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  Victoria's head began to spin and her heartbeat quickened, and she felt as if she might faint again. She wasn't going home. She swayed a bit on her feet and Soren moved quickly to help steady her as she leaned forward against the chair she shot from. Her nails bit into the wood as she held herself in place, holding back the flood of tears that threatened behind her eyes. She took several deep, shuddering breaths before raising her head to the wizard.

  "Do I have to do this?!" She nearly shouted as a tear snuck down her face. "I don't want to do this! I just want to go home! You're a magician, or wizard, or whatever, can't you just say some magic spell and send me back?!" There was no concealing the desperation in her shaking voice.

  The wizard sighed sadly, and came around the table to stand in front of Victoria. He laid his hands gently on her shoulders, and she looked up at him with a pained, pleading expression. "I am sorry child, but it doesn't work that way. The magic that brought you here is far older than my own, than any that exists now, and far more powerful. There is no power greater than the First Magic. That magic brought you here for a reason, and that magic alone can restore you." He gave her a small, sad smile before turning to face the king. "Order the preparations, I'll see to their lodging."

  Nicodemus simply nodded before striding to the door he and Ozan had entered from. He rapped three times and the guard on the other side quckly unlocked and opened the door, and he disappeared from sight.

  Ozan returned his attention to the four now standing around him. "I do apologize to you all. I know this has been a lot to take in in a very short amount of time. If you'll follow me, I'll show you to your rooms." He paused briefly to retrieve the stone from the table and turning to face Victoria, replaced it gingerly over her head. "I think you should keep hold of this." His sapphire eyes looked upon her kindly before he turned to the other door, knocking the same way the king had, and proceeded to lead the travellers-turned-adventurers through the high, winding halls of the castle.

  Jasper kept his head high and eyes forward respectfully, and Astrid and Soren looked about with childlike wonder. Victoria was numb. She trudged along behind Jasper as she had for days, staring into nothingness and barely concious of her own movement.

  She wasn't going home. She had been so relieved to think that bringing the stone here would get her home. Learning that next to no one here had the answers she sought was a huge blow. Realizing that she would most likely be here far longer than anticipated cut deeper.

  Being missing for three days was already going to be bad enough, what if this takes weeks? Longer? Everyone will have assumed the worst and stopped searching for me by then. Everyone I care about would have gone through so much pain by the time I get back. How am I going to explain this? What if I die here and never get back? What if the king's psycho bitch sister kills me for this stupid thing?!

  She continued to move on autopilot, her thoughts far from where she was. She hardly noticed when they entered their temporary quarters, registering only that she was led to a room with a large bed. Worried green eyes peered into hers, but she was too lost in her own thoughts to see them. She stood in the doorway for a moment before she felt herself being guided into the room and gently seated on the edge of the bed. Someone removed her cloak and boots. Pale blue eyes now looked upon her with pity, and she could see Astrid's mouth move but her ears registered no words as she was eased back onto the bed. Astrid laid a comforting hand on her shoulder before turning to leave the room, closing the door behind her.

  Finally alone, she rolled onto her side, turning her back to the door, and clutched one of the large, fluffy pillows. She buried her face in the lush fabric and the floodgate of emotion burst open as unspent tears flowed freely and her body shook with wracking sobs. For what felt like hours she cried alone, until her tears finally ran out and her sobs reduced to uneven hiccups. Still gripping the tear-soaked pillow, she fell into the blessedly dreamless sleep of exhaustion.

* * *

  Astrid pulled the door closed softly behind her, hesitating for just a moment as she picked up the barely audible sound of crying, before turning to join her father, brother, and the wizard. As the oldest of four siblings, it tugged at her heartstrings to hear the girl cry.

  Soren could hear her too, if only just barely, and gave the others a concerned look. "Shouldn't someone stay in there with her? Surely we shouldn't just leave here in there like that alone?"

  Ozan laid a hand on Soren's shoulder with a sad expresson. "It is for the best. I can only imagine what is going through her head, the emotions she is at the mercy of. I'm afraid, no matter the trust she has given thus far, you are all still strangers to her, and I don't imagine she could let those emotions go in the company of one she does not know well. This journey will not be an easy one, and it will require a clear head. She must be allowed to loose these emotions, lest they cloud her mind." He patted his shoulder before removing his hand, now addressing them all. "I would advise you all get as much rest as you can. I'll see to it that food and drink are brought, and if you find yourselves in need of anything, inform the guards at the door and they shall see it done. Now, if you'll excuse me," he said as he began to make his way to the door. "I intend to join you on this quest, and I have my own preparations to see to." Ozan quickly slipped through the door without another word. They all stared at the door, momentarily stunned by the wizard's abrupt departure.

  "Well, I guess we'll get no more out of him." Astrid sighed and made herself comfortable on one of several couches and looked up at her father. "What do we tell Mom?"

  Jasper's head fell back with a sigh; informing Lenore of the change in plans hadn't even crossed his mind. "I'll speak with the guards, maybe they can get a message sent." He replied, and stepped out of the room.

  Victoria's muffled cries could still be heard, and Soren was visibly upset by it. He paced around the large room, sighing heavily and running his hands through his dark blonde hair. He tried to distract himself with the expensive trappings that surrounded him, failing each time and continuing to pace.

  "Soren." Astrid said.

  "Hm?"

  "Come sit somewhere. You heard the wizard same as I did. We have to let her get this out." She said gently.

  "It just doesn't feel right." Soren hung his head, making his way to flop into a chair near his sister.

  "I know, Soren. I don't like it any more than you do." Astrid said, but her sympathetic expression slowly twisted to one of suspicion. "But what's this with you? It's not like you to get all worked up over a lass you barely know." She gave him a sideways look.

  "I know, and it's frustrating." He sighed. "Something just feels different about her, and I can't for the life of me figure out what."

  "Oh no, you don't mean different like that Annabeth Frichone? I remember when you said something similar about that little piece of work." Astrid asked incredulously.

  "You take that shit back." He pointed his finger at his sister with a dark look. "No, not like that. It's...different. I don't know how to explain it. It's like...like something is literally pulling me to her." He huffed and stood to resume the restless pacing. "Do me a favor, please. Don't repeat any of that to Dad."

  Astrid nodded silently and settled herself back on the couch, not attempting to persue the conversation. After several minutes of silence, broken only by Victoria's muffled crying, the door swung open as the guard admitted a pair of servants bearing covered silver trays.

  "Your father has gone to send a message to your mother." The guard said to Astrid and Soren. "He'll not be gone long."

  The young women kept their eyes down as they set the heavy trays on the table then shuffled into the private kitchen. They returned with a stack of plates, silverware, linen napkins, and a silver pitcher with four matching silver goblets, setting them neatly between the large trays. Keeping their heads down and eyes averted, the women scurried from the room, and the guard closed the door behind them, resuming his post on the other side.

  The siblings looked from the door to the table, eyeing the long shiny domes. Wisps of steam slithered upward and the intoxicating aroma of royal-class cuisine filled the room. With a quick glance at each other, they walked over to the table, each lifting a dome. Their eyes bulged and their mouths watered at the small feast the king had sent them.

  One tray held a whole suckling pig, stuffed with a seasoned bread mixture and roasted with a sweet apple and honey glaze, and nestled atop a mix of fresh herb roasted vegetables. On the other were fillets of smoked salmon, pan-seared sole, mussels, and oysters on a bed of fragrant yellow rice.

  "Whoa." Soren said as the boyish glint returned to his eyes. "You know, it would be rude to refuse an offering from the king. We should most definitely avail ourselves of his majesty's hospitality. Wouldn't want to offend anyone as a guest of royalty, would we?" He set the dome on the table and reached for two of the polished silver plates, handing one to Astrid.

  She set her dome down, taking the plate from her brother, but she hesitated before filling her plate, looking toward the room from which faint cries could still be heard. "Set some aside for her. Just in case."

  "We shouldn't bring it to her at least?" Soren asked. The worry had returned in his expression.

  "No, we need to leave her be. If she feels ready to come out tonight then she will, otherwise we need to let her take whatever time she needs." She began loading a plate from the seafood tray. "We can leave it under one of the domes in case she does. We shouldn't spend too much time dallying, the wizard advised we get as much rest as we can. It's nearly a fortnight to Astheas, and then it could be nearly another three weeks to reach Half-Moon Island. Who knows beyond that."

  Soren only nodded solemnly in agreement, sparing one more look toward the room Victoria lay crying in, before turning to fill his own plate. She was right, like usual. They had a very long journey ahead of them and only a short time to prepare themselves for it. He volunteered for this the same as his father and sister, he had to push his personal feelings to the back of his mind. For now anyway.

* * *

  Victoria was awakened by the sound of light knocking. She hadn't moved while she slept, and her joints and muscles ached as she slowly pried her limbs from the fetal position around the pillow she had clung to. Slowly, she rolled over, propping herself up on her elbow to blink away the lingering sleep. The sky through the window was a just beginning to lighten, and the earliest-rising of birds sang their morning song.  

  The heavy bedroom door slowly creaked open just enough for Astrid to poke her head inside. "Victoria?" She stepped into the room, closing the door and coming to sit on the edge of the bed. "Are you alright." She said softly, concern visible in her clear blue eyes.

  "No. I'm not." Victoria replied flatly as she sat up. "I thought I was going home." She hung her head in defeat, though she had no tears left to shed.

  Astrid looked at her sadly. The flesh around her eyes was red and swollen, and the dark circles that ringed her lower lids dragged down her face. The poor girl looked like hell, and it pained Astrid to know that she would more than likely see more hell before this was over with. "I know." She said softly as she scooted closer to Victoria, and laying a hand on hers. "But you're not alone here. As long as you're still here, you've got us. And we are going to help get you home."

  "Thank you." Victoria replied quietly.

  "Hey, I'm sure Soren will be happy to have you around a bit longer, eh?" Astrid said with a small smile, trying to lighten Victoria's mood.

  "Yeah." She gave a brief, weak half smile, not looking up.

  After a moment, Astrid moved to stand. "We should probably get you up and around. The king's had hot food delivered to us. I'm not meaning to hurry you, but we'll most likely be setting off before long. I'll let you be, unless you think you'll need any assistance?" She said with an inquiring look.

  "No, I'll be fine." Victoria said wearily. "Just...give me a few minutes?"

  "Of course." Astrid replied kindly as she stood. "I'll save you a portion before the men eat it all." She smiled as she turned and strode from the room, closing the door behind her. There was more of her mother in her than she let on.

  Victoria breathed a heavy sigh and forced her stiffened legs over the edge of the bed. Her joints ached in protest as she slowly stood, snapping, popping, and crackling as she did, and crossed the room to a large, gold-trimmed mirror. Her face twisted in a look of near disgust as she looked at her haggard appearance. She leaned in to examine her puffy, dark-rimmed eyes.

  "Jesus christ, I look like I lost a bar fight." She said, and reached up to begin untangling the satin ribbon from her tangled locks.

  She used her fingers to work out the knots as best she could, retying her hair with the ribbon. She quickly scanned the room, spotting a dark, ornate dresser with a beautiful porcelin pitcher and washbasin set atop it. Thankfully the pitcher had been filled, and she filled the basin half full and did the best she could to scrub the dirt and pain from her face with the cool water.

  As she dried her face with one of the soft towels, she looked around the room for her boots and cloak. In the windowed corner, her cloak lay draped over one of two plush, deep red velvet armchairs, and the toes of her boots were tucked beneath the low, glossy table that sat between them. She stepped over and sank into one of the soft, down-filled cusions, running her hands over the luxurious fabric. She reached for her boots and pulled them on, lacing them tightly, then grabbed the cloak as she stood. She gave herself one more quick glance in the mirror before slinking from the room to join the others.

  Outside the secluded chamber opened into a large room with an open floor plan. Her room was situated in the corner of the private quarters, and two more identical doors to the right along the same wall drew her eye to the sitting area in the opposite corner. A low, dark wood table with an elegant marble top sat at the center of the arrangement of chairs and couches. Following the wall, there stood an ornately carved wood and iron door; the same one she barely remembered passing though the night before.

  A simple fireplace was centered along the wall to her left, and situated before it was a long table set about with eight matching chairs. Three of the chairs were taken, and their occupants ceased their quiet chatter to look up simultaneously as the door creaked open and Victoria stepped from the room.

  "Good morning, Victoria." Jasper said as he stood from his seat. "Are you doing alright?" Genuine parental concern woven into his words.

  "As well as can be expected, I guess." She sighed, slowly making her way to the empty seat next to Astrid where a heaping plate of food sat waiting for her.

  "Best eat up while you can." Jasper said, "Won't be too long now before it's time to go."

  Victoria eyed the plate before her, piled with smoked ham, fresh sausages, poached and hard-boiled eggs, roasted potatoes with peppers and onions, two slices of fresh bread smeared with jam, and a small bowl of porridge with berries and honey. The smell was amazing, and she was definitely hungry, but the thought of even trying to eat everything in front of her was a little more than a little intimidating.

  Astrid chuckled, "No one's expecting you to finish it all. A tiny thing like you's got nowhere to put it all anyway. I just wanted to make sure this bottomless pit here didn't leave you with scraps." She teased as she motioned to her brother across from her.

  Soren lifted his head and smiled unapologetically. "What can I say? I'm a growing boy." He said as he shoved a forkfull of potatoes and sausage in his mouth. They all chuckled at that, even Victoria, and his heart fluttered unexpectedly at her weak smile.

  "Alright, there'll be plenty of time for goofing around once we've hit the road." Jasper said.

  "Um, do we have any idea how much time?" Victoria asked quietly. "Like, how much longer am I going to be...away?"

  Jasper exchanged a look with Astrid, who answered. "It will be at least a month just to reach the island. Longer, depending on a number of things. Past that, we have know way of knowing." She looked at Victoria sadly.

  "Oh." Victoria shuddered a sigh. "Well that sucks."

  She picked up her fork and started eating, willing away a fresh round of tears. After a brief pause a her statement, the others resumed their meals in silence. Each of them mentally preparing for the journey that none of them were truly ready for.

* * *

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