They spent the rest of the afternoon together, sorting through the remaining boxes while Evy filled Theis in on some of the happier news. “The doctors had some success with Bet’s spinal regeneration. She didn’t regain full ability, but she can walk short distances without help and longer with exobraces. She’s on medical retirement and is now living with Paladins Creed and Creed.”
“Paladins…?” A slow smile spread over Theis face. “Ken and Angie?”
Evy grinned and nodded. “You were right about him carrying a torch for her for twenty-two years. They had been engaged, but then he left to raise Caelynn in Region Delphi while she stayed here to complete her paladin training. Neither one of them gave up on the other, though. They haven’t had a wedding yet, but bonded about a month ago, so officially she’s Paladin Brooks-Creed.”
“No wedding?” Theis quirked a brow. “Huh. I had both of them pegged as the type to want a sentimental ceremony.”
Evy fidgeted a bit and crossed the room to adjust a miniature ballista sitting on a shelf. “I think Paladin Creed — Ken, that is — is stalling on that. You saw how Rett was when you asked about Sparky. He doesn’t exactly blame Paladin Creed for it, but, well, Lincon left Dawn’s Light to stay with Caelynn, and Paladin Creed’s her father, so…”
“So he sorta does blame him.”
“Yeah. Things got pretty bad between them. Rett didn’t even show up to the party we had for the Creeds when they bonded. He avoided everyone for a while after that, and things are still rough between him and Ken.” She checked the time. “It’s almost dinner time, and you’ve got the Meet tonight. Do you want me to make something here, or would you rather go to the Dining Hall?”
Theis hesitated, and Evy noticed that he started to reach to the scars on the side of his face. “You know what? Forget I asked. I’m a total mess from unpacking boxes and moving things around. It’ll be easier to whip up some sandwiches here than make myself presentable.”
After dinner, Theis insisted on walking Evy back to the Research and Tech barracks, and the two enjoyed their stroll along the footpath connecting the buildings. The pleasant mood changed, though, when they stepped through the barracks doors and Theis noticed the dark looks other technicians cast at Evy as she passed through the common room. “Do I need to have a talk with someone?” he asked lowly as they stopped before the door to her quarters.
She quickly shook her head. “You sound like Thomas now. I’ll be ok. The less fuss we make, the better.”
He glanced back down the hall where a few of the newer techs had moved from their seats to watch them. “Are you sure?”
She flashed a confident smile. “I grew up fighting five older brothers, I’m more tech savvy than most anyone else in this building, and I’ve got combat training and magic and they don’t — I’ll be fine.” She beckoned him closer with a crooked finger and gave him a kiss on the cheek as he bent down. “Go get ready for your Meet. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Theis smiled down at her and remained in the hallway as she stepped into her quarters and closed the door. He turned to go when he heard her lock engage, but paused as he felt a shift in the flow of energy that signaled the use of magic. He watched as the metal in her door melded with the door frame, ensuring it wouldn’t open even if someone were to override the electronic lock. Though he was impressed by her ingenuity, it worried him that she felt the need to take such precautions.
He was still mulling over Evy’s situation when he returned to his apartment and found a message with the time and location of the Meet. He never told anyone that particular meditation garden was one of his favorite spots in the valley, but Thomas likely sussed it out over the years — just as he knew Thomas preferred an identical garden on the other side of the valley.
Thomas arrived early but predicted they would want plenty of time to make their way to the Meet. His words proved true when, after exiting the lift on the ground floor, Theis was swamped in the lobby by acolytes welcoming him home.
“Things have been tense since Raqmu, but the Order remained united through it all,” Thomas explained once they escaped out the main doors and turned down the path that would take them to the garden.
“Have we?” Theis seemed doubtful. “I didn’t get that united feel from Darris and Anne when they were interrogating me the past three months.”
“Darris and Anne are no longer with the Order.”
Theis frowned. “But they’re paladins?”
“Lee, Anne, and Darris completed paladin testing a week after Raqmu and were promoted in a ceremony while we were still recovering. Helmi declined the test and is now Angela’s protegé. Lee is still here at the Lyceum, but Darris and Anne left the Order and to work directly for Director Evans.”
“Well, can’t say I’m sorry they won’t be there,” Theis confessed.
“Someone has to do their job, but I can’t say I blame you. But Lee, Helmi, and Angela are disappoin…” Thomas suddenly froze as his body went rigid.
“Airhead?” Theis barely caught Thomas before he fell, and lowered him to the path, rolling him onto his side. He was about to call for help when Thomas took a deep breath and his muscles relaxed. “What was that?”
Thomas growled with frustration as he sat up. “Beidrekka venom is the gift that keeps on giving. Sorry for scaring you.”
“That’s what killed Jeff.” Theis frowned. “They got you, too?”
“They tried. Dart in the leg.” Accepting Theis offer of a hand up, Thomas rose and dusted himself off. “Ken got the antivenin before it was too late. Two weeks of neural regen and a synthetic kidney later and I’m practically good as new.” He flashed a grin and gestured down the path. “C’mon before we miss your party.”
Theis put a hand on Thomas’ shoulder to stop him. “No deflecting this, Shelton. What’s going on?”
“There are still some effects from the venom, so I can’t return to field work yet. Docs say the seizures will go away in time.” He gave Theis a reassuring smile, but avoided meeting his eyes. “Aside from that, I’m fine.”
“You’re fine. That’s why you’re trying to wear out your mattress again?”
Thomas shook his head. “We can get into the heavy discussion later. Tonight is about bringing you home.”
“All right, later,” Theis relented. “But we will talk about this.”
They continued down the trail, across a footbridge over a crystalline stream, and through a gap in tall hedgerow. They stepped into a lush clearing where the other paladins and Helmi were waiting. Rett met them at the entrance, and he and Thomas lingered there giving the others a chance to greet Theis and welcome him home. Many handshakes, hugs, and smiles were exchanged before the world’s most powerful magic users formed a circle in the center of the clearing and took seats on the thick grass.
Theis stiffened as the others joined hands, and glanced down at his mangled left hand. Seated next to him, Thomas wordlessly placed his hand on Theis’ shoulder instead. Theis lifted his eyes to meet Thomas’ and gave a slight, appreciative nod.
◊ ◊ ◊
Seated on Theis’ other side, Rett couldn’t help but notice that others purposefully shifted their positions so Ken would be next to him. They’d grown up together, saved one another’s lives more times than either could count, shared joy and tears. Ken was more a brother than a friend, and Rett would go through hell for him.
He now knew everything Ken had gone through before mounting the mission to Raqmu. He now knew that Caelynn — or Amarrah — or whatever the hell she called herself now — refused to be rescued until they could save him, too. And he knew that once Lincon made a decision, changing his mind could be nearly impossible. But a part of him still blamed Ken for letting Lincon stay behind, and Rett hadn’t been able to bring himself to apologize for his anger and pettiness since he came home.
His head bowed and his eyes closed, Rett had to force himself to reach out for Ken’s hand when they started to meditate. But instead of linking hands, Ken dropped something cool and heavy into Rett’s palm. Rett’s eyes snapped open and he looked down at his hand.
The dark grey rock had been worn smooth by the rushing waters of the stream where they had found it when they were boys, and the ensuing decades of handling polished it to a high sheen and brought out the red and blue mineral streaks entwined within. They said it was fire and ice and that it represented the two of them. They named it Rocky. Through the years they passed Rocky back and forth during their most difficult times, a tangible reminder of their bond with one another. Rett last saw it nearly a year ago when he had to tell Ken that Angela was missing and presumed dead. He remembered Ken’s grief and how tightly he clung to the rock — and to him.
Rett lifted his gaze from Rocky to Ken. He saw his own hurt and anger reflected back at him, but so too he saw fifty years of unwavering support. He clutched Rocky tightly for a moment before slipping it into his pocket. Offering out his hand once more, he bowed his head and focused on the singing around him.
He knew the words. He’d grown up hearing them nearly every day. But Ken had always been rather modest about it in the past: either softly humming the tune or silently mouthing the words as others meditated during the Meets. It shocked Rett when he discovered the new paladins had also taken up singing during the Meets. His reluctance to join them deepened when he learned of Lincon’s roll in teaching them. Now, though, he longed for the connection.
He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and added his voice to the song.