“That was freaky,” Lydia said after Karen had gone. “Something like that’s going to happen to the rest of us?”
“Yes,” Matthias said. “It hurts a bit, especially if you’re forcing youself to hold on, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Karen will be fine and so will you.”
“My ice hasn’t even changed colour yet,” Andrew complained. “Why am I the slow one?”
“It’s only been a few days. And Emms messed you around, which might have set you back a bit.” Sarah said reasonably. “Have you actuallyÂ tried recently? You really should practice sometimes.”
“Er… no…” Andrew trailed off and grabbed one of the water pitchers off the table. “I probably should.” He tipped a little water into his hand and stared at it.
Lydia watched him curiously for a moment, then looked at her father. “Who do you think will be next?”
“Almost certainly you,” he replied. “From what you’ve told me, your change manifested around the same time as Karen’s and probably a little before Dan’s did.”
“Oh!” Andrew’s delighted exclamation made her look back. He tilted his hand and a small lump of deep red ice clattered on to the table.
“There, you see,” Sarah said. “But that took you longer than it should, even considering you haven’t been trained properly.” She shot a meaningful stare at Matthias and then looked back at Andrew. “Would you let me or Jay show you how it’s done?”
“Hmm. Sure,” he said. “But no messing with my head.”
Sarah smiled warmly at him. “Of course not. I think you’ve had enough people in your head recently.”
“Could we get back on topic?” Valeria interrupted. “What do we do about Dariad’s problem? And about the first dragon’s offer?”
“We talk to her through your Halia,” Shadavar said. “With me and Ebona there. And we try not to leave any loopholes in our questions. She’s right that we can’t get anyone in there without some sort of help.”
“He’s probably right,” Sarah said.
“And I want to talk to her anyway,” Ema said. Lydia jumped slightly; she’d almost forgotten that the daoine girl was there.
“Ah, yes,” Matthias said. “You said that you thought the Core had been broken from the start? What did you mean?”
“Er… let me get my notes.” She reached into her pack and pulled out two leatherbound notebooks. “There’s something wrong with the stories.”
“It’s been several thousand years, Ema,” Dariad said. “I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t become distorted.”
“Exactly my point, your majesty,” she said. “So when the same strange thing turns up in every version, I’ve found it probably means something. And this is several strange things.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“For one, there shouldn’t have been enough time. The stories all agree it took nearly a year to create the Core. But from what I can tell, the world should have disintegrated within days. Even with the guardians and most of the first dragons trying to hold things together, they should only have had weeks. There’s obviously something missing from the story.”
You know, she could be right, Elaranor said. I never thought about how long it took. The residual stability from the Heart wouldn’t have lasted that long and while the guardians and dragons could have held their immediate enviroments stable indefinitely, we’d have a lot less space and no coherent heartlands.
“You’d be risking your neck to travel from place to place,” Ema agreed. “The only people still alive who know what happened are the River Singer and the First Dragon.”
“But what’s this got to do with the Core being broken from the start?” Dariad asked.
“They had too much time but it still was very nearly not enough. They were rushing and they were under constant attack. Mostly from the Yellow and Black Dragons, but there seems to have been another group as well. The stories don’t say who they were, even when it becomes obvious that they came close to succeeding.”
“I remember that,” Valeria said. “I’ve always wondered what could be so disturbing.”
“I don’t think they were disturbed,” Ema said. “I think they weren’t sure what attacked them, only that it came close to succeeding. It’s what happened next that interests me. The attack is fought off and the nasceant Core is described as cracked in its purpose – which is a strange way to put it. Then suddenly it’s functional – no mention of how – and the First Dragon has blocked most speakers from attacking dragons. It’s like a whole section of the story is missing in every version. That has to be deliberate.”
“That would fit with what the River Singer told us,” Lorelei said softly. “She said being helpless was better than being dead or something like that.”
“And she implied the Speakers that were involved agreed with her doing it,” Mela said. “and not to talk-” She broke off as the door banged open and Sonia rushed back in, she looked flustered.
“Sonia? Is something wrong?” Matthias rose to his feet and hurried to her. “Is it Karen?”
“Kaz is fine,” she managed to gasp out the reassurance. “But Nephele was sending me everything and I remembered.”
“Remembered?” Now he looked tense as well.
“Why the Core tried to kill me. What my dreams have been trying to tell me. What Ema said about the timing it triggered something.” She gave him a haunted look. “It’s not dead and the Core is not happy about that.”
“Er, what isn’t?” he asked.
Beside him Ema gasped in comprehension, “You mean-”
“It’ll probably try and kill us all now.” Sonia nodded. “But the Heart was crippled not destroyed. It’s been in a sort of healing stasis ever since – or it was until Eric, Lydia and I accidentally woke it up.”