Crown of Visions
By R.A. Rock
Tessa ran down the tunnel, her blood pounding in her ears as the monster got closer. Its razor-sharp teeth and ripping, shredding claws almost caught her cloak a couple times.
“Why does it always have to be monsters?” she muttered, turning her head to glance at Finn who was tearing along beside her.
“Tess…” His tone was a warning. “Save your breath for running.”
“Maybe, just for a change, the Dark Queen could get some terrifying animals instead—without magic,” she said as they got closer to the point where the tunnel ended in a who-knew-how-many-thousand-foot drop into the Chasm of Severance.
“Faster.” Finn made an unmanly yelp for such a strong, handsome Fae male. He pulled ahead of her a little as the creature snapped its jaws, barely missing him.
“Personally, I found the jungle cats very scary,” she said, stumbling a little as the monster managed to catch her cloak. Finn was there to grab her hand and pull her along, keeping her forward momentum and not letting her fall. She undid the cloak with one hand and let the garment fly back and blind the magical beast.
It somehow clawed the material off its face and continued chasing them.
“Tessa, where are we supposed to go when we get to the Chasm?” Finn asked, suddenly realizing where this tunnel ended.
She could see light ahead. The opening was getting nearer.
“No idea,” Tessa said, starting to feel slightly worried. They were practically at the drop off and the monster was still coming after them. “I was hoping the spell would activate before we got there.”
“What time is it?” he said, his tone curt.
“I don’t know but I think we’re going to cut it pretty close,” she said, jumping over some large rocks that were scattered across the tunnel. The light was getting brighter. “Better get out the blades in case the spell doesn’t activate in time.”
If they got to the opening before the Truce Spell activated, they would be goners. Either the monster would get them, or they would fall to their death in the Chasm of Severance.
“I told you we got here too early,” Finn said, sounding irritated.
Tess reached for her sides where her invisible Otherworld sheath was located that held her set of Unity Blades and intended to withdraw them. Nothing happened. She tried again.
“Finn, I can’t get my blades out of the sheath.”
“Shadows take me,” she swore. Now what were they going to do?
They had arrived at Summerswind Keep just slightly too soon. Sunrise on the morning of the first day of the Hundred Years Ball was when the Truce spell was supposed to activate and it would remain active until the last Fae left the castle on the final day.
Was it Tessa’s fault that apparently, it wasn’t exactly at sunrise?
Was it her fault that they were being chased by one of the Dark Queen’s monsters?
Finn had said that it was too early. He had said that the Truce spell, which made sure no Fae could harm any other for the week of the Ball, wouldn’t have activated yet. And he had been right.
Of course, they were being hunted by virtually everyone in the entire land before they got here, so it wasn’t like they could have hung out at the gate and waited.
Still, Tess wished that she had listened to Finn.
And she also wished that she had had a chance to explain herself to the King. But he hadn’t even asked her what happened with the Scroll. He hadn’t contacted her to find out if she had really killed the Keeper. He’d just put up a wanted poster with her face on it. It wasn’t exactly making her want to seek him out and tell him her side of the story.
She was done with both Fae monarchs.
If she got the chance, she’d set the King straight. But for now, she had to make sure she stayed alive. Starting by not dying in the next minute or so.
“It’ll be all right,” Tessa said, infusing her voice with a confidence she no longer felt.
“Worst plan ever.” Finn vaulted over a particularly large boulder that was blocking his way and if Tessa hadn’t been so worried about whether she was going to die in the next sixty seconds, she would have admired that sort of athleticism.
“Just keep running,” she ordered, using her Captain of the Guard voice—even though she no longer held that office and was clearly not in favor with the Dark Queen, since it was her monster that was chasing them.
The tunnel was getting brighter, the light of the sunrise beginning to penetrate the darkness. Tessa’s worry ramped up as she realized that they might truly be in trouble.
“We can change into our tiny form and fly,” she suggested.
“No, we can’t,” Finn said, and she could hear the dread in his voice. “The spell that prevents us from crossing the Chasm to the other side won’t let us. That spell runs right through this cave.”
“How do you know that?” she said, both surprised that he knew and dismayed at the information itself.
“You’re not the only one who can read a map,” he said, hardly able to get his words out, he was running so hard. And if Tessa hadn’t been completely out of breath, she would have laughed.
“So, what do we do?” Her mind was turning to mush as she realized that her grand plan was not going to work.
“We stop at the end of the tunnel,” he said, and when she cut her eyes over to him, his face was grim. “Either the monster gets us, or the spell kicks in. But we have no chance whatsoever if we jump into the Chasm.”
“Good point,” she said, not slowing as they approached the cave mouth. “But don’t stop till the absolute last second.”
“Right,” he said, sounding annoyed again. “Without somehow tumbling to our deaths.”
“Did I mention this is the worst plan ever?”
“You might have said that five or six times since the monster started chasing us, yes,” she said, eyeing the distance between herself and the opening. Then she stopped talking, needing all her attention to decide when to stop.
Behind her, she could feel the monster’s hot breath on her back. Oh, I so do not want to be eaten. As a Faerie, she had what the scholars liked to call functional immortality and wouldn’t die. But she didn’t imagine that being digested was a particularly pleasant experience and she had no desire to try.
The tunnel opening got closer. The monster roared behind them, nipping at their heels, its claws scratching on the rock of the cave.
Shadows take me, but I’ve really screwed it up this time.
“Finn?” she said as they arrived at the last ten feet before the drop off.
“I’m sorry about all this,” she said, wishing it didn’t have to end like this. “And I love you.”
“Love you too, Tess,” he said, grabbing her hand as they both dropped and slid the last five feet, taking a bunch of gravel with them. They came to rest at the mouth of the cave with their feet sticking off. Tess could taste the dust they had kicked up.
Then they turned and looked up at the monster. It was upon them and Tess could smell its breath, which was a combination of rotten meat and sour milk. The beast opened its mouth wide, about to bite both their heads off at once.
It suddenly stopped. The enormous creature that took up nearly the whole of the cave took a step back. It closed its mouth and turned, trotting back down the tunnel.
“Guess the Truce spell activated,” Finn said, his voice sounding faint.
Tessa closed her eyes and flopped down on the cave floor, relief making her limbs weak. The monster hadn’t hurt them because now that the Truce spell was in place, no Fae could be harmed until the Hundred Years Ball was over. The Dark Queen had sent the monster to kill them, but the spell now prevented it from doing so.
“I knew it would,” Tessa said, opening her eyes.
Finn rolled over on top of her, taking his weight on his forearms. “Did you?” he said, his exasperation showing both in his tone and in his face.
“Yep,” she said. It was her story and she was sticking to it.
“But guess what?”
“You said it first,” he said, that cocky grin she loved so much appearing on his face.
“Damn it,” she said, smacking the rocks with her hand.
“I knew you would,” he said, looking smug. “I win.”
“I should have known not to make that bet with you.”
“Yes, you should have,” he said, rolling off and pulling her into a sitting position. They both scooted back so they weren’t hanging off the edge. “I am an expert gambler. I know which bets are a sure thing.”
“Oh really?” she said, feeling annoyed that he already knew her so well. “It was that much of a sure thing?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make it up to you.” He winked.
“Wouldn’t you like that?” she said, teasing.
But since they had kissed on the mountaintop, all they had done was flirt. They had been sleeping in the forest and on the run, trying to get to the Hundred Years Ball without getting killed, and there had been no time for romantic trysts.
Tessa scrambled to her feet and brushed herself off.
“What do we do now?” she said, feeling tired. They had only been fleeing for less than a week and she was already sick of it.
Finn switched his satchel to his other shoulder and held out his hand for hers. He always carried a variety of small spells in that satchel that could come in handy and his spelled objects had gotten them out of a tight spot many a time. They made their way back down the tunnel, the crunch of gravel accompanying their every step.
“We have to find someplace to hide out for the entire week.”
“We can’t hide out the whole time,” Tessa said in a reasonable tone. “Besides, I don’t want to miss the Hundred Years Ball.”
Finn frowned and kicked a rock farther down the cave. “I don’t want to miss it either. It’s the best party in Ahlenerra in a hundred years. The dancing.”
She nodded. “The contests.”
“Oh, the food,” Tessa said, feeling her mouth starting to salivate at the thought.
“The Grand Revel.”
A shiver ran up her spine at his mention of the Grand Revel. It was a particularly wild night where all adult Fae drank way too much Elixir and danced until… well, usually all night. It was out of control. And way out of her comfort zone.
“Stars above, I don’t want to miss any of that,” Tessa said, and even she could hear how wistful her voice sounded.
“Well, we have to find someplace the Dark Queen can’t sneak up on us and capture us.”
“Exactly,” Tessa said. “We can’t lose sight of what we’re trying to do, even if it is the Hundred Years Ball.”
“But how will we translate the Scroll?” Finn said, shaking his head.
“Don’t know,” Tessa said, beginning to swing their hands.
“And where are we going to stay?”
“Don’t know,” she repeated, a smile spreading across her face.
“And how are we going to keep from being captured?”
The tunnel had been sloping upward and Tessa’s calves tightened as she climbed.
“Tess, you’re usually the one being anxious about these things. I find it very difficult to be the worrier. You have to return to your position.”
“Don’t want to,” she said, feeling playful.
She knew that they had serious problems but when the Truce spell had descended, she had felt the usual lightness that the Hundred Years Ball brought to the Fae people. It was the one time every hundred years when they were one people again. No Seelie and Unseelie Courts. The entire population under one roof—it was a really big castle. Nothing to do but have fun. And nothing but revelry the whole week, culminating in the Hundred Years Ball on the last night.
Finn tugged on her hand, pulling her back toward him. Then he flipped her so her back was against the hard wall of the cave. He pinned her to the rock.
Tessa examined his face with the beard that he had grown since they had started their search for the Scroll. His brown eyes were filled with a need that reflected her own. She loved his strong jawline.
Oh, Stars above, if Tess was being honest, she loved everything about him. Finn’s hair was dark brown and getting a little long, so that it was almost in his eyes. She reached up and brushed the hair off his forehead. He closed his eyes as if enjoying her touch.
“Finn,” she said softly.
“Tess,” he said and bent to press his lips to hers.
She still wasn’t used to having him so close and her body ignited as he pushed up against her. She tilted her head to give him better access as he kissed her until she lost her breath. His hands were warm and strong and they set her on fire everywhere they touched.
Things were heating up and she arched her back, dropping her head as he kissed her neck. But when her head touched the rock, something happened. The cave wall began to open and she and Finn jumped apart.
“Shadows and Chasm,” he said, backing up as the stone came to a halt. “What is that?”
“It’s a secret passage,” Tessa said, excited. “The question is, where does it lead?”
“Finn,” Tessa said, her eyes excited. “It’s an entrance to one of the secret passages. It must lead from the wyrm tunnels back up to the castle proper.”
“Of course,” he said, and they approached it cautiously together. They carefully examined the opening and passageway as far as they could see.
“Should we use it?” Tessa said, feeling unsure.
“The secret passageways that are built all over the castle aren’t forbidden. There’s no place off limits in the castle. Except, of course, we can’t go into a room that someone else has claimed.”
“Right. So, we could take this passageway?”
“The only thing is that they’re probably preparing the big welcome supper and reception right now and that means we might run into…”
Suddenly, there was the sound of paper rustling and a high-pitched squealing noise.
“What the…” Finn said, looking down the tunnel to where something white was approaching.
“The wyrm,” Tessa said, pushing him into the passageway and climbing in after him. “Where’s the lever to close this thing?”
They both fumbled around in the dark until Tessa’s hand landed on it and she wrenched it down.
“Are you talking about the ghost wyrm?” Finn whispered.
The rustling got louder and the white light closer.
“Come on, come on,” Tessa said, wishing she could hurry it as the rock slowly slid back into place. A couple seconds later, the rustling sound moved by on the other side of the rock wall. She blew out her breath.
“That was close.”
Finn’s eyes were large in the dim light of a luminescence orb he held in his hand. There were thousands of these orbs at Summerswind. They both gave light and also had a finding spell embedded in them. This allowed anyone to find anyone else in the castle and you could also search for places.
But the orbs worked as a part of the Truce spell and couldn’t be used with malicious intent of any sort. So, a person couldn’t use the orb to find someone if they meant to do them harm, steal from them, cheat or trick them. That sort of thing. If you had any dark intention in your heart, the orb would sense it and it wouldn’t go anywhere.
“The tales of the ghost wyrm are true?”
“Are you serious?” Tessa said, eyeing him where he stood leaning against the wall of the passageway.
“I didn’t…” He stopped and frowned. “Wait. If you knew, how come you were just waltzing around those tunnels completely unconcerned? And how come the Truce spell doesn’t neutralize it?”
Tessa shrugged. “The ghost wyrm isn’t a monster. It’s just a creature that died down in its tunnels beneath Summerswind Keep and became a ghost. There must be a story. But I don’t know it.”
“So the ghost wyrm is real.”
“Yes,” she said.
“And the Truce spell can’t stop it?”
“And if the wyrm had passed through us, we’d be dead.”
“Yes,” Tessa admitted.
“It would suck up all our Starlight and leave us dead, Tess. For real. As in, we would never heal from that. Once a Fae’s Starlight is gone, it’s gone.”
“I know,” Tess said. “Everyone knows that. It’s one of the few ways we can die. But it didn’t suck our Starlight. So calm down.”
“We barely escaped, Tess. And only because I kissed you.”
“Well, then I guess we better make out down here more often,” Tess said, grinning at Finn.
“You know, this whole shadows-may-care attitude you’ve had since we got here is really strange,” Finn said, peering at her. “Have you been drinking Elixir?”
“Not yet,” Tessa said. Then she took Finn’s hands in hers when he scowled at her.
“Tess, what’s going on?”
“It’s just…” She trailed off, struggling to express how she felt. “For the first time in hundreds of years, I’m free. And we’re at the Hundred Years Ball. Is it so bad that I’m loosening up a little bit?”
“No, of course not,” Finn said, still frowning. “I just don’t—”
“Stop being such a Shadow bringer. Yes, we’ve got some serious stuff to do. But it’s also a ball. And we’re here. Together, Finn.” She pulled him toward her, bringing their faces closer together. She went up on her toes a bit and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
“I guess you’re right,” he said reluctantly.
“Good. Let’s follow this secret passage back into the castle. Maybe we could even sleep in here, if necessary.”
“That’s what I was going to say before I almost got taken out by a giant ghost wyrm.”
Tess pulled her sword and blew him a kiss.
“Yes, yes, you’re very smart,” Tessa said, going ahead down the passage and keeping her sword at the ready.
They had been exploring the passageways for over an hour and all Finn wanted was somewhere he could relax and not have to worry about being captured. He was tired of running. He couldn’t figure out Tessa’s oddly relaxed behavior and it worried him.
And like he had said before, he didn’t do worry. It really wasn’t his thing. And he didn’t like being forced into a position where he had to be the responsible one. It was uncomfortable.
“Hey, look,” Tessa said, peering out through one of the many peepholes that were located throughout the castle. It kind of made Finn nervous thinking about how many people had probably been spying on him over the years from those peepholes.
He had never actually been in the secret passages, other than playing in some of the well-known ones as a child. As he grew older, there had been other attractions at the Hundred Years Ball that had been more interesting. Like all the Light Fae women who were interested in finding out what it was like to be with a Dark Fae. Finn had always been more than happy to let them experiment on him.
Of course, that had occasionally backfired.
Most notably with Sanndrah at the last Ball. He sure hoped that he wouldn’t run into her.
“What is it?” he said, putting the thought of his mistake out of his mind.
“This door comes out in a servant hallway. In what looks like an alcove or something. It should be the perfect place for us to get out of the secret passageways without being seen.”
“That’s good,” Finn said, interested. “We’ll need that. If only we had a place to sleep.”
Tessa sighed. “I feel dusty everywhere.”
Finn waggled his eyebrows at her and she laughed, her bright blue eyes startling and sort of incongruous with her brown hair.
“I just really wish we could have a regular room with a magic bath that never gets cold and a big—”
“Bed,” Finn said, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her against him. Her curls brushed against his face and he breathed in her raspberry scent. “Where I can ravish you properly.”
“Well, I was going to say Table of Plenty, but I like your fantasy as much as mine.”
“Tess, this Hundred Years Ball is not going to be fun if we have to hide most of the time and sleep in dusty, spider-filled passageways.”
Tessa wrinkled her nose at the thought.
“I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” she said, putting her arms around his neck and hugging him.
He held her tightly and found it comforting, though nothing had changed. It was nice to have someone to share his troubles with again, even if she couldn’t solve any of them.
He wished they could lie together. Soon. But they had more important things to worry about right now and he stepped away.
“Do you hear that?” Tessa said suddenly, a faraway expression on her face.
“Hear what?” Finn said automatically. Then he stayed still and listened.
Sure, there were the quiet noises of the castle shifting and creaking and the odd shout that came from somewhere in one of the castle rooms—all sounds muffled and faint. But otherwise, there was no sound that he could discern.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said, concerned by the odd glint in Tessa’s eyes.
“It’s a lovely melody,” she said, listening. Then she turned abruptly and took off walking quickly down the passageway, the heels of her boots clicking.
“Wait, Tess. What are you doing?”
He jogged after her, wondering what in the name of Severance Tessa was doing. Finn caught up with her and tried to catch her arm but she shook it off.
“It’s calling me, Finn. I have to go.”
“What’s calling you?” Finn said, more worried than he had been before, and that was saying something.
“There’s a song. A beautiful song.”
“Tessa, there’s no song,” he said, starting to be afraid that maybe it was Dark magic. But no. With the Truce spell in effect, no Dark magic could operate here. There was an indent in the wall here and she was fiddling with something when they heard a male voice rumbling down the passageway.
“Hey. Who’s down here? These are our passages.”
Great. Tessa was going crazy. Or had been enchanted, which was worse. And now they had trouble in the form of what sounded like a very large man. Finn tucked the map into his satchel.
This was a great start to the week.
“Hey, Finn,” the big man said, a smile appearing in his thick brown beard where the frown had been a moment before. “It’s you. So good to see you again. Have the Stars been good to you since the last Ball?”
Finn wracked his brain for the giant’s name as he and the big man pressed their forearms together in the Fae greeting. He did remember him. Sweet guy. Finn had beat him in cards, like four times. And he hadn’t punched Finn. Still remembered his name. He was a really nice guy. Obviously a nicer guy than Finn, since he couldn’t remember the big man’s name.
“Hey,” Finn said, giving him a thump on the arm. “I’m doing great. How are you?”
He examined the large man, whose barrel chest and bulging biceps indicated his profession, which Finn vaguely remembered was blacksmith. His cheeks were red, as if perhaps he had drunk too much for too long. But he exuded satisfaction and confidence. Finn wished he had even just a little of that.
“I’ve got a lady now and a little one. So no more drinking Elixir and gambling all night for me.”
Finn laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, me neither.”
“Oh, is this your wife?”
“Wife?” Finn said, feeling faint at the thought of getting married. “No, this is Tessa. We’re…”
He glanced at her and noted with relief that this guy’s arrival had snapped her out of whatever weird magic had come over her.
“Partners,” she finished for him, holding her forearm up.
“I’m Rufus,” the big man said, crossing forearms with her to make the faerie handshake. The Fae wouldn’t shake hands because of the chance of making an inadvertent magical vow, so the custom was to cross forearms instead. “Since Finn doesn’t seem to have any manners.”
“Tessa. And he really doesn’t.” Tessa nodded as if she were commiserating with him.
What the Chasm?
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Tessa,” Rufus said. The floor of the secret passage made a soft squeaking sound as he shifted his weight back and forth. “It would be really nice if you could come meet my wife.”
“I’d like that,” Tessa said, seeming really happy that he’d asked.
Finn wondered if he were Light Fae or Dark. It was taboo to ask anyone whether they were Seelie or Unseelie during the Ball but he couldn’t help being curious anyway. And there were ways of telling. But generally, it was considered bad form to make any sort of mention of which side of the Chasm you lived on.
“You’ll be coming to the reception, right?” he said, still talking mostly to Tessa.
“Yes,” she said at the same time as Finn said, “No.”
Rufus glanced back and forth between them.
Finn modified his answer. “Maybe. We’ve had a very long journey.”
“Did you travel?” Rufus said, his eyes widening, eyebrows lifting. “I always just wait for the spell to teleport me here. It’s very efficient.”
“I heard it has side effects, though,” Finn said.
“Yeah, it does make you pretty queasy for about twenty-four hours afterwards,” he put a hand to his large belly. Finn squinted at him in the dim light. He did look a little pale and sweaty. “But it’s better than being on a horse for ten hours a day for four days.”
Finn quickly calculated. He must be from the north, near the Cyclopean Forest, to have that long of a journey and that would make him Dark Fae. Mystery solved.
“I guess so,” Finn said dubiously, thinking of being nauseated for an entire day. “Still, I think I’ll stick to my horse.”
Rufus grinned and grabbed him in a one-armed chokehold, cutting off his air supply.
“Still a joker, Finn,” he said, squeezing a little more tightly than he probably intended and nearly crushing Finn’s windpipe. Rufus let him go and Finn sucked in air, grateful he still could.
“We’ll look for you at the reception, then,” Rufus said. “My wife would be glad to meet you.”
“Sounds good,” Tessa said, and the big man exited by one of the nearby doors, heading into the normal part of the castle. He heard the sound of the murmuring of a large group of people.
“Why would you say that?” Finn said, rounding on Tessa. “We can’t just be attending everything. Do you remember there are several bounties on our heads?”
“There’s the Truce spell,” Tessa said, batting her eyes at him. “And now that I’m not a spy anymore, I want to have a normal life.”
“A normal life,” Finn said, wondering if she was kidding. “You’re the Keeper of the Scroll. You want to end the Severance. And both the King and the Dark Queen want you dead or locked up for eternity.”
“I know, Finn,” she said, looking younger than he had ever seen her. “So can’t we just have a little fun? Just act a little normal? We’ll hide. I swear. We won’t put ourselves in danger. Just a little fun?”
She held her thumb and forefinger close together to show Finn how much fun she wanted to have.
Who was this woman and what had she done with the tough Captain of the Guard that Finn had first met?
He pulled in a deep breath to keep calm and was surprised that it smelled like apples and cinnamon. Just another part of the spell of the Hundred Years Ball. The rest of the century, the castle was just a ruin. But as soon as the spell activated, this amazing place appeared for the week of the Hundred Years Ball. Some of the many perks were that it self-cleaned and apparently smelled like his Grandma’s apple pie.
Finn sighed, gazing down at Tess. Somehow, this beautiful, tough, sexy ex-Captain of the Guard had gotten into his heart and he found he couldn’t resist her. Especially when she was vulnerable.
“Okay, Tess,” he conceded. “We can go to the reception. But we take precautions.”
“Whatever you say, Finn.”
She bounced into his arms, vibrating with excitement.
Finn only hoped that he hadn’t gotten them into a world of trouble.