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Cinna was beyond confused. She was baffled in fact – her brain couldn't comprehend what they were doing in the North, in a forest, when they were supposed to be getting their punishments in Qymos? Perhaps the capital had been shifted during their long ride? She wouldn't be surprised if it had. In the past decade, the capital had been shifted thrice due to the instability of the regime.
While most nations surrounding Cerekath had monarchy, with wealthy kings and queens, Cerekath had chosen to take a different path. Instead of having one absolute king, a council was to rule the entire land. This council was made up of prominent princes and noblemen from across the country, especially those of important cities such as Thembourg, Fryven, Kiev etc. While this sounded like a smarter and fairer form of government, in reality it only meant a lot of indecision. None of them could agree on any matter and the proof of this was that not even a single law had been passed in the past two decades.
Each nobleman would try to get the capital shifted to his city. In the past few years, it had gone from Kiev to Pemax to Qymos. Perhaps it had now changed to Venezypt, the city of the North, Cinna wondered. After all, that was the only possible reason for two criminals being taken to the North and not to Qymos to get judged.
She began to shiver, the chill in the air making her tremble. The north was known for its forbidding winters, with unforgiving nights of cold and snow. Since winter was approaching and the leaves were on the brink of touching upon the hues of red, the cold breeze was expected. She rubbed her arms, trying to warm herself with friction.
"I don't understand," she whispered, voicing her confusion. "Why aren't we being taken to -?"
Aesar suddenly grabbed her hand and squeezed it harshly. She jumped and looked at him. His lips were set in a thin, straight line and his blue eyes were wide and intimidating as he shook his head, warning her not to say anything.
Then suddenly, he took a step back, his hard expression melting away and becoming one of shock. "Your eyes," he whispered.
"They're quite amazing, aren't they?" their kidnapper said, grinning in the same wolfish way as before. Then his face lit up, as if he had just remembered the most important thing. "Oh, I forgot to introduce myself – how silly of me – I apologize. My name is Edrah Ro -"
"I don't give a damn what your name is!" Aesar suddenly growled, anger ripping from his chest as his lips curled back in a snarl. "You grabbed me from my bed and threw me into a caravan! We were in complete darkness for hours and you only gave us half a flask of water! I demand an explanation and Edrah, that's the least you owe us after putting us through so much!"
Cinna actually flinched at the acidity of his voice, unconsciously taking a step away from Aesar. She had grown up on one of the roughest streets of Thembourg, where many thugs and thieves roamed. Never before, however, had she been this intimidated by anyone. Perhaps it was the confidence with which he held himself? Or the prematurely hardened features, indicating that he knew the roughness of the world? Whatever it was, his voice and his general demeanor came together to form a person that was rather frightening.
And right now, she wasn't the only one frightened.
Edrah ran a hand through his dark hair nervously. "I really can't tell you much, Aesar. I'm taking you to someone who can answer all your questions though."
"But why are we in the Terradon forest?" Cinna asked, a crease between her eyes. They were now a dark and dull gray – a shade that would take over her eyes, only when she was truly scared. The Terradon forest was the largest jungle in the North, full of fearsome creatures and enormous trees. While the south of the forest was reserved for tourism, full of gorgeous waterfalls and meadows, the north of it – well, it was a completely different story. It was one of the most unexplored areas of Cerekath – mostly due to all the myths and legends about the horrors of that place.
"Once again, that's something I can't give you the answer to," Edrah sighed, leading them on a small stone path. It led deep into the forest, where the trees were close enough to form a canopy of their own, shading the ground beneath them to the point that it was many shades darker than the actual day. "I promise, though – every doubt, every thought of yours will be answered shortly."
"I'm not going anywhere unless I'm told where I'm being taken to," Aesar sneered. "I've had enough of that for one day."
"Look," Edrah groaned with frustration, throwing his hands up in the air. "I really can't tell you anything – I don't have the authority to tell you."
When both victims stared back at Edrah defiantly, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair nervously. "But I can tell you this. It's got something to do with those eyes and –" he pointed at Cinna's face and then at Aesar's fists – "his hands."
Simultaneously, Aesar glanced at Cinna's eyes while she turned to look at his clenched hands. He kept them clenched, the skin his nails were digging into now red. It was as if he was trying to pierce his skin.
"How are you doing that?" Aesar murmured, still staring at Cinna's multicolored eyes.
"Come on," Edrah said, walking around them and pushing them towards the depths of the forest. "We're already late."
"Late for what?" Cinna asked, irritated.
A crease appeared between Edrah's eyebrows as he pondered over the answer. Cinna had given up on expecting one and was following him into the forest when he replied. "A … congregation of sorts."
They remained silent as they went under the canopy. The entire forest was exploring all the hues of green, going from dark to mild to bright. The light that entered through the cracks of the leaves in the canopy illuminated it, making the entire forest shimmer. Despite her confusion and fear, Cinna could feel the greenery beneath her energizing her – that too, despite the thorns and rough branches hurting her bare feet.
"This is crazy," Cinna muttered under her breath.
Aesar heard her, his deep blue eyes flashing to her face. "You said they were taking us to Qymos, to be judged?"
"That's what I thought," she whispered, a troubled expression making its way to her face.
"And what base did you make that assumption on?" he asked. He was tall enough for Cinna to have to tilt her head back to look at him. His eyes were boring into hers, deep and dark, full of mystery.
"That was the only possible explanation," Cinna whispered, ducking as they crossed a tree with low branches. Aesar's jaw hardened, as if it was made of marble. They remained silent as they passed by the tall trees, the smell of pine becoming fresher and stronger with every step taken. Edrah was effortlessly navigating them through the forest, constantly looking over his shoulder as if to see that they had not run away.
As they went through the forest, they passed numerous strange things – all foreign to Cinna, who had spent her entire life in one district of Thembourg. There were tiny creatures and insects she had never seen before, species of trees and flowers she had never come across. For someone who valued nature as much as Cinna Sakerose, this walk in the forest was better than the grandest feasts on her name day.
The trees began to get deeper and darker. Lost in the wondrous feel of such raw and natural Earth beneath her feet, she only vaguely heard Edrah calling her name. Absent mindedly, she looked up at him, rather irritated at being disturbed. "What?"
"Come on, darling, you're slowing us down," he said, gesturing for her to rush forward. Aesar was standing a few meters in front of her, at the beginning of a stone bridge that led to an even thicker and wilder part of the forest. He looked irritated at having to stop but his expression changed within a minute.
"How does she do that?" he asked frenziedly.
Cinna assumed that her eyes had changed to a deep amber color. They always became that way when she was aggravated. Ignoring the deeply amused looks Aesar was shooting her way, she stalked past him and walked straight up the stone bridge.
"This is Waldgrave Bridge," Edrah told Aesar casually as they followed Cinna. "One of the oldest bridges in all of Cerekath. It was built nearly seven hundred years ago."
Aesar didn't respond to the brief history lesson. Cinna assumed that he probably couldn't be bothered to. She trudged forward, through the gnarled roots of old, enormous trees, her bare feet now covered in scars and grazes.
"I wish I had some shoes to offer you," Edrah said apologetically, clearly only trying to make conversation.
"This," she pointed to her bruised feet, a scowl on her face. "Is your fault."
Without bothering to hear his answer, Cinna turned around. She stopped walking immediately, a look of shock on her face. She was surprised to see that she had walked into a clearing. It was quite large and perfectly rounded, surrounded by a ring of pine trees. But none of that caught her interest. What had her gaping and staring up, just as Aesar was doing, was the stone castle sprawled across it.
It was beautiful. The stones on the walls had a shining, silvery quality that made the castle shimmer in the dim sunlight. Some of the windows were made of stained glass, others were large and sprawling across the length of the castle. The large trees were all cowering and branching down upon it, covering it with green leaves. The balconies that followed nearly every window, had colorful bougainvillea draped across them. Even though it was glorious and nothing short of magnificent, it had a sort of unrefined look about it – the look that suggested the castle hadn't been taken care of for a long time. Regardless, it was a beautiful sight and for her, this castle was better than the gold one back in Thembourg.
"What is this place?" Aesar whispered, still staring at it with a stunned look.
"This," Edrah smiled, walking forward but with his face turned towards them. He threw his arms up, as if he was presenting the castle to them. "This is Waldgrave Academy."
"Wald – what?" Cinna asked incredulously.
"An academy? Is this a joke?" Aesar asked, his expression murderous.
Edrah sighed dramatically, letting his arms fall to his sides as he angrily muttered. "God, you two are so fussy. Once again, Mr. Driscol and Ms. Sakerose, I am not the person to answer these questions. If you would just follow me, you will find the individual who can give you what you want."
He turned around haughtily. Clearly his patience had been exhausted. Cinna, however, couldn't find it in herself to feel sorry for the man. After all, he had grabbed her in the middle of the night and thrown her into a claustrophobic and dark caravan. Aesar seemed to feel the same way. Instead of quietly following him, he rolled his eyes with impressive pride and strode forward.
As she entered the castle, Edrah closed the door behind her with a loud noise. The first thing that Cinna noticed was how warm the castle was. Everywhere around her, fireplaces had a merry fire crackling in them. The wooden walls were illuminated by the butterscotch glow of them.
Cinna looked up, suppressing a gasp that was aching to burst from her lips. White, sparkling marble covered he floors of the massive hall. The marble glimmered in the dim light, reflecting the glow of the fire. In front of her, was a massive staircase that split into two and swirled towards two massive doors on opposite sides of the room. The staircase was lined by numerous stands of candles, all glimmering with their flickering flames. In the middle of the grand hall, a chandelier was hanging from the painted ceiling. The opals too shimmered with dim light, their tinkling echoing in the large hall. Everywhere, grand paintings and portraits were hung – mostly of one man.
Cinna observed the largest portrait of his. He had a sharp and chiseled jaw, straight eyebrows that were a few shades darker than his hair. They played home to two large, hazel eyes, glittering mysteriously even in the painting. Even though the man didn't seem warm or welcoming in the slightest, Cinna felt some sort of a deep attraction towards the portrait. As if she was being drawn to it.
When she finally took her eyes off it, she turned to see Aesar staring in the same fixated way at another portrait of the same man.
What was stranger was that Edrah was watching both their reactions to the portrait with a peculiar, triumphant and slightly wolfish grin on his face.
"You better hurry." He clapped Aesar on the back, leading them forward and up the grand staircase. A red carpet flowed like a river of blood down the middle of the staircase, soft beneath Cinna's stinging feet. She was still transfixed by her surroundings, fascinated as she counted the amount of houses on her street could fit into just this one hall.
He reached one of the magnificent doors, grabbing two gold rings to pull it open. They were swung open, the large and heavy doors creaking with strain.
"There they are!" a smooth voice said, with a charming little laugh. "We've been waiting ages for you!"
As Edrah moved out of the way, Cinna's lips parted in astonishment. If she had though the grand hall had been lavish and awe inspiring, she couldn't even find words to describe the room she had entered. The most massive chandelier hung from the very center of a dome, which was primarily made of gold and stained glass. The blue, green and pink of it glimmered as light shown through the glass, illuminating the entire room. The walls were covered with gold silk, flashing and twinkling when light was cast upon them. Rich, cherry wood extended from where Cinna stood to the far corner of the room, making it look like a pool of chocolate. The room was scattered with pieces of royal furniture and strange statues and decoration pieces.
When her eyes had roamed and scrutinized the entire room, her eyes moved to the large crowd of people gathered there. Apart from the woman who had greeted them, the others behind her had many things in common.
For one, they looked around the same age as Aesar and Cinna. Perhaps a year or two older or younger.
Second, they all wore murderous expressions of rage, fury and frustration.
"I'm sorry for the hold up, Melcate darling," Edrah sighed, walking forward and casually kissing the lady on the cheek. It was pleasurable to look at her. She was different – Cinna had never seen anyone so strange looking. In the land of Cerekath, it was difficult to find people with hair the color of golden sunshine let alone the silver strands of silk that rested on her forehead. It wasn't like the wispy and gray hair of old men and women. It was white blonde hair, the one with the shimmering quality that illuminated her rather typical face.
"Aesar here, put up a rather long fight," Edrah chuckled, clapping the irritable boy on the back. The glare that Aesar shot his way made sure that Edrah never did so again.
"Not to worry," she smiled. "South Cerekathians were never known for their punctuality anyway. Although our other guests are getting quite impatient."
Cinna glanced over her shoulder, at the angry mob of people. There seemed to be more than fifty people there, standing under the dome. Most of them, like Aesar and herself, had messy hair and red-rimmed eyes, indicating that they too, had been grabbed by their beds and forced into caravans. Most of them were in their night suits, some men embarrassingly half dressed. Girls were wearing skimpy nightgowns, not at all helping in keeping their modesty.
"Go get Jaffar," the woman named 'Melcate' mumbled to Edrah after registering the amount of dirty glares being cast her way.
"You promised us answers." Cinna looked around for the source of the voice and found that it had come from within the mob, from a tall boy whose face played home to a vicious expression of pure hatred. "You said we'd get them as soon as they," he roughly pointed his finger at her and Aesar. "Got here."
"We'll start our meeting as soon as Jaffar gets here," Melcate sighed, tucking a loose strand of her silver blonde hair behind her ear.
Cinna and Aesar were instructed to join the group, both of them fitting right in with their untidy appearances and hostile looks. The silver haired woman had begun to nervously shift under their gaze when they heard the loud slam of doors. Every single head in the group turned to look back over their shoulders.
Edrah was suddenly holding himself more formally. His attitude was no longer casual and the way he looked at the person beside him, it was obvious that Edrah respected him beyond belief. When Cinna moved her eyes to him, she could easily understand why. 'Jaffar', as they called him, moved towards them with casual elegance and grace, almost gliding across the floor with his black cape thrown behind him.
He seemed to radiate power.
He smiled as he neared the group, his lips pulling back to reveal his gleaming white teeth. He shook his salt and pepper hair out of his olive green eyes before calmly turning towards the silver haired woman. "Are they all you could find?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Edrah piped up. "Other moles lost track of their subjects."
He turned to Edrah, arching an eyebrow intimidatingly. "Who appointed such inefficient moles in the first place?"
Edrah began to stammer, stuttering out a futile explanation. Jaffar held up a long hand of his, effectively silencing him. Cinna felt oddly pleased at that moment, as she watched Edrah draw into himself, folding his arms almost protectively across his chest. She glanced at Aesar; a satisfied smirk was tugging at the corner of his lips too.
He caught Cinna's eye. While she grinned at him, the twinkle in his eyes and the hint of a smile on his face immediately dropped. She frowned, puzzled. He was looking at Edrah, Jaffar and the young woman with an expression of disdain now, his jaw hard like marble and his eyes as cold as ice.
"I've kidnapped you," Jaffar said suddenly, with a tone of utter nonchalance. He said it so coolly, as if he was simply talking about the weather. "I ordered my men to brutally take you from your homes, to tear you from your beds no matter what conditions you were in. I ordered them to give you sedatives before throwing you into dark caravans with other strangers. I specifically ordered them not to give any kind of information away either. I ordered them to bring you into the depths of one of the most feared forests in Cerekath."
He stared from one person to another, steadily gazing at them.
"I will not apologize for it," he said, cracking a slight smile. "I will not say sorry for treating you so harshly. Why? Because the fact is, I have just saved your lives."
He looked at the crowd, as if daring them to question him. The entire angry mob of children stared back at him with incredulous, dumb founded and angry expressions.
"Saved us?" the same tall boy in the middle of the group asked skeptically. "Right.'
"I have," Jaffar smiled, his teeth gleaming in the dim light of the room. He walked forward, his shoes clicking against the marble. He knotted his hands behind his back, carefully gazing at all the young faces. "I have watched you your entire lives. I have reports on you; your personality, your health, your … abilities as well."
There was a sudden collective gasp from the entire crowd. Cinna herself had a look of disbelief on her face. How did this man know? He was sitting in a castle miles away and yet he had managed to discover the one thing she and her father kept a secret their entire lives? How was that even possible? She looked up to see that everyone around here wore the same expressions of alarm and suspicion. Aesar himself was standing tall and biting his lower lip, running a hand nervously through his dark hair.
"For example," Jaffar continued. He stopped in front a girl with glossy, raven colored hair. She was quite pale, the dark circles under her eyes only emphasized against the whiteness of her skin. She visibly gulped as she looked up at his calm smile. "I know that the beautiful Veda Fay over here," he smiled at her, ignoring the alarmed look in her eyes. "Is able to be in two places at once. I believe modern terms call it 'bilocation'."
Veda was staring at him with an expression of sheer shock and horror as the mob behind her buzzed with gasps, questions and angry comments. Jaffar ignored all these things and continued walking forward, his shoes clicking against the marble.
"I know that Rabka Crowken here," he pointed to the tall boy who had spoken for the mob. "Is extremely skilled at telekinesis. An art that allows him to manipulate his surroundings."
Cinna's lips parted as her jaw dropped as she looked at the boy. He was standing in the middle, staring straight at Jaffar with a lethal expression and ignoring all the looks that he was getting. His rather large lips were set in a straight and hard line and his brown eyes seemed to go a few shades darker.
Cinna was flabbergasted. His ability was similar to what she was capable of doing.
She couldn't understand what was happening around her.
"I also happen to know that the James Zedler is a pro at telepathy," he continued. "And that Desmond Craftsman can communicate with animals. An art, now known as 'animal telepathy.'"
He paused, looking up to smile at the now dumbfounded crowd. They were all staring at Jaffar with wondrous expressions, all trying to hide behind others so he wouldn't reveal their ability too.
"I know everything about each and everyone of you standing here," Jaffar said, his smile falling and his voice suddenly adopting a more serious tone. "I also happen to know that every single person in this room is in danger."
"Danger?" Aesar repeated, arching his eyebrow.
"Extreme peril," Jaffar repeated.
"What do you mean?" Cinna asked, her voice shaking.
Jaffar sighed, his olive green eyes boring into her multicolored ones. The man looked exhausted beyond belief, but still seemed to be a statue of strength and power. He ran his eyes over the crowd, gazing at them steadily. "It is a long story. I suggest we make ourselves comfortable in the salon before I start."
He turned his head over his shoulder, gesturing for the two individuals behind him to rush forward. "Melcate! Edrah! Take them there and give these children something to eat. My God, look at their state!"
While they stammered and stuttered out promises that they would feed them the best meal, Jaffar smiled at the crowd. "I shall meet you there. I promise to return shortly and answer all you questions."
And then, with the flurry of his cape and clacking of his leather boots, he left the hall, leaving each and every one of them, including Cinna Sakerose, stunned beyond belief.