sort of banners hung from them. The walls themselves appeared to have large framed pictures lining them, eight in total and equally proportioned, but it was too dark to see their subjects. The windows’ light was warm and unhelpful.

Ray had entered onto some sort of stone landing that was mirrored on the other long side across from him, a landing that stretched the entire length of the building before ramping down at the ends. A few stone steps led down to a floor that was packed dirt, and Ray could see in the dim shadows what seemed to be a large fire pit smack dab in the center of the room, and along this dirt floor, long tables with benches were placed at regular intervals. At the ends of the room, the dirt floor met the stone. Ray could see the outlines of torches, but no fires were lit.

Ray was about to call out when he noticed the sitting silhouette of a man next to the fire pit. His heart jumped to this throat as he hopped down the steps.

“Hey,” said Ray as he approached the man and leaned down. “Can you help us? My friend, he’s…”

The man slowly turned his head to look at Ray. Ray could see his hair was curly, and he was wearing plain armor, but little else. Ray cut himself off, and waited for the man to speak.

“Don’t…”

“What?”

“…Kill…” The man spoke like every word cost him great energy. His few words alone were monotone, spoken with an almost familiar voice. His hand gently gripped the front of Ray’s tunic, holding him there with little strength.

“I’m sorry?”

“Pearls… Fault…” the man concluded, and then he hung his head as though exhausted and dropped his hand. Ray straightened with a frown.

Something flew right by his head, close enough for him to feel the wind and the feathers of the arrow that nearly grazed his cheek. Ray swore and ducked down, stumbling back towards the entrance. His eyes searched the shadows, sword drawn and outstretched, but he didn’t see anyone other than the man on the floor.

“Jack!” Ray shouted. “Jack—!

His heel hit the first stone step, and he fell. The stair dug into his back, his elbows slammed into the stone. Only his vice grip on his sword kept him from dropping it. It was just as well he fell, though, as a bowstring snapped and a sharp thunk sounded from the door.

No!” hissed a different man’s voice off to Ray’s left. Husky. Vaguely familiar. “We’re not supposed to kill him!”

Ray scooted up the short staircase, holding his sword aloft like it would do him any good. His other palm slammed down on the platform where it expected another step to be—he was at the top. He heard footsteps thunder at him from his left, metal armor clinking. Faintly he could see the shape in the darkness, a figure that raised its arms.

The door flung open, and light from the outside thrust into the dim hall, just in time for Ray to see a wavy-bladed sword cut down at him. Just in time for Jack to swoop in and swing up with his battleax, the long handle clanging against the blade, metal against metal. The figure stumbled back, and now there was enough light to identify him, and to see the woman across the room from the entrance, framed in the open doorway with a bow slung over her shoulder. She drew two short swords from her back as she jumped down the other short staircase in a single bound.

Ray rolled to the right and staggered to his feet. Maybe he should have expected to run into them at some point, but he was still surprised. Here he was, in an empty, dusty town, with Matt Peake sitting by the fire staring at him, and Elyse Willems charging at him, and Bruce Greene rolling backwards over his shoulder to avoid Jack’s second swing. The light from outside illuminated a few of the eight paintings, and Ray could guess pretty easily that each one was a portrait of a member of Funhaus.

Something about Peake’s stare kept pulling Ray’s attention. There was something unspeakably sad about it, something pleading. But Peake didn’t move as Elyse sprinted around him, her tall leather boots leaving no impression on the hard dirt floor. He just stared at him, one hand around his own throat.

Elyse reached the bottom of the stairs and was up them in two bounds. Ray slid back, keeping his balance as he passed one of the thick wooden columns. She wasn’t supposed to kill him, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t hurt.

She wore a leather chest piece over long-sleeved chainmail and metal engraved pauldrons that had some sort of sheer purple fabric flowing over her upper arms. Her gauntlets covering her forearms were also metal, and her thigh-high leather boots had gleaming iron plates sewn to them. Her hair was pulled back from her face, tied with a leather cord, and draped with golden chains. Around her throat was a gold necklace with five evenly spaced Ender Pearls.

Elyse swung with both swords, and Ray ducked low. One of them bit into the wooden column, the other only bouncing off it. Ray threw his arm against the column for balance and aimed a kick at her before she could recover, nailing her right in the stomach. The sword stuck in the column remained there, but she held on to the other as she stumbled back, the wind driven out of her lungs.

She took a gasp of air, and her eyes flashed as she glared at Ray. Ray was only vaguely aware of Jack fighting Bruce further down the platform, but from what he could glean from a glance, they seemed more or less evenly matched. Elyse recovered quickly, though, and lunged for Ray, both hands gripping her remaining short sword as she thrust it towards him. Ray knocked it aside with a backhanded swing. He sidestepped her and swept his foot under her, tripping her. She stumbled, but didn’t fall.

Don’t… Kill… Pearls… Fault… He could feel Peake’s eyes on him as Elyse regained her footing and resumed the fight. The Pearls around her neck glinted in the light streaming through the door as Ray did his best to parry her attacks. He was losing ground with every one of her strikes. Peake had been pleading with him.

“Don’t kill them, Jack!” Ray shouted suddenly. Elyse’s sword swung downwards, and he leapt to the side, nearly crashing into the wall. He had underestimated her recovery, however, and the blade was swinging horizontal again. He threw himself to the ground to avoid it, the stone jolting his bones, and he rolled and kicked at her knees.

What?” Jack roared. There was a sharp clang and a grunt as Bruce’s wavy sword bounced off Jack’s plate armor.

Ray kicked Elyse’s shins again when she struggled to remain standing. She fell on top of him. Ray dropped his sword and grabbed at her arms as she flailed, trying to get her legs back under her. He twisted, forcing her under him. She growled and shrieked and squirmed, but Ray held her arms down and kept his weight on her stomach. The necklace of Ender Pearls lay against her throat.

“Just trust me!”

Pearls… Fault… Pearls’ fault? What did Peake blame the Pearls for? Ray didn’t take the time to question it. He seized her necklace, taking on hand off her arm, and yanked. Just as he felt the necklace give, he felt her fist connect with his temple. White flashed across his vision, but the necklace of Pearls was in his hand, raised high above her head. Elyse’s eyes rolled up into her head, and she fell limp.

Ray scrambled to his feet, turning back towards Jack and Bruce. He watched a blow from Bruce’s sword connect with the handle of Jack’s ax, and they were pushing against each other, both grunting.

“The Pearls!” Ray cried. “Take them off him, he’ll pass out!”

With a guttural growl, Jack managed to shove Bruce back, and Ray could get a better look at him.

Bruce’s steel pauldrons and chest piece were intricately engraved, like Elyse’s pauldrons and gauntlets, but his gloves were thick leather. His thighs had plate armor sewn to the pant-legs and his tall leather boots were painted and embroidered. He had a beaten, shaped bit of gold across one part of his lower abdomen, held there over his armor by two gold chains like a belt. Here, there were three large Ender Pearls inset into the gold.

Ray couldn’t see Jack’s face, but he was sure he was rolling his eyes. “If you say so,” he muttered. He spun his battleax in is hands, the narrow, curving head cutting a wide circle in front of him. He waited for Bruce to make a move, thrusting the point of the wavy blade towards his neck. In a flash, the ax stopped spinning and knocked Bruce’s sword wide, Bruce’s arm swinging out. Nimbly, Jack shifted his grip on the battleax and swept it up. It streaked across the bottom of Bruce’s chest plate, the metal screeching.

Bruce collapsed to the floor, the golden chains sliced and the belt fallen off of him. Jack spun his ax once more before sliding it into its holster on his back. He turned towards Ray, his face red, panting.

“How did you know—never mind. We should go before they wake up again.”

Jack didn’t wait for Ray’s answer, but strode immediately towards the exit. Through the open door, Ray could see Gavin still draped across his horse, limp like a corpse. Ray’s mouth went dry at the sight of it, but he hesitated.

And then Peake spoke again. “Wait…” he breathed. Ray looked back to him. Peake, too, wore metal armor, but it was simply made and bore many superficial scratches. Unlike Bruce and Elyse, Peake was entirely undecorated, and wore things for their function and durability. He still watched Ray with heavy brown eyes. “Safe,” he said.

Jack paused at the exit, gesturing impatiently at Ray. “Come on, Ray.”

“Hold up, Jack,” Ray said, holding up a hand. He stepped up to the top of the staircase, keeping eye contact with Peake. “Peake—Matt.” Did they use surnames? “Are we safe here? Elyse and Bruce won’t stay down, right? They won’t attack us when they wake up?”

Peake nodded slowly. Ray looked back to Jack with a smug smile, one hand on his hip. Jack’s eyes, however, were narrowed and suspicious.

“And what makes you trust him?” he asked. “These are his friends. He’s probably on their side.”

“He told me about the Pearls, Jack.”

Jack searched Ray’s eyes, then sighed. His shoulders sagged as he started trudging back to the horses. “If that is what you want to believe,” he said. “You’re just as infuriatingly stubborn as the other Ray.”

“Yeah, well, family trait,” Ray said, bitterness seeping into his tone. Though, he thought, Jack probably wanted to believe it as much as Ray did.

Ray retrieved his rapier, shoved it back into the frog at his belt, and then jiggled Elyse’s stuck short sword out of the column. He tossed it on the ground next to her unconscious form right as Jack returned carrying Gavin in his arms. Gavin groaned and rolled his head weakly. Ray balled his hands into tight fists to stop them from shaking.

Jack seemed to have a basic understanding of the mead hall’s layout. He strode across the dirt floor in the center to the room Elyse had come out of earlier. Ray stuck close, matching his pace and feeling all around jittery.

The back room had a door, but it was held open with a wedge, and a dark curtain hung from the frame. Ray darted in ahead of Jack, holding the curtain open. This room was a lot brighter than the large room, a rectangular add-on to the building with windows nearly completely filling the outside three walls. In the cobblestone spaces between the windows, empty black torch brackets jutted out.

It was a long room, perhaps half the length and width of the large hall. Beds lined the walls and rhythmically filled the space in the center, simple wooden structures with white sheets and purple quilts and a chest at the foot of each one. Unlike the rest of the town, this room was not nearly as dusty. Jack brought Gavin to one of the ones right next to the door and laid him atop the covers. He took his glove off and placed his palm against the prince’s forehead. The wince told Ray that Gavin wasn’t any better.

Ray felt sick to his stomach. This was all his fault. He should have sent Gavin back when he first rode up. He should have sent him back when Jack caught up to them. Jack took one look at him and grimaced.

“The horses are tied to a post outside,” Jack said, tugging the covers out from under Gavin and pulling them over him. “Go get a flint and steel and get a fire going in the pit in the hall.”

Ray was glad for the excuse to leave. He left to follow instructions without a word.

Outside at the horses, he stood in front of Spirit with his head hung, hands clutching at her saddle with white knuckles. He just… needed a breather. Needed some air. Holy fuck. Was air always this hard to breathe?

He shivered and pressed his forehead against Spirit’s saddle, the leather cold against his skin. She snorted and stomped her feet. He didn’t really know what was going on, and he might die any day now, and Gavin was in poor condition, and his stomach ached with homesickness and guilt. A not-insignificant part of him was yearning to take the prince up on his offer to stay. Live out the rest of his life at the castle, where they can protect him.

But another part of him knew he couldn’t live like this. He couldn’t abandon his friends, and—and Michael, even if he had ruined any chance he had with him. The homesickness would never go away. Not when he didn’t fit into this world, not when the people in it had to constantly remind themselves that he was his own person. And a part of him knew that Kdin wouldn’t stop his efforts to catch him. This would never end until the Mage was confronted.

Ray pushed back from Spirit’s saddle with a sigh and began halfheartedly rifling through his bags for the flint and steel. He had a responsibility to keep going. He had to see this journey through to the end, whatever end that may be. God, but he was just so tired. He just wanted to go home.

He found the small pouch that contained the flint and steel and turned to go back inside the mead hall. He paused in front of the door, looking back down the street, back towards where they came from. A tall lanky figure, its proportionally too long arms dangling next to its proportionally too long legs, stood at the end of the street. They stared at each other for a few moments, watching each other. Then, finally, the Enderman turned away and vanished in a blink, teleported out of sight.

It felt like a warning.

Ray ducked back inside Morherren to light the fire and to wait for Elyse and Bruce to wake up again. His scalp prickled like he was being watched.

Chapter Text

Elyse awoke with a scream, the guttural wordless cry of someone who had just realized she had lost so much. Ray had been sitting on the ground near Peake, staring into the fire he had managed to light after a few (slow) pointers from the other man. He jumped so bad that he nearly fell onto his back, but caught himself on his hands and shifted to a crouching position. Peake, of course, hardly reacted.

The large fire cast the room in dim orange light, so Ray could see Elyse squirm on the floor, her back arched like she was trying to shove her skull through the stone, her hands pressing into her eyes. She wailed, her voice sometimes forming the word no. Jack tossed back the curtain to the room with the beds, holding it against the doorframe as he peered out of the doorway.

As Elyse’s wails quieted, Bruce stirred as well. He merely sat up and put his face in his hands. Elyse stood shakily, using the wall for support and her free hand to wipe tears from her face. Then, strangely, she flashed a smile at Ray.

“Phew, I feel a bit better now,” she said. “Been waiting a long time to do that.”

Ray slowly got to his feet as Jack joined him near the fire. Bruce and Elyse made their way towards the center, and Bruce crouched down next to Peake. They talked in low voices as Elyse tossed off the gold chains in her long blonde hair and shook it loose from its leather cord. Her eyes were still rimmed red, too shiny with the threat of more tears.

“Sorry about the fighting,” she said. “I’m Elyse, by the way.”

“We know,” Jack said, crossing his arms.

“And you are Ray,” Elyse said. Ray nodded before he realized that she had no reason to know his name. She grinned, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Thank you. The Pearls… made it very hard to think straight.”

Bruce stood again, his short brown hair stuck up over his large forehead like he had run his hands through it. He stepped close to Elyse and spoke in her ear, though Ray and Jack could still hear him. “Matt refuses to move. The spell has been on him for too long.”

“Spell?” Ray prompted, but Jack talked over him.

“Look, we’ve got someone in the other room who needs help. He was cut by an Enderman’s nails, and we don’t know how to help him.”

Elyse pursed her lips, but Bruce’s eyes sparked. “Only the nails? Show me to him.”

The four of them left Peake by the fire and headed for the curtain. Jack and Bruce passed underneath it, but Elyse gripped Ray’s arm and held him back. The ivory bracelet gleamed in the firelight, inches from her hand. Her voice was thick as she spoke, like she was talking around a lump in her throat.

“Beskytter gave you that bracelet,” she said.

Ray’s heart thumped uncomfortably in his chest. How old was that wolf? Was he in trouble? “Yes?”

She shifted her grip on his arm and held it gently in front of her, her other hand twisting the ivory bracelet around his wrist as she studied it.

“Beskytter used to live on my and James’s lands, off to the west. He left right around the time things… things got confusing. The Pearls made it hard to think. We’d get orders from the capital and we’d do them, and little else. Beskytter stole this from me. Tower, how long ago was that?”

Ray jerked his arm away and held his wrist in his other hand, partially shielding the bracelet. “So it’s your bracelet?”

Elyse shook her head. “Not anymore. It was in my possession for a time, but now it is yours. Even if I did lay claim to it, I don’t think I could bear to look at it for very long.”

“But do you know what it does?” Ray pressed. Elyse seemed to only be getting more depressed, and Ray was uncomfortable. Besides, he wanted to see if Bruce was helping Gavin. He itched to duck through the curtain… but if Elyse knew what the bracelet could do… “Why would Bis—why would that wolf give it to me?”

“To fight Kdin with, I assume,” she said. “James, my husband, gave it to me, and I know it works. It locks down the magic of its wearer. Anyone wearing that bracelet will be completely unable to cast spells.”

Ray stared. Elyse turned to enter the other room when something struck Ray. “Wait, Elyse. What—what happened to James, and the other guys?”

Elyse paused and swept her gaze around the mead hall. Ray looked again at the paintings; he couldn’t see them all from this angle, but he had stared at them for long enough as he had sat by the fire. Portraits, all of them, of eight people, each one with their own frame.

The style of the land seemed to be high collars, decorative see-through fabrics, and lots and lots of gems and jewelry. They all wore armor (except Lawrence), but all save Peake’s seemed to be more for show than for function. Ray could list their names in his head. Adam, James, Bruce, Elyse, Joel, Spoole, Lawrence, Peake. They were all proud in their portraits, serious and royal. Lord-like.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Elyse whispered. James’s portrait was visible from here, situated right next to hers. His blue eyes were bright even with just the fire pit’s light. “We three were the only Lords of this province without magic.”

Now she did enter the other room, the curtain falling heavily behind her. Ray hesitated. Endermen used to be people. Ray tended to push that fact to the back of his mind, but now he felt cold despite the warmth of the mead hall. Something about this land changed them, and Elyse probably watched her closest friends, her husband, turn into those creatures right in front of her eyes. Nearly two hundred years ago, and unable to do anything about it or even react due to the Pearls. He twisted the ivory bracelet around his wrist and passed through the curtain. Had any of the Endermen he’d seen been someone he knew?

Bruce sat on the edge of Gavin’s bed, Jack watching over his shoulder and Elyse standing at the foot of the bed. Bruce had tilted Gavin’s face towards him, so that he could see the dark slashes across Gavin’s cheek better. A small piece of fabric lay on the mattress beside him. A bucket of water had been retrieved from somewhere, and a damp rag hung on its lip. A door Ray hadn’t noticed before for how it usually blended into the wall opened to the yard behind the mead hall.

“Now, as I was saying,” Bruce said, glancing at Ray as he entered. “The real problem is the scab right here. You might have noticed it scabbed over almost immediately. It’s a part of the Enderman’s magic. It saps the victim’s energy, until they drop off. Luckily, this is an easy fix.”

“So you can help him,” Ray said. The nauseated feeling in his stomach was back as he watched Gavin breathe shallowly, eyes closed.

“Yes sir,” said Bruce. He felt Gavin’s forehead. “Sorry, this is going to sting a little.”

Bruce took a deep breath, then dug a fingernail under one of the long scabs. Gavin winced, but Bruce pressed his other hand against Gavin’s forehead and kept his head still. Bruce peeled the scabs off, one by one, moving carefully and methodically so that they came off at least mostly in one piece. He laid the dark scabs on the piece of cloth. Ray couldn’t look away. Gavin’s face twitched as the scabs ripped form his skin, and beads of blood began to squeeze up from the wounds underneath. But the wounds were bright red, like normal.

When all four scratch wounds had been reopened, Bruce folded the piece of cloth over the scabs and set it aside. He took the damp rag from the bucket and pressed it over Gavin’s cheek. The prince’s face relaxed now, and already his breathing was returning to normal, and color was starting to seep back into his face.

“Just needs a few days’ rest,” Bruce said.

“We don’t have a few days,” Jack said. It sounded almost threatening to Ray’s ears, and he glanced at him, startled. Bruce looked at Jack, then motioned Ray over to take his spot. He put Ray’s hand over the rag and instructed him to wipe away any blood and keep the wound clean. He stood and sighed, making eye contact with Elyse and nodding.

“Fine,” Bruce said. “I was going to save this for later but… In short, you’ll need it more than either of us. Regardless of whether or not Mage Kdin decides to send someone to ‘check’ on us.”

Ray was now the one on the edge of the bed, and his attention was entirely on Gavin. The prince’s face was finally peaceful again, like he was simply resting, his breathing deep and slow. He heard a chest creak open and slam shut, and then Bruce was at the bedside again. Ray scooted back to give him space, but Bruce merely put a round bottle half-filled with thin red liquid on the mattress. Its short narrow neck was corked, and its base was as large as Ray’s palm. Ray guessed what it was before Bruce even said anything.

“Get him to drink this the moment he’s conscious enough to swallow,” he said. “This will speed up the process. He’ll likely wake up in a couple hours, but it’ll only be for a short while. Can you at least wait that long?” He directed the question at Jack, and his tone was biting. Jack huffed and crossed his arms.

“We’ll need to stay the night here anyway,” he admitted.

“Of course,” agreed Bruce. “Morherren welcomes you.”

“It’s the least we can do,” Elyse added.

Bruce coughed once, awkwardly. “We’ll be in the main hall if you need us,” he said. He and Elyse ducked out the room, leaving Jack and Ray alone with the unconscious prince.

Jack sat on a nearby bed with a grunt. The room was silent for a while, both of them watching Gavin sleep. The worst was over, and for that Ray was thankful, but he still couldn’t seem to relax. He didn’t think he would ever relax until Gavin and Jack returned to their king.

“I can take over, if you want,” Jack said suddenly.

Ray shook his head. “I got it.”

Jack nodded and put his face in his hands. There was another long period of silence. Ray felt Gavin’s forehead. Still cold to the touch, but getting warmer. He mentally begged Gavin to wake up soon.

“You know,” Jack said, glancing at the curtain. “Bruce and Elyse, and the other guy… you realize they’re probably about two hundred years old?”

“I guess?” Ray shrugged. “I mean, Kdin’s still alive and young. Why not others?”

“Tower,” Jack said under his breath. “Just what happened to this land?”

“Bruce had mentioned a spell,” Ray said. “One that P—that Matt was under? Do you think it’s keeping them alive?”

Jack hummed to himself. “Maybe.” He lurched up from the bed suddenly, took a step towards the curtain before hesitating. “I… I think I’ll go ask see what he knows. I can’t stand being this idle. Keep… Keep an eye on my prince, will you?”

“Of course.” As if he was capable of doing anything else at the moment.


 

As the sun set, the room of beds rapidly darkened. Before Ray realized that it would soon be far too dark to actually see anything, Elyse came back with an armful of torches. She slid them into iron brackets all around the room and lit one with a flint and steel, and then used that torch to light the others. The task seemed to tire her greatly, and she sighed a lot as she left through the curtain again.

Gavin woke up soon after the torches were lit. His eyelids fluttered open, but Ray was ready. As soon as Gavin’s eyes stayed open for more than a fraction of a second, Ray uncorked the potion and put one hand behind Gavin’s head.

“Drink this,” he said, putting the lip of the bottle to Gavin’s mouth. “Drink it. Please.”

Gavin obeyed without any hesitation. Ray did not think he was conscious enough to really know what was going on yet. The red potion disappeared into the prince’s mouth, and with just a few swallows, the bottle was empty. Ray put the cork back in and set it on the floor, watching Gavin anxiously the whole time.

It took another half hour for Gavin to wake up completely. He slid back into a deep sleep. The four cuts on his face healed at a pace Ray could track, and he watched them pale and seal up, forming striking white scars across the prince’s face, slashing clean across the bit of scruffy facial hair on his jaw. The cuts healed completely in about ten minutes, but Gavin stayed asleep for twenty more.

Gavin’s eyes opened unceremoniously. One moment he was simply asleep, and the next he was staring up at the ceiling, blinking slowly. He took a few moments, examining the woodwork on the ceiling very carefully, before he shifted and let his hands clench around the covers. He tilted his head to look at Ray, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Ray couldn’t help it; he burst into tears. He just felt so overwhelmed with some odd combination of emotions he couldn’t really pinpoint. He pushed his hands into the mattress and pushed his shoulders to his ears and couldn’t stop the flow of tears.

“Ray…?” Gavin said, frowning now.

“Please go back!” Ray blurted. He squeezed his eyes shut and hung his head, his arms beginning to shake. God, why couldn’t he stop crying? He took off his glasses to wipe furiously at his tears, his cheeks hot. “Please go back home!”

The bed creaked, and the sheets shushed as they slid across each other. He felt Gavin’s arms around him, and he allowed himself to be embraced, moving to put his head on Gavin’s shoulder. They stayed like that until Ray could steady his ragged breathing, could stop wetting Gavin’s sleeve.

“Alright, lad,” Gavin said softly. “If that is what you want me to do.”

They pulled apart, and Gavin settled back, reaching behind him to prop his pillow against the bed’s backboard. He leaned into the backboard and hesitantly touched his cheek. Ray adamantly avoided looking at Gavin, his face burning as he put his glasses back on.

“We’re in the End, aren’t we?” Gavin asked in a low voice. Ray nodded, his hands balled into fists on his lap. “I can feel it. There’s… a heaviness in the air.”

“Yeah, when the Enderman scratched you… Well, we killed it, and we were going to take you back into Venator. But there was a fire—basically, Kdin herded us all into the End, and destroyed the land bridge behind us. We carried you to a nearby town for help.”

“Did you get my knife? I dropped it when I…”

“No, sorry. I forgot.”

“Oh. I liked that knife.”

Ray took deep steadying breaths. His face was cooling down, which was nice. He knew he should go get Jack, but… well, he just needed to calm down for a few more minutes.

“Ray. Look at me.” Ray sucked in a breath through his teeth and quickly faced Gavin again. The prince was leaning forward, a frown tensing his face. “Does it look that bad?”

“What? Oh, n-no, it’s—here.” Ray dug out his mirror shard and held it in front of Gavin’s face. Gavin took it with one hand and studied it, his other hand tracing the white scars. After a few minutes of examination, he pressed it back into Ray’s hands, and flashed a weak grin. Ray slipped the shard back into his pouch.

“Not as bad as it could be,” he said lightly. “I guess this makes us even, then.”

Ray made a perplexed grimace. “The fuck are you talking about?”

Gavin lightly hit Ray’s shoulder. “You know. You took a knife in the shoulder for me. I took an Enderman for you. We’re even, yeah?”

Ray put his face in his hands. Even? He had forgotten about that entirely. Thinking about the hired assassin made his shoulder ache. “You get some more rest,” he said. “I’ll go tell Jack you’re fine. Tomorrow, you and Jack are going to find a way to make it back to Venator, and you are gonna get home safely.”

“Wait—” Gavin bounced forward in the bed as Ray stood. He grabbed the hem of Ray’s tunic and swung his legs over the side. “I don’t want to go back to sleep yet. Let me go see Jack?”

Ray sighed and helped pull Gavin to his feet. “Fine, whatever. Let’s go.”

Ray let the prince lean on him as they went through the curtain. Gavin whistled softly through his teeth at the sight of the mead hall, and Ray couldn’t help but be impressed as well. With all the torches lit, the splendor of Morherren could be fully appreciated. The gold frames of the portraits gleamed and sparkled in the firelight, and once-colorful banners and tapestries, desaturated by age and dust, hung high from the thick wooden columns and from the walls.

Jack and the three Ender Lords all sat at one of the wooden tables near the fire pit. They had managed to coax even Peake onto the bench, and he leaned on the table’s surface like his elbows were the only thing keeping him upright. Elyse’s and Bruce’s shoulders sagged as well, but their eyes were still bright, and they were chatting with Jack.

When Ray and Gavin entered the room, Jack lurched up from the table with a blurted “Gavin!” He raced over, and Ray stepped aside to allow Jack to throw his arms around Gavin and actually lift the prince up off the ground in his hug. He set him back down and pulled back, placing a palm over Gavin’s scars.

“It’s good to see you awake,” Jack said. Gavin grinned up at him, then glanced past him to look at the three people at the table.

“Good to be awake. Who are they?”

Jack led them to the table and introduced the three Ender Lords to Gavin. He then went on to explain what information he had gotten from Bruce. He explained that the Enderman’s scratch had been sapping his energy, which is not usually lethal if treated, but drinking the health potion sped up the healing process.

Bruce and Elyse had been under the influence of Ender Pearls. The last thing they clearly remember was the war against Venator. Almost everyone who was rich enough wore Ender Pearls; it was the fashion, a mark of royalty and wealth. But everyone who wore it found their minds muddled. They knew there was a dragon, but they were not allowed to be fearful. By the time they realized that the Pearls were allowing an external force to influence their minds, it was too late.

Peake had never believed in wearing his wealth on his sleeve, and so had not been influenced. But then a spell over the land had fallen. The spell seemed to sap the energy of all who did not wear Ender Pearls, and everyone who had a drop of magic in their blood was changed, twisted into Endermen.

“Do you think the Ender Pearls are what keep Kdin around?” Ray asked.

Elyse shook her head. “The Pearls did not save James or the others.”

“It must be something else,” said Bruce. “What, I don’t know. We were just eight lords who mostly minded our own lands’ business. We were ordered around by the Mage and the queen, but we were never a huge part of the court.”

When Gavin yawned, Jack stood again. “We should call it a night,” he said. “We’ll be getting an early start tomorrow morning.”

Elyse’s hand shot out suddenly to grab Ray’s across the table as he, too, started to stand. “Wait, Ray, you’re… you’re going to fight Kdin, aren’t you?”

Ray took a moment to speak. He swallowed hard. “I’m… going to him, yeah.”

She glanced at Bruce, and the two of them shared a tense look. “We don’t know what our state will be, come morning,” she said, her voice carrying just the slightest shake. “The Pearls held off the spell’s exhaustion, but even now we feel it stealing over us. We have an armory here—please take anything, anything that may be of help to you.”

“And here,” said Bruce. He reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out something, placed it on the table between him and Ray. It was an apple, but it looked wrought in gold. It seemed to have a soft glow, producing a dim light all on its own. Ray stared, unsure of how to react.

“Just as gold never rusts,” said Bruce, “so does the enchanted apple never rot nor bruise. It has powerful healing properties that should help even you. Expensive to make, and therefore rare. Our last one. Take it.”

Ray picked it up slowly, turning it over in his hands. It was cool, and when he tapped his fingernail against its surface, it sure felt like metal. They expected him to eat gold? Minecraft world or not, wasn’t that poisonous? And it was their last one. It seemed precious, and they were giving it to him—because he was going to fight Kdin?

“Oh,” he said lamely. “No, I couldn’t…”

Bruce insisted, folding Ray’s hands over the apple. “I see your apprehension. It is a magical artifact, not a true gold-plated apple. You’ll find it eats like any other earthly apple. Take it. It’s all we can do to help, after you released us from the Pearls’ influence. Soon the darkness of our realm will overtake me and Elyse as it has Matt. Please—take it.”

Ray took it. He squeezed it before withdrawing his hand and standing up. He suddenly felt a massive responsibility around his shoulders, a responsibility he hadn’t really felt before. He had been going to Kdin to put an end to his time here, to go home or die trying. But now there were people actually counting on him, faces he recognized that begged him to save their home. His head felt light, and the world spun a little.

Bruce stood up and bowed, folding his hands in front of him as he nearly touched his head to the table’s surface. “I hope you are successful in your quest,” he said. “I hope that you bring life back to my country.”

Ray crossed his arms across his chest, hugging his arms close in an effort to stop from shivering. He jumped when he felt Gavin’s hand on his shoulder. He took a deep breath.

“I’ll try,” he said.

Chapter Text

The Rose Thief liked to spend a couple hours each night at camp sitting behind the king’s tent. A person or two on watch might see him, but they always carefully avoided looking directly at him. He was easy enough to ignore; soldiers sat all around the camp, and there was hardly a spot that wasn’t in view of another tent’s opening. He did this almost every night. He’d be unable to fall asleep at first, so he would leave Michael sleeping and walk around a little, ending up eventually behind Geoff’s tent.

So he’d eavesdrop. It probably wasn’t the most moral thing to do, but he felt he deserved a little leeway. Geoff had lied to him too. He wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. Because, by the light of the Tower, he was tired. Confused. The king wanted his prince back, of course, and the First Adviser was off getting him. He was never sure what Ryan ever wanted, but Michael, Michael was just as confused but seemed to be hoping things could go back to the way they were before the Rose Thief was framed. He wasn’t sure how anything would be played out, and he wasn’t even sure how he would react once everyone was together again. Mostly he didn’t want any more secrets kept from him.

So he eavesdropped.

Most nights, the king quieted and went to bed soon after the tents were up. But this night, Geoff stayed up with Ryan. They tried to keep their voices low, but their volume would creep up before they managed to quiet again.

“… seems to be calm again. Whatever was worrying him seems to have passed,” said Ryan. A pause. “So what are you going to do once we get there? You can’t just proclaim the prince innocent or lessen his punishment. The people won’t trust your power if you just let the whole thing slide. And you can’t exactly keep it a secret for very long, not with the gossips.”

“We’ll get there when we get there,” Geoff said. The Rose Thief could hear him pacing the tent. “Tower, do you think I know the answer to everything?”

“You knew the truth of the whole ordeal,” Ryan said, his voice carefully calm. “You had lots of time to prepare for an outcome like this. Speaking of, isn’t that a crime as well? Withholding information? Lying in court?”

“The public doesn’t have to know all the details. They don’t need to lose faith in me for trying to protect my prince. Besides, I—look, I had hoped Gavin would come forward when he saw the trial go through. This whole thing would have been easier, then. It could have been addressed as a prank gone too far. But I wasn’t going to force him.”

“And why not? You were going to risk Ray’s life for… for what?”

Geoff sighed. “Alright, you stupid manipulative Mage. I sort of figured that if I stopped him myself, he’d just do something else, something potentially more dangerous. I just… let it play out, and hoped he’d fess up on his own, and stop his stupid machinations.”

“Sounds like you have a pretty good idea why he was doing it.”

The Rose Thief sat up a little straighter, his heart thumping in his throat.

“Isn’t it fucking obvious? That boy was Tower-struck by Michael. He knew I didn’t like the idea of the two of them; the prince and the future Captain of the Guard being together seemed rife with problems. If that was what he was willing to do to, shall we say, get rid of the competition, I didn’t want to see what he was capable of if I put up more resistance. So I let it go. And before you say anything, yes, it was the wrong thing to do. I know. But how do you think I felt when my own prince, someone I love as a son, went to such desperate measures? I wanted to believe he’d own up to it. I wanted to believe he’d regret it and feel bad enough about it to stop it short.”

“But he didn’t,” said Ryan quietly. “It took the other Ray to push him.”

“Yes,” said Geoff. “It was… disappointing. That it came to this. But I still have hope that we can regroup…”

If there was more to the conversation, the Rose Thief didn’t hear. He got up and stalked away, wandering back to his tent without sparing a glance to anyone he passed.

He ducked under the tent flap and immediately kicked off his boots. It was dark, unlit by stars or moon or campfire, but he could still make out the sleeping form of Michael under the tangle of blankets on the ground. He felt a brief surge of victorious smugness as he stripped—despite Gavin’s best efforts, he was still the one who ended up with Michael. But the feeling was short lived. He and Michael had suffered for five years because… Gavin had been jealous?

He wriggled under the blankets behind Michael and pressed up against him, snuggling his face into the back of Michael’s shoulder and folding an arm around him. Michael shifted and turned his head slightly, as though he could see the Rose Thief from his angle.

“Have a nice walk?” he mumbled.

For all his anger about secrets, the Rose Thief knew right then that he could not share this secret with Michael. Guilt squeezed his stomach—Michael had told him about Geoff, when no one else seemed to be taking the initiative. But how could he tell Michael that the reason this all happened boiled down to him?

“Yeah,” he said. “It was nice.”


 

Ray was so exhausted by the day’s emotional and physical ordeals that he didn’t even remember putting his head to the pillow. He slept deeply, with no dreams, in a Morherren bed next to a window, and awoke only when sunlight streamed across his face. When he awoke, he felt strangely calm. Emotionally numb might be a better phrase. Either way, he thought, it was better than anxiety and guilt.

He realized with a start that Gavin was sitting on the edge of his bed, tossing a wavy-bladed dagger with one hand. As Ray pushed himself onto his elbows, Gavin gave the dagger one last flip, and shoved it back into a black-leather sheath he held in his other hand. He bounced around to face Ray, a wide grin on his face, and held out the sheathed dagger. The sheath was tipped with finely worked silver, with a row of round white moonstones lining the wide flat surface.

“Hey what do you think—Good morning, by the way—what do you think of this dagger?”

Ray stared. He rubbed his eyes and struggled up to a proper sitting position, blearily reaching for his glasses on top of the chest at the foot of the bed. Gavin’s attitude was a shock in the morning, acting like they weren’t about to go their separate ways. Or try to.

He took the dagger from Gavin and examined it. It had a round, glossy amethyst of the deepest purple Ray had ever seen for a pommel. The handle was leather-wrapped dark green, and its small pointed guard was twisting silver, polished and delicate. As he looked at it, Gavin prattled on about the armory, which evidently he and Jack had visited before Ray awoke.

“It was shaped like the bow of a ship’s deck! And was absolutely crowded with armor stands and weapon racks and chests. They’re really well stocked—anything you could possibly need, right there! I even took some spare bowstring. But the weirdest thing was, nothing was rusted—just dusty!”

Ray handed the dagger back to Gavin with a yawn. “Do you really think you should take this from them?” he said. “It seems really fancy.”

“Oh believe me, Ray,” Gavin said, attaching the sheathed dagger to his belt and fidgeting with it until it rested at the small of his back. “This wasn’t even the fanciest one by far. The Ender Kingdom’s main product and export had always been precious materials. Besides, they said we could take anything. Jack wanted to get you some chainmail at least, but I told him not to bother. It’ll just tire you out with how heavy it is, and besides, what good is chainmail against a Mage? And I’m sure a dragon’s claw will just tear right through it anyway…”

Gavin, shut up. You’re babbling.”

“Oh!” Gavin’s hands flew to his mouth. He turned away as if truly scorned, his energetic demeanor suddenly plummeting like a campfire doused. Did Ray do something wrong? Ray reached for Gavin’s shoulder, but hesitated, his hand hovering.

The door to the main hall swung open, the curtain fluttering as Jack swept through it, back in his full armor and tunic. He stopped just inside the door, crossing his arms.

“I thought I heard talking. There’s been sunlight for an hour; it’s high time we got moving.”

Gavin lurched up from his seat on the edge of Ray’s bed as Jack strode over. Gavin kept his eyes downcast, his hands gripping the hem of his green tunic, as Jack strode forward. Ray got up to meet Jack, stretching as he stood. And then Jack was smiling a small smile and pushing something into Ray’s hands.

Ray blinked sleepily. It was a pair of brown leather bracers, lined with silk. One bracer had a red blooming rose embroidered on its top, curving thorns spinning out from behind it, and a green stalk twisting around the bracer below it. The other bracer was similar, but had a closed rose blossom.

“I found these in the armory,” Jack said quietly. “It’s… not a lot. But maybe you’ll like them. If we’re splitting up here—if I can’t give you chainmail…”

Ray stared at the bracers, his eyes stinging. He glanced past Jack, to where Gavin stood meekly behind him. The prince’s mouth twisted into a wry smirk, and Ray felt the urge to smile tug at the corners of his own mouth. He raised his eyes to meet Jack’s again. It seemed like someone was reluctant to leave Ray out here on his own.

“They’re supposed to be enchanted with some endurance spell. I don’t know if it’ll work for you, or if it’s expired, but…”

“Thanks, Jack,” Ray said. He reached out and clapped Jack on the arm, giving him a few pats. He appreciated it, he did. But, then, why did he have a horrible feeling twisting his stomach? “They’re nice.”

Gavin reached up and pulled at Jack’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get the horses ready, and let Ray get dressed.”

Jack nodded, but only took a step before he turned back to Ray. “You know,” he said. “I get that you can’t return to Achievement City with us. But we can go back to the border together, wait for the army, and go with Plan A. You do have a choice.”

“I’m sorry, Jack,” Ray said. His heart felt heavy as stone. “I really don’t. Kdin’s already impatient enough to burn bridges behind me. I can only go forward from here on out.” Hopefully Kdin will let you go back, though.

Jack sighed deeply, and though he looked like he wanted to say something else, he turned away and left the room. Gavin held Ray’s gaze for a moment longer before following.


 

They were almost done packing up camp for the morning. The Rose Thief hovered near Michael, never straying more than a few feet away, but his eyes were more focused on the king. Geoff was already packed, and Ryan was never far from him as well. They were chatting in low voices, the soldiers bustling around them, each clutching the reins of their horses. His eyes narrowed; he very much desired to hear what they were talking about.

“You feeling alright?” Michael asked him suddenly. “You seem kind of… absent.”

He jumped, turning to find Michael staring at him with a worried frown. He went for Michael’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “I’m fine, Michael. Just a little tired.”

“Tired,” Michael snorted. “You’ve been watching the king like a rabbit. You’re telling me you’re just tired.”

Inwardly, he cursed. Michael was far more observant than he gave him credit for. Michael had given him a chance to outright say what was on his mind, but now he was being called out.

“Did you talk to him last night?” Michael pressed. “While you were on your walk? Did he say something to you?”

“No!” he cried. Michael was jumping to rather distrustful conclusions—no, he had made a promise to himself to preserve what faith Michael had left. He lowered his voice. “No, nothing like that. I’m just…” His mind scrambled wildly. “I’m just hoping they find something out about my doppelgänger. I still feel a little responsible for him, you know?”

Relief breathed through him when Michael smiled sympathetically. “If Jack is still with him, then I’m sure no harm will come to him.”

They looked back over to Geoff and Ryan. “Maybe you’re right,” he said with a sigh.

Ryan clutched at his head suddenly and swooned, leaning heavily against his horse. Geoff lurched to steady him, but after a few seconds, Ryan had recovered. But the Rose Thief and Michael were already jogging over, demanding to know what had happened.

“Just, a sudden surge,” Ryan murmured, rubbing his forehead. “Of magic. You guys wouldn’t feel it, you’re not sensitive enough, but…”

“What do you mean a surge?” Geoff pressed.

“He’s doing his long distance thing,” Ryan said, grumbling and pale as a lily. “A huge amount of magic, channeled over half the End, I’m sure. Enough to spill this far. It was just so unexpected, and I—flashbacked to when I was transfigured.”

“Kdin,” the Rose Thief breathed. Ryan nodded.

“Whatever he’s doing, it’s probably not great for our friends.”


 

Ray washed his face in a basin standing against one of the walls, filled with cold well water, before quickly changing into his warmer clothes and following Jack and Gavin outside.

He put on a long black jacket, a single blooming-rose clasp holding it shut over a white pleated shirt. The jacket’s long sleeves fed into the dark leather bracers on both forearms. Black pants tucked into his tightly laced black and white boots. The ivory bracelet still fit over his wrist easily, even with the bracers. The red cloak was of a heavy material, the hooded kind with a tall collar and three rope ties across the top of the front opening. When he put it on, it fell almost to his ankles, and he stuck his arms through the additional slits down the sides.

He was really glad he packed this cloak. When he rushed through the main hall (Elyse and Bruce waved at him wearily before putting their heads back down on the table, mimicking Peake beside them) and went through the front doors, he was greeted by a chill wind. The heavy cloak cut most of the cold, and he drew it closer around him. Jack and Gavin still looked miserable, the prince shivering next to Sunstepper. The horses stamped their hooves impatiently.

Jack handed Spirit’s reins to Ray. “Gavin and I might have a problem going back,” he said in a low voice. He was twisting the emerald ring on his finger, fidgeting with it.

Ray felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Down the end of the street, right where the street turned out of sight, right where he had seen one Enderman last night, were three. Tall, lanky, black, their violet eyes like candlelight pinpricks in a dark night. Blocking the path back to the border.

No, no, it couldn’t be. Kdin just wanted him. He didn’t care about Jack or Gavin. All those dreams—those fucking dreams—gave Ray the idea that Kdin wanted only him. He was supposed to go alone. Fear-driven anger made his skin prickle. He marched several paces towards the Endermen, flinging his cloak back.

He shouted at the Endermen, at the sky, not giving any thought to whether or not the Mage could hear him. “Let them go!” he screamed. Jack and Gavin watched him silently. He felt like they were watching him go insane. “It’s me you want, not them! Let them go home!”

A chorus of clinking arose behind him, sweeping towards him. The tiled roofs were shaking with an approaching wind. A hot gust pushed past them, but briefly, like a wall of air was expanding over the land. His head felt heavy, like his ears were being stuffed with hot cotton. As the tiles on the roofs settled, Ray thought he heard laughter.

Ray took a step back. The flagstone street under the Endermen churned, the stone cracking and tilting up as the earth bulged. Bony hands shone white under the morning sun as skeletons squirmed out of the ground. A dozen, more, conglomerations of bone and sinew, misshapen jaws clacking and rattling. The sun itself seemed dim, Ray realized—dimmer than this gray land already was.

Ray felt a hand on his shoulder and allowed Jack to pull him back to the horses. Gavin had an arrow nocked to his bow, but he didn’t raise it. There were too many. When Ray looked again, a few Creepers had joined the crowd, their scales flashing. His vision edged gray.

“Looks like we’re not going back,” Jack said quietly.

“No,” Ray protested. He tried to be loud, but he couldn’t make his voice cooperate. Weak; he was weak. “No you have to, you have to go back! You—you can’t come with me. You can stay here maybe!” When he said that, he thought he heard laughter again. The crowd of monsters crept forward at his words. Maybe not.

He was breathing too fast, he knew. Jack squeezed his shoulder. He felt hot, too hot; he pushed Jack away, stumbled. He pressed his hands against his eyes. Blood roared in his ears. He looked at the crowd of monsters again, and saw only violet flame. Jack and Gavin did not seem to react to this; they were only watching him, ready to catch him if he fell. It was too bright; he squinted, shielded his eyes. Fire as bright as the sun, covering the crowd of monsters. A figure, a vision, silhouetted shakily in the flame, human, watching. Laughing. His skin prickled as though with static. Did they not see it?

No one escapes me.

Darkness swept over him. The world went numb.


 

Something was moving beneath him, rocking him up and down. Something held him around the waist. His eyes flickered open, barely taking in the blond mane of a horse under his nose. Long gray-green grasses reached up for him, scraped against the horse’s ankles. He had a moment of disoriented confusion. Where was he? What happened?

He jolted as he remembered, and the something around his waist tightened, pressing him back into a body. Gavin, it was Gavin. He was on Sunstepper. He had… he had seen Kdin? In a fire? There had been—a summoning of skeletons, Endermen, Creepers.

“He’s awake, Jack!”

“Wh—what…”

Ray raised his head, shaking it to clear it. They weren’t on the hill anymore. Ray was riding in front of Gavin, and Jack was leading Spirit, and they were back on grassy plains. The southern mountains were larger in front of them than they had been before, though they were still a ways off. Perhaps several days’ ride. The sun was nearing its apex, though still visibly in the east.

Gavin’s breath was hot on his ear. “You fainted, Ray.”

Jack drew closer on Lapis, tugging Ray’s horse along. “Thank the Tower—I was worried that you might not wake up on your own.”

“Why are you guys still with me?” Ray groaned. “You were supposed to…” He inhaled sharply, choking off his words. He had seen Kdin? “Didn’t you see—? The—the—the fire, and, I saw Kdin, I saw…”

“All we saw were the summoned monsters,” Jack said. “There was no fire.”

“Even I felt the magic rolling off of you,” Gavin said. “This Mage bloke really has it in for you.”

“For me,” Ray said. “Not you. Why aren’t you—why didn’t you leave me!?”

Gavin made a hushing noise and squeezed his arms tighter around Ray in a brief hug. Jack sighed heavily, and looked over his shoulder. Ray followed his gaze as best he could, just in time to see a tall black figure in the plains behind them disappear.

“We’re all being herded south,” Jack said gravely.

“No,” Ray whispered. “No, no, it’s not supposed to be like this. I’m supposed to go alone, you’re…”

“Come off it, Ray,” Gavin said quietly. “We tried. Every step backwards brings another enemy. Kdin might be tired after that spell, but he still has his servants.”

Ray felt like crying. He was sure that he was taking his friends into a losing battle. He didn’t want to watch them die, eaten by a dragon or killed by a spell. Jack raised a hand to his mouth, the emerald on his ring touching his lips as he gazed towards the mountains.

“Looks like Kdin is our way home as well,” said Jack.

Chapter Text

They made slow progress south. The horses dragged their hooves, their heads hanging as though heavier than usual. Ray rode with Gavin for a couple hours past waking up from his faint; the wooziness, the feeling that his head was wrapped in wool, took a while to pass. They took a break at midday, but they didn’t eat. Ray managed to nibble a bit of their bread, but no one seemed to be hungry at all. They stretched their legs and shivered, and the horses hung their heads and nuzzled the grass out of boredom rather than hunger.

And then they were plodding along again, Ray back on his own horse. They were not yet at the foothills of the mountains ahead, but the threat of them tugged the land up into slopes and broad hills. There were never more than a dozen trees in one spot; trees were spread out and sparse, their gray-green leaves shaking in the wind.

Jack claimed his armor provided decent enough insulation, but Ray finally got so sick of how miserable Gavin looked, hunched up small for warmth in his saddle, that he ripped off his red cloak and tossed it at him. Gavin tried to refuse, but Ray told him to shut up and take it as he dug a cape out of one of his bags. Gavin bundled himself up in Ray’s heavy cloak, and Ray attached his cape to the shoulders of his jacket. He drew the cape around him like a blanket, but it was a lot thinner than his cloak.

It wasn’t cold enough to freeze, but when the wind blew, it sure felt like it.

The wind seemed to mostly come from the south, so when the sun began to set, they camped on the north side of a hill underneath a crooked tree that fanned its leaves over them like a roof. They huddled together for warmth, Gavin sandwiched between Jack and Ray. Before the sun had even disappeared below the horizon, they fell asleep like that, pressed against each other on top of a blanket and under two more.

Ray fell asleep immediately, but his rest was fitful. He woke up on his back in the middle of the night and stayed awake a moment, enraptured by the number and brightness of the stars he could see through the leaves of the tree. He’d been camping outside for over a week and he was still always surprised by how many there were. Light pollution in his world was a real bitch.

He rolled over to get back to sleep and found himself face to face with Gavin, who was very much awake. There wasn’t even a foot of space between them. Gavin was back to back with Jack, who slumbered undisturbed on the other side of the prince. He could see the stars reflected in Gavin’s eyes, the four scars slashing white across his cheek.

“What are you doing awake?” Ray whispered. Gavin averted his gaze, tracing circles in the blanket between them.

“Just trouble falling asleep. Just been thinking…” Gavin murmured. His eyes flicked up to meet Ray’s. They seemed glossy in the starlight. “About where we are. I tried to go back, Ray. I did. I didn’t want to lie again. I tried, I did.”

“Shh, I know, I know.” Ray took a deep breath. Christ. “It’s not your fault you’re here with me now. You should at least try to fall asleep, though.”

Gavin stared at him and chewed his lip. “I know, but I’m struggling.” He paused, averted his gaze again. “Maybe you could tell me about your Michael and Gavin? I want to hear about your home. About who I saw in the mirror.”

Ray hesitated. It was an odd request, maybe, but… even in the dark he could see the tired circles under Gavin’s eyes. And hell, he just looked so fucking weary. If it helped…

“Alright, alright, if you think it’ll help you fall asleep. Hmm… Well, for starters, in my world you’re a real asshole. Really smart guy, but does really stupid things.” Briefly he paused, caught up in wondering how different the eyes in front of him were from their identical counterparts back home. Gavin breathed a chuckle, flashing a white smile.

“Not much different,” he said. Ray smiled back. 

“He learned how to operate this really complicated camera, this machine, and does what so few people can, and yet he gets his finger stuck in a hole in his desk. I don’t know how he does it.”

“I can imagine it,” murmured Gavin.

“Hush. You should be trying to sleep, not talking.”

“Sorry.”

Ray licked his lips as Gavin dutifully shut his eyes. Gavin’s hand was resting on the blanket between them. “Michael, my Michael, he… Well, he’s an asshole too. We all are, to be honest. He eats things he probably shouldn’t just because someone bet him to do it, and he plays up his anger sometimes for laughs. But he cares deeply, and he works hard…” Ray paused to take a few breaths. He needed a moment. Fuck, how long had it been since they had last seen Michael in the mirror? A week?

“And you love him.”

Gavin mumbled his words sleepily. The statement caught Ray off guard, despite knowing it to be true. It made his chest ache regardless. He looped his arm through Gavin’s and squeezed his hand. It felt nice, to hold it, especially when Gavin squeezed back.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” he said quietly. “He’s my best friend. He came out to visit me in my hometown, before we worked together, and we just hung out all day. We could talk for hours without getting bored. He’s been my… my hope. To get back home, to see him and my other friends again. He’s worry about me. And I think I spoke too soon to him, about my feelings. But we both just want me home. Seeing his face makes me… hope that it’s still possible.”

Ray watched Gavin’s face and memorized the shadows caused by the stars and the tree. Gavin breathed deeply, steadily, completely relaxed. Asleep. With a sigh and a sudden chill breeze, Ray huddled closer and, too, drifted off to sleep.


 

Ray awoke to weak sunlight filtering through the leaves to streak across his face. He blinked, confused and sleepy, his arm still entangled with Gavin’s. Both Gavin and Jack were still sound asleep, their chests rising and falling in a steady rhythm.

Ray reached for his glasses and sat up to squint at the sky. The sun was well above the horizon in the east, far higher than Ray expected it to be. Jack usually shook them awake not long after dawn, and Ray was usually the last one up. Yet now he was the first, and Jack was still asleep.

There was a static energy in the air despite the sky being cloudless. Ray reached over Gavin and shook Jack by the shoulder. “Hey, wake up. It’s like, midmorning.”

Jack grumbled and pulled the blanket tighter around him, so Ray shook him harder. When Jack finally stirred, Ray tried to wake Gavin. Jack sat up with a grunt, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. When he looked at the sun, however, he jolted up to his feet.

“It’s late!” he cried. Gavin mumbled something about half an hour longer and rolled over, but Ray smacked his arm. “How did we stay asleep so long? We should have gotten moving an hour ago at the latest!”

Gavin curled up into a ball under the blankets, and Ray groaned. He pulled at Gavin’s arms and heaved the prince up by the armpits. “Come on, you prick, get up.”

Jack marched over and helped Ray put the prince forcibly on his feet. “Come on,” Jack said, his voice tight and strained. “We should make up for lost time.”

Once he was on his feet, Gavin grew more alert. He stretched his arms over his head before bending down to bundle up the blankets.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “It was just… once I was asleep…”

Ray rolled his eyes, but Jack said, “There is a sort of drowsiness in the air here.”

All three of them froze at that statement, staring at each other. No one said anything for a good few moments, but they all thought the same thing. Would they end up like the Ender people?

The sound of a horse snorting drew their attention. Sunstepper tossed his head and lowered its body to the ground. Gavin moaned and jogged over, shoving the blankets into Jack’s arms as he passed. He held his horse’s head in both hands and tried to coax the golden steed back to standing. Sunstepper would have none of it, and no amount of tugging would get him to stand again. Gavin shot Ray and Jack a pleading look, but as soon as Ray took a step forward, the other two horses sank to the ground, their heads drooping.

A sound in the distance chilled Ray to his core. An echo of an echo, but all three of them heard it and turned their heads to the south. Like an eagle screech pitched way down, like how t-rexes sound in movies, it was something Ray had heard before in a dream.

“We should get moving,” Ray said slowly, as though there was a crouching lion eyeing them a few feet away, rather than a dragon a hundred miles or more away. “If the horses won’t come, we walk.”

There was no argument about that. The horses drooped their heads and refused to move, and though it was painful to leave them, they had no choice. If they didn’t move, Kdin or one of Kdin’s servants would ensure they did. They unsaddled the horses, took off the reins, and shoved everything they needed into bags they could sling over their shoulders. Ray attached an extra pouch to his belt and put the golden apple inside. The jar of congealed magic he snuck into his bag, wedged carefully between an extra outfit and a blanket. By the time he pulled the long strap over one shoulder, everyone was ready to go.

They gave the horses one last pat on their noses, and trudged up the hill on foot.

They didn’t hear another eagle-like cry for the rest of the day. Gavin fell behind several times, dragging his feet to the point where Jack was ready to snap at him. The hills got larger and more forested, though trees were still sparse except in thickets. Soon it was better to just crest them rather than go around. Even if they had the horses, it would have been sluggish progress.

Every time they crested a hill and paused to catch their breath, Ray glanced back to the north. Two or three hilltops away, he would always glimpse an unnaturally lanky black figure before it disappeared in the blink of an eye. And then he’d be hurrying Jack and Gavin along. They would both protest, Gavin far more than Jack, whining for more rest, but they did move.

They weren’t sure where they were going exactly, other than south towards the jagged mountain range. No being appeared to direct them otherwise. Dusk was fading by the time Ray was willing to let them stop for the night. They hiked to the top of one last final hill, one bare except for an enormous evergreen that blanketed the ground beneath it with brown needles. From the top of it, even in the dying light, Ray could see a lake to their south, nestled between the hills with a gray stone shore. They could probably reach it the next day.

Gavin threw down his bag before Ray even said anything about stopping. He threw himself to the ground, massaging his feet and calves. Ray’s own feet ached, but he did his best to ignore it. He had to be the strong one, now. He saw that very clearly.

Just like the previous night, they did not build a fire, but rather huddled together under blankets. Ray slept poorly, and could tell Gavin did as well by the way the prince fidgeted, but he stubbornly kept his eyes closed. Ray awoke when the sun peeked over the horizon, and he got Jack and Gavin moving quickly. No one felt much like eating.

They were climbing a broad, bald hill, the morning nearly entirely past, when they heard the cry again. It was much closer this time, and made the hills ring with its echo. They froze at its sound, huddled together at the crest of the hill, heads searching the sky. Hills, foothills, stretched around them, copses and thickets on some, nothing but grass and rocks on others. The jagged mountain like teeth paled in the distance, stretching across the southern horizon.

“What do we do?” Jack asked, his voice strained.

Gavin’s longbow creaked as he tested the string. “We hide. And if it comes close, we fight.”

“I’d rather just hide,” Ray squeaked. “Like, now.” This hilltop was way too exposed. The dragon was coming—coming! The fucking dragon!

“This way!” Jack took off for the southwest face of the hill. Ray was the last to react, only by a second or two, but just as he reached the downward slope, Gavin and Jack bolting towards the tiny creek and row of shrubs and bushes at its base, the dragon made itself known.

The screech was as loud as a train, and though Gavin and Jack kept half-stumbling, half-sprinting down the hill, Ray froze in his tracks like a deer in the headlights. There it was, in the southern sky, rapidly growing larger like a car speeding on a highway straight for Ray, who should really fucking get out of the middle of the road. It looked the size of a thumb at this distance, and they could faintly hear the powerful whump of its black wings.

“Ray! Move!” Gavin cried. He had stopped halfway down the hill. Jack had not realized Ray had frozen until he had reached the bottom.

Ray couldn’t make his legs work. His eyes were glued on the black dragon as it tucked its wings against its body and dove, straight for him. Four legs, long tail, long neck, gray spines lining its back, it streaked through the sky towards Ray. His mind soon only said one thing. Run. But the message didn’t get to the rest of his body.

Get down!” Gavin shrieked.

The black dragon thrust its wings back out to the side, slowing its descent as its rear talons stretched for him. Weak sun filtered through dark purple membranes. Rapidly, the dragon’s full fifty foot height and 120 foot wingspan filled the sky in front of Ray. Wind from the wings buffeted Ray, and just in time he threw himself to the ground to avoid the curving claws.

Or so he thought. The claws raked through the air above him, and he thought he was free—until his cape wrenched at his shoulders and the ground blurred beneath him. The dragon’s rear claw had caught in his cape. He kicked and forgot to scream, his hands gripping the cape so it wouldn’t pull so bad, wouldn’t destroy his jacket.

A loud rip tore through the air, and with a shudder and a jerk, Ray fell, his cape half as long as it once had been. He skidded into the dirt and grass, rolled and tried desperately to tuck his limbs and head in. It was only a few seconds, but it seemed to last a lifetime. Miraculously, when it was over, he was unharmed, except for some dirt and skin rubbed raw.

He staggered to his feet. He was still on the bald hill. An arrow whistled over his head as he automatically drew his sword, his bag slipping off his shoulders. Gavin was sprinting towards him, another arrow already drawn in his bow, but Ray spun to look for the dragon.

He saw it as it was almost on top of him again. Its eagle-like scream rattled Ray’s skull. It had wheeled around to the north of the hill and sped back towards him. This time, he could see its eyes so violet they seemed to glow, its head as big as a truck, with two long gray horns curving back over its skull. Its mouth was open to screech, revealing fangs as long as his arm. The hind claw reached for him again, longer than he was tall, curving talons tapering to a wicked point.

His stomach and chest took the brunt of it, the breath escaping him as the talons closed around him. It felt like running straight into a wall when it scooped him up. His head snapped forward, his vision briefly clouded with gray. The beat of its wings bellowed in his ears, blasting away any arrows Gavin shot. The ground was lost underneath Ray, the grass blurring ever faster into gray-green and yellow streaks, but the dragon did not try to ascend very quickly.

His right arm was pinned against his torso, his left scrabbling for a handhold against scales like flakes of obsidian. The foot was leathery and dark gray, like the dragon’s underside. He was able to wriggle his right arm, and discovered his hand was empty—his sword! He had dropped his sword! He kicked his legs as he struggled to bend his arm. The dragon was transporting him, trying not to kill him, and was still made of soft flesh. He pushed against the claw with his left arm and drew up his right. He needed something sharp, something like…

His hand found the pouch at his belt. He could almost feel the leather creasing and cracking as he forced his hand under the flap against the dragon’s foot. He roared in effort and fear, but pushing against the foot and forcing his other elbow out gave him just enough space to slip the mirror shard out and pry his right arm out of the foot’s grip. Then, he gripped the shard in both hands, and drove it into the leathery part of the dragon’s foot. The foot twitched, tightened around him. He shoved again, forcing it in deeper. Red blood seeped up, spilling warmth onto his hands. The dragon screeched, and the claw opened.

Ray had enough of a handle on the shard to yank it back out of the dragon’s foot, but it tumbled out of a grip slacked as he plummeted, a scream ripping out of his throat. The dragon had begun to carry him over the lake, though they weren’t that high yet. The dragon seemed more intent on covering distance rather than climbing high. Still, he barely had enough time to grab at his glasses when he hit the water at an angle.

He sucked in a breath, but it didn’t last long. He hit the water hard, the surface slapping him as he skidded across it. It was like jumping out of a speeding car; he skipped across the lake like a stone. Water forced its way up his nose, into his mouth, choking him, until he sank. The cold was a shock, the water icy. He flailed, his one hand clutching onto his glasses for dear life as he tried to remember how to move his limbs. He kept trying to inhale, but it only made his chest feel constricted by the lake, his lungs burning.

He kicked his feet and swept his arms above him, finally finding the motions. It seemed to take forever, a forever he didn’t have, and his panic was consuming his air, his sight, his limbs. He reached, pulled, swam, hoped.

Just before his head broke the surface, a circle of light flashed dark, only for a millisecond. An arrow plunged into the lake near him, bubbles trailing from the feathers. Then, he felt air on his face, and he gasped, coughing the bit of water out of his lungs and struggling to keep his head above the surface. He searched the skies, but he couldn’t see the dragon in his narrow sliver of sky framed by hills.

His hands slapped the water, splashes disturbing the otherwise calm surface all around him. The lake was clear but dark like a storm cloud. He put his glasses back on and squinted through the droplets on the glass for the shore. He seemed to be fifty yards or so from the southwest beach, gray with stones smoothed by the lake.

But wait—his mirror! He splashed water away from him, as though he could shovel a hole into the lake by displacing the water to see where his mirror shard went. No, no, that shard was all he had! All he could see from here was weak sunlight glinting off the surface, his ghostly pale hands treading water. He sucked in a large breath and dove back under. It fell into the lake with him, it had to. He couldn’t leave it, he needed it—he needed it.

The lake was deep here. He swam down, but he didn’t even catch a glimpse of the bottom before he had to come up again. He stroked closer to the center, more north, and dove again. He came up closer to the eastern beach. He couldn’t see the shard anywhere. He couldn’t believe it was gone. It couldn’t be. He still needed it. He hadn’t seen Michael’s face in a week or two. He had a pouch for it, for fuck’s sake. Gavin had given him that pouch, that shard. It couldn’t be gone.

His breaths were coming in short, and it got harder to stay afloat. His limbs were going numb from the chill, and he spat out water that kept spilling into his mouth. He heard shouting from the northern beach, but it was so far away. His splashes drowned them out.

He forced himself to gasp in a large breath and slipped under the surface again. He had to find it. The cold water pushed against his face, the chill penetrating deep into his flesh until it hurt. Where was it? Where was it? He pushed himself, swam deeper, but his lungs were burning. He had to turn around and resurface.

His arms protested. He mostly kicked, his arms threatening to give out. His chest constricted; he feared he had gone too deep. His vision edged black, and the spot of light above seemed to grow dimmer. He shoved his arms ahead of him and gave a final, strong push.

His face broke the surface, but only briefly. Enough to grab another breath, and then his arms really did give out. He slipped back under. The breath wasn’t enough; he needed to gasp, he needed more air, he needed to rest. The cold numbed his fingers; his legs didn’t seem to move right anymore.

A hand grabbed the collar of his shirt and yanked him up. He feebly kicked with it until he was hoisted back to the surface. He gasped and coughed, the hand that saved him looping around his chest and starting to tug him back towards shore.

“What in the bloody name of the bloody Tower are you doing?” Gavin trilled, his voice high between panting breaths. “The dragon drops you in a lake and you bloody keep swimming like it’s a bloody picnic!”

It was all Ray could do to help Gavin swim him back to shore and to keep raggedly breathing. It took only a couple minutes, but it felt like hours until their feet could touch the bottom. When they could, Gavin shifted Ray around and half-dragged, half-carried him out of the water. Jack waded in to meet them, shoving against the small waves to get to Ray’s other side.

Together, they got him to the rocky shore, where all their stuff was piled together, including Ray’s sword and bag, his red cloak, and Gavin’s weapons. There, his legs finally gave out, and he collapsed, coughing and sitting down hard. The stones grated against his legs and hands, but he didn’t care. Jack went to dig out the blankets as Gavin threw himself down beside him, panting.

Now are you going to bloody explain yourself?” Gavin demanded, his voice still trilling. Ray’s teeth began to chatter, and he couldn’t stop the violent shivers.

“M-m-m-my mirror,” he managed, drawing his knees to his chest and hugging them tightly despite all his muscle’s protests. Jack returned, tossing three blankets over him and Gavin. He stomped off, sprinting towards a small clump of trees, presumably for firewood. Ray couldn’t find the energy to pry himself apart and pull the blankets around him, but Gavin scrunched up close, shivering as well, and draped the blankets over both their shoulders. Out of the lake now, stinging soreness bloomed across where he had hit the surface—which felt like his entire body.

“Your mirror,” scoffed Gavin. Their bodies’ shivers seemed almost in rhythm. “Your b-bloody mirror! Ray, you nearly drowned!”

“It’s gone,” Ray sobbed. Tears fell freely. He didn’t care; he didn’t have the energy to restrain them. The tears were searing hot on his cold cheek. Gavin quieted. “I st-stabbed the dragon with it t-t-to let me go, and—and I lost it. I m-may never s-s-see Michael again.”

“Oh. Oh, Ray.” Gavin’s pitch had finally fallen back to normal range, and he dropped his head onto Ray’s shoulder. Despite both of them being completely soaked with icy water, Gavin at least had warmed enough to not shiver as much. The prince didn’t say anything more. The two of them just looked out over the lake, its surface settled again to look smooth as charcoal gray glass, until Jack returned with an armful of firewood.

Chapter Text

The fire crackled wearily, its sticks driven in between the smooth, dark gray stones of the lake’s beach. Ray’s clothes were still damp, but the flames warmed him. The sun was past its apex, and he knew they had to keep moving, but to leave the coziness of the campfire, to brace the icy wind with wet clothes—that was something he was willing to put off.

All three of them were silent, for the most part, and when they did speak, they kept their voices low. Their ears strained for any sign of the dragon. All they heard was the quiet shushing of the lake, and the wind when it picked up speed and shook the leaves and grass.

“It flew off north after it dropped you in the lake,” Jack said. “Gavin shot at it, of course, but none of his arrows hit.”

“Its wings caused too much wind,” Gavin muttered, pulling the blankets tighter around him and Ray. “They were all blown off course.”

“Besides that, it was quite the long shot to make,” Jack added. He paused, staring at the lake, rolling two small stones around in his palm. “Who knows when it will return, or why it left in the first place.”

“It wanted to take me,” Ray said. “That much is clear. And maybe it should.”

He felt Gavin jolt beside him. “What? Just let the dragon whisk you away!”

“I just…” Ray paused for a breath. He gripped a stone in his hand, squeezed it until his fingers hurt. “It only really wants to take me. I’m the one that—that matters. If it only takes me, then you guys can be safe until help comes.”

No, Ray,” Gavin said. “I’ve come with you this far, I’m not leaving you right before you need backup the most.”

“Besides,” Jack said. “We’re in the End. We’re not going to be ever truly safe until… well, until it’s all over.”

“Ray, we… if we leave you, Jack and I might never make it out on our own,” Gavin said softly. Ray nearly swallowed his own heart, and he hunched up tighter. “It’s a long ways walk to the border, and, Tower, it’s hard enough already to wake up, to get moving again. Without you to push us on, there’s no telling how far we’ll make it before we end up like the Morherren lords, like the rest of the Ender Kingdom.”

“Wherever we go,” Jack said with finality, “we go together.”

Ray felt like he was going to cry again. He hung his head and leaned into Gavin. They all needed protecting, and they could only protect each other. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve them.


 

Silence weighed heavy on the army as they marched clear of Trianta. They bent as far out of the way as possible, though the land bridge lay just a few miles beyond it. It added an extra hour or two to their trip, but the Rose Thief and Michael were thankful for it.

He still remembered his last visit, five years ago. It had been his first stop after leaving Kerry on his new ship, and only his second visit since going down several years before that to see what could be salvaged aver the devastating Enderman attack. The smell of roses had choked him, took him by the throat and strangled him. Despite the thorns clawing at him, snagging at his clothes and pricking exposed skin, he had explored his hometown, walked the halls of his old home one last time. He hadn’t been sure what he’d find. He had walked away with nothing but fresh scratches and three bleeding wounds on his palm from a rose he tried to take.

And, of course, Michael was quiet too. His parents’ bodies, as well as the bodies of their knights who had also perished, had been buried in his own hometown. Trianta, however, was still where they had fallen, riding to help their neighbors. Michael and the Rose Thief rode close to each other as the army went miles out of their way.

They quickly knew something was wrong when they reached the land bridge. Or, rather, when they reached where the land bridge was supposed to be. The army tittered as everyone dismounted, sticking close together and crowding several paces from the shore. Ryan led the other three royals to where the bridge was supposed to start. The Mage crouched down at the narrow sandy shore, pinching the sand and studying the grains between his fingers. Partway across the strait, the cheerful blue waters abruptly faded to a stormy gray.

“Did we go to the wrong place?” asked Michael. He knew they were in the right place. They all did.

“No, but I think I know what that magic surge was a while ago,” Ryan said, standing and thumping his staff into the ground. “That Ender Mage was very clever,” he growled. “He hid the signs well. But no, Kdin has sunk the land bridge underneath the waves.”

“Can you raise it back up?” the king asked. Ryan rolled his eyes. “Don’t huff at me, you’re one of the main reasons there’s a strait here in the first place!”

“It would take a massive amount of power that I don’t have on my own. Besides that, I’d be working against Kdin’s spell, and against the one I added my own magic to a century ago.”

“Is Kdin really that powerful?” asked Michael quietly.

Ryan sighed and leaned on his staff. “I don’t know. He could be. There could be other reasons. It is easier to destroy than it is to create.”

“Then we ford,” King Geoff said. “The next land bridge is a week away.”

You’re not fording the strait,” Ryan snapped. “And neither am I, or Ray, or Michael. You see that line in the water? Where it goes from blue to gray? That’s the border. That’s the edge of whatever spell is on the land. If we cross it—if anyone magic crosses that line, they’re goners.”

“Then what do we do?” Geoff demanded, his pitch tight and just a few notes higher with stress and frustration.

A soft, clipped voice peeped up from the edge of the crowd of soldiers. “If I may, your Majesty…” Dan marched forward, slipping his helmet off and holding it in the crook of his arm. “I am a non-magical ranked officer, and one of the prince’s friends beside. I could lead a troop across the strait, if you’d allow me, sir.”

Geoff considered Dan for a few moments. Behind the king, Ryan shifted his grip on his staff so that he held it with both hands, and squinted up at the sky. The Rose Thief watched the Mage with interest, but couldn’t see anything in the sky except for a few birds.

“I suppose…” Geoff said finally. “We could definitely get a few soldiers across the strait now, with Ryan’s help. But would it be enough? I don’t want to needlessly risk my men… I need to think…”

A tingling sensation made the hairs on the back of the Rose Thief’s neck stand up. He made eye contact with Ryan, and saw the moment when the Mage’s expression changed, when Ryan’s pale blue eyes widened. He saw the sharp inhale and the rise of his shoulders.

“Everyone get down!” Ryan roared. At the same time that he raised his staff and plunged it back down to the earth, a terrible screech cut through the air above. What the Rose Thief had took for one of the birds was now diving towards them, rapidly growing larger to a hundred times bigger than any bird he had ever seen. He stared, his jaw dropping open.

Michael tackled him to the ground as the army ducked and scattered around them. The “bird” resolved itself into a black dragon, and he caught a glimpse of a jet of fire, blue hot, before a half-dome of water stretched over them all. Ryan summoned an enormous wave from the strait, and the Rose Thief felt some of the cool mist drop from it. The fire sizzled against it, the film of water beginning to dissipate. The king was the only other one to not throw himself to the grown, and he flung out a hand. A tattoo shone bright enough to glow through his thin sleeve, and the waves in the strait surged, the half-dome of water doubling in thickness.

The dragon beat its wings, turning sharply and slashing its claws across the water. The tension of the dome broke, the water splashing down and sprinkling those underneath. The dragon hurtled through the air east, parallel to the strait, skimming close enough to the ground for the wind from its house-sized body to tug at the hair and loose clothing of the army. The horses screamed and bolted, only a few soldiers managing to hold on to their reigns.

Michael and the Rose Thief rolled away from each other and leaped to their feet. Soldiers with longbows loosed a clump of arrows as the dragon wheeled around and sped back towards them. Dan had disappeared into the crowd. The wings churned the air as they beat, and the arrows never made it. The Rose Thief saw the pink inside of the dragon’s mouth before it loosed another jet of blue fire at the army. Soldiers dove out of the way, but the shouts didn’t tell him whether or not someone got hurt.

The dragon and its fire barreled closer to the four of them. He caught Ryan’s eye and saw desperation that was already weary. He might be able to ward off the dragon, protect the entire army from its fire and talons, but for how long? The arrows couldn’t reach it. If the dragon ever got close enough for a sword to scratch at its leathery underbelly, ten men would die for every swing.

Ryan set his mouth in a hard line and thrust his staff at the dragon. A narrow beam of light green energy erupted from its branching tip. It met the fire breath head on, flaying its streak of flame into orange scraps that shocked their faces with heat. The dragon snapped its jaws shut and careened over their heads with a shrill screech. Ryan fell to his knees, the beam of light disappearing.

The dragon dipped its hind claws down for the crowd of soldiers, who all tumbled over each other to escape it. An arrow skimmed over its hard black scales as it flared its wings, the purple-tinted membrane stretching between bat-like fingers. Michael charged past the Rose Thief, a bastard sword held in two iron-clad fists as he made a beeline for the dragon. Terror tore at his chest. The dragon snatched up a screaming soldier and beat its wings, gaining height and momentum.

Michael!” he cried. “Don’t!

With a grunt, Ryan thrust his staff up from his position on the ground. The green beam of light shot forth again, humming with a burning energy. It streaked over the dragon’s shoulder, and the dragon’s wings carried it straight into its path. The dragon shrieked and dipped back down, zipping so close to the ground that the tall grass brushed against the struggling soldier in its grasp.

Michael stopped his charge and let his sword’s tip plunge to the dirt, watching the dragon helplessly. And then, three spinning discs of white energy soared over the army’s heads and homed in on the dragon. One right after another, the discs curved into the dragon’s back, sending it crashing into the ground, rolling over once, its head raised as if to snap at the discs of energy. The soldier was dropped.

The dragon rolled to its feet, crouched down, and pushed off, its wings flung out to the side and carrying it up and out. It flung itself over the strait’s waters, quickly gaining altitude as it headed back south. Geoff was by Ryan’s side in an instant, gripping his arm and helping the Mage to his feet. The soldiers bustled with activity, helping each other up off the ground, brushing water and dirt off of armor and tunics, retrieving dropped swords and arrows, chasing after the bolted horses.

Michael barked an order at two soldiers to go retrieve the one who was snatched before he walked back to the Rose Thief, squinting after the dragon. He tapped the flat side of his blade to the tattoo on his arm, and the bastard sword dissolved into silver light particles to disappear into the inked spell.

“No choice but to let it go,” Michael growled.

“It’d kill most if not all of us,” the Rose Thief replied, gripping Michael’s shoulders so he couldn’t walk past him. “It does not want us here. Michael—”

The Rose Thief wanted to beg Michael not to chase after the dragon like that again, but the words caught in his throat. That alone didn’t matter, however, as a voice rang out from further down the strait’s coast, from where the discs of light had originated.

“Ahoy there! Looks like I arrived just in time!”

A grinning Caleb, clad in white and long sleeves, approached them with a hand raised in a wave. Geoff was holding on to Ryan’s arm as the two joined Michael and the Rose Thief, just as Caleb reached them. Geoff let go of Ryan, who leaned on his staff like a walking stick, to throw his arms around Caleb.

“There’s my favorite not-criminal exile!” Geoff exclaimed. He pulled away from Caleb and tugged at his moustache. Caleb beamed at the Rose Thief, but before either of them could exchange greetings, Geoff spoke again. “How did you find us?”

“Well… I didn’t find you, exactly, I was…”

“Following the surge?” Ryan completed. Caleb nodded and crossed his arms, his long billowing sleeves folding over his arms.

“Yep, and you felt it too, I see.”

“Where’s Kerry?” the Rose Thief asked. “Aren’t you still with his ship?”

“I am. He dropped me off near the mouth of the strait. We got your message, Ray, congratulations! Kerry would have come with me with an escort, but you know, he’s still wanted. Does that guy need help?”

They turned to see the two soldiers Michael had ordered carrying the other guy on a makeshift stretcher. The injured soldier was groaning, and Caleb strode past the four of them without even waiting for a reply or a go-ahead. The two soldiers lowered the injured to the ground and backed up to let the Mage kneel next to him. Caleb whistled softly as he flicked a hand out of a sleeve and held it over the wounded soldier.

“A lot of bruises, two fractured bones and a sprain. Nothing I can’t fix; could have been a lot worse, considering, wow, you know, a dragon. Bring anyone else who got burned or injured to me, as well,” he added to the two soldiers. They nodded and bowed before jogging away.

Geoff nudged Ryan in the shoulder, a mischievous grin plastered to his face as they watched Caleb start the healing process, his hands glowing white-gold. “He’s showing you up, master Court Mage.”

“Shut up,” Ryan grumbled. “You know he spent all his time on instant spells and healing. Learned little else.”

The Rose Thief shared a glance with Michael, who shrugged and ran a hand through his hair. He reached out and squeezed Michael’s hand. That soldier could have easily been Michael—could still be, if the dragon returned—and that soldier could be dead. Geoff’s playful mood, too, quickly dampened. He heaved a sigh as they waited for Caleb to heal the injured.

“I wish Jack was here,” he said, his shoulders slouching. “I’m fucking clueless.”


 

The fire was beginning to die out, but no one made any effort to stoke it. Ray and Gavin had dried out by now, but no one was in any rush to stand up and continue walking. It was only when the campfire was little better than glowing embers did Ray toss back the blankets and stand. The action jostled Gavin, who had nearly dozed off on Ray’s shoulder, and the prince had to catch himself on his hands.

“We have to keep moving,” Ray said, holding out his hand to Gavin. Jack sighed, but Ray talked over the sound. “There’s still daylight. Come on, let’s go.”

“We don’t even know where we’re going,” Jack said.

“Sure we do,” Ray said, not taking his eyes off of Gavin. The prince hadn’t moved since being jostled. “South. As always. He’s somewhere in the mountains.”

Gavin shook his head. “Ray, half of the Ender Kingdom is mountains. Even old documents put their castle and capital as half inside of one.”

“But why do you think that?” Jack asked.

Ray faltered. He had been so confident in his answer. He knew it was true. It took him a moment to come up with a reason, and as he said it he felt stupid. “I—I saw it. In a dream. Several dreams. It’s a mountain, but the top of it is flat, like its peak was cut off.”

“You saw it… Ray.” Jack did stand now, rising with a grunt. “I’m guessing you saw Kdin in your dreams, too. How long had you been having these dreams?”

“Yes—well, I only heard him, mostly.” Ray’s face felt hot, and he stared across the lake. “Chill, alright? I haven’t had a dream in a while.”

Jack rubbed his face with both hands. “Ray, I’m no expert, but, you realize this means he has been watching you from afar for a very long time, right?”

Ray didn’t have a response. They had just been dreams, after all. Not… not someone in his head. His hand flitted to the frog at his belt, but his sword still lay next to their bags. Kdin couldn’t get inside his head, could he?

“Oh, come off it, Jack,” Gavin said from the ground. He hoarded the blankets closer around himself. “It doesn’t matter now. Some Mages like to use dreams to communicate, that’s all. Ryan told me all about it.”

The last part seemed to be addressed more to Ray than Jack. Ray met Gavin’s gaze and held it, once more unsure of what to say. Then Jack clucked his tongue and swiped the blankets from the prince’s shoulders, rolling them up as he strode over to their bags.

“Fine, then, let’s get going,” he grumbled. Gavin whined and flung himself back on the beach, sprawling against the gray stones.

“Why can’t we just camp here for the night? I’m still tired after chasing after you and all that.”

Jack’s movements slowed. Ray shivered and kicked up some of the stones against Gavin’s leg. “You know we have to keep moving,” Ray said. “Gavin, listen to yourself! This is what we’re trying to avoid!”

Gavin moaned and covered his eyes with an arm. “I’ll be fine in the morning, I promise. I’m just worn out.”

“Once you’re on your feet, it’ll get better,” said Jack. “Up you go.” He marched over and looped his arms under Gavin’s, hoisting the prince to his feet. Gavin was limp like a ragdoll until his feet were under him. Ray was too anxious to be annoyed, even when Gavin stretched and went for his bag and borrowed red cloak. Ray feared the day he would be unable to motivate the other two, and he watched Gavin closely while rooted to the spot. Well, he supposed, it was probably better than needing to motivate an entire army.

A resounding plop from the center of the lake drew their attention. The charcoal gray surface rippled out like soundwaves, until the tiny waves lapped against the shore, the entire lake wobbling steadily. Then the center of the ripples coasted towards them, a two foot diameter circle of calm seemingly sliding across the surface to reach the edge.

The ripples faded, and a watery form rose from the circle of calm. It was only vaguely human, the water wavering as it struggled to hold the shape of a head and body. The voice identified the form as representing Kdin, but it sounded shaky and full of static like a telephone underwater. The figure crossed his arms.

“I’m not happy with what you did to the dragon,” Kdin said.

“Then tell your dragon to fuck off,” Ray snapped. He started to shiver and couldn’t stop. Gavin stepped up next to him, saying nothing. “We’re coming to you anyway!”

“Not fast enough,” said Kdin. “We have been waiting for nigh on a century, and I am impatient.”

Jack was suddenly on the other side of Ray; he hadn’t noticed him come up. “What do you even want him for?” Jack demanded. “You play games with us!”

Ray felt Gavin’s hand on his arm, though he didn’t respond to the gesture. The watery form turned as if to walk away towards the center of the lake, though the features were so indiscriminate that the action changed little.

“You have two choices, Ray. Either let the dragon take you, once it is done licking its wounds, or it will happily kill your two little friends.”

The water suddenly lost all tension, splashing back down in a way that made it seem like the figure had sunk beneath the surface. As the lake calmed and flattened, Jack growled under his breath. “Ohh, I do hate that Mage.”

Try as he might, Ray couldn’t make his vocal chords work. He wanted to beg Gavin and Jack to turn around, to hide, to—anything. He wanted to hide, he wanted to leave, he wanted to submerge himself back in that lake, where the dragon couldn’t find him. But he knew it was pointless, and he knew no option was great. Kdin wanted Ray there on his own terms, not on Ray’s. He looked at Gavin, eyes wide in terror, as the prince gave his arm a little squeeze.

“Wherever we go,” said Gavin, “we go together.”

And so, when the sun was halfway towards the horizon, and the dragon returned, they were as ready as they could be. It dove from a height unseen by human eyes and flared out its wings to slow down just enough to touch its hind claws down. Ray huddled together with Jack and Gavin, and the dragon, indiscriminate and impatient, swiped all three up in a hand-like fore claw. It only spent enough time on the ground to snatch them up, and it launched back into the air even before its claw had fully tightened around the them all. 

The three of them soared, the dragon's captives, towards Kdin. Together. 

Chapter Text

“I’m going to vomit!”

Gavin shouted right in Ray’s ear, and it still wasn’t loud enough, what with the beating of the dragon’s wings and the roar of the wind. The three of them were wedged together in the dragon’s more hand-like fore claw. It was, simply put, not comfortable.

“You better not puke on me!” Ray shouted back.

A quick glance over his shoulder told Ray that Jack was not much better off than Gavin. Of course, these two had never been on a roller coaster or in a speeding car before, like Ray had. They were suffering terribly from motion sickness. How fast were they going, anyway? Ray couldn’t imagine it was much faster than a car on a highway.

The dragon clutched them tightly, and Ray couldn’t see what was coming at all. All he could really see was the earth directly below him and the undulating leathery stomach and throat of the dragon above him. The dragon weaved and tilted around the growing mountains in a way that made even Ray’s stomach pitch sometimes.

The tall grass and occasional spindly tree transitioned to dense shrub and narrow pines. At times even that fell away, leaving nothing but gray stone cut by the passage of time and spotted with patches of yellow lichen and displaced boulders. Rushing streams occasionally sliced through mud and rock.

The great beast radiated heat, creating an uncomfortable balance against the cold whipping winds. Ray leaned back his head to rest it on Gavin’s shoulder and awaited his fate.

Their destination came up on them suddenly. The dragon didn’t curve around a sharp incline of earth and stone, and the wings thundered on either side to skim up the slope. Ray’s feet almost brushed the mountain as they climbed. And then, the wings flared with a snap like a ship’s sail catching the ocean breeze, and the dragon abruptly slowed. The land stopped its upward climb and flattened out into sliced stone. And then that land was rushing up to meet them as the dragon tossed all three of them to the ground before landing heavily behind them, its claws scoring the cliff.

Ray hit the stone in a roll, his bag slipping off his shoulders as the ground grabbed at it, and his sword catching at his legs. He heard the others suffer a similar fate, Gavin grunting with the contact and Jack’s armor banging with the collisions. The dragon curved its long neck up and it screeched at the sky as their momentum slowed. Ray rolled to his knees in time to press his hands over his ears, his teeth rattling with the dragon’s cry.

The cry ceased, its echoes banging around the mountains, and there was a leathery flapping sound as the dragon folded its wings against its body.

“Finally, after almost three months of waiting and a hundred years of patience… you’re here.”

Ray looked up and his breath caught somewhere between his ribs. Not twenty paces away was the Mage Kdin. The weak Ender sunlight glittered off of his gold jewelry—and boy was there jewelry. Gold shaped and beaten into odd forms, gold chains, gold-framed gemstones all sparkled from his throat, his waist, his upper arms. Probably from his fingers too, but they were hidden by long sleeves that flared out to a yawning mouth, the bottom of which reached his knees. Ender Pearls were surrounded by amethyst and onyx stones. Gold encircled his head, and in the center of this, in the middle of his forehead, was unmistakably an Ender Eye.

His sleeves were, as mentioned, long, and were of a pale undyed linen. They seemed to be a part of a draping robe that reached the ground. A sleeveless tunic-like top of vibrant purple fabric was embroidered and decorated with gold and green designs. It ended in a sword-shaped tip at the tops of his knees, and a little bit longer in the back. A high, round collar curved around his head. His green eyes glittered dangerously, edged with black kohl, as he smirked.

Ray was so taken by this vision that it took him a few shaky breaths to notice the rest of the mountaintop as he slowly got to his feet. He was surprised to see Lindsay, a few paces away from Kdin but very much standing as his equal. A gold queen’s crown spiked up from her dark red hair, encircled with Ender Pearls and amethysts. Her dress was mostly black, though it had a wide white stripe running vertically down the middle, and was quite poofy in the skirt, with long sleeves tight all through the arm, curving into the base of her hand.

She wore a black underbust corset that was tied up the front in purple ribbon. A gold necklace with three Ender Pearls rested on her chest. Other than her train of peacock feathers cascading down the back of her skirt, she was much less decorated than Kdin. She glared at him, and her expression alone made Ray fear she was going to punch him.

The mountaintop was almost as Ray had seen in his dreams. It was broad, misshapen circle, and indeed had the appearance that the top was shorn off. However, a bit of mountain still rose up to a point several meters above them on the other side of Kdin and Lindsay, one side flat. The only other thing on the mountaintop was a bizarre construction.

It stood right in the center of the mountain. It looked to be made entirely out of obsidian. A circular platform, probably ten, maybe fifteen feet across, was partially surrounded by a sloping wall. The wall started low and rose to its highest point when it was between the platform and the cleaved peak, before curving back down to meet the platform, covering half the circumference. It bowed outward, and nestled in four hollows were what had to be Ender Crystals.

Pink-violet crystalline cubes bounced and hovered and glowed, covered in runes and encased in spinning glass. Four obsidian arms curved out of the wall and, above the center of the platform, held up an egg-shaped chunk of obsidian on a square of white marble. The dragon’s egg pulsed with a dim purple light.

Gavin and Jack recovered as well, and drew up to stand side by side with Ray, though with enough space between them to swing a weapon. Jack pulled the battleax off is back, and Gavin nocked an arrow in his bow. Gavin had flung off the bulky red cloak, Ray noticed. After a moment’s deer-in-the-headlights, Ray also drew his sword. His palm was already sweaty, and the tip of the rapier quivered.

Kdin swept his arms out to the side, revealing rings on his fingers. His left ring finger bore a decorated gold full-finger ring that tapered to a claw-like point. His sleeves reminded Ray of wings. “Now, now, there’s no need for that.”

The tip of his sword drooped. Try as he might, Ray couldn’t replace the image of his friends with the image in front of him. They might be dressed in odd clothes, and one might be glaring at him while the other had been tormenting him from across the country, but their faces were his friends’. Prince Gavin and Jack, however, gripped their weapons tighter, and settled into fighting stances.

“You tell us what you want Ray for!” Gavin demanded.

The dragon growled behind them, a sort of clicking rumbling that reminded Ray of a large cat’s. He shivered. Kdin merely tilted his head back and laughed. Lindsay cracked a mirthless smile.

“What, you expect me to ramble on about my plan?” Kdin crowed. “No. Here’s the deal. You lay down your weapons, and Ray puts himself in that nice little machine over there, and everyone walks away unharmed. Well, mostly unharmed.”

“The fuck I won’t,” Ray said. The quaver in his voice betrayed his nerves. The air felt somehow both heavy and thin. There wasn’t enough to breathe right, but it weighed on his shoulders and head. Gavin’s bow creaked as he pulled the string tighter. He didn’t know what that construction did, but he didn’t want to find out.

“This is non-negotiable,” Gavin said. “You send Ray home, and you let us go free, and you stop whatever madness you do here.”

Lindsay was still grinning. “Look at them tremble, Court Mage. Their words hold no force.”

The dragon growled. Ray felt its breath in a hot wave.

Kdin sighed and shook his head like a disappointed parent. “I don’t know about that, your Majesty. I fear that they do have some fight in them.”

They were teasing them. Ray felt like he should be getting angry, but his sense of dread only climbed. He glanced at Gavin just in time to see the prince snarl and jerk the bowstring back. Ray was already crying “No!” when Gavin loosed the arrow at Kdin.

Things happened in quick succession. Ray dropped his sword the moment he realized what Gavin was doing and sprinted towards him. Kdin flinched, a faint shimmering violet plasma-like light appearing around him in a sphere. Ray heard the arrow plink off it. He heard the dragon suck in a breath like a tornado filling up a giant balloon. Jack reacted slower, thundering towards the two of them as Ray tackled Gavin to the ground. The dragon unleashed a jet of flame over Ray and Gavin, forcing Jack to halt and backpedal, throwing up an arm to shield his face. The heat immediately pushed through Ray’s clothes as he shielded a curled-up Gavin with his body, his skin seemingly radiating its own heat in response.

Kdin’s voice cut through the roar of flames. “STOP!

The fire breathed away. Ray glanced at Kdin to see the Mage’s eyes shining purple like an Enderman’s, and Kdin was glaring over Ray’s head—at the dragon. The dragon, too, stared back at Kdin with glowing eyes.

Gavin hissed, “What was that for?” from underneath Ray. His face was pale, but his eyes sparked feverishly.

“Don’t fucking kill them!” Ray snapped back, glancing at Jack as he quickly closed the distance between him and Gavin and Ray. “They’re victims too!”

After a few moments, the glow from both Kdin’s and the dragon’s eyes faded, and the dragon extended its wings, stretching its head into the sky.

Ray pushed himself off of Gavin, who sat up, his eyes on the dragon. The arrows from his quiver had almost all spilled out onto the ground all around Gavin’s dropped bow. These arrows rolled and scattered a short distance as the dragon flapped its massive wings. The dragon fell away from the cliff, twisting in midair to catch the wind in its wings. It swooped down before shooting off into the sky towards the north. Kdin tsked as Jack offered his hand to Ray and Gavin. They all kept glancing at the Mage and the Queen.

Fine, go off and have some fun with our little friends at the border!” Kdin shouted after the dragon. With a scowl, he added to Lindsay, “The dragon is too imprecise for this. No matter—” Kdin raised his hand at Jack, lightning dancing between his fingertips.

Lindsay grinned wickedly. “If you don’t want your friends getting hurt, Ray,” she said, “You best make your way onto that platform.”

Ray leapt up and planted his feet, stretching his arms out to the side to put both Jack and Gavin behind him. They wanted him, and they intended to use Gavin and Jack as leverage. But if Kdin’s frantic conversation with the dragon was any indication, they needed Ray unhurt.

Kdin sighed, lowered his hand, and took a step back. “Looks like they want a fight. Your Majesty, if you would—take care of things?”

“With pleasure,” Lindsay said, and she looked like she meant it.

Lindsay reached her hands behind her back. What Ray had took to be a dress turned out to be a bodice and skirt, as Lindsay unclipped her poofy skirt and let it fall down to her feet in a soft mound. Underneath she wore tan pants and black ankle boots.

Belted at her waist was a long, heavy-looking sword, its scabbard black leather but decorated with so many jewels and metal designs that the leather barely peeked through. She drew this sword now, stepping out of her skirt and kicking it aside. It was longer than average, though still a one-handed sword, and she balanced it in the palm of her second hand. It made Ray’s rapier look like a twig in comparison.

Ray swallowed hard. He heard the whisper of Gavin drawing his saber behind him. They weren’t going to hurt Ray… right? But that blade looked sharp. His rapier laid several paces away, discarded on the ground, but if he separated from Jack and Gavin, then Kdin had a clear shot…

Lindsay spared a moment to look at Kdin one last time, as though hesitant to proceed. Kdin sighed and shrugged. “I suppose I could heal physical wounds, but I would rather not.”

Oh no.

Lindsay charged, raising her sword with both hands. Ray felt the terror lock his joints, and his vision seemed to narrow on that big, sharp blade. She closed the distance in just a couple seconds and swung down at his shoulder.

Gavin wrapped an arm around Ray’s torso and kicked at the back of his knees. The two of them once more toppled to the ground as Jack cleaved upwards with his battleax and caught Lindsay’s sword on the shaft. The two struggled against each other’s force, their weapons trembling with the effort.

“Your sword,” Jack said to Ray, his voice tight as he strained against Lindsay. “Get your fucking weapon!”

Gavin was already on the move, tugging Ray along as they crawled. Jack grunted and redoubled his efforts against Lindsay to complete his swing. Lindsay’s sword was shoved back and up, and she stumbled away to keep her hold on it. Jack advanced, keeping the distance between him and Lindsay small. It was smart, Ray would reflect later; Kdin had removed himself from the battle, but he was watching it all, and any openings were fair game for a spell.

Ray and Gavin crouch-ran over to Ray’s sword, and Ray snatched it up and bounced back up. He whirled to face Lindsay just in time to see her duck around Jack’s vertical slice and kick the side of Jack’s knee. Jack’s plate armor protected him from many attacks, but she kicked hard enough that he stumbled back. Lindsay used the force from her kick to somersault backwards, which happened to be towards Gavin and Ray.

Gavin sprinted for Lindsay before Ray could do anything. With a growling cry, he leapt onto Lindsay’s back when she was back on her feet, hooking both arms around her neck and holding his sabre away from both their faces. Jack had paused to regain balance and breath, but now began an approach towards Gavin and Lindsay. Gavin loosed one arm to put a hand on Lindsay’s crown, but then Lindsay planted her feet and grabbed the back of Gavin’s shirt. She heaved, tipping forward and throwing Gavin over her shoulder and into Jack. Jack dropped his battleax to catch the prince as Gavin sailed through the air with a squawk. They both toppled. Lindsay’s crown somehow, miraculously, stayed on her head.

The crown—of course. That and her necklace of Ender Pearls were what kept Lindsay under the dragon’s influence. So, they had to get that off of her. Then they could worry about Kdin.

Even as Ray took the first step of his charge towards Lindsay, she spun on her heel to face him. His heart jumped to his throat and his toe caught on the ground and he tripped. He stumbled only for a few steps, and he managed to hold on to his sword, but Lindsay was not patiently waiting for him to recover. The image of her toothy grin seared into his memory before the round pommel of her sword met his forehead. His head snapped back and white blurred across his eyes.

He felt her hand on his wrist, and she twisted. Sharp pinching pain lanced through his wrist, and he dropped his sword with a gasped. It clattered to the ground. Then she yanked his arm, wrenching his shoulder, and he staggered past her. He fell to his knees, the stone striking his bone, and his arm was twisted behind him. His head jerked forward and he blinked the blurriness away.

A moment of stillness. It took him a few seconds to realize what he was looking at. The tip of an arrow hovered in front of his eyes, inches away from his face, completely motionless. Down the shaft, his eyes focused on Gavin a dozen or so paces away, bow still raised, his eyes wide and his face slack with shock at what he feared he had just done. Jack had frozen just behind the prince, his two throwing axes drawn and held at the ready but their owner unmoving.

The arrow trembled and, starting from its tip, dissolved into yellow-white glowing particles. The arrow dissipated and spread out like a cloud, like someone releasing a held breath. Kdin sighed.

“You really are lucky I’m here,” Kdin said, though to whom he said it, Ray wasn’t sure.

The particles burned white-hot, and the forward momentum that had been in the arrow suddenly reversed. In a slash of white, the energy shot back towards the bowman from which it came. Even as Ray cried out, as though his drawn-out no could stop it, the energy slammed into Gavin and Jack hard enough that their feet left the ground.

Kdin’s spell tossed them over the edge of the cliff. Gavin’s and Jack’s yells were soon drowned out by Ray’s screams.

Lindsay grabbed for Ray’s other arm and pulled him back so that her knee grinded into his spine. He struggled against it, but her grip was strong. Her hand slipped down his arm as he strained, and he felt the ivory bracelet slide over his hand. He tried to use that moment to escape, to run to the platform’s edge, but she yanked him back harder into her knee. They were gone. They were gone, and it was because they were trying to help him. It was all his fault, and now he had no idea if they could even survive a drop off of the cliff.

And then Kdin was in front of him, his hands flicked out of his sleeves to touch Ray’s cheek with light fingertips and to coax his face to look up at him. Kdin leaned in close, a wide smile splitting his face, close enough for Ray to see his own reflection in the dark blue slit pupil of the Ender Eye in Kdin’s headpiece.

“Now, imagine if you had cooperated,” Kdin crooned. Ray’s throat hurt. Kdin reached down and took off Ray’s sword belt, tossing it and all its pouches off to the side.

“All I had wanted was to be sent back,” Ray said hoarsely. “Please… I only wanted to go home…”

“Oh Ray,” said Kdin, chuckling. “Ray, Ray, Ray. I couldn’t send you back even if I wanted to.”

Shock hit him hard. Velvet numbness bubbled from the core of Ray’s chest and spread, prickling up the back of his neck, coaxing tension out of his muscles. He forgot to blink as his eyes—wide, burning—stared into Kdin’s and saw assuredness in truth. Kdin straightened, calm and confident, as though Ray’s world hadn’t just dropped out from under him. Kdin nodded at Lindsay, and the queen hoisted Ray up and started dragging him across the mountaintop.

Ray found the ground beneath his feet and kicked and struggled, though he felt clumsy and slow. There was no way for Ray to return home. It couldn’t be true. There had to be a way.

You lie!” Ray screeched suddenly. “You’re lying!” Kdin must be lying. If Kdin was right, if Kdin physically couldn’t send Ray back… Ray couldn’t bear the thought. Kdin stared at him impassively, hands folded across his torso and tucked into his sleeves.

“It took decades to gather the magical energy needed for that spell,” Kdin said. Lindsay stopped dragging Ray, but he didn’t struggle again. The world he had managed to find again and cling to crumbled once more under his feet. “And it was pretty much chance that chose your world over another. Even if we managed to find a way to quickly get the amount of magic needed, the odds of putting you back in the correct world are infinitesimal.”

He would never see his friends again.

Lindsay tossed him onto the circular platform of the strange obsidian machine, lifting him up so that he actually rolled limply across it. He made no effort to reorganize his limbs when he ended up on his side. It was hard to breathe, and his entire body felt numb. He couldn’t find the will to fight, to get up, to even roll back off the platform. His head throbbed and his heart ached. There wasn’t any reason to fight anymore.

Kdin began shouting something in a strange, guttural language. As he chanted on his lengthy spell, a vibrating hum filled the air around Ray. The four Ender Crystals hovered out of their hollows in the black wall, bounced in a clockwise circle above him. An invisible force like a cold finger of wind wrapped over his skin, pulled at his arms, his shoulders, lifted him up. It spiraled up his arms, stretching them out to the side and lifting him until he hovered a foot above the platform.

Etchings not unlike the odd letters his Michael had recorded, so long ago now, glowed hot blue in the obsidian platform, bright yet distant like a fire was lit far below. The four obsidian arms peeled back like a blooming flower, leaving the egg and its marble platform floating, and began to revolve counterclockwise at the same speed as the Crystals. The egg-like chunk of obsidian shimmered purple, pulsed more violently like energy was fighting to be released from its shell. The wall broke off into black bricks and, too, hovering along circular paths.

Electricity cracked up his arms. He flinched at the sudden, sharp pain, his skin buzzing where the electricity left. He tugged at the invisible bonds, but he couldn’t move more than an inch. The cold finger of air wrapped all around him, curving across his spine and legs—soft, yet unbending. Electricity followed this force, and he wriggled, but it was more to ease pain than it was to truly escape his fate.

The hum in the air suddenly intensified, and gravity seemed to lessen around him. Hair and clothes alike drifted up like he was sinking underwater. His head tilted back, staring up into the machine above him. He looked just in time to see the egg-like obsidian piece become encased in violet light. A beacon rocketed into the sky, so bright that the day seemed to darken around it, and at the same time, white hot pain stabbed Ray at his lower back.

He gasped, the pain taking his breath away so he couldn’t scream at first. Clouds formed and churned around the beacon, spiraling outwards, a storm on fast forward. The white hot pain didn’t lessen, but began to crawl up his back in rivulets. It took a couple tries to take in enough air to scream. A spasm wracked his back. It felt like lightning was dragging its knife edge over his back, digging in deep and steadily straggling over his flesh. And scream he did, a shrill shriek of a man tortured, a man who couldn’t bear much more but had no end in sight.

He fought against his invisible bonds, half out of desperation to escape the pain, half out of the spasms themselves. It seared up to his shoulder blades, ever so slowly, reaching for his shoulders and neck. His vision faded, and abruptly, he felt his awareness and mind shift.

He was in a waking dream. The pain dulled. The world was entirely made up of a colorless floor and a colorless ceiling, stretching off into dark horizons with iridescent colors shimmering over all. He still couldn’t move, but he hung his head and sobbed. None of this was real, he knew, but it made the pain bearable—for a time.

Five figures flickered around him. Shadows resolved themselves into images of the other five Achievement Hunters, who drew close and whose images wavered between modern clothes and royal clothes. Their voices were echoes of echoes, but Ray still heard them just as clearly as he would if they were speaking normally right next to him.

“Don’t die, Ray,” echoed shadow Gavin.

Ray shook his head and just wept. There didn’t seem to be any other end for him.

“Be safe,” echoed shadow Geoff, and the other four images echoed that sentiment.

“Help me,” Ray moaned around shuddering breaths. “Help.”

The shadow of Michael drew close to Ray, reached out for his face with hands that flickered between steel gauntlets and bare skin at dizzying speeds.

“Come home,” shadow Michael echoed. “Please. Come home.”

“I—I can’t…” Doesn’t his own mind know how hard he’d tried? He blinked tears away. The pain was returning, cutting through his dream state.

“Come home,” Michael repeated, joined now by Gavin. “Come home.” Jack and Geoff and Ryan joined in, too. “Come home.” The images stopped flickering as rapidly, settling on their royal forms as they crowded close to him. “Come home.”

The shadowy images were whisked away by an unfelt breeze, leaving but one, several paces away. It turned to face him, resolving into his mirror image dressed in fancy black clothing—no, it was the Rose Thief. He lifted a hand, reached out to him, just in time for this white, shimmering world to crumble.

The searing pain on his back was back in full force, but now Ray had something to mentally latch on to. He had to believe that Prince Gavin and Jack would survive that fall. He had to believe that Gavin had been right—that he could return to the castle with them, and find a way to fit in. It wasn’t as good as going back home, but it was, perhaps, the next best thing. Whatever it was, it was something to hope for—to fight for.

The clouds now filled nearly all the sky, a disk of dark gray spiraling streaks. Ray sucked in a few gasps, clenched his fists until he felt his nails bite into his palms, and glared at the rotating Ender Crystals, the egg, the beacon of light. He pulled, curving his back against the forces as he slowly, agonizingly folded his arms and tried to draw them into his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut and roared, fighting against the hold of his bonds. His muscles threatened to strain, but still he fought.

The machine rumbled. Stones rattled together. He heard Lindsay shriek something. One brick of the wall fell, tumbled out of its orbit. He was fighting. He was not going to go down easy anymore. No matter what Kdin and Lindsay and the dragon tried, he was going to have something to return to, damn it! This was not the end he chose. 

One obsidian arm of the machine cracked and toppled, crashing to the stone ground. The beacon from the egg flickered and wavered. A small, sharp whistle, and then an Ender Crystal exploded, followed by the other three within barely a millisecond.

Pink and purple smoke billowed around Ray, and heat washed over his skin as he was thrown from the machine. He skimmed across the stone, the smoke fading already with the tug of the wind. The rest of the machine collapsed and crashed, most smoke puffing up from its fall.

Ray tried to get to his feet, but fell back down and curled up when electricity still dragged across his back, sparking into his limbs and alighting his nerve endings. It was not as intense before—embers compared to a fire—but his muscles still seized and he still gasped until the buzzing pain faded once more.

“What happened!?” Lindsay shouted from somewhere on the mountaintop. Fingers of smoke still wove away from the wrecked machine, and besides that, Ray could only really focus on a crack in the stone right in front of him. “You said it was working perfectly a few minutes ago!”

“I don’t know!” Kdin yelled back, on the opposite side from Lindsay. “It had been! He started to fight back, and then—”

A voice cut across the mountaintop, an undeniably real voice, one that Ray was so happy to hear that his heart thundered and his limbs tensed with renewed determination.

“Get up, Ray! Keep fighting!”

Gavin. He’s alive.

Chapter Text

“Is it me, or has the border moved closer?”

The Rose Thief turned away from watching Ryan heal a burn victim to look where King Geoff was pointing. The strait looked the same as ever; it was hard to tell if the border, the line in the water marking the change between Venator and the End, had moved closer or not.

But the king’s statement had attracted the attention of many of the others. Some of the soldiers ignored it, and Caleb and Ryan could only give it an inquisitive glance as they healed with dragon-inflicted wounds, but the rest were drawn to look.

When Michael drew up next to him, the Rose Thief threaded his arm around Michael’s waist. He squinted at the southern horizon. It seemed… darker, but it was hard to tell the difference from the normally slate-colored horizon.

As they watched the horizon and the border, more soldiers stopped their activities and watched as well. After ten or twenty minutes, the line of desaturation in the water had inched towards them about a foot. The horizon was definitely darker, too. Ryan and Caleb healed the last person and stood, shadows like bruises under their eyes. They were exhausted, but their anxiety was felt.

“It’s expanding,” Ryan said. He tucked his hands into his sleeves but his eyes were wide and fixated on the border. “If it—if it doesn’t stop, it might cover all of Venator—it might cover all four kingdoms.”

“There won’t be a single magic user left in the four kingdoms,” King Geoff said slowly.

“We—we’ll die,” Caleb said in a shaky voice.”

Ryan and Geoff shared a glance. “Yes. Something like that,” said the king.

The border inched closer.

“Pack up the camp!” ordered the king suddenly. He turned towards the awestruck soldiers. “We retreat! The edge of the spell over the Ender Kingdom is coming closer, but for now we can outrun it!”

The soldiers jolted into bustling action. Ryan rubbed his temples and strode towards his staff. Moments after the order was given, a distant roar echoed across the strait. The Rose Thief’s blood ran cold, and he pressed against Michael. The activity of the army stilled once more. The temperature seemed to drop, and a dozen or so lanky black figures started appearing on the other side of the strait, dotting the rocky shore.

“The strait should be too far for them to teleport,” Ryan said, though he sounded like he was trying more to reassure himself than the rest of the soldiers. “Without the land bridge…”

A screeching cry echoed down around them. A shadow flitted over the land, and the horses screamed and reared, some of them yanking their reins out of soldiers’ grips. And then a black blur barreled into their camp, its claws raking through the crowd. The dragon grabbed a horse amongst shouts of alarm and terror, its great wings beating as it carried the horse up and dropped it into the strait from dozens of feet in the air.

The camp was in motion. Weapons retrieved, bows drawn, orders barked. The Rose Thief stuck by Michael as he marched around organizing the soldiers. Ryan and Caleb retreated together, sticking close to Geoff. They were exhausted, but if their magic was needed… The dragon wheeled around and swept over the strait towards them again, arrows plinking off its scales. A surge of magic ran up the Rose Thief’s spine like static, and the Enderman from the opposite shore disappeared.

And one by one, reappeared in the middle of camp.

The dragon had returned, and this time it brought backup.

King Geoff drew his sword and thrust it high in the air, chaos surging around him. The blade glinted in the sunlight as he roared his order against the dragon.

Retreat!


 

Ray pushed his palms into the stone, his arms shaking as he raised his head. His bracers, blackened as though they had been set on fire, crumbled into charcoal as his muscles flexed. He looked up in time to see Gavin and Jack in a moment of stillness, looking scratched up and dirty but otherwise okay. Jack’s armor had a few more dents in it. But they were okay. Gavin’s bow was drawn, empty like he had just shot an arrow, and Jack held his two smaller axes at the ready. They were okay. He was so tired…

The world started moving again. Jack charged past Gavin towards Kdin as the prince drew one of the few arrows still in his quiver. Kdin was preparing a spell, glaring at the two of them as the Mage’s clothes started to catch the wind.

“You should have stayed down!” Kdin roared.

Kdin’s spell was abruptly cut off as Gavin loosed another arrow, and the Mage had to duck. By then, Jack had reached Kdin, and Kdin was forced to play an evasive defense, gliding from point to point across the stone to avoid Jack’s fast attacks.

Suddenly, Lindsay was in front of Ray, and her boot swung into his ribs. He gasped as the dull pain blossomed across his chest, and his arms stopped holding him up.

“You’ve ruined everything!” Lindsay cried. Ray saw her boot swing forward again and braced himself against her kick. It didn’t help the blunt force that slammed into his stomach. He wheezed, the air gone from his lungs, curled up tighter. He broke their thing, but beyond that he didn’t even know what he ruined. “It’s all gone because of you!

Lindsay drove the bottom of her heel into his ribcage, and when he rolled onto his back, she stomped on his chest. He couldn’t breathe. Ray’s vision was edged in black, a narrow cone that saw Lindsay draw her sword from her hip and raise it with both arms, point aimed down for his throat. Ray raised his hands as though they would block the tip of the sword from nearly beheading him.

They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. Ray didn’t see much of anything other than the tip of the sword. The second stretched on and on, the sword tip raising and pausing for an eternity in preparation for its downward plunge.

And then the tip of the blade jerked to the side. Lindsay stumbled, her head whipped to the side as something pinged against her crown. She dropped her sword, and it clattered to the stone next to Ray. Lindsay clutched her head as her crown was flung off her head by a wayward arrow. Ray gasped, hands grasping the front of his shirt.

Fight, Ray!” Gavin’s voice carried across the mountaintop. Ray turned his head to catch a glance of the prince. Their eyes met for but a brief second, a spark that seemed to brighten his focus in just that short a time, and then Jack cried out a warning. There was a crackle and a sudden orange light, Gavin tore his eyes away in time to roll out of the way of a hurled fireball.

Lindsay recovered with a growl, her eyes bright with fury, a bit of her hair pulled up by her crown being knocked off her head. She moved back towards him, and Ray rolled before she could stomp on his chest again. He rolled onto his hands and knees, about to pop up to his feet, but the queen was quicker than him. Lindsay knelt down and looped an arm around his neck, yanked him back onto his knees. Ray choked and scratched at her arm, pulled at it, trying to ease the pressure off his windpipe. Faintly, he heard the sounds of combat, of Jack’s clinking armor and Gavin’s snapping bowstring, Kdin’s grunts as magic pulled the Mage from one point to another.

Ray struggled against Lindsay and struggled against panic. He had to fight. He had to fight. But what could he do? He… well, he still had his arms. He clenched his fist tight and drove his elbow into Lindsay’s stomach. The air forced out of her lungs huffed over his ear. He swung his elbow again, and her arm loosened enough for him to slip under and out.

Ray began to crawl away. Lindsay grabbed at his ankle, and he twisted around and put his weight onto his hands and elbows, kicking her hand away. Her eyes gleamed, her teeth bared and white, but this image lasted only for a short while, until his foot slammed into her ribs and she folded over, clutching at her stomach.

He scrambled backwards in a sort of crabwalk and somehow managed to stumble to his feet. He glanced around wildly, skimming the mountaintop to get his bearings. At the edge of his vision, he saw Gavin roll across the ground, pick up a discarded arrow in the same movement, and shoot it at Kdin before he was even fully on his feet. Jack swooped in as soon as Kdin dodged, keeping the Mage busy. Ray and Lindsay were in their own little area. Small bits of obsidian littered all across the mountaintop, though most of the wreckage was contained to where the machine had been. And where was his sword?

“What do you even have to fight for anymore?” Lindsay growled, standing with one hand on her stomach, her face screwed up in fury. Ray clenched his fists and stared her down without answering. He was fighting for… something. A new home. A spark of hope. Not dying. After a few moments, Lindsay spat, “You’re gonna pay!”

She charged at him, didn’t even pick up her sword—just sprinted. Ray wondered if he could outrun her. Probably not, he decided. But his eyes focused on the Ender Pearls still around her neck—the only remaining Ender Pearls she wore, the rest having fallen off with her crown. If he could get them off of her, then she should snap out of it, right?

And where was his damn sword!?

Lindsay knew much more hand-to-hand combat than Ray. That much was clear from her first punch. Ray braced himself for a wild, swinging fist, and instead her fist darted out from her side, quick and straight. He dodged to the side, but she still nailed him in the stomach. He let his knees buckle and dropped to the stone as her second palm punched the air above his head.

Ray’s heart was a flurry of adrenaline. He swung his arm into the back of her knees. It wasn’t hard enough to make her fall completely, but she stumbled. By the time she regained her balance, Ray had flung himself backwards and used what were probably his strongest muscles—his legs. He kicked the back of her knee again, putting all his force behind his foot and sending silent apologies to Lindsay all the while. This time she did drop, falling onto her ass.

Ray slapped the ground to push off, rolled over his tailbone, and tackled Lindsay. He didn’t have much momentum, but he pushed her down and scrabbled at her neck for her necklace.

With a screeched grunt, Lindsay grabbed Ray’s shoulders and rolled, taking Ray with her. The two of them tumbled across the stone, each fighting to remain on top. He squirmed and kept the momentum going as Lindsay clawed at his throat and aimed for his head. One of her violent hands accidentally knocked the glasses off his face, her scratching finger catching it under the hinges and flinging the frames away.

Ray rolled onto his back, stones of varying sizes grinding into his flesh. He tried to move, but Lindsay straddled him solidly. His legs would not help in this fight now, his heels scraping across the rock in vain for purchase. He tried to slap Lindsay’s hands away, but then one fist got past his meager defenses. He saw it coming, like the sword tip before it, but couldn’t possibly move fast enough. He flinched just before sharp pain popped over his eye socket. The back of his head smacked the stone behind it, white flashing over his blurred vision.

He reached blindly and felt a cool smooth Pearl underneath his palm, and his fingers curled around the necklace. Lindsay gripped the sides of his heads, pulling her face close to his with a sadistic grin.

“I’m going to bash your fucking head in,” she growled.

“But you need me,” Ray said. He hated how his voice wavered. She hadn’t seemed to notice his grip on her necklace.

“Not anymore,” she said. Her hands pressed into his temples a little harder, her nails digging into his hair. He winced at their bite. “We’d need several more decades to rebuild that machine, and even with the spell across the kingdom, you wouldn’t last. You sealed your own death by destroying our machine!”

Ray squeezed his eyes shut as Lindsay yanked him up by his head, preparing to smash his skull into the stone. He pulled back, and tugged on the necklace. It didn’t give, but Lindsay felt it and suddenly let go of his head. She gripped his arm and squeezed his wrist. She couldn’t seem to find the pressure point, though it still hurt. He held onto the necklace with all his might.

One of her fists found his jaw, and blood spilled into his mouth as his teeth sliced his inner cheek. His head snapped to the side, and at the same time, his hand jerked back. The clasp of the necklace gave. His elbow slammed into the hard ground, his fingers still curled around Lindsay’s necklace.

Lindsay’s eyes rolled up, and her entire body went limp. She collapsed on top of Ray, and he had to heave her off of him. He gently adjusted her so that she lay on her back. He squinted across the rock, spotting his glasses a few paces away. He stood back up, panting and swallowing blood, and retrieved them. They were unharmed, other than a few scratches on the black frames. He put them on and turned to the other fight across the mountaintop.

Kdin was clutching his arm, his left hand bleeding with a scratch. Kdin’s face was a mixture of agony and anger, and his left hand was in a white-knuckled fist. It looked like an arrow coated with Gavin’s burning jelly had grazed the Mage. He was between Jack and Gavin, several paces away from each. Gavin glanced around quickly for an arrow and, upon not seeing any nearby, tossed his bow to the ground with a clatter and drew his sabre. Jack flipped hair off his sweaty forehead and prepared to charge again.

Kdin hunched over and hugged his arms across his chest. A guttural scream ripped from his throat, and as Gavin and Jack began their charge, the air pressure suddenly dropped, making Ray’s ears pop. A force sucked in towards Kdin, tugging Ray weakly towards the Mage, and making Gavin and Jack stumble.

Kdin thrust out his arms, straightening his back as his clothes and sleeves billowed out like a great gust of wind was originating from his soul. The pulse of energy was invisible, but burst out and warped the air like a heat wave. The stones rattled and rolled, and Ray braced himself as he slid back a foot or two on his heels. Gavin and Jack were flung back as the energy hit them, flipping over in the air. Gavin twisted and landed on his side, rolling over and over. Jack was not so nimble. His upper back slammed into the ground, and he somersaulted over his head and lay still on his stomach.

Kdin’s eyes burned with violet color. Ray’s blood ran hot, and he spotted the ivory bracelet nearby him, having rolled out of hiding with Kdin’s spell. Kdin marched towards Gavin with measured, smooth strides, his gaze focused entirely on the prince’s face, and raised his hand. Ray didn’t even think—just ran.

He scooped the bracelet up as he passed and raced towards the Mage. Kdin’s hand shimmered with a pure white light. Gavin weakly pushed himself up on his hands, raised his head to look up at the furious Mage standing over him. Neither of them noticed Ray tearing across the mountaintop, leaping over the larger hunks of obsidian. Prince Gavin looked death in the face and revealed nothing.

Ray hurtled into Kdin, not even bothering to slow down as his free hand grabbed Kdin’s wrist and yanked the Mage’s hand up and away from Gavin. Kdin’s face slackened with surprise, eyes going wide, as Ray tackled him to the ground. The spell went off as they fell, a sizzling white-hot beam of some sort of condensed fire shooting into the sky. Ray’s palm burned on Kdin’s wrist.

They hit the ground and Kdin immediately started struggling, kicking and twisting his arm to try to free himself. Ray kept his vice grip on Kdin’s wrist and sat heavily on the Mage’s stomach. He yanked Kdin’s arm and, with his other hand, shoved the ivory bracelet onto Kdin’s wrist. Despite Kdin being as unhelpful as possible, splaying his hands and almost attempting to claw Ray with the full-finger ring, the bracelet slid over his hand easily.

Kdin howled. He screamed, squirming underneath Ray and slapping and hitting him. He swiped at Ray’s face with the claw-like full-finger ring, and Ray jerked away. His grip loosened, and Kdin tore his arm free, shoving Ray away and wriggling out.

Ray scooted back, breathing heavily. Gavin had disappeared from nearby and had gone over to Jack’s side and was trying to gently shake the man awake. Gavin confirmed that Jack was alive but knocked out cold with a sharp nod at Ray. Kdin continued to howl, in fury, in frustration, as his fingers scrabbled at the ivory bracelet. Despite the bracelet having gone on easy, it refused to slide back over the Mage’s hand.

Kdin whipped up his head to glare at Ray, and Ray’s breath caught to see tears streaking down the Mage’s cheeks. But Kdin didn’t move from his spot on the ground.

“Take it off me,” Kdin ordered in a hiss. “You monster. Give me back my magic! Take it off me!

Ray glanced at Gavin, but the prince merely looked back with a pained, anxious expression. Ray sighed and closed his eyes—just for a moment. God, he was tired. Gavin squeezed his shoulder.

“Gav, go take off Kdin’s Ender Pearls, and the Eye in his headpiece.”

Gavin nodded silently, and the two of them stood. Kdin flailed and scooched backwards the moment Gavin took a step towards him.

“N-no!” Kdin cried, his fury swiftly morphing into terror. “Y-you can’t do that! I’ll change!

“What?” Gavin asked, hesitating. Ray stared at Kdin, pursed his lips thoughtfully.

Kdin lightly touched the Ender Eye in his headpiece with shaking fingers. “The Eye. It’s the only thing protecting me from the egg’s spell! D-don’t do that to me!”

“Perhaps we kill you, and save you from such a fate,” Gavin said coldly. The prince took another step forward, and Kdin flinched. Gavin drew his dagger with a snap. “After what you did to us. To Ray.”

“I did what I had to do,” Kdin said, doing his best to sneer but his voice still trembling. “The dragon will return here, and you won’t stand a chance against it.”

“Wait,” Ray said. “Gavin—don’t.” Gavin looked over his shoulder, his dagger still clenched in a hand. “Tie him up or knock him out or something. I know Jack had some rope. But don’t kill him, or turn him into an Enderman.”

“A temporary solution,” Gavin growled. “It’s only a matter of time before he manages to get that bracelet off, and he gets his magic back.”

“No,” Ray said. “Do as I say.” He scanned the mountaintop, rubbing his temple. The eye Lindsay had punched throbbed and was already swelling. His eyes landed on the dark shape of the egg-shaped obsidian, standing just apart from a pile of black rubble. And there, nicely gleaming in the dim daylight just a few yards away from the egg, was his sword.

Kdin barked a laugh. “You can’t break it,” Kdin said, a hand covering the ivory bracelet like an embarrassing tattoo. “It’s solid obsidian and will teleport when you hit it!”

Gavin finally sheathed his dagger again, but stooped to pick up a good-sized piece of obsidian. He strode over to Kdin, who leered at him but didn’t move, accepting that he had lost the battle. With one swinging arc of the arm, Gavin smashed the rock into Kdin’s skull. The Mage slumped to the ground without another sound.

Gavin immediately darted to Jack’s side once more, checking up on the unconscious man. Ray picked his way around stones towards his sword, crouching down to pick it up. Its familiar weight was a relief to his tired arms, and he stood again with a sigh. He squinted up at the clouded sky, the wind whistling around him and sliding cold across his skin and his back.

The egg pulsated with icy energy from its spot near the cliff’s edge. There was a thrum of power about it as Ray approached, a heaviness in the air. He gripped his sword tightly in his right hand, and with his left reached out towards the egg. The air vibrated around his fingers, and his palm pushed against soft, invisible resistance. The surface of the egg was rough, unhewn stone, and the moment he touched it was the moment his energy started leeching away, replaced by cold lethargy. The pulse of the egg dulled under his hand.

“Ray…” Gavin called from where Jack lay, a dozen or so yards away. “What do you hope to do?”

Ray yanked his hand away and shook it out. The egg thrummed again. “Didn’t you listen to Kdin?” he said. “This… egg. It seems to be the thing that turns magic users into Enderman. It might even be responsible for the inactivity all over the kingdom.”

“So you’re thinking if you destroy it, you’ll break the spell.”

Ray gripped his sword in both hands and brought the tip down on the top of the egg.

His arms jolted as the blade hit the egg. But only for a moment—his swing followed through almost immediately after contact, and a warping sound swallowed the egg as it teleported away. Ray caught himself before he fell on top of his rapier. He didn’t know why he was surprised when he should have expected as much. He whirled around to look for it again, hoping it hadn’t left the mountaintop.

The egg was near the center this time, squatting next to the main wreckage of the machine like it had toppled there from the beginning. Ray marched towards it, determined to try again, but Gavin marched towards him. Gavin stopped him a few paces from the egg, grabbing both of Ray’s shoulders firmly.

“Stop it,” Gavin said. His voice sounded tight. “You don’t know what it could do. I’m sure even you can feel what sort of magic it holds at this distance. Let’s just—let’s just go.”

Go. Ray searched Gavin’s eyes. The prince was weary, like him—from both battle, and no doubt from the spell over the kingdom. The spell coming from the egg. And hell, Ray was tired too. But it didn’t feel right to leave it all as is. If he could destroy the egg, and the spell it powered, then Mages could enter the End again, and more help could come to the kingdom.

“I’m sorry, Gav,” Ray said. “I have to try.”

He didn’t think Gavin would let go after such a weak statement, but he did. Gavin backed up, biting his lower lip. Ray once more approached the obsidian egg. Each step closer made the air stick to his skin, made the sky weigh heavy on his head. But if anyone could destroy the egg, he could. The outsider. The one who wasn’t supposed to be here in this world, but here he was. He took a deep breath. The thrumming air chilled his core.

He placed his palm against the surface of the obsidian. The pulse once more dulled, and his hand felt like he was sinking it slowly into ice water. He drew his sword up with his other hand and gingerly positioned the tip of the blade against the top of the egg. The egg hummed. He heard Gavin softly choke out his name, a final attempt to stop him. And, with a sharp inhale, lifted the blade as high as his arm would allow, and slammed the tip down just as Gavin cried out his name.

The prince’s arms wrapped around his torso. The blade sunk into the obsidian.

Chapter Text

The air compressed around Ray, gusted down on him from all sides, trying to suffocate him. He forced his sword into the egg, and at the moment it was all he could really do. Colors, mostly muted, mostly gray, swirled around him at nauseating speeds. His breath was stolen right from his lungs.

Cracks webbed across the egg’s surface, deep fissures breaking out from his sword that allowed a violet glow to burst through. In just a few short seconds, the entire obsidian surface had taken on the appearance of cooling lava, large pieces barely holding on to a shining purple core.

And then, his sword halfway sunken, the egg shattered.

Tiny black stones peppered Ray, streaked and cut across his skin. The light broke the egg from the inside, bursting out of its core. It seared Ray’s eyes with its brilliance. These stones, too, dissolved eventually into purple light as they rocketed outward. The light reached into the sky, through a gaping hole in a tall arching ceiling of gray stone.

The light was cold. The arms around Ray’s middle let go, but his eyes were glued up to the sky. All that energy being released into the atmosphere, all that cruel magic, it couldn’t be good. He let go of his sword as he reached for the light as the light reached for the sky. He wasn’t sure what would happen, if anything, but still he reached.

The light bent towards him like iron dust to a magnet. It curved down, sunk into his skin. It didn’t have any force; the only sensation he got from the light was icy cold. He watched the light settle on his outstretched hand, his flesh shimmering violet but drawing in light like a sponge. The chill pushed down into his core, freezing him from the inside out. It wasn’t a shivery cold, but a debilitating cold, one that stole his strength and whispered fatigue into every muscle.

He took it all. He had to. He was the only one who could. He dropped to his knees. There was so much light, so much magic, so much cold, pushing down deep into his core. It weighed heavily on his chest, this cold. Constricted his throat; squeezed his lungs. He reached for the light still, his sword suspended where he left it, handle up. His fingertips began to burn and tingle, making his hands twitch with pain. It felt like they had caught fire. He took it all. He had to. He…

He blacked out.


 

The Rose Thief wanted to vomit. The past hour was one huge blur. Full-blown panic had been avoided only barely, as Michael and Geoff had barked orders and reminded the soldiers that they were soldiers. They had retreated under the onslaught of the dragon and its troop of Endermen. And now they were laying against the red flowers that bloomed all over his decimated hometown.

They had lost soldiers. The dragon swept up horses and tents and men indiscriminately, burning them to a crisp or slashing them open or carrying them over the strait and dropping them in. Those that fell to the water might still be alive, but there wasn’t any way to be sure.

Geoff and Michael tried to herd as many people as possible, and the Rose Thief helped of course, but the Endermen would swoop in. Soldiers would freeze in terror, and if Michael was caught by surprise, so would he. The Rose Thief stuck by Michael after the first time, when Michael almost got dragged away, and had only been saved by another soldier’s arrow.

They outran and outrode the creeping border. The dragon swooped and shot fire at them all as they retreated, the Enderman walked amongst them, swiping and dragging. One Enderman pulled Caleb off his horse, and he started howling as he was nearly pulled completely across the border, which had nearly reached the shore at that point, until he was saved. The part of his arm that crossed the border twisted and turned black. He crawled away, clutching his blackened arm, and Dan rode back to him on a horse and grabbed the Mage and put him in the saddle in one motion.

They ran for the closest defensible area in which they could hide—Trianta. The roses pricked at them as they stomped into the town, heading for the old mansion. Though half-destroyed, it had still been built to withstand enemies. They abandoned what horses they had left and waded through thickets of roses. Some crawled, heedless of the thorns scratching at their faces. Ryan helped Dan carry Caleb between them as the young Mage sagged limply.

There was something about the roses that made fire act weird. The dragon would breathe down at them, gliding low so that its wind pulled at them, but though the roses burned and withered into ash, the fire never spread from plant to plant. And only the blooms would burn, leaving their wicked thorns, thorns that pierced even the Endermen’s tough skins.

 Ryan cast a shield over them as they forced their way through the roses and into the ruined mansion. It was just enough shelter to prevent any more soldiers from being lost to the dragon’s fire as they traversed the town. It was all he had left in him.

And now they were in the basement of the Rose Thief’s old home, and it made him sick to his stomach. The front hall had been littered with stones and carpeted with thorny roses. The stairs were cracked and dark, and the perfume of the flowers was everywhere and swallowed his head like a blanket. The basement had been mostly storage in its prosperity, with three cells in the back for miscreants. But now it was their defensible area, and roses peeked out of the cracks in the earth and in the walls.

The wounded and the weary crowded against a corner, and those who could still stand and fight kept a guard to attack any teleporting Enderman. The Rose Thief pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. He couldn’t reconcile the image of the cellar as it was now with the image he remembered. It used to be so prosperous, stacked with boxes and crates, racks of wine and drink in another room, a table in the back for guards to play dice when there was someone in the cells. It had been a perfect place for hide-and-seek, when Michael had come to visit when they were much younger…

A soft tap on his shoulder nudged him out of his flashback. The king met his eyes, weariness deepening the wrinkles in his face and making him seem a hundred years old.  “Get some first aid for those cuts,” Geoff said gently, motioning to his bleeding arms and calves. The roses had been brutal.

He glanced past the king to see Dan wrapping Michael’s arm in cloth, the fabric already soaked through red. Michael’s face was pale, but he looked angry. His arm had been slashed open through his steel gauntlets by a dragon claw. Ryan was with Caleb, sitting next to him slumped against the wall, trying to figure out what to do about Caleb’s warped arm. Caleb’s face was pale and sweating, and he leaned his head against the wall and sat with his eyes closed. Neither of them was using magic. They were too exhausted.

The dragon’s cries rattled the stonework. The soldiers tittered. King Geoff walked away before he could argue. He and the king seemed to have suffered most of their wounds from the roses. They were some of the few who could still fight against wayward Enderman, and they stood with weapons at the ready. But for now they were not attacked. King Geoff walked from soldier to soldier, murmuring words to each individual. The air in the cellar was palpable, as soldiers waited for their hiding spot to be invaded, for their meager safety to shatter.

At that moment, the dragon gave a different cry. It screeched as though it was in severe pain, loud enough for the Rose Thief’s ears to prick even underground. Dust and small pebbles loosened from the ceiling of the cellar and sprinkled down. Then, amazingly, the screeches got quieter. He looked across the room, where the king had paused in making his rounds. Geoff stared back, and they both realized the same thing.

The dragon was flying away.


 

When Ray awoke, he was aware of a heavy, warm weight draped across his chest. He took a deep, shuddering breath, his ribcage pushing that weight up and letting it push back down. He was lying on his back on a stone floor, looking up at a hole in a ceiling big enough to fit a dragon through. Fallen stones and pieces of arches scattered around him, though he lay on a small cleared space in its center.

He pressed his palms against the floor and closed his eyes as he took another deep breath. Cold still settled in his chest like a lump of lead, but it was lesser now. Bearable. He still didn’t feel like moving; no, he felt very much like drifting off again. But he knew that he must get up. So he pushed against the floor and slid back from under the warm weight across his chest, just enough to be able to sit up.

The weight belonged to Gavin. The prince had been half draped across Ray, face down and passed out cold, and now Ray’s movements had shifted him mostly off, leaving just an arm across Ray’s stomach. Ray bit his lip and went to move Gavin’s arm off of him. The rise and fall of Gavin’s back told Ray he was still alive, but it was still worrying. Gavin was ice cold.

Something else chilled Ray’s blood and gripped his heart in terror, as he gently grasped Gavin’s arm and moved it off him. His fingertips were black, coated in some shimmery, obsidian material almost down to his second knuckles. His nails were glossy and smooth, like polished onyx. He forgot to breathe as he frantically scrubbed and picked at the black on his skin. It flaked off like snake scales.

As he furiously worked, Gavin stirred with a small groan. The last bit of black peeled away, revealing new skin underneath, as Gavin slowly pushed himself to his hands and knees, his head hanging. He should have felt relieved that Gavin was awake and moving, but instead he was struggling to hold back tears. Emotions, panic and relief and terror, were swirling in his head and he was overwhelmed.

“Gavin…” he managed.

“Ray!” Gavin cried, snapping his head up. He lurched towards Ray, throwing his arms around him and hugging tight. Ray hugged back, fingers curling into the fabric of Gavin’s tunic, into Gavin’s hair, pressing his head against Gavin’s shoulder. “I thought you were gone, I…”

“Me too,” Ray muttered, his voice tight. “You shouldn’t have grabbed on to me, you…” He pulled back so that he could look at Gavin’s face, but he kept his hands on the prince’s shoulders. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I should be asking you that,” Gavin said mournfully. He reached up and touched the side of Ray’s head, above his left ear. “I’m fine, just a little cold, and my head hurts. When you stabbed the egg, and I grabbed on to you, it must have teleported us all over the place. I thought I was going to pass out then, but then it broke. You… absorbed all the light, but it was too much magic even for you. You…” Gavin took one of Ray’s hands off his shoulder and held it in both of his, splaying Ray’s fingers. He really hoped the black would grow out, or otherwise come off. He didn’t think he could stand being fucking emo for the rest of his life.

Gavin met his eyes again. “You started to change. And you were in so much pain. So I… took some of the magic from you.”

“You took it?”

Gavin partially covered his own lips with the tips of his fingers and averted his gaze. A flush began to creep into his cheeks. “Yes. I didn’t think I’d be able to, but it worked. I took as much as I could, but I passed out too. And now we’re here…”

For the first time, Ray looked around and really saw where “here” was. They were in the middle of a long throne room with gray stone brick walls. Peaked arches sprouting from columns against the two long walls held up what was left of the roof. The columns made alcoves at regular intervals, and each alcove had a peaked window of stained glass. On each column was a wrought iron torch bracket that held a spherical milky white crystal. A few of these nearby crystal torches had evidently fallen when the roof had collapsed, and their crystals were shattered and clear amongst the rest of the debris.

At one end of the room was a raised dais with two thrones. The central one was large and black, with a square of gold in its back. The other was smaller and purple, off to the side. Both were simple in make but richly decorated in precious stones and bright cushions. At the other end of the room, enormous dark oak doors with iron handles loomed in the wall. Both of these short walls were entirely covered with a pane of silver mirror, giving the throne room the effect of being much larger than it was.

His own reflection in the mirror caught Ray’s eye. He stood, ignoring the shaking in his legs, and approached the mirror surrounding the doors. He heard Gavin sigh and grunt as he followed. Ray lightly touched the left side of his head as he stared, near where Gavin had touched him earlier. His hair had a streak of white in it, starting at the hair near his temple and slashing towards the back of his head.

Gavin squeezed his shoulder, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “A lot of things happened…” he said softly. “You don’t get through them without some damage. You should… You should turn around and look at your back.”

Ray obeyed, the blood draining out of his face. He twisted around, looking over his shoulder. His shirt and jacket had deteriorated in the back, a fact he hadn’t had the chance to gather since the machine exploded. And so, he saw clearly what Gavin had wanted him to see.

White scars straggled all across his skin like lightning. Starting at a swirl of lines, thick and thin, at the small of his back, the scars stretched and branched across his spine and shoulder blades, reaching up to his neck and almost curving around his shoulders and down his arms but not quite making it that far.

Ray sank back down to the ground and put his face in his hands, resting his forehead against his knees. He began to shake, and he pressed his palms into his eyes until stars popped against the blackness of his eyelids. This was too much for him to handle. God, he just wanted to go home. He didn’t want all these attributes. These scars. What had he done to deserve this? Why must it have happened to him? Sure, if he survived, he could go back to the castle in Venator with Gavin, but it wasn’t the same. He just wanted to fucking go home!

“I’m sorry,” Gavin said from above him. He heard Gavin’s boots scuff against the stone. “That this happened.”

“I want to go home,” Ray sobbed. He clenched his jaw and sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I want to leave, and I can’t, and I never will because it’s impossible, and I don’t even know where we are, and—!”

“It’s not impossible,” Gavin insisted, crouching down next to Ray. Ray angrily wiped tears away with his sleeve. “We’ll figure it out, we can…”

“No!” Ray snapped, glaring at Gavin. Gavin shrank back. “Kdin said it himself. Kdin told me that he couldn’t send me back even if he wanted to. It costs too much magic, and the odds of connecting with my world again, as opposed to others, are slim to none!”

“Kdin must’ve been…” Gavin was about to say lying, Ray was sure, but he cut himself off with a gasp, eyes going wide. “Jack! Jack’s still on the mountaintop!” He shot to his feet, but with nowhere to go, he paced in tight circles and pulled at his hair. Ray sniffed and wiped at his face, watching miserably. “We have to go get him! I can’t believe I—I bloody left him! With the queen and the Mage! I know they’re incapacitated but for how long? And the dragon could return! We could be hundreds of miles away! He’s all exposed… Oh, bloody Tower, what…”

“You’re in Castle End.”

The voice was soft and weary, but in a quiet world such as that of the muted kingdom, its sound carried. It came from one of two men sitting back to back in an alcove next to the doors, like the two had hidden there at some point but remained ever since. One man had shaggy brown hair and beard, with a black cape and purple doublet. The other had dark hair cropped short, and a purple cape and green doublet. Neither of them wore an Ender Pearl, though were not short on jewels, and dust paled their features and clothes. Ray’s neck prickled as he recognized them as Matt and Jeremy.

“Castle End,” Ray repeated.

“Oh no,” Gavin said. “We’re at the ruling capital of the Ender Kingdom.”

“Thanks,” Ray said dryly. Like he couldn’t figure that out from the name.

“I know where we are,” Gavin said desperately. “I’ve seen it on the map. We’re in the middle of the kingdom!”

Jeremy raised his head like his world was in slow motion. They were showing the same sleepiness Peake had. “I noticed you killed the egg,” he mumbled.

“We already feel the cold lifting,” said Matt. “Though… only slightly.”

“Powerful and widespread magic always takes a while to disperse,” Gavin told Ray quietly. Ray stood, using the mirrored wall as support. Now with the original terror fading, it felt like his feet weighed about a thousand pounds.

“Have you… killed the dragon, too?” asked Jeremy.

“No,” Gavin said. He stepped close to Ray, and his hand brushed Ray’s. “What happened? In the Ender Kingdom?”

Jeremy squinted at him, as though confused. Matt, however, didn’t share his bafflement. At length, he spoke.

“In the mountains and beaches to the south, we found the Pearls. A long time ago. My parents’ youth. They seemed to grow in our salted earth. We mind them, polished them, exported them.”

“Now I remember,” said Jeremy. “The dragon followed several years, many years after. I remember. It hid, in the mountains, but everyone wearing Ender Pearls fell under its spell. The mouthpieces led us to war. We didn’t realize. Tensions had been rising with Venator.”

“I remember,” continued Matt. “The egg was unearthed, then. The dragon found it. It raised the egg, breathed its flame, and most people changed into horrid monsters.” He shivered. Jeremy hugged his knees tightly.

“And we got so tired,” said Jeremy. He rested his forehead on his arms. “The egg is gone, but we’re still so tired.”

“Who are you?” Gavin asked, but Matt put his head down too, and neither of them seemed inclined to respond any longer. Ray put a hand on Gavin’s shoulder.

“I know them. Matt and Jeremy had been in my world too.”

Gavin looked at him again with sadness in his eyes. “Does it pain you to see them like this?” he asked under his breath.

Ray shrugged, glancing away. “A little.”

Gavin took Ray’s hand in both of his with trembling fingers. His voice shook as he spoke. “With respect, Ray. I—we should go. We have to go back to the mountain, somehow. To the dragon. We have to get Jack.”

A cry, piercing and high, carried on the wind. It seemed too soft to actually be heard, but still its reverberations were still felt. Matt and Jeremy cowered and clutched at their ears.

“It comes,” said Matt. “It comes for the killer of the egg.”

“It comes for you,” said Jeremy. “The killer of the egg.”

Ray felt cold. He felt like curling up where he stood. He stared at the hole in the ceiling as Gavin’s grip on his hand tightened.

“No offense,” said Ray. “But the dragon is coming to us.”


 

Jack was being shaken awake. The last thing he remembered was Kdin releasing a spell that tossed him back. And then… nothing. His head hurt like mad—he must have hit it and gotten knocked out.

“Wake up. Come on, please.”

That was not Gavin’s or Ray’s voice. It was female… His eyes fluttered open. It was dark, but something cast red light over Queen Lindsay’s face. He had only seen her face in angry or sneering expressions, so it was quite a shock to see her worried. When his eyes opened, she breathed a sigh of relief. Jack’s heart jolted into a fearful gallop, but he forced himself to take steady breaths. She hadn’t killed him when he was out…

“Thank the Tower,” she said. “I don’t think I can carry two people.”

“Two…?” Jack glanced around. They were in some sort of tunnel or cave, though there was no entrance in sight. One end of the tunnel, nearby, was just a curved wall, and the other end stretched on and on into darkness. Lindsay was holding what looked like a wrought iron torch, but instead of a flame it held a spherical crystal that glowed with steady red light. Next to them, Lindsay had grabbed some of their belongings from the mountaintop. There was no one else in sight. Jack shook his head and sat up, massaging his skull where it hurt. “Where have you taken me?”

“A tunnel,” Lindsay said. Jack rolled his eyes. She stood up and offered her hand, but Jack didn’t take it. She dropped her hand to her side and raised her crystal torch to peer down the length of the tunnel. “It connects some of the major Ender cities and mountaintops. And best of all, as per my decree, completely inaccessible through magic. I locked the hidden door behind us, and Kdin won’t be able to blast it open.”

Jack struggled to his feet and braced himself against the stone wall when his head spun suddenly. “You… left the Mage?”

Lindsay grimaced, but still peered off into the tunnel. She lowered her voice. “Yes. Kdin cried out to me when I came to, but as long as the magic still lays over the land, and as long as the dragon lives, I cannot trust that Mage. I borrowed some of your rope, by the way.”

“Right…” Jack still wasn’t sure how much he could trust her, but, well, she still hadn’t tried to kill him. He peered at her warily. Her sword was back in its sheath at her hip, but her Ender Pearl jewelry had vanished, and she wore no crown. Gavin’s and Ray’s doings. Lindsay shushed him.

A patter of footsteps reached Jack’s ears. He looked down the hallway and saw another red crystal torch in the distance, just a pinprick of light. As the owner of the footsteps approached, it resolved into a young attractive man with dark eyes and black hair that flipped over his forehead. His red torch glinted off the Pearl in the silver necklace around his throat, but other than that and a few bracelets of precious metals, he wore no jewelry. His purple tunic had a stiff collar and long sleeves, and though it was finely made, it seemed sturdier and less rich than Lindsay’s and Kdin’s clothes.

“Your Majesty,” said the man, jogging up to her and bowing. “I was alerted to the door opening, are you…? My lady, your crown and necklace—”

Lindsay’s hand moved so fast, Jack almost missed it. She grabbed the man’s necklace and ripped it off his throat, the clasp snapping. He jolted forward, and his eyes rolled up as he fainted. Lindsay stopped forward and caught him as he fell, stooping and shifting to put him over her shoulder in one smooth motion. The man’s torch fell from his limp hand, and the crystal shattered into clear pieces against the stone floor.

Jack stared. She jerked her chin towards the path disappearing into darkness. “Can you walk?”

“A little woozy, but I can manage.”

“Good.” She pursed her lips and started trudging down the tunnel. “We have a ways to go.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Jack stooped down to grab Ray’s bag and sword belt, shoving the latter into the bag. The fight hadn’t let him concentrate on much else, but he still remembered Ray’s shredded clothes. If they ran into each other, he thought Ray should have a change of clothes. Jack followed Lindsay, leaning heavily against the wall. “Where are we going?”

“My castle,” she said. “I felt the egg die, and it had come from that direction. Your friends are probably near it, as well. Whether or not it's there, though, some of my people should be there still, and should be of use soon now that the egg has died.” She cast him a glance, the red light of the crystal reflecting in her eyes. Jack shivered. “I hope you like mine carts.”

Chapter Text

Gavin groaned and thumped his forehead against the dark oak doors, pressing his fists into the wood. “What are we going to do? Tower, what are we bloody going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Ray said, his voice thin. He couldn’t seem to stop shivering. He breathed a deep, steadying breath against the cold lump of fear and anxiety in his chest. “But I need you to try to calm down.”

Gavin twisted around and slid down to the floor, his back dragging against the wood. His fingers entangled in his hair. “I shouldn’t have left Jack! He could be dead. He could be still passed out and the dragon…”

Gavin,” Ray insisted. Gavin trailed off when he heard the waver in Ray’s voice.

“Alright, alright,” Gavin muttered. He combed the knots out of his hair with his fingers, but the motion made his hair stick almost straight up. He sucked in a few breaths and began tapping erratically on the stone floor. After a few moments of this, he glanced at Ray and clenched his hands into fists to resist tapping his fingers. With the prince less visibly anxious, Ray’s own nerves calmed a little.

“There’s got to be something we can do. I didn’t survive all that to give up here,” Ray said. He sank down to the floor next to Gavin. Side by side, they stared down the length of the throne room. His discarded rapier shone in the middle of the room, its black blade balanced perfectly on its point where the egg used to be. It was uncanny magical bullshit, he was sure. He’d have to go get it soon, but for now….

It was easier to be determined, even optimistic, when he needed to be strong— stronger—for someone else. Even if he’ll never get home, never see Michael or the others again… well, he’s survived too fucking much.

“That dragon will tear this castle apart to find us,” Gavin said.

“To find me,” Ray corrected. He saw Gavin glance at him out of the corner of his eye, but he kept his gaze fixated on the gold square in the black throne. “I’m the one who broke its egg.” A pause, and the silence stretched thin.

Emotion suddenly hit Ray like a truck. Gavin could still get away. And, he realized, he did not want Gavin to stay. Or rather, he did—in fact, he wanted Gavin to stay more than anything, but… It’s not like two people stood less of a chance of injury or death by dragon than just one person, right?

Oh no.

“I won’t do it,” Gavin said.

It took a moment for Ray to comprehend that the prince was speaking. He was still dealing with the intense need to have Prince Gavin near him. He looked at Gavin now, and the prince’s face had turned firm and serious. Any anxiety was impossible to see in his eyes.

“Don’t you even suggest it. I—I won’t send you off to your death alone again.”

Ray felt like crying. He struggled to form words, his fingers curling against the stone as though looking for something to desperately hold on to. He needed Gavin there.

“Gavin,” he managed, weakly, sincerely. “Thank you.”

The silence seemed to be trying to push them together, but neither of them moved. Ray watched the subtle changes in Gavin’s expression, the twitches along his lips and eyebrows. It was as though he was unsure how to feel about Ray’s gratitude.  Finally, Gavin pursed his lips and looked away, back down to the end of the throne room. He drew his knees into his chest and hugged them close.

“You shouldn’t be thanking me,” he said miserably. “I don’t deserve it.”

The tension in the air blew out like a candle. “What do you mean?”

“Destruction, it—it’s what I do best,” said the prince, his voice rapidly becoming more unsteady. “I’m good at setting fires, and shooting things, and—and wrecking relationships. I’m being selfish, sticking around you.”

Ray bit his lip. Gavin was digging himself into an emotional pit. And worst of all, Ray understood how it felt, and where the shovels were coming from. It could even be that the magic absorbed from the egg made everything feel worse. Like it dug out a little hole and waited for someone to trip. God knows lethargy still sang its siren call to Ray. It was sheer force of will and a last bout of desperation that kept him going.

“Gavin, you’ve saved my life more than once, now, and your help besides that has been invaluable.”

“But only after I’d done terrible things! I pushed you away and had to be told off by Ryan before I stopped. I single-handedly ruined Michael’s and the other Ray’s relationship so I could scoop Michael up for myself, and Geoff let me do it! Bloody Tower, I only got noticed by King Geoff in the first place because I tried to steal from him. And now I—what kind of person does this?”

Ray sensed that Gavin hadn’t said all he needed to say yet. He watched the prince, and waited. Gavin hid his face in his knees, but then rolled his shoulders back and looked Ray square in the eye.

“I never thought that I could desire someone else so much. It’s selfish of me to want this, after all I’ve done, and yet, here I am. Ray, I’m not—I’m not a good person, but you’ve made me feel like I could be. And there is nothing I desire more than being by your side until the end.”

Ray’s face flushed warm, and his heartbeat picked up speed like a man whose foot just caught fire. The cold didn’t seem so, well, cold anymore. “Well, Gavin, I think you’ve more than earned your redemption.”

Ray enjoyed seeing the slight but dramatic change that came over Gavin’s face, like the sun peeking through cloud cover after a day of rain. Gavin’s eyes widened, only a little but just enough, and a deep blush creeped into his cheeks. Ray grinned. It felt good to smile, after all that has happened. He threw an arm around Gavin’s shoulders and hugged him to his side. The prince relaxed against him, and a little more weight floated from his chest.

Gavin suddenly sucked in a sharp breath, and made a little oh sound. He straightened, sitting forward with wide eyes. “Ray, there’s got to be an armory somewhere in this castle! If we’re going to stand a chance against the dragon, we’ll—well, I at least will need weapons.” He grinned sheepishly at Ray, but his tense brow belied his worry. “I left my sabre and bow behind…”

Ray patted him on the back. “There we go! It’s a place to start.” He pushed himself to his feet with a grunt and turned around to extend a hand to Gavin. “We can figure out where to go from there. We’ve got a little bit of time yet.”

Gavin grabbed Ray’s hand, and Ray pulled him up. Gavin didn’t step away immediately, and neither did Ray, meaning that now they were standing face to face with little room for Jesus. Gavin averted his gaze as Ray waited with a fluttering heart, the back of his neck prickling with heat.

“I—I’m sorry about all that,” he said, his cheeks still flushed. “I don’t know what came over me. We don’t exactly have time for wallowing, do we?”

Ray snorted, but he smiled at Gavin. “This place doesn’t help at all. This magic mmpf…”

Ray was cut off as Gavin put his hands on either side of his face and pressed his lips against Ray’s.

It perhaps lasted only a second or two, a chaste kiss on the lips, but Gavin pulled away quickly, his hands flitting nervously and aimlessly around. “Oh no, I’m sorry, I’ve overstepped—I just…”

Ray’s heart was still fluttering giddily when he closed the gap again and shut Gavin’s mouth up with his own. Gavin melted into the kiss immediately, their jaws finding a rhythm and teeth finding lips. As Ray’s hands slid over Gavin’s waist to tug his warm body closer, Gavin wrapped his arms over Ray’s shoulders to do the same.

It was strange, Ray would reflect later. He didn’t even feel guilty, as Gavin kissed him back and curled his fingers into his hair, even though some part of him, some not-insignificant part, still hoped to go home to his Michael. Hell, he was even certain that, unlike the confusion with both Michaels, his feelings were for this Gavin and this Gavin only. The one who had been there when needed—even under Ryan’s orders initially, he still had been there.

In short, it felt, weirdly, right. And he knew, then, that if what Kdin had said was true, and that if they both got out of this alive, he could spend the rest of his time in this world with Prince Gavin. They were, perhaps, neither of each other’s first choice, but that didn’t matter. They were each other’s choices now. If this was what he had until the end, he’d be okay with that.

Then he remembered that Matt and Jeremy were a stone’s throw away. Alert or not, their presence still made this extremely awkward. And—there was shit to do.

Ray broke the kiss and pulled back, dragging his teeth over his lips. A small giggle escaped his lips as he buried his nose into Gavin’s shoulder. The taste of Gavin was still in his mouth, and he wanted to savor it just a moment longer. “We should, ah—we should get a move on.”

“O-oh, right,” Gavin said. He cleared his throat, but the corners of his mouth twitched as he held back a smile. “Right. Go get your sword; I’ll see if Matt and Jeremy here can tell me where the armory is…”

They broke apart at last and turned away from each other. Gavin went to crouch next to the two inert men in the corner, and Ray strode down the middle of the throne room towards his sword, still standing on its point. As he walked, he touched the tips of his fingers to his lips. He briefly wondered how he should feel about all this, what he should think in terms of moving forward. He decided he wouldn’t worry about it.

There was some sort of static field around his sword. It made the hairs on his arms prickle and stand up as he stepped up to it. When he reached out his hand, the air felt thick, and pushed against him like magnets of the same polarity. He growled and pushed his hand through the field and grabbed the handle of his sword.

Energy surged up his arm, sharp and tingling but not painful, and at first the sword didn’t budge. The static field blasted outwards as soon as he touched it, a release of energy that flung his hair back from his forehead and dragged at his clothes. He yanked on the handle, and the sword left its perch easier than he expected. He stumbled back a few steps, the static field disappearing. Ray flexed his fingers and rolled his neck, the last vestiges of energy sparking across his skin. He felt like his senses were buzzing—what a wakeup call.

He turned to see Gavin staring at him wide-eyed from in front of the door. “Bloody Tower,” the prince breathed as Ray rejoined him. “That was quite the spectacle. Are you alright?”

“I’m just fine,” Ray said, resisting the urge to bounce from foot to foot. He moved to put his rapier into the frog at his belt, only for him to remember the belt was no longer around his waist. “Guess I’m carrying this, then. Know where the armory is?”

Gavin coughed once into his fist to clear his throat, and nodded. “One of them managed to say there’s one on the floor above us. They’re not very… alert, though.”

“It’s good enough,” Ray said. “Let’s go.”


 

When Queen Lindsay had mentioned interconnected tunnels, Jack had expected just that—a series of underground tunnels that looked very much like where he had woken up. Instead, after a few minutes of walking, the tunnel opened into a ledge overlooking a gaping underground cavern. The ceiling was punctured with a few holes that let the weak sunlight through, but most of the light was supplied by more red torches.

Two steel beams ran parallel over wooden planks laid perpendicular, all at the edge of the platform. These “rails,” as Lindsay called them, streaked off to the left and right, lined with these torches, and disappeared into individual tunnels. Jack could see a couple more crisscrossing the cavern farther away. One piece of rail curved around the edge of the platform, and a few steel “mine carts” squatted like a line of giant boxes on four wheels.

Lindsay went up to the first cart in line and heaved the man she carried into it, carefully laying him in a comfortable manner and making sure she didn’t knock his head against the side. She gripped its edge and shoved her weight against it. The cart creaked and rolled across the rail until it merged onto the main piece of track. Then she motioned to Jack to climb in.

“This doesn’t seem safe,” he said, taking a step back. “How do you control it?”

Lindsay rolled her eyes and tapped her fingers against the rim of the cart. “It will take literal days to walk, and approximately an hour to ride this mine cart to my castle. Do you really have the time to be particular?”

Jack gritted his teeth. “I’d rather arrive late than dead.”

“Fat lot of good either of those will do you,” Lindsay said. “Look, you have to trust me.

Jack didn’t respond at first. He didn’t have a lot of choices, and he didn’t like any of them. He needed time to think. He raised his fist to his mouth and lightly touched the emerald ring on his finger to his lips. He knew what Geoff would do, of course, but there was a reason he was the advisor to the king. Fuck, and his head still hurt.

Lindsay sighed. “Listen to me. I have spent over a hundred years as the queen responsible for the Ender Kingdom as it is now. I led my people to war against your kingdom, and built a terrible machine meant to end that war.”

“But the Pearls were…”

“You can point the blame however you like,” Lindsay cut him off. “I still assume responsibility for the End. I need to make up for it in any way I can, and that includes getting your ass to my castle, finding my and Kdin’s victim and explaining to him what we tried to do and why (and formally apologizing), and maybe killing a dragon somewhere along the way.” Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the cart’s rim. “That mother fucker had me under its spell for too long. So, I ask you, will you please get in the fucking mine cart?”

Jack shut his eyes for a moment and whispered an apology into his ring. “Alright. As much as I fear I will regret this….”

The mine cart was a tight fit for all three of them. Jack clambered in, and Lindsay climbed in much more gracefully after him, rearranging the unconscious dark-haired man so the three of them could sit slightly more comfortably. There was some sort of narrow black metal column in the center of the cart, topped with a leather-wrapped handle. Lindsay grabbed this handle and paused, looking Jack in the eye.

“Ready?”

Jack pressed his hands against the steel sides of the cart and swallowed hard. “Sure,” he said.

Lindsay yanked on the handle. The mine cart lurched, and then the three of them were careening down the rails, slipping into a new tunnel and plunging into darkness punctuated only by red crystals that passed in blurs. The path was not always flat; it turned and dropped and climbed. Jack’s stomach tried to force its way out of his mouth.

The path branched a couple times, but Lindsay steered them down the way she wanted to go using the strange center column. Jack swore that sometimes the cart went on two wheels. They would pop out into more caverns occasionally, and without fail each time, Jack’s stomach would do a somersault or five as the ground dropped away.

In one of these caves, the other man woke up. He came to with a sharp shout that startled Jack into also shouting. The man flailed, but Lindsay smacked him on the shoulder.

“Welcome to the present, Trevor,” she said.

The man, Trevor, gasped with a heaving chest, his dark eyes roving as he took in his surroundings and Jack. After a few moments, he hunched forward and rubbed his forehead, sighing deeply. “Oh no…” he moaned.

“Yep,” Lindsay agreed, her dark red hair streaming behind her. Her eyes were focused on the path ahead.

The mine cart popped out of the mountains into cold open air, the rail bridging between two mountains. Jack squinted in the sudden sunlight, quite bright in comparison to the caverns and tunnels. Halfway across the bridge, a black shape tore through the sky above them with a boom of wings. Jack sat up straighter to watch the dragon hurtle through the air, and its screeching cry trailed behind it. It moved even faster than the mine cart.

The mine cart plunged into the other mountain, and Jack was momentarily blind.

“Forgive my inappropriate vocabulary, Your Majesty,” Jack heard Trevor say. “But we really fucked up, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” said Queen Lindsay. “We fucked up.”


 

The great dark oak doors opened into some sort of large entrance hall, though there were no windows to hint at where in the castle this room resided. It was dimly lit with those white crystal torches, though an enormous many-armed chandelier weighed down by more crystals still glowed steadily, casting long shadows.

The room reached through two floors, the second forming a balcony on all four walls above them. A rich purple rug formed an ornate, embroidered oval in the middle of the first floor, two marble staircases arching away from it perpendicular to the throne room doors. Several doors spaced evenly across the three other walls. Artwork and sculptures crowded up against the wall. A vase lay shattered next to its pedestal.

“This way,” Gavin said, tugging on Ray’s arm. “There’s no time to waste.”

Ray followed Gavin up a staircase. The prince opened a random door into a narrow hallway with a tall ceiling, the walls lined with paintings and dim crystal torches. They jogged down this hallway, pausing whenever they passed a door to yank it open and peek inside. Most of the rooms were completely dark, illuminated only by the meager light from the hallway. Dust motes swirled every time a door opened, and Ray lost count of how many times they sneezed.

The hallway turned at odd angles, crisscrossed with other hallways. They passed more staircases, some behind doors and intended more for servants, some spiral staircases settled in their own little alcoves, and some that were relatively normal. Occasionally they would enter other open rooms like the one outside the throne room, but none were quite as grand.

“Who built this castle?” Ray complained when they had inadvertently circled back to a room with a statue of a miner with a pickaxe holding up a glowing crystal in its center. Every minute passed made Ray more and more anxious. How long had it been? How far away was the dragon? He could feel his nerves fraying.

“I think I remember it being said that Mages did a lot of the construction,” Gavin said. “Miners would find the raw materials, and Mages and other magic users would sculpt it into the mountain. The Ender Kingdom is known for luxury, and they wanted their castle to reflect that. I’m sure there’s a pattern…”

“It fucking sucks,” Ray said. Gavin grimaced in reluctant agreement. “We’re wasting time.”

Gavin grabbed his hand and took him down a different hallway. “Then let’s not dally!”

Down this hallway, they turned a ninety-degree corner and entered a hallway lined with windows covered in ornate latticework. This hall was oddly shaped, apparently following the shape of the mountain. Ray went up to the first window to peek out, and his breath caught in his throat. He heard Gavin’s breath hitch as well, and squeezed his hand.

The windows looked out into a valley that was surely once green. The remnants of a cultured garden made brown imprints on a gray earth as the mountain below sloped into a cliff that jutted out over the valley, flat and bordered with patterned iron fencing. Below the cliff, the mountain dipped down to a gray river, passing by trees and bushes and tall grass. The river weaved through the valley, trailing alongside many more tall mountains. Even from here, Ray spotted caves and more cliffs not unlike the one below them.

“Imagine this in its prime,” Gavin said under his breath.

The glass trembled against the stone. A chill ran its cold finger down Ray’s spine, and he shivered. When he looked to Gavin, the prince was staring at him with wide eyes. Wordlessly, they continued down the hallway.

Halfway down it, they got lucky. Gavin yanked open a door to reveal a room packed full of armor stands, weapon racks, chests and shelves and boxes with hinges. The crystal torches in here were still glowing weakly, dim white light threading through the room. Half of the racks and stands were empty. If there had been any plate armor, there wasn’t any left. The rare bits of armor that remained were leather with steel discs sewed onto them.

Gavin let go of Ray’s hand, and they split up to search, the door shutting behind them. Ray stepped up to a long slim box, polished and wooden, that lay across a large trunk reinforced with iron. The box’s clasps were beaten gold, and when he flipped it open, there were six arrows laid out evenly over purple velvet. They were tipped with gold, and their fletching was deep blue-green.

“I found some arrows,” Ray called. “Tipped with gold?”

“Useless!” Gavin said. There was the sound of steel whispering against a sheath, and small wooshing noises as Gavin swung a sword through the air. “Gold’s too soft. We need every advantage against this dragon, and if my arrows can even reach the dragon, I want them to do their job.”

“I got it, I got it,” Ray muttered, shutting the box with a snap. Steel slid again, and with a click, Gavin’s chosen sword went back into its sheath.

“This’ll do,” Gavin said. “Not as good as my sabre, but a similar weight, and still sharp.” Gavin reappeared from the shelves holding a sword in a black leather sheath, its white steel guard curving towards the blade like a parenthesis. The pommel was a flattened dome intricately carved with a looping pattern. Very Viking, Ray thought.

“There ought to be a bunch of arrows around here,” Gavin said, a hint of a whine in his voice. “Check some of those big chests while I look for a bow. Steel-tipped, preferably, though flint might still work.”

“Got it,” Ray said.

Gavin hesitated. He chewed his lip as though in deep thought, and then stepped close to Ray. Giddy warmth bloomed in Ray’s chest again, and he grinned as Gavin silently and sheepishly asked for another kiss. He reached up for Gavin’s face and planted a smiling smooch on the prince’s lips. Just a few, light kisses. Just a few, to keep sane. To reassure one another.

They returned to their search. Ray trailed his fingers across the chests and shelves, feeling the bumps of the wood and ironwork, dust sticking to his skin. There was a narrow door in the back of the room, though when he peeked inside, the passage was pitch-black. He moved on.

He opened one chest, its hinges creaking as one would expect from a chest that large, and found wooden training swords inside. He idly pictured himself climbing into the chest and shutting the lid; he could easily fit, after all, if he curled up.

The castle shook with a sound like an explosion. Gavin’s shriek nearly startled Ray as bad as the boom and the heavy hammering of boulders clattering against rock. The shelves, the chests and armor stands, the stones themselves, rattled like a short-lived earthquake. Ray steadied himself against the chest, his heart galloping in his throat like a horse out the gate.

As soon as the tremors stopped, Ray was running for Gavin. They called out for each other and met in between two standing shelves, mostly empty except for a couple round shields and sheathed swords. Gavin had a longbow looped over his shoulder, so simple it was basically a strip of wood with some leather tied around its middle, but without arrows it was useless anyway. Gavin’s face was ashen, and his hands went straight for Ray’s.

The screech tore through the stone walls and vibrated Ray’s skull. He pulled Gavin close, hugging him tightly to himself, and feeling Gavin respond in kind. The screech faded off, and the leathery thump of wings immediately preceded the shatter of glass. Irregular pounds and thuds scraped along the outside walls of the castle, on the other side of the closed armory door.

“Gavin, I’m…” Ray whispered. The events of the day all crashed down on Ray’s mind, and his legs suddenly felt too weak to hold him up. He shivered with the effort, and his fingers tightened on his sword and on Gavin’s shirt. The prince was stiff underneath his hands, nearly every muscle tense. He knew they should try for the door in the back, no matter where it led, no matter how dark it was, but he couldn’t force himself to move. He had only seconds to get there, he knew, but he still froze up. “I—I’m scared.”

“Please don’t give up,” Gavin murmured. “I am, too.”

The wall separating the armory from the outside hall ripped away, sunlight bursting in only to be partially blocked by a second dark shape. Ray saw the pink inside of the dragon’s mouth. He saw a white spark dance from the back of its throat, between its wicked fangs, down its long tongue, and he heard a click…

Click

Click…

Fwoosh.

Chapter Text

Ray didn’t quite remember falling to the floor, but he had gone from staring at the flame building in the back of the dragon’s throat to cracking his head against the stone floor to watching the jet of fire streak over him in no time flat. Heat seared across his face and he turned his cheek only for Gavin to throw his arm over his head. He clearly heard the prince softly whimper into his ear, right before the dust in the armory ignited.

 The dragon’s flame lasted perhaps only a few seconds, but it was enough for the dust all along the shelves to combust. The heat washed over him, worse than opening an oven into his face, even with Gavin partially shielding him, and the breath was stolen right from his lungs. The shelves on either side of them creaked.

And before he could register the fire, before he could know to be worried and frantic, the small explosion faded. Thundering crashes sounded from the front of the armory, and the room darkened suddenly, dim but awash in orange. With a resounding crack, one of the shelves tipped over, its shelves blazing. Ray flinched, but then all he saw was a green shirt, and the shelf broke over Gavin’s back.

Fire crackled all around them. Ray’s face and hands stung with heat, and the breaths he took in didn’t seem to do enough. Gavin’s hands pressed into the stone ground on either side of Ray’s head, and his whole body trembled, his face scrunched up. He managed to squint at Ray and crack a half-smile.

“That hurt,” he said.

Gavin,” Ray breathed, eyes wide.

Gavin rolled to one side as Ray scrabbled to sit up, moaning as he did so. Fear clawed up Ray’s throat. It wasn’t difficult to see what pained Gavin. Burns, visible through his singed clothing, spotted almost the entirety of his right side. The majority of the burns swathed his upper leg and waist in warped pink skin and yellow blisters, and even the outside of his arm had reddened.

The room was longer than it was wide, and Ray and Gavin were approximately at its center. At the front of the room, the hole in the wall had caved in with bits of ceiling and wall from the floor above, leaving a grinning mouth of white light near the top. A large shadow flitted across it, and the dragon’s screeching roar ripped through the sound of the fire.

Fires dotted the armory, licking up shelves and jetting smoke towards the ceiling. Pieces of shelf, shield and spear, smoldered all around Ray and Gavin. The fire probably wouldn’t last long. Stone didn’t burn, and the available wood was quickly depleting. But now was the time to go, before the dragon could attack them again.

“Gavin, we have to move,” Ray said, getting his feet under him and crouching low, preparing to stay close to the ground. He reached for Gavin’s shoulder. “Can you move?”

“Well enough,” said Gavin with a wince. He grunted and moved to crouch. Sweat gleamed on his face, the fire reflected off his cheek and forehead. Ray pulled Gavin’s left arm over his shoulder, readjusted his grip on his sword, and together they limped towards the door in the back of the room.

The front of the armory rumbled, and pale sunlight suddenly streamed back into the room at full force. Ray gritted his teeth as tremors seemed to shake the entire castle. They were almost there. Just a dozen more feet or so, and they could get through the door.

Ray did not think a piece of architecture had any right to move so much. The dragon shouldered its way into the gaping hole it had made, its shoulders nearly stretching from wall to wall. The whole castle seemed to quake. It snapped its jaws, stomped its feet and carved its claws into the stone. Wood crunched. The floor tossed suddenly, tripping Ray and Gavin and sending them both into the ground.

“Oh come on!” Ray screamed, pounding the stone with his fist. (Fuck, he hissed). The floor gave a little with a jerk. He had time enough to squeeze the handle of his sword and make eye contact with Gavin before the floor fell away completely.

A cacophony of stone bricks and shelves and chests crashed and plummeted to the floor below. Whatever that room had been for, it was quickly obscured by rubble. Dimly, Ray was aware of Gavin bouncing on his feet and rolling away, but Ray was not as graceful. He managed to get his feet under him before he hit the ground, but it didn’t seem to be to his benefit. Shock from the impact splintered up his shins, and he toppled backwards, stones punching him in the back.

Groaning, feeling every rock beneath him, he tilted his head back to squint upside-down through a haze of stabbing pains and floating dust towards the front of the room. The dragon had stumbled, not expecting the ground beneath it to give way either, and it smacked and raked its claws as it raised its head again. It snapped its jaws and flicked its long tongue, and then its violet eyes zeroed in on Ray. Terror seized his heart; it was time to move.

Ray rolled to the side the moment he saw the dragon’s front claw move. He rolled a couple times towards the nearest long wall, before popping up to his feet and pushing off into a sprint. The dragon’s claw slammed down inches away from him, and he pitched forward into another roll. He somersaulted over his shoulder and sprawled out on his stomach, nearly hitting his head against a familiar slim box. He heard Gavin’s voice from across the room.

He didn’t worry about thinking too much, only hoped that a bow was near Gavin as he grabbed the box and flung it as hard as he could across the room towards the prince. The effort twisted him onto his back. The dragon roared, the sound seeming to stab Ray’s eardrums. His ears started ringing. Its front claw lifted back up, heavy and quick, large enough to crush him.

This was it. Ray gripped his rapier in both hands and held in front of him. It wouldn’t do much—a splinter in the dragon’s great foot—but it was all he could do. The leathery gray palm descended upon him, and with a roar of his own, Ray thrust his sword up into it.

Energy discharged from the blade as it sunk into the dragon’s flesh. Aggressive purple magic burst out with an electrical force that washed static over Ray’s skin and hair and shoved back the dragon’s claw. His arms buzzed with the energy, and his fingers locked onto the handle as it coursed through his joints.

The energy drove the dragon a step back, and its head lurched up only to smack it against the ceiling of the upper floor. As the dragon whipped its head back and forth, shaking crumbled bits of stone off of its crown, Ray leapt to his feet, panting. He spotted Gavin across the room, the simple longbow drawn with a gold-tipped arrow and pointed at the dragon. Gavin was shouting, though Ray couldn’t quite comprehend his words at the moment. Then the prince jerked his chin towards the back of the room, towards another door. Escape.

The dragon recovered as Ray started to run. It shouldered its way further into the room, the ground quaking. He heard Gavin’s bowstring thwap, saw an arrow bounce and spin away. And then the dragon’s other front claw swept towards Ray.

He tried to skid to a stop, duck to avoid it, do whatever, but the dragon was too fast. Ray was right at the edge of the dragon’s reach, but he was close enough. The tips of the dragon’s claws slashed across his chest. Everything went numb immediately, and scarlet liquid splashed across Ray’s vision as he was thrown off his feet. Then his back collided into a wall and he couldn’t remember much more.

He remembered Gavin’s scream, distant yet close, ripping through the air like lightning. He remembered hands on his face, more gentle hands, pressing on his chest, grabbing his wrists and neck. There were more than he thought Gavin had. He remembered cold metal being pressed against his lips, a firm voice, then a second sharper voice. The metal pulled away, and a few seconds later, an eternity later, someone was fervently kissing him.

Sweet juice coated his tongue as someone forced a bite of apple past his teeth. The piece dissolved into hot liquid, and he gagged and coughed. But the warmth flooded his body, spread to the tips of his fingers and toes, filled his head and sang lullabies to his eyelids. He let it carry him, cozy and comforted, into a slumber.

Until someone slapped him across the face. Hard.

His eyes flew open in time to see Gavin shove Lindsay. They were kneeling on one side of him, so she was able to catch herself on her hands, but Gavin glared at her as she grinned. Ray’s cheek stung, but amazingly, that was the only thing that really hurt now, other than his chest and left arm aching.

Jack and, surprisingly, Trevor in a purple tunic, kneeled on his other side. Jack hovered over him, one hand supporting his head. He blinked sleepily a couple times, reading the worry in the lines on Jack’s forehead and around Jack’s eyes. Then Gavin noticed Ray was awake and lurched forward, just barely resisting shoving Jack aside and hugging him. He leaned forward, his eyes bright as he looked at Ray.

“Ray!” he cried. “Oh, I’m so glad…”

Jack helped Ray sit up and lean against a wall. They were in the hall with the statue of the miner with the pickaxe and glowing crystal. Their weapons, a few bags, and three gold-tipped arrows lay a few feet away. Ray rubbed his eyes as Jack moved back a little to give him space. Ray glanced down at his shirt—or what was left of it. It hung off his shoulders in red-stained tatters, and three wide, pale scars streaked across his chest and a bit of his left shoulder and upper arm.

“What happened?” Ray asked. The other three turned to look at Gavin, whose eyes never left Ray’s. “Is it… dead?”

“No,” Gavin said. “I shot it in the mouth after it hit you, and it flew away, but I’m sure it only retreated ‘cause it thought it killed you.”

“And it would have,” Jack said, “if we hadn’t gotten there seconds after it happened with the golden apple. It won’t be long now until it realizes you’re still alive.”

The golden apple. Ray touched his lips lightly and met Gavin’s eyes. He noticed for the first time that Gavin’s burns didn’t look so bad anymore—instead of blisters, there were mottled scars. The prince nodded a wordless confirmation.

“Do we have a plan, then?” Ray asked. Their expressions gave him the answer before anyone spoke.

“Our first order of business was getting you out of there,” said Trevor, gesturing in the direction of the destroyed armory. “Alive.”

“Ray,” Lindsay started awkwardly. “I want to apologize for what we’ve put you through, Kdin and I, even though I know it won’t be enough to make up for it. I don’t know when I’ll have another chance.”

“Are you gonna tell me fucking why, then?” Ray asked, his tone going flat and dry. Lindsay didn’t flinch, but pursed her lips and nodded grimly.

“The dragon’s reign was founded on greed,” she began. “It was attracted to the wealth of our land. It convinced us from the beginning that it was no threat—as long as no one attacked it—and we let it live in one of our mountain ranges. It was probably already influencing us from the first point of contact, with the Ender Pearls.

“Its influence over our minds was subtle at first. Kdin, our Court Mage, visited the dragon more and more, hoping to learn from it, as a beast of great age. It was many years before any of use realized that some of our thoughts were not our own, but rather suggested to us, and by that time, it was too late. We still had some individual power, but any thought about resisting was quickly whisked away.

“In this way, the dragon conquered us. It took the leaders of the land, unearthed and activated the egg with its magic to change the Mages and other magic users, and to cast a depressive spell over the land to squash any other potential usurpers. The only ones who could be active under the dragon’s rule were those wearing Ender Pearls.

“Now, the dragon knows greed best, but it also knows patience. It wanted the other kingdoms, wanted their riches too, but alone it would be defeated. It needed to weaken them like it did us. And to do this would be to expand the reach of the egg’s spell. So we built the machine. A careful process involving highly unstable crystals and very precise spells. It wasn’t enough on its own; the machine needed a conductor—to channel its magic into the egg and spread the reach of the spell.”

“Me,” Ray said.

“Yes,” said Lindsay. “You. We tried everything available to us before we summoned you. We tried people remaining in the castle. We tried an Enderman. We tried other beasts. We tried different crystals, gold and silver and brass constructs. Nothing worked. It would disintegrate before the machine got fully powered up—but organic materials worked best.

“That was when the dragon had the idea to reach to other worlds. It figured, since the problem was that all that magic coursing through the conductor was too much for anything of this world, something from another world might work better. Magic already affects people less here if they were non-magical themselves. So, it reasoned, if we grabbed someone from a world with no magic whatsoever, they should be resistant enough to successfully be a conductor.”

The back of Ray’s neck prickled. Everyone else was silent as Lindsay told her tale. Trevor stared at his lap guiltily, and Jack and Gavin watched Lindsay with fascinated horror.

“Okay,” said Ray slowly, “but why me? Why did I specifically get dragged here?”

“That’s bad coincidence on your part,” Lindsay said. “We couldn’t exactly see into other worlds, only reach blindly, so we needed some way to ensure that we would get someone. Kdin was—is—very good at his specialty. Kdin can track people from hundreds of miles away, if given the right tools, and was naturally inclined to be able to make the cross-world reach, if given enough magic. You may have heard of Trianta…”

“The other Ray’s hometown,” Ray said.

“Yes. The border town. Close enough to send out a troop of Endermen without much trouble. We got the materials to lock on to you from there. We needed a few years to repair the machine from our last attempt to power it, so we banked on the other Ray’s education at the castle to keep him alive until the dragon would give Kdin enough power to cast the summoning spell. For you see, without the other Ray alive, we could still summon you, but you would be plopped somewhere at random in this world. Whereas, if the other Ray still lived, you would appear within a certain radius of him.

“It was bad luck that you landed near the prince’s hunting party. We thought you’d surely die within days. But you kept traipsing around. Kdin tried to break your spirit from afar, and get you to come to us. We weren’t sure how resistant you’d be, or if you’d slowly gain resistance over your time here due to exposure, much like one gains resistance to a poison. If you were too impervious, we thought, surely you’d break out. We tried to make it so you wouldn’t struggle against it, tried to make you give up.”

She paused to take a deep breath. The statue of the miner grinned merrily as he stared at his glowing crystal. “And, well, we were right about your resistance. You broke out. You’re still alive, despite everything. The golden apple worked just barely enough to close your wounds. And now I have the opportunity to offer an apology that won’t be enough. I’m so sorry, Ray. I am—no, my whole kingdom is going to make it up to you in any way possible. Also, sorry for slapping you awake.”

“Great,” Ray said bitterly. “You used me for your conquering-the-world scenario. Fucking fantastic. You ripped me from my home and toyed with me for months. You put me in a torture device and now I nearly died because of a dragon. A dragon which, by the way, is still fucking around!”

Gavin leaned forward and grabbed Ray’s hand. Ray didn’t realized how tense his shoulders were until Gavin squeezed his hand. He gritted his teeth and forced his muscles to relax. Somewhat.

“We’ll figure it out,” Gavin said. “Somehow. There’re five of us, now. We can—we can find a defensible area, and stand a chance.”

“Gavin’s right,” said Jack. “I know you’re angry, and you have every right to be, but the only way any of us is going to get out alive is if that dragon dies. Either channel your anger at the dragon, or save it for later.”

Angry! Angry! Ray was fucking furious! The dragon was responsible for dragging him to this world, all to fuel its own greedy machinations. He wanted to stand on its fucking corpse.

Jack smirked at Ray’s expression and pulled back to reach for Ray’s bag, saying something about a fresh shirt. Trevor and Lindsay stood up, gathering their weapons and starting to discuss potential defensible areas in low voices. As Lindsay belted her heavy sword to her hip, Trevor slung a round shield over his back and sheathed a short sword over his shoulder.

Gavin muttered, “It would be easier to make a plan if I had explosive materials…”

Ray jolted forward, heart beating strong and fast. “Gavin, that’s it!” The others stilled, looking at him expectantly. “Explosives… Jack, hand me my bag.”

Jack obediently slid the bag across the floor over to Ray. Ray opened it and flung out the shirt on the top, digging around for the clay jar. When he pulled it out, Gavin yelped and nearly fell backwards.

Ray,” he gasped. “You brought that with you? You could have killed us at any moment on our journey!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t.”

Lindsay crouched back down next to him and gingerly took the clay jar, weighing it in her hand. “Ray, is this… congealed magic?” He heard sharp inhales from Jack and Trevor.

“Yep,” said Ray, meeting Lindsay’s eyes with a hard look. “And, if I remember Ryan correctly, quite unstable. We could…”

“Throw it at the dragon,” Jack completed breathlessly, realizing what Ray was implying. “Make it explode. And if that doesn’t kill the dragon, then it would seriously injure it.”

Before Gavin could respond, Lindsay spoke again. “Do you realize that this could be almost enough magic to open another portal to get you back home? I mean, we’d probably need a couple Mages to supply the rest of the magic needed, but this would get us most of the way there…”

Heat flushed over the back of Ray’s neck, but his face felt cold. “We throw it at the dragon,” he said, without hesitation. “This is our best chance. If we don’t kill it, then I’m not going home anyway.”

Lindsay nodded sharply, then snapped her gaze over to Gavin. The prince startled again, his eyes wide. “You. You’re the best bowman here. One of us throws the clay jar, and you hit it with a gold-tipped arrow.”

“Since gold, unlike clay, is highly reactive to magic,” Trevor mused, “then those arrows would be better than any flint or steel.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Trevor?” Lindsay asked with a sadistic grin. His smile matched hers.

“I think I am,” he said. “And I know exactly where we should go.”