“Your gates…” Cassia said, her voice quivering. “They’re gone.”
I smiled. Then I too cast the Spell of Seeing. I channeled aura into my eyes and I saw the energies emanating from Cassia. Each of the body’s senses can interpret aura when properly tuned. The Spell of Seeing heightened a spellcaster’s abilities to discern aura via their eyes.
When I looked at Cassia, I saw several rings of light spinning around her heart. Among spellcasters, these were called halos and were the primary source of one’s magic. Cassia’s rings appeared dimly thin, which was expected because she was not actively calling on them. Most people, even non-mages had halos. And the best mages could often see a person’s halo even without the Spell of Seeing.
What was harder to see were the Gates of Awakening, and that was the primary purpose of the spell.
I raised my brows.
“Impressive,” I said. “You have two gates open. That would make you far stronger than I.”
“I don’t understand… this can’t be possible. It was said you opened the Eighth Gate of Awakening.”
I shrugged. I’d actually hit the Ninth Gate before I lost everything, but there was no reason to tell her that.
“But…” Her eyes ran up and down my body once more. “But none are open… all your gates are closed. I-I don’t understand.”
I looked down at my hands. “It’s a strange thing to be aging again. I opened the Gate of Life when I was eighteen years old and I stopped getting older.” I rubbed my chin. “I can feel new whiskers coming in now. A few more years and maybe people will stop calling me a babyface.” I chuckled.
She didn’t seem to find it funny.
“How could this have happened?” she asked.
“And why would I tell you?”
She didn’t know what to say to this. Instead, she asked, “Can they be opened again?”
“Sure. Gates can always be opened.”
“Yup. The old fashioned way. Last time I got to the seventh gate in eighteen years. Then it took me about another century to figure out another. I’m guessing it’ll be about the same if I were to do it again. Not that I have any intention of doing so.”
Cassia stumbled backward, her shocked gaze dropping to the floor. I could see goosebumps on her skin. If they had arisen from what I said or the chilled room, I wasn’t sure.
“You’ll reach the third gate faster than me at this point,” I said. “You’ve already opened Breath and Spirit, haven’t you? Most people spend their entire lives just to open Breath. You’re a prodigy by most standards. I bet the Church is very happy with you.”
The Gate of Breath and the Gate of Spirit were the first two of the Twelve Gates of Awakening. The gates were also sometimes called the Twelve Gates of Ascension because those who reached the twelfth gate would become a god, though such an act had never been recorded except for Celeru and his disciples if you believed in that sort of thing.
Each gate gave the awakener an enormous boost to their abilities. The Gate of Breath made the awakened physically stronger, so much so that they seldom grew tired. The Gate of Spirit gave the awakened incredible mental dexterity and focus. Of course, one had to call on that power to activate it. Cassia certainly was not calling on it at this moment as she stared at the floor, looking lost and dumbstruck.
“My abilities cannot be compared to yours,” Cassia said. “I stand no chance against an elder dragon. But your gates are closed. All of them…” she was mumbling to herself now. “Those people. What can I do? They’ll be dead in five years.”
“Wait, five years?” I said.
“Or seven. The historians are uncertain. Legend tells it that awakened dragons go through a resting phase before hunting begins. Even the most recent records are from a thousand years ago. It is hard to say how accurate they are.”
“Good gods, girl. That’s plenty of time. Just evacuate the city.”
“The Lareintians are unwilling,” Cassia said. “The king refuses to move his kingdom and give up his lands.”
“Then he deserves to die by dragon fire.”
Cassia frowned, looking down. “But what about his people? They are innocents, yet they must obey the will of their king.”
“Maybe you should find someone to kill the king. Sounds easier.”
Cassia looked up at me, shock returning to her features. Apparently, I was doing a lot of shocking in this conversation.
“That is murder,” she said.
“Never claimed it wasn’t,” I said. “But so is killing a dragon that is committing no other crime besides following its nature. And from what you’ve described, I’m thinking I like the dragon more than the Lareintian king.”
She shook her head, looking defeated and unsure of what to say.
“Hey, cheer up, the good news is you don’t have to be anyone’s slave. By the way, you should really put your clothes back on.”
At that moment, the door opened, and Charm stepped in, carrying a crate of cleaned mugs from the night. Her youthful face looked at me then looked at the barely-clothed templar.
I had no idea how to explain the situation, though I had a feeling if I did explain it, it still wouldn’t make me look too good.
“Ah,” Charm said simply, yet the expression in her half-lidded eyes were anything but simple. If I did not know her so well, I would have easily missed the slight arch of her left eyebrow.
She turned around and let the door swing closed behind her before I could say a word.
I looked back at Cassia. “That was my uh… cook,” I said, as an offer of explanation.
She did not seem to have noticed the impropriety of the situation. “What am I to do now?”
I shrugged. “Find another hero. I can’t be the only option for the Church.”
“All elder dragons are of the Ninth Gate. What humans have gone that far? Even you only reached the Eighth.”
I scratched my nose. “Thought I did alright.”
“Of course, I did not mean to suggest otherwise. You killed the Demon Lord Izirath of the Eleventh Gate. No one thought it possible, but you did it. Do you see why it must be you to help us?”
“Hmm… even if I wanted to, I doubt elder dragons are very vulnerable against pebble-tossers. That’s all I’m good for nowadays, I’m afraid.”
Cassia looked numb, her hopes dashed.
“It’s late,” I said. “You can use one of our vacant bedrooms upstairs.”
“I couldn’t trouble you-”
“Oh, really?” I gave her a look. “Asking me to risk my life to fight a freaking dragon is fine, but taking one of my empty rooms is too much to ask?”
Cassia flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-“
“It’s fine. Hurry up and put your clothes back on before someone else steps in and gets the wrong idea. I’m going to get an earful from Charm later.”
Cassia got dressed quickly, and I led her out of the storage room and up the stairs to the second floor of the tavern.
“The place used to be an inn,” I said. “There are plenty of rooms. Take your pick other than the first three. Just watch out for Elsa. Sometimes she’ll wander into a room randomly and pass out. Even if there’s already someone in the bed. We unfortunately don’t have any locks. The previous owner removed them when the property was sold. The toilet is at the end of the hall, but if you want a bath, you’ll need to wait until the morning. Charm already turned off the stoves. “
“Thank you,” Cassia said. She gave me a short bow.
I watched her walk down the hall and enter one of the rooms. Then I entered my own, the first one from the stairs.
I sat on the bed and let myself fall back against the mattress. An elder dragon. When would it ever end? The entire world shouldn’t depend solely on one person.
Maybe once. Maybe even twice. Hell, maybe even thrice. But every damn time?
That was too much. Too much to take on. Too much to bear. Even a hero needs a vacation every now and then.
I laid down and felt the room spin as I closed my eyes. The brandy wasn’t nearly finished with me.
Drunkenness was still a strange sensation to me, even though I had been experiencing it on and off for the better part of the year. When my gates had been open, poisons, including alcohol, had no effect on me. Now I had the tolerance of any other nineteen-year-old boy.
Not a moment after I pulled the blanket over my head, desperate for sleep to stop the room from spinning, a small knock sounded at my door.
For a second, I thought Cassia was back to cajole me further. Then there was a split second of irrationality where I thought it might be Elsa entering the wrong room again. But if it were Elsa, she wouldn’t have knocked.
Charm stepped in. The girl looked about Cassia’s age, or perhaps closer to mine as she was a bit shorter and scrawnier than the templar, but the light in her eyes was even older than my own.
Her hair that was once fiery red was now a shade closer to pink. She drew it into two pigtails, one at each side.
She wore a blank expression today just as she had for the past year. She was still in a sulk. I was beginning to get irritated by it, but I supposed that was the point. Which made me more resolute to not show her that it was bothering me.
“Master,” she said. “Charm has finished with the dishes and wiped down the tables. Is there anything else Master needs of Charm?”
There was a slight accent in her voice that was foreign and, I’ve been told, adorable to those who had not yet gotten used to it. It did not belong to anyone else I’d ever met despite my extensive travels.
“You didn’t have to do that. I could have helped you with it in the morning.”
She nodded then asked her question again, “Is there anything else Master needs of Charm?”
“Nope, have a good night,” I said.
She nodded again and turned to close the door.
“Oh, wait—uh… that girl, you know…”
She turned back to look at me.
“It wasn’t what it looked like…” I began.
“What does Master think it looked like?”
“Uh… well… I mean… uh…”
Whatever it looked like, it didn’t look good.
“Like Master was coercing a young maiden of the Church for his evil pleasures?” Charm said.
“Ah, it might have looked like that, but that’s not-“
“Master does not need to explain himself to Charm. Charm is well aware of his… personality.”
“What! Why did the word ‘personality’ sound like an insult?”
“No, of course not, Master,” Charm said, her voice flat and without inflection. “Charm would not speak ill of her master. Perhaps Master’s conscience is making its own interpretations.”
My mouth hung open, speechless. Good gods, how did Charm jumble me up so easily? Worse, I could tell that she was enjoying herself for once.
“What I’m trying to say is I was only trying to make a point to her, and she took it seriously, which is why she uh… got undressed.”
“Is that so?” Charm said. “Charm was not aware that Church templars got undressed when they take a point seriously.”
“What? No… that’s not what I meant….” I was losing this bout of banter badly. The only way out was to be serious.
“She wanted me to kill an elder dragon.”
Charm’s half-lidded gaze suddenly intensified.
“Will Master do it?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “My gates are closed. Plus, I’m on vacation. We are on vacation. Taking a break. Someone else will deal with it.”
Charm said nothing to this.
Then when I did not continue, she asked, “Was there anything else, Master?”
“No,” I said with a sigh. “Have a good night.”
She nodded once more and closed the door.
I lay back down and closed my eyes, willing myself to sleep.