Chapter Thirty-Nine – The Old-Fashioned Way
Sebastian had never experienced such a thing before. He truly thought himself incapable of sensing heat in any shape or form, but as of this evening, it seemed impossible for him to go to sleep. The covers lay on the ground in a heap by the bed, and his skin was sensitive all over. Could it be a side effect of the poison eating his body away? It wasn’t unheard of.
He traipsed to the window and pushed it open. Seasons changed in Ifigia as they did in Milo’s world. Summer was just starting, but the night breeze was supposedly chilly enough to send him back to bed. None of that happened. His skin burned, soothed only marginally by the night wind coming through the window.
Caught between palace responsibilities and his trying his damnest not to let Reya in on his plans, Sebastian was beginning to feel something akin to exhaustion. If he hadn’t been trapped in Kai’s body for a few weeks, he would have never experienced the feeling, but now he was aware of it.
His body wouldn’t last long, and it was a fact that couldn’t be denied. The worst part was that he was no closer to finding out about Pepin’s whereabouts and where the shard was hidden. He leaned against the window sill and stared into the darkness.
Something blinked in the sky but only for a moment. Lightning? A thunder should follow, Sebastian thought, but only the silence of the after dark with its quiet choirs of insects and solitary birds could be heard. What could that have been?
He rested his forehead against the cool glass. Was he leaving Ifigia in good hands? Reya would quickly reclaim her role as protector, but she wouldn’t be allowed to rule. Being the kind of goddess never to overlook a slight, she wouldn’t allow Pepin and Kai’s child to come into the world.
What was he to do? Conrad would be gone tonight to see Galien in secret, but what was the son of the fire goddess to do when the ice goddess was firm in her ways? Sebastian hoped a lot. His perusal of the palace dungeon and other places that could serve as a jail of sorts had led him nowhere.
Unless, his mental gears began to turn, he was looking in all the wrong places. Reya appeared not to have an interest in terminating Pepin. His value as a Lelian should have been forfeited when he gave himself to Kai Martin, yet the ice goddess still wanted him alive.
Was it possible to revert what Reya saw as being damage done? If the shard was found and destroyed, would she force Pepin and him together? He couldn’t see how she would be able of such a feat since none of them nurtured feelings of affection for the other, at least not the kind required for creating an heir for Ifigia.
That could only mean one thing. He grabbed a shirt and a pair of pants and wished with the power of his mind to travel there, the only place where he could want to be and get there and back again.
The Shimmering Cavern had suffered while he had laid there, consumed by the Uxilan poison. Sebastian could see it clearly in the streaks of melted ice that changed the scenery here and there. Before, it had been a perfect place, not one icicle thrown together haphazardly. Yet, now it was more beautiful, he thought as he ran his hand over the walls.
It wasn’t a big place. One couldn’t easily get lost inside it, but few were allowed to know its secrets. If there was one place where Reya would have put Pepin, it had to be right in front of his eyes.
Sebastian grunted as he pushed against the altar with all his might. Before the wound in his chest, it would have been easy to do so. Now it required almost all of him, but his purpose was a noble one.
He stared at the young man trapped in the ice under the altar. Pepin appeared asleep, his natural beauty made surreal by the translucent glaze lending his complexion a blue hue. His hands were set on his chest, and his mouth was frozen in what looked like a determined grim line. To think that a mere servant had the nerve to confront a goddess. Sebastian didn’t quite believe it, knowing the sense of duty that motivated Pepin in everything he did. It appeared that the perfect servant had a rebellious streak in him, after all.
So, he had guessed right, but that didn’t make the problem any easier. Getting Pepin out of his ice prison was not something anyone could do. Reya’s magic was powerful, much more than his, who would be considered merely her shadow as far as his ability to command ice was concerned.
Sebastian stared at Pepin’s sleeping face. New white flowers began to blossom on the surface, and he stopped. He knew very well how to make ice, but not necessarily how to melt it, not when there was stronger magic than his at work.
What he needed was fire, earth-scorching fire, and he knew exactly where to find it.
“Tani, for real,” Kai tsked but followed his sister to her room. “If mom catches you again--”
“Hush, she doesn’t know I know exactly where she keeps our phones. And she must be dozing by now. Stop making so much noise.”
“You’re the one talking too much,” Kai retorted but kept his voice low.
Tani walked into her room, looked around, and then gestured for him to come quickly inside. He shook his head but entered, curious of his sister’s latest findings.
“Why exactly did you scan the room before you left me in?” he asked after Tani made a show of closing the door without making a sound.
“You never know,” Tani replied promptly and then grabbed her phone. She held it high triumphantly and on the point of bouncing with excitement.
Kai looked and mumbled as he read the words on the screen. “Pic of fantasy castle taken with my drone.” He snorted. “Come on, butthead, it’s clearly ‘shopped.”
“Look,” Tani insisted. “When we were riding the lady dragon, you showed me Seb’s castle from above. Doesn’t it look familiar?” She pushed her phone against his nose until he had to grab her wrist and hold it at a reasonable distance from his eyes.
Now that he looked closer… “But it’s clearly taken at night, and it’s not even that good. I mean--”
“Stop being a non-believer. It’s the only trail we have. And it’s the right shape, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but it’s not like Sebastian’s castle is one of a kind in the land of--” He stopped abruptly and grabbed Tani’s phone, triggering a frustrated groan from his sister. She was right about the shape, but that wasn’t it. Even at a distance and with not so great resolution, the blue shimmering adorning the highest roofs was impossible to miss. “Oh, shit,” he murmured, “it’s either the coincidence of a lifetime, or this dude really took a photo of Sebastian’s castle!”
“Told you, didn’t I?” Tani snickered and then put her hand up. “High five, bro.”
“Bro? I’m not your bro,” Kai said but grinned and slapped his hand against Tani’s open palm.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s like the stupidest thing you’ve ever said in your life. I’m actually the only one who should be allowed call you ‘bro’.”
“Yeah, yeah, you have a point. We need to get in touch with this dude and ask him where he took the picture.”
“Already done that,” Tani said promptly. “I sent him a message, and any moment now, he should reply. Let me check again.”
Kai stared over his sister’s shoulder as she logged in. All that tension was killing him. He stole furtive looks toward the door, expecting their mom to walk into the room and start yelling at them. She usually wasn’t the yelling kind, but the last events must have rattled her pretty badly. It wasn’t like Kai could blame her; any moment he allowed his mind to go to Pepin, and the unborn child was making him feel things he had never experienced before, such as a level of frustration at himself for being incapable of defending them.
“He replied!” Tani shouted, and Kai hushed her again.
“What is he saying? OMG, he took the pic not far from here! What the hell? I mean, did we rip the fabric of interdimensional boundaries while we traveled back and forth?” He was just throwing ideas at random, but hope was just starting to rise inside his soul.
“He says that his drone is messed up now, and that he tried to use another, but although he’s pretty sure he followed the same path, the castle no longer appears to be there,” Tani said as her eyes followed the guy’s message word by word.
“Still, it happened once,” Kai insisted. “Oh, damn, why do we have to have school tomorrow? I want to go there right now!”
“You’re telling me? I want to get isekai’d again like five minutes ago.”
Tani wasn’t the only one. Pepin could be in danger. Sebastian clearly was in a bad place, with that Uxilan wound in his chest, and there was also that scary goddess who had tried to strangle Milo, albeit his being as good as her son-in-law.
“I’ll think of something. We also need to let Milo know of all this.”
“I sent him a message. He’ll see it in the morning, when his folks let him have his phone for school day.”
“Tani, the hell?” Kai moaned. “His parents surely read his messages now!”
“Oh, shoot,” Tani let out in frustration. “Do you really think they’ll go through his phone?”
“We all disappeared for four days. They might think they’re totally entitled to do that. And if they already saw it, then --”
The rap on the door made them both groan and roll their eyes. They made poor spies, or agents, or whatever. They were making way too many mistakes.
“Kai, Tani, what are you two doing?” Their mom had let herself in after the short warning that she already knew what they were up to. “Is this thing with whatever you’re learning from those kids shows not over yet? And Kai, I thought better of you.” She crossed her arms and watched them both with disapproving eyes. “None of you has any excuses, understood? Now, the phones. I see that I need to confiscate them indefinitely. And Tani, if I catch you sneaking about again, no more TV for you either.”
“But mom --” Tani started.
A single look from their mom convinced even his opinionated sister to keep her mouth shut.
“What is this about? Do you truly find your lives so boring? When I was your age, we didn’t have smartphones and so much entertainment, and we survived just fine. These,” their mom said while gesturing with their phones that were already in her hand, “are the problem. Kids today would rather live in imaginary worlds then deal with homework and everyday life,” she murmured under her breath. “I don’t want to hear the word isekai from either of you for the rest of your lives. And yes, I do know what it means now, not that I’m any wiser for it. You’re both too old to be so invested in fairytales,” she added sternly.
Tani opened her mouth to comment on that, but Kai grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly.
“Now go to sleep. You have school tomorrow.” Their mom sounded weary. She probably thought them both to be nothing but irresponsible teenagers who couldn’t tell that they hurt her by insisting on how they knew of worlds beyond the one they lived in. Well, at least there was one world in which people like Pepin lived, and Kai much wanted to be part of it, as much as the one he shared with others he loved, like Tani and his mom.
Was there really a way for them to make the two worlds come together? The pic taken by that guy with his drone showed that there was hope. Now, they would be without their phones throughout the day, as well, which meant that they would have to deal with everything the old-fashioned way, something he had no idea what meant.
“So, pipsqueak got us a break and then managed to let us without our phones while in school, as well,” Milo said matter-of-factly as soon as the three of them got together. They couldn’t skip any classes, or their teachers would go bananas and call their parents in an instant, so all they had was their lunch break.
They were all munching on their sandwiches, as well as the barely-there solutions that kept coming and going from their minds.
“Really sorry about that,” Tani replied.
Milo pulled at her pigtails but with affection. “It already happened, so don’t sweat it. I suppose that we just need to look at this differently. Kai, any ideas?”
“We need to do it the old-fashioned way,” Kai said promptly.
“What does that mean?” Milo questioned.
“It’s tough because we’re going to make our folks mad at us again. Today, after school, we go to the place the guy with the drone talked about and investigate it by ourselves.”
“That means that we’ll get home late tonight, right? We’re basically going into the woods and we don’t have a clue if we’re going to find anything,” Milo pointed out.
“We cannot depend on the Internet anymore, and if we use school computers, the grownups will catch whiff of it like this.” Kai snapped his fingers. “That’s why I’m thinking about doing it the old-fashioned way, which is to go in person and investigate.”
Milo seemed to ponder for a moment. “We might not find anything. And if we give our folks more reasons to doubt us--”
Tani interrupted him by grabbing his elbow. “Come on, man, don’t you want to see Seb again?”
That seemed enough to convince Milo. He straightened up and smacked his palms together. “Let’s do this, mad parents or not. We’ll convince them once we find Sebastian’s castle.”
“Right,” Tani agreed. “I so want to see mom’s face when she learns that isekai exists!”
“Are we all in?” Kai put his hand forward, palm down. Milo covered it with his, and then Tani put both of hers on top.
They broke it off without a word, exchanging knowing looks between themselves while the bell rang to announce the start of the next period.
Sebastian waited in his quarters. As little as was left, his energy had to be conserved for the confrontation that was bound to follow. Conrad had come back the night before, and as soon as Sebastian had shared his findings, he had left for Kelonia again. It seemed that the fallen prince enjoyed his newfound role a lot more than that of a royal concubine. In passing, Reya and Luna had asked him about how he was feeling, but he had sent them quickly away under the pretext that he only needed the rest.
However, the moment his aunt would step foot into the palace, Reya would know, and something of how she looked at him told him that she was suspecting him of hiding important information.
He groaned as he peeled off the shirt from his body and stared at the wound with searching eyes. “I need only a little more time.” His plan was simple but effective, he liked to believe. If he made it official, if he took Pepin in front of a cheering crowd, letting everyone know that a new heir was on the way, not even Reya would dare to go against something like that, not without sacrificing more than what she was willing to. Of course, the servants gossiped about Pepin’s disappearance, and the ice goddess had to know that not even her actions would go unnoticed when there were so many eyes and ears around.
Now, it was all a matter of good timing. Fiana had to be there so that she could travel with him to the Shimmering Cavern, the only way that wouldn’t take days. Sebastian thought of the dragon Kai Martin had somehow tamed, but that was out of the question. He was known as a hunter of dragons, not one who would get along with their species.
Reya would know her sister was there, but Sebastian planned on being faster than her. Once Pepin was out of his ice prison, and Sebastian took him in front of the people of Ifigia, Reya would have no choice but to accept him and the heir, as well. And then, after he was gone, Pepin would rule in his stead until the child became of age and could sit on the throne to rule the kingdom that was his by birthright.
The soft knock on the door made him raise his eyes. It wasn’t like Fiana to be so shy, so it had to be someone else. “Come in,” he said in a weak voice that he hated more and more without being able to do anything about it.
Luna stepped into his quarters and looked around like she was expecting someone to be there. Sebastian winced; could it be that she already knew some of what he was planning? It was still unclear to him where Luna’s loyalties stood, as much as she claimed that she loved him. At the same time, she loved Reya, too, which meant that she couldn’t go on rebelling against her partner and mistress, no matter the reasoning behind her actions.
“You’re still hurting,” she said as she walked toward him.
Sebastian made a move to grab his shirt, but Luna stopped him. “Why are you here?” he asked gruffly.
“I’m worried,” Luna admitted. “There should be no reason for the wound on your chest not to give in.”
“I’m fine,” Sebastian said through his teeth.
Luna took his hand and held it. It wasn’t difficult to feel how cold his fingers were. Luna’s warmth around them felt good, but it wasn’t enough. “A part of you isn’t here,” the woman said. “That must be why you’re not healing.”
“How is that supposed to help me?” Sebastian asked while Luna rubbed his hand slowly, making some of the pleasant feeling climb up his arm and ease the pain slightly.
“No man is ever whole by himself alone,” Luna said. “Or woman. I know it very well. In your travels to that strange world, you gave up willingly on something important, Sebastian.”
“And? If I did, it was my choice,” he said, trying to set his chin up and stare her in the eyes. He only half-succeeded.
“There’s only one cure. I asked high and low,” Luna insisted. “You must find him. He’s the only one who can help you.”
“That is impossible,” Sebastian said promptly. He didn’t want to think that Luna was right. Even though they weren’t saying Milo’s name, he understood precisely what Luna tried to tell him. “He’s not here, nor will he ever be again. Why waste time with complaining about the present, when we should be take care of the future?”
“What are you planning, Sebastian?” Luna continued to warm his hand, and he was thankful for the reprieve from all the pain that had been a constant in his life ever since he had returned to his own body.
“I’m planning to leave Ifigia in good hands,” he said and let his head back.
“Don’t say such nonsense. You’re not leaving anywhere,” Luna said. Her voice trembled a little. “She’s stubborn and proud, but right now, she’s hiding her tears.”
“She shouldn’t have taken Pepin away,” Sebastian said. “And she should save her tears. She made herself a mortal son. She must have known that this moment would come.”
Luna caressed his hair. “Yes, she knows that, but not like this. Not so soon.”
Sebastian forced a snort out of him. “She made me to fight monsters and put myself in harm’s way every moment of the life she gave me.”
“And that doesn’t make her less of a mother. Or me.”
Sebastian closed his eyes. “For what is worth, Luna, I apologize for the pain I’m putting you two through right now.”
“If only I didn’t wish for you to find love,” Luna said with regret in her voice. “Nothing of this would have happened.”
Sebastian laughed softly. “Aren’t you changing like the weather now? I thought that all the joy and pain was worth it.”
“I thought it, yes,” Luna admitted. “But not for a moment, I expected it to cost you your life.”
“It was still worth it,” Sebastian said, the warmth now spreading throughout his body as Luna continued to hold his hand, lulling him in a pleasant state of relaxation. “You did nothing wrong. I’m simply thankful for it.”
“Did he at least love you in turn?” Luna asked.
“You should know,” Sebastian said in a playful tone. “Aren’t you the lady with charms who can read others’ thoughts?”
“You’re thinking too highly of me, Sebastian. Only now I see how helpless I truly am.”
“You’re not. You made the impossible happen. And yes, I think he did love me in turn, at least a little. He kissed me, you know?”
“He did?” For a moment, Luna seemed so much younger than her years. In a way, it reminded Sebastian of Tani, Kai’s sister, one always ready for a romantic story.
“Yes, and it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.”
Luna brushed a few strands falling over his forehead. “Rest a little, Sebastian. I must find a way to bring your beloved back to you.”
Sebastian caught her arm. “No. He’s happy where he is. Please, don’t make everything I did to be in vain.”
“It’s all I’m asking. Don’t even think of pulling Milo from his world. He belongs there, not here.”
Even if that were possible, even if a part of him, the weakest one, wished for it to happen, it wouldn’t be right. Who knew if they would be capable of sending him back? He doubted he could still be saved, but that was something he didn’t dare to tell Luna. The hope she still nurtured made her pain bearable, and now, Sebastian knew a few things about pain.
“I had no idea the woods here would be so chilly,” Tani said and pulled her jacket around herself tightly.
Kai wrapped one arm around her shoulders and held her close. “Yeah, it’s pretty chilly. And dark.”
“Good thing I have this,” Milo said as he turned off a flashlight and pointed around. “What I didn’t expect was for us to take so long to get here. Now, let’s see if we can find our way to Sebastian.”
“And Pepin,” Kai added.
“And that lady who knows how to make the best cakes in the world,” Tani chimed in. “Hey, guys, is it just me or what is that, over there?”
Kai looked where his sister was pointing. Undoubtedly, there were lights through the trees. “Guys, let’s keep quiet,” he whispered. “Maybe it’s something magical at work.”
“Or just other people who are looking for a way to the castle, just like us,” Milo offered the much more logical explanation.
A group of teenagers emerged from the woods right in front of them, armed with flashlights and what looked like packed backpacks, obviously much more prepared than them. “Hey, are you searching for the Blue Castle, too?” one of them asked.
“It’s actually the seat of power for a kingdom called Ifigia,” Kai said, full of importance.
The teenagers exchanged looks between themselves. “Are you the guys who got isekai’d?” one of the girls asked.
Kai stopped and stared at Tani. “What did you say on those forums, butthead?”
“Don’t blame your sister,” Milo intervened. “I told the Internet, not her. And I was hoping for help,” he added.
“And you’re getting it,” the girl from the group said promptly. “We have everything here, flashlights, warm clothes, tents, food, water. Care to join us?”
“Well?” Milo asked.
Tani hung on Kai’s arm like there was any need to convince him. “We’re in,” he replied.
“Cool,” the girl replied. “So, how was riding a dragon, for real?”
Kai felt like smiling. Grownups could say whatever. Here, they were among their people, aka the kind who believed in isekai and whatnot, no matter how crazy that sounded.