The domino chain begins
His lungs felt like they were on fire. Reflexively, he raised his hand to his chest, noting that the fine hairs were standing on end. There was a huge hole in his crimson-and-gold silk tunic, burned black around the edges, and the skin beneath was new and pink.
So she had shot him, after all. It hadn't been a dream. She'd cast thunder on him, where before she'd used sleep. Not a good sign, for more than the obvious reasons. For her to strike out with offensive magic so indiscriminately, she must be far down the spiral towards insanity.
On the other hand, he wasn't lying on the ground - too soft for that, and the ceiling was glassy and black - and she'd healed him of the damage she'd caused. So presumably she wanted him alive for something - or at least, didn't want him dead. He hoped the latter. He hoped that some of her earlier kindness still remained...but it had been many weeks since he'd seen her last, and their parting had not been on the best of terms. She could just want to interrogate him.
He took breaths as deep as he could around the burning tingling pain in his chest, and closed his eyes. He was nothing now. Not a Squire, not a threat...just bone tired of things going wrong. All he knew was that he would not hurt Carolin. Leonhart evidently wanted her captured - he'd been taught what objects made by Sorceresses could do. Well then - if the Lion wanted her caught, then Jian would keep her free. The only reason Jian could think of for his former master's behavior was that his grief for the loss of Marie was affecting his judgement. It had never happened before - but then, 'before' had never been dealing with another Sorceress.
The only problem was...well, everything. He was lying in a magnificent, soft, four-poster bed. In a house apparently made of black crystal. On covers of satin and silk. And that was just what he could see and feel without moving.
All of it made by a sorceress' magic. All of it made by Carolin's /magic. All Leonhart had to do was get his hands on a single feather from a pillow or mattress, a thread from one of the sheets, a splinter from the bed, a sliver of the house's floor or ceiling. Any one of those things, and he could destroy Carolin. Completely, utterly. Even her power would be undone, not needing even to pass it on to another girl to die. Jian squeezed his eyes shut against the image. He was lying /in a Sorceress' Token, and on a great many more Tokens. Carolin was a walking corpse, if Leonhart found this place.
For the thing about Sorceress' Tokens, was that they could not be unmade by a Sorceress. That was something reserved for
Knights, part of the balance of power - creative and destructive. And Carolin had no Knight to unlock that part of her gift. He didn't delude himself into thinking he could frighten her into taking one. Not after the incident at the stream. He had no idea whether he'd even be able to convince her of the danger she was in. He just knew he had to try. She shouldn't be punished for something she couldn't help.
Taking a deep breath, or as deep as could be managed with the pain in his chest, he tried to sit up. As he had dreaded, the pain was great enough to fill his vision with spots - but he had to move. Had to. There was no telling how long he'd been out already, no telling if he'd been followed here. No telling if, even now, Carolin was at risk of losing her freedom and her life. Forcing himself to consider the urgency, he lunged for one of the canopy poles and gripped it with all his remaining strength until his vision cleared.
Then he used it to lever himself unsteadily to his feet. Oh, he was some dragon now, his bright shirt char and his legs so wobbly they barely supported his weight. He waited until he could more or less stand unaided, then - slowly, carefully - he made his way through the house.
Each room caused his heart to sink a little further. Carolin had been busy - there were beautiful things in every room, even if some were still only sparsely furnished. And any one thing could be her death. He had to stop her - had to.
As he passed a window he heard wordless singing. It didn't appear to be a recognized tune, just stream-of-consciousness singing. It could only be Carolin, though he'd never thought of her as the type to sing. She had always seemed far too lively. How much had she changed?
He followed the singing, using any handy object that he could to support his weight as far as possible.
His pain had not made him want to cry, but his first sight of Carolin almost did. He clutched fiercely at the doorframe of the little castle's entrance, trying to hold himself upright.
She was lying on a well-manicured and probably magically tended lawn (here where the natural terrain was jungle) some twenty feet from the door to her black crystal 'castle'. Her arms were behind her head, pillowing it, and she was singing to herself as she watched the clouds overhead.
She wasn't in her 'jungle hunter' clothing any more. Now she wore a gown of green silk, with slippers to match, and jewelry in her unbound red hair. She was more beautifully clothed than the Empress herself, here on the farthest borders of the Empire where none but monsters dwelled.
All of it done by magic. Jian could have wept, could have sworn, could have cursed heaven and hell. He was too late; she was lost.
In the perfection of his despair, Jian decided it was a fine way to go. He had fought the Lion for this, fought the master that until only recently he had loved like a father and even now could not truly hate. Jian couldn't bring Carolin back to herself now without running the risk of joining her.
Well then. It was an acceptable risk, if he were allowed to take it.
It is never your goal to rule her. You'll always have all you can do in ruling yourself - but in ruling yourself, you protect her. That was what Jian remembered the Lion to have said.
He steeled himself, and tried to walk towards her. Past the door there were no handholds or supports, and his legs felt like jelly, but he managed to reach her before his legs gave out and he landed ungracefully on the grass. At the sound, Carolin finally turned her head to look at him.
Her eyes seemed to be focussing on some point about four feet behind the back of his head. "Hello, Jian," she said softly.
One thing at a time. "Hello, Carolin," he replied, trying to get his breath back. The few feet from the doorframe had /hurt/. "It's good to see you again."
"Is it?" she asked, but not as if she cared one way or another about the answer. "Why did you follow me here?"
Would she understand his answer? "To save you, if I can," he replied, keeping his voice gentle and calm. She was so different from his last encounter with her. Then, she had been quick and full of life. Now...it was like she was in a dream world, half-talking to herself.
"I'm fine," she said. "I don't need saving." And she turned her head to look at the sky again, ignoring him.
Was there any part of her that was as she had been? "I can help you, if you'll let me," he said, trying to keep the pleading out of his voice.
She turned her head to look at him again, green eyes paler than they had been - almost yellow. "So you can force me to take a Knight? No, thank you, Jian. Better to die free than live a slave. You should go now."
"And if I don't? Will you kill me then?"
"Yes," said Carolin simply.
Jian blew out a long breath and fell back on the grass. Hyne, it felt good to get horizontal again. "You're gonna have to kill me then," he said lightly, " 'cause I used up all my energy just getting this far."
A ghost of a smile flickered across Carolin's face. "Idiot," she said. Then, "Why do I like you?"
Jian tried to laugh, but it hurt around the pain in his ribs. "Because I'm completely and utterly harmless?" he ventured hopefully.
Carolin frowned like a drunk trying to concentrate. "Are you?" she asked. "Harmless, I mean."
"Oh, yeah," said Jian, grinning in spite of himself. "Trust me, Carolin. You've got more to fear from a rabbit than you do from me."
"That's just because you're not feeling well, though," said Carolin. "Isn't it? Why can't I think right?"
Never lie to your Sorceress. The bond can function without love, but it can never function without trust. "It's your magic," said Jian carefully. "It...sort of overloads you, if you let it."
"Hmmmmm....." said Carolin, closing her eyes. "I suppose you know what to do about it, mister knight in training."
"I'm not a Squire any more, Carolin." It still hurt a bit to admit it, even though he'd needed to do it.
"No?" This got a response from her. She rolled onto her side so she could look at him as she spoke again. "Why?"
"Because...the Lion wants to capture you, and I can't let him."
Fear got through her mental fog, it seemed. "Capture me?" she repeated. "I'll kill him first."
Jian tried not to shiver at the matter-of-fact way she said that. "I don't know that you can, Carolin," he said. "You've made yourself very weak." He threw an arm over his head from his position on the grass, pointing back at the house. "See that? All he needs is a tiny piece of that house or anything in it, or anything you're wearing, and he can kill you."
"You're lying," said Carolin slowly, still sounding a little drunk. "Can't be that easy."
"There's a reason the Lion treasures his ring, Carolin," Jian replied quickly. "Griever is practically unique in the world - or it was, before you built that house. Sorceresses make themselves vulnerable with every object they create. Each made thing has a piece of Sorceress' power in it, holding it together, keeping it in existence. A Sorceress can't undo that magic unless she has taken a Knight to balance her power. He's counting on that in your case, Carolin. You've made a thousand things and all he has to do to kill you is get his hands on one of them. The right actions taken with it will seal your power away forever - and kill you in the process."
Carolin simply stared at him for a while, yellow-green eyes unfocused. "Then he kills me," she said, as though solving an equation - as though it didn't matter, really.
Jian's face twisted. "I don't want you to die, Carolin. You shouldn't have to die."
"I'm not taking a Knight, Jian. If I'm going to die, then it might as well be before I take too many people with me. But Leonhart - him I will take."
Jian took a deep breath. It was betraying everything he'd been taught, but really - he didn't want Carolin to die. "I'll fight beside you," he said. "If you'll let me."
"So you can be my Knight? Jian, how many times must I say 'no' before you listen?" So gentle, spoken words soft as a caress.
"I don't have to be your knight," said Jian. "Call me your stableboy, your servant, your housekeper - whatever. I don't care. Just...let me be with you. Let me serve you. Let me...be your friend." Which is what a Knight does, but she would never believe it.
"How?" asked Carolin. "Be my friend how?"
Jian chuckled. "Is there a test, for friendship?"
"In your case, I think so." There was no trust in her eyes, Jian noted sadly. But then, he'd done nothing as yet to really earn it.
There was only one card left to play. Jian used what strength he could muster to roll onto his side, so that he could see Carolin's face clearly. He regretted that he lacked the strength to stand, or at least kneel, but when he'd thought of this solution he hadn't counted on her being quite such a good shot.
"Kill me now, then," he said, breathing heavily from his effort at movement.
The odd request got through even the mental fog Carolin was currently wandering in. "Why?" she asked curiously.
Jian tried to steady himself, tried to force himself to sit upright. "Carolin...I don't have a place any more. I can't go back to Timber, I can't work with the other Squires. I don't have a home, or friends, any longer. I gave them up, because keeping them meant I would lose you. I can't make you trust me, Carolin. But if you don't feel that what I've done counts for anything at all, then please - just kill me now, and let me be done with it."
Carolin frowned, concentrating. "I don't want you to die," she said slowly, as if thinking it out. "But why did you leave your master anyway? You were ready to fight me for his honor, before, weren't you?"
Jian couldn't hold himself upright any longer, and fell back on his back in the soft grass. "Yes, I was," he admitted. "And it's hard to let go of that - he really has been a great teacher, a great man to know. But...something about you throws his thinking off, Carolin. He acts like you're already plotting to overthrow the world, and I just can't believe you'd do that. I can't. So rather than be a part of his plans...I left. I fought him, and I beat him...and I left."
Carolin blinked, slowly. She could remember, in a hazy sort of way, wanting just such a comment from Jian - some evidence that he was as loyal to her, as he had been to his Knight. Even now he wasn't completely abandoning the love he had for his master - he simply did not agree with him on this particular issue.
Now that she had it, she wasn't really sure if she should have wished for it. Jian's expression was pained beyond what could be explained away by his wound, and he shouldn't look like that. Without really thinking about it, she reached out her hand and touched him - going beyond a mere curaga and simply willing her power to heal him. Of the pain she had caused him, she could heal him. As the magic flowed through her and her thoughts cleared, she found herself wishing she could heal him also of the pain his choices had given him.
But there was no way to heal that. There was no perfect world, anywhere. If there had been, Carolin was sure she would never have been born a Sorceress. Part of her wanted to hurt Leonhart, payment in kind for the hurts she now noticed in Jian's body as her power flowed through him.
The thunderbolt had dropped him so quickly and so thoroughly because he'd already been on the edge of collapse. As her
Sorceress' magic flowed through her touch into his body, she sensed through it pain and hunger and endurance pressed to the
breaking point. It was far more than he could have endured merely fighting monsters to reach her, however long that might have taken. Jian was a capable fighter and not easily defeated.
No. Leonhart had done this - had hurt Jian because he dared to suggest that maybe /this /Sorceress wasn't a threat. In using force to negate a threat that had not then existed, he had succeeded in creating a threat where none had been before - for now Carolin wanted very much to teach this errant Knight a lesson.
Jian's breathing became easier and more relaxed as he felt Carolin's power washing over him, healing every bruise and cut and nick. He found himself entranced by the look on Carolin's face as she used her power - not something he'd been privileged to see before. Her green eyes were completely golden as she worked, shining and bright like the blank eyes of a gold-leaf coated statue. Her expression was distant but not unkind, a sort of sympathy lurking at the edges of her mouth. Somewhat daring, he reached up a hand to touch that face even as she touched his.
In the moment of mutual contact, Carolin became aware of Jian's innocent wonder, and he became aware of her reactions
regarding his condition. It was enough to break the moment, both of them pulling their hands away in startlement.
"What...did you do?" asked Carolin. "Some Knight's trick?" She hadn't sensed any ulterior motives...
Jian grimaced. "If you want to call it that. That's the bond, Carolin. If a Sorceress takes a Knight, she can sense him wherever he is, whatever he feels, whatever he thinks if they touch. And he feels the same around her. Knights are supposed to guard a Sorceress' spirit, Carolin. They'd do a pretty lousy job of that if they had to guess at their Sorceress' moods. How could she ever trust a Knight she didn't know? How could he guard a spirit he couldn't feel?" He wrapped his arms around his knees as he looked at her, troubled. "You can't have a bond without trust, I was taught. But I didn't know it'd come to life on its own. I swear that to you, Carolin."
"But...I didn't take you as my Knight," said Carolin, pulling back. "You arranged this, didn't you!" There was anger in her voice now, and a little fear. Jian didn't need any of those signs to know how deeply afraid she was - the bond was forged; at this range, her emotions were his. Leonhart's words about ruling oneself suddenly took on a new and rather painful meaning - for now he was deathly afraid and must use all his control to quell it.
"Carolin, calm down!" he cried. "Can't you feel that I'm sincere? Can't you feel that I want nothing more than your safety? It works both ways, Carolin! I didn't tell you about the bond - yes, that's true. I knew you wouldn't believe me, and if you wouldn't trust me then it didn't matter. But it's not for any power or status that I followed you, Carolin, you must believe me! I came for you - only for you, and for the reason I told you. I want to be your friend. Please, please let me!"
He reached out quickly, and took her hand - hoping that she would choose to let herself feel his sincerity. At first she moved to pull her hand away, but after a moment she calmed. She was no longer afraid, now - but she was still angry. She felt caged, she resented that she had unwittingly taken a Knight when she hadn't wanted one. But beneath that...yes, she did still trust Jian on a personal level. If she hadn't, the bond would not have stayed.
"Swear to me, then," she said. "If I'm stuck with you as my Knight whether I will or not, then swear to me. Do the things that Knights are bound to do."
"The bond is a bridge built from both sides, Carolin, said Jian softly. "It would not exist if you could not trust me, or I trust you. So, somewhere, you are willing that I be your Knight - or I could not be. I cannot do other than tell you the truth, or I serve you poorly." He stood up. "I'm not exactly properly dressed for this," and here he indicated his shirtless state, "and I don't have my sword. Do you want the full formal oath-taking, or will whatever I can manage suffice?" He grinned, teasing.
Carolin couldn't help it, she laughed. Raising one hand toward the house, Jian's sword came flying out. It landed, smack, in her palm. "Here is your sword," she said. "But I don't know what your clothes are supposed to look like."
"Don't make any," he said, suddenly serious. "You're in enough danger as it is. I'll do fine with just the sword." He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and calmed himself. Then, in one swift movement, he drove the point of his sword into the earth before Carolin, and clasped his hands on the pommel as he sank to one knee, head bowed.
In a carrying voice, he said, "I am Jian of the Dragon, once Squire to the Knight Leonhart of the Sorceress Marie. I swear my life in the service of the Sorceress Carolin, for her to take or bestow as she wills. I swear my sword to the service of the Sorceress Carolin, to strike or withold as she wills. Her life is as my life, her happiness is my happiness. I surrender myself to her service for as long as she will have me, even beyond the gates of death."
Carolin blinked; that was quite an oath, and she could feel that Jian meant every word. Unfortunately, she had no idea what the proper response was, so she settled for "All right, I accept. Um...you can get up now, right?"
Jian laughed and stood up, pulling the sword out of the ground and tossing it into the air, catching it neatly in his hand. "Yep," he said with a grin. "There isn't any prescribed response for the Sorceress, milady. It would sort of ruin the point, telling you what to do even as I swear to obey you." His expression grew grim as his gaze fell on the black crystal house. "But /that/," and he pointed with his sword blade at the little castle, "has got to go. Leonhart can kill you if he gets his hands on even a tiny part of that house or anything in it. I hope you still have your old clothes, too - because the same goes for the stuff you're wearing."
"Sounds like you're already telling me what to do," said Carolin sourly. "That sounded like an order, to me."
Jian took her hand in his, to make sure she could feel the truth of his words. "Lady Carolin, believe me when I tell you I have no desire to order you around. But my first concern when I came out here was your safety - and /that/," pointing with the sword at the castle again, "is a major threat to said safety. My life and my sword are yours, milady, but only as long as you live. My job is to make sure that's as long as possible. Okay?"
It worked; Carolin nodded once, quickly. "But how do we destroy it?" she asked. "I tried that, early on - you know, make
something and then vaporize it so I could make it again next time. But I can't seem to do it."
"First, my Sorceress, go get your old clothes on," said Jian. "And get anything in there that you didn't make, out. I'll carry it if you like, but only you can easily tell which things you made and which you brought - it'd take me far too long to test everything. Leave your nice dress and jewelry in there, and we can take everything out in one go."
The two of them ran into the house, moving quickly. So neither of them saw a boy of about fifteen years watching the little castle carefully. He hadn't been close enough to hear the words exchanged, but he recognized the pose of fealty Jian had adopted. The mad Sorceress had taken Jian down with her. He probably knew about the danger of Sorceress' Tokens, which would explain why
the two of them had run back so quickly - that hadn't been a loverly jog, just now. He wished that he could have arrived sooner - the better to find out why Jian had spent so much of the time on the grass. But it had taken him precious days to pick up Jian's trail, and he'd lost it several times. Jian had feared being tracked, and had covered his trail as best he could.
There was no telling how long Jian had been here, or what the Sorceress had done to him to make him her thrall. But if she had indeed thralled him, it would explain the pose of fealty. Jian, the best Squire Leonhart had brought with him, the thrall of a wild Sorceress. It left a bitter taste in Dorin's mouth - he'd admired Jian, but now they must be enemies. There must not be a Sorceress war.
All the more reason to move quickly, and complete his mission. There must not be a Sorceress war - and if she had indeed taken the Lion's best squire down with her, the war could be bloody indeed. Stealthily - and none of the Squires were as stealthy as he - he crept up to the house, careful to stay out of sight of the windows until he was right beneath one of them. Listening alertly for signs of occupancy on the other side and hearing none, he quickly darted up a hand and grabbed the first object he could reach. Chances were good that it was a Sorceress' Token, but only a Knight had the sensitivity required to say so for certain. He would have to get it back to Leonhart.
Quickly and quietly - and unobserved - he reached the treeline. And once past it, ran for the Knight's compound as though all the demons of hell were after him.