One Way: Part Nine
"We talked about it for a couple of minutes, and figured out that this is the only way," Cerulean confessed as Dromiay hurried into the room behind Rubia and Faith. "She... She really is from Creation, isn't she?"
"I... don't believe it..." Dromiay stuttered. "She wasn't in the book!"
"I think we know what we must do," Rubia solemnly stated.
Faith's face convulsed. "What?"
I just shivered.
"Our last shot at getting home is trying to convince Benjai to give up all of this. If we can't, it's already over." Rubia bowed her head.
My lower lip began to tremble.
"We... We could be stuck?" Faith uttered. "For... ever...?"
The five of us began to look at each other, passing glances of fear and regret. And then Dromiay shed the first tear without an ounce of shame. "I wanted to go home," she whispered. Before I knew it, I burst into a sob alongside her. Faith, too, was already starting to cry.
Cerulean had a hand on Faith's shoulder. He kept his head low.
Dromiay and I could barely look at each other through our tears. But we ended up hugging anyways. It sickened me how sentimental we were getting. But it was beautiful nevertheless.
Rubia swept one wing around me, and the other around Cerulean, pulling both of us to her as she started to sniff.
And that's how the group hug happened.
I kept my arms, and my heart, around Dromiay. My wings were so broken they didn't even hurt anymore, but Dromiay only ever had one. I had been the one to make all my own problems. She was all but born with hers. I realized how much damage I'd done to myself and the people who I should've loved, all over the course of a year.
But now it's like it's all been forgotten.
I felt more than Dromiay, however. Rubia kept that one wing lightly curled around my shoulder.
I'm her son too now.
Faith rested her head on Cerulean's shoulder. Cerulean sighed, squeezing her and Rubia closer to him.
Somehow, we broke up. Cerulean seemed to finally be rising up out of his heartless, soulless depression. His eyes were already red from crying. "If we don't make it out... I'm glad I got my soul back, at least."
"Our problem is a totally different one now," I muttered.
Cerulean looked up, and met my face for the first time in what seemed like a hundred years. He forgave me.
I beat him to the hug.
Just the two of us clung to each other for a few moments. And then we drifted apart. I let out a breath. It felt like strength had rolled back into my tired body.
Cerulean clapped his hand down on my shoulder. But he narrowed his eyes, smiling disbelievingly.
"You're still taller."
We prepared for dinner. The five of us changed into dusty, but formal, clothes.
Rubia combed through outfits, throwing them aside one by one, and constantly moving to different sections of the shelves, until she finally found clothes cut for Hissis. She picked one long, rugged travelling tunic off the shelf, held it fondly, and headed for one of the dressing rooms.
Dromiay reluctantly put on a set of glittering crimson robes, with long velvet tassels coming off of the shoulders. I realized that she was trying to look nice because she was our greatest asset in trying to get out of this ordeal, and she had to meet high standards, no matter how much she wanted to change back into that plain white dress. I also realized that the robes were a size too big and on backwards besides. Her hair was brushed thoroughly, but her part was uneven and she did nothing with it.
Dromiay can barely care for herself.
I sifted through a pile of clothes on the floor. They were all airy, glittery dresses that were a far cry from my usual plain-colored shifts. I finally decide on a flowing, simple emerald gown with lightly-puffed sleeves, if I had to make an impression.
Cerulean reluctantly changed into a crisp navy shirt and dark pants. Rubia's suggestion. They were formal and fit him perfectly, but from the way he kept pressing his lips together and shifting where he stood, the discomfort was obvious.
Amadeus discovered a dark gray admiral's jacket, and immediately made it his own. The sleeves had black cuffs, the front buttoned up and the collar was sharp. If we got out of this, he was planning on keeping it.
I sat down against the wall, and subconsciously reached for my key, so I could finger it anxiously.
It wasn't there.
I frowned. Okay, I told myself, keep calm. You can stand to lose your prized possession. After all, it's your prized possession for a reason.
Cerulean's face popped into my mind. I bit my lip. What would I tell him?
But then I spotted Amadeus hustling towards me. He opened his mouth to speak. I noticed that, around his neck, he had it. He had found it, and thought of returning it to me?
"Guys! It's time!" Dromiay yelled as she hurried into sight.
Amadeus kept his mouth open. "Later," I told him. He finally nodded once, and we went to follow Dromiay.
Dromiay led us back through all those halls, and as we neared the place where we'd eat, I could feel hunger settle into my stomach, a first for me.
Whenever Cerulean feels hunger, I've only ever felt pain.
Dromiay let me stick close to her. I realized how fine she was with the other three keeping to each other. I realized that it didn't matter to me anymore that I wasn't one of them.
All that mattered was getting out of this alive and finding a new life for myself.
Dromiay slipped her shaky hand into my jittery one. She was a lot like Faith, except... different. She had a temper, but it was more than that. She was different in a good way.
Maybe that new life was already waiting for me.
The table was set.
The hall glowed with warm gold everywhere. Magnificent chandeliers high above us burned with white magic, causing the depths of the vaulted ceiling to glimmer. The table, a symbol of everlasting dinners, stretched out of sight.
One butler informed us we'd be sitting at the head of the table, by Queen Benjai. Four of us froze nervously -- Faith took a huge jump back.
Then, solemnly, I volunteered to sit directly by Benjai.
The others froze. But one by one, they began to nod.
Wordlessly, I settled into the plush dining chair to the right of the throne. It was time to settle this once and for all.
But what I didn't tell them was that I was torn.
I loved them more than anything, yes. But my mind knew what my home had become. A home I hated. A prison. Not even a home at all. But I knew my heart was afraid to leave. Even if we miraculously persuaded Benjai, I would keep us all here in this prison.
My heart began to climb in my throat.
And then she was there.
Folded hands resting on the table, massive face grinning malevolently, her pale grey eyes shone with everything I knew she had all along. I leaned out of my chair to watch her as she spoke.
"I understand, Dromiay, that there are things you... want, that are... That are not good for you."
Although she tried to hide it, I sensed her concern. My mouth crinkled into a smile. We've placed a dent in her empire. We could nearly be coming home, except... except we have one last heart to convince.
Servants slipped between us, placing heaping plates of food in front of us. Sautéed garden vegetables, with crimson dressing drizzled across the heap. Still-bubbling lettuce soup. Warm, buttery oregano bread that smelled better than life.
We didn't dare to eat a bite.
Dromiay raised her shaky voice. But she was unashamed of her fear. "We want freedom."
"I know," Benjai said.
The two stared at each other for several freezing seconds – Benjai calculating but worried, and Dromiay rising from the ashes to throw herself at her fears. And then, Benjai spoke again.
"It is absolutely unacceptable, but at least it is impossible as well. Why would I ever want to leave this?"
The nobles sitting across from us stared at Benjai as though she was mad. They didn't know who we were, what we were talking about, or why Dromiay was suddenly so protective of total strangers.
"Life itself is golden." Dromiay clenched her fist. "I could've had a life. But you took everything from me before I could remember a thing. I refuse to be a slave to you now. Now I realize what I need."
I stiffened. Dromiay was veering from the goal, and had started to just vent.
But that was when Amadeus spoke up. "You had a life too. Now all you have is gold."
Benjai noticed him. Her brow wrinkled for one second.
She was slipping.
"There it is!" she cried, clutching at Amadeus' neck. "Mine! All mine!"
A key glinted between her thumb and forefinger. Amadeus thrashed as she heaved him into the air and tried to pull the key away from his neck. But Amadeus was holding on, too.
"You're stubborn," Benjai hissed, eyes wide with madness. "Guards. Hold him in place. Right here."
They immediately knew what she was talking about.
A Scorchio dressed in chain mail stuttered, "But he's the one who survived whatever we threw at him! He seems to be immortal!"
Benjai pursed her lips. "Bring it," she finally spat. "Now."
Dromiay gasped. We had never told her about Amadeus' dream.
One Ogrin guard blinked and moved away from his place at Benjai's shoulder. He headed straight for the tapestry behind the throne, the one depicting Benjai in all the glory she could never have, with the sun shining all around her and desert sands rolling beneath her feet.
He disappeared behind the tapestry, and immediately emerged with a huge rectangular box cradled in both of his arms.
The Ogrin grunted in pain as he set it down in front of Benjai. As Benjai lifted the lid, she grinned like a child receiving a present. Amadeus took a huge step back, stepping in food and tipping over a few glasses.
But he didn't run.
He doesn't believe he can change his dream. He thinks because he has dreamt it, it is too late.
Benjai shoved a scaly hand into the box. I lifted myself up on the edge of the table. The edges of the box brimmed with white hot coals. What?... I've never seen coal look like... like that.
She began to laugh, pulling out a gilded handle first and then handful after handful of golden chain. And finally, she stood up in her throne, and began to swing her massive arms in a circle.
Above our heads swooped a massive ball of red metal. Amadeus whimpered, curling into a ball. Benjai, oblivious to his fetal position, laughed for several seconds longer as the chain whooshed over our heads again and again, the molten mace head at the end of it.
Dromiay gawked at the spectacle. She had seen this weapon many, many times before, I could tell. But only now did she realize its cruelty. I wondered if Benjai brought it out every single time someone opposed her.
The nobles around us shrank back in their seats. The guards moved towards the doors, but a few also clustered in around our end of the table. I knew right then that Amadeus had no escape.
Not with the wall of guards around us.
Not with some of the nobles actually starting to cheer Benjai on, and Benjai herself hysterical with laughter.
And of course not with our mage, our trump card, paralyzed at the thought of losing Amadeus.
Everyone saw the second coming when Benjai finally struck. The mace head whirled above us one last time, and then Benjai sent it whirling towards him.
What can I say? Amadeus was invincible. Not even he deserved to take a hit like that without being put out of his misery. It was all lost by now anyways.
I leapt in front of Amadeus, and let the mace hit me instead.
To be continued...