Only Valeria and Alban were in the throne room with Dariad when the portal opened. It was only two hours after Dariad had sent the imp to Xania, so she must have opened the portal almost as soon as the imp arrived which wasnâ€™t a good sign. Nor was the fact that sheâ€™d opened a portal at all instead of just teleporting. Valeria glanced over at Dariad and saw he looked worried as well. He reached out and pressed one of the carvings on his throne.
â€œHreid,â€ he said softly. â€œGo and fetch Brita.â€
A moment later, Xania staggered through the portal carrying Lorelei. The spatial nymph was bleeding from a nasty gash on her forehead and had obviously been fighting. The unconscious mermaid was in an even worse state. Her pale skin was a patten of black bruises and livid red burnsÂ and she was bleeding from several wounds. It looked as if someone had been slicing her in sensitive but non-essential places with a knife. Alban ran over and grabbed Lorelei from Xaniaâ€™s arms before Valeria could react.
Xania gave him a grateful smile and then looked at Dariad. â€œYour majesty, I have a dozen other people I need to evacuate. May I?â€
â€œOf course,â€ he said as Hreid entered with Brita. The oread took one look at the state Lorelei was in and sent for the healers.
â€œWhat happened?â€ Valeria asked as the remains of Xaniaâ€™s troops filed in. They were all pale and battleworn, with dented blood streaked armor. One of the dryads pulled off her helmet and ran over to Alban to attend to Lorelei.
â€œYour bloody brother happened. Sirin somehow broke your wards and released him and…â€ Xania broke off with a frown. â€œThey had far more help than I would have expected and I kept feeling this urge to help them.â€ She shook her head. â€œIt wasnâ€™t natural.â€
â€œThat sounds like what they tried to do here,â€ Valeria noted.
â€œIndeed,â€ Dariad agreed. â€œAnd that makes me think that Matthias isnâ€™t the one tricking your brother into thinking Iâ€™m on his side, no matter what his son thinks.â€
â€œNo, I suspect thereâ€™s a far simpler explanation for that,â€ Valeria agreed. â€œThe conspirators here were probably behind it.â€ She paused as the healers entered and began assessing the injured. One of them, a strange vagely human shaped creature of twisting roots, went over to the exhausted dryad attending Lorelei and took over. Valeria blinked at him bemusedly. It wasnâ€™t often she saw a species of Speaker which she didnâ€™t recognise.
â€œIâ€™ll need to commandeer one of the largest bathing chambers for this mermaid, your majesty,â€ he said. â€œShe needs to be immersed urgently.â€
â€œOf course. See to it, Brita.â€
â€œOf course, your majesty.â€ She ushered the healer and Alban – who was still holding Lorelei – from the room.
â€œHmmm…â€ Dariad looked around at the scene with a wry expression. â€œMy throne room seems to have become a temporary triage centre. Letâ€™s adjourn to my study, so we can take Xaniaâ€™s report in private.â€
Valeria looked at him for a moment and then nodded. â€œThatâ€™s a good idea. I think we should call the warriors in as well.â€
When Lydia and her siblings arrived at Dariadâ€™s study, a young woman was kneeling in front of Valeria. The air around her was rippling and twisting in a disturbing manner, and Lydia looked away as her stomach started to churn.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, my queen. I intended no betrayal by keeping King Dariad informed. I feared for your safety and you werenâ€™t listening to me.â€
â€œI know. I understand.â€ Valeria laid a hand on the womanâ€™s hair and cast an eye at the disturbances surrounding her. â€œBut you need to pull yourself together, Xania. Look what youâ€™re doing.â€
Xania looked around and winced when she saw the distortions. â€œSorry.â€ She closed her eyes, visibly concentrated and the disturbances calmed. Then she looked up at Karen and smiled. â€œKaren!â€
Karen pushed past Lydia with a murmered apology and ran over to her. â€œXania! Itâ€™s nice to see you again! But…â€ She brushed the contusion on Xaniaâ€™s forehead with one finger. â€œAre you okay? What happened?â€
â€œThatâ€™s what Xania is about to tell us,â€ Valeria said. â€œWeâ€™ve just been waiting for you.â€
â€œWe should wait for Alban to arrive as well. Heâ€™s still helping attend to Lorelei,â€ Dariad said.
â€œCan you introduce us to your friend while weâ€™re waiting, Kaz?â€ Andrew asked.
â€œOh, yes!â€ Karen nodded. â€œThis is Xania, sheâ€™s one of Valeriaâ€™s captains and a good friend of Albanâ€™s. Sheâ€™s a spatial nymph. Iâ€™m pretty sure Valeria never sent her after us because sheâ€™s still pro-human.â€
â€œSomething like that,â€ Valeria admitted blandly.
â€œA what?â€ Andrew asked.
â€œWell sheâ€™s a nymph, which is the same species as Brita, but with a spatial affinty rather than an earth one. She can twist space, teleport and similar.â€
â€œOh!â€ Andrew said. â€œThatâ€™s cool!â€
â€œXania, these are my brother and sister Andrew and Lydia,â€ Karen said.
â€œHi, pleased to meet you.â€ Lydia stuck out her hand to Xania. The nymph stared at it with a puzzled expression for a moment and then her mouth made an oh shape and she shook it tentatively.
â€œSorry, I forgot humans shake hands.â€
â€œAlban shouldnâ€™t be long,â€ Valeria said. â€œWe should tell you whatâ€™s been happening to us while weâ€™re waiting. I imagine my Imps havenâ€™t been getting through.â€
Xania shook her head. â€œI know you sent a couple, but as soon as Sirin realised no one but Lorelei could absorb them, she destroyed them. I canâ€™t imagine it would be good though, given the haste you rushed off with.â€
Valeria took a deep breath. â€œA dragon has kidnapped Salia!â€