Luckily enough for Goizu and I, Mary and Ponte's keys did appear at Ritual just after we went to Stronghold that first time. Now we were back there, all of us with keys of our own. Miriap was the only one not present, her key currently in the possession of Arvid.
I gazed into the horizon, watching Arvid, Glycon, Saoni and Mary turning arcs in the slightly turbulent air. They were the most optimistic about it; they believed that at least one of the new keys would fit.
Trotting up beside me, Klyo stared at them too. Sighing, he said, "I hope they don't get their hopes up too high. They could be severely disappointed." I nodded, Goizu staring grimly at the blank horizon. Klyo picked up his pace as he heard Arvid's cry from the air. We were close. I followed suit, Goizu swearing as I went suddenly from spontaneous to speeding. He twisted his knuckles deeper in my mane, the fur pulling at my delicate human skin. "Ow! Goizu, can you go any tighter?" I said sarcastically. He grumbled something like, "oops, sorry" under his breath before letting go of my hair entirely and instead wrapping his stocky arms around my waist. I slowed as Saoni led the flying Representatives onto the ground beside me, Arvid close after. They were having another one of their petty arguments again. I decided to lift the mood and make stuff a little more annoying for them.
"Aww, you two are so cute together. You should go out sometime." Saoni glared at me, the intensity in her violet eyes burning through my mind. "You know I wouldn't want to," she mumbled, blushing rather intensely. "And anyway, it's illegal now, isn't it?"
She was right. Ever since the war between the races, where the species split up and battled in two groups, it has been illegal for any mythical to fall in love with a different species. The griffins led the side of the giants, the dwarves and the centaurs, while the Pegasi led the dragons, the harpies, the mermaids and the hyklix. That was when the Pegasi became the rightful rulers of Fantasia as a whole, taking control of all the species not on their side. I knew Saoni and her sister hated that rule, as Lolinami had a secret crush on a dragon. Us five, the gang, were the only ones who knew this, as she would be jailed if the government found out. I had a sneaking suspicion that the same might be going on for Saoni with a certain griffin I knew.
I looked at Arvid to see his reaction to the joke. He was just staring into the sky, eyes blank and frosty. His beak was pinched so tight that it looked like one of the mussels that Miriap had shown us once. I smiled despite myself; that meant two members of royalty were rule breakers, and if push came to shove, they could be in the middle of the most forbidden love in history.
As we tried the last key in the lock, I crumpled in defeat. My head hung, and my legs were so shaky that I felt like I was going to collapse. Klyo took the key out of the lock, fear showing in his strong, ice hard eyes. Saoni and Mary almost began to cry, Mary managing to hold back as the second oldest representative. Glycon bounded out of the castle, taking to the sky. I could see Arvid wanting to go, but it seemed like something was holding him back. He rushed over to Saoni, dead seriousness in his eyes. "You conducted a search, right?"
"Yes," she responded. "And the Pegasi have searched every mapped location in Fantasia. We're as good as done."
She burst out crying, turning away from us. Arvid yelled for her to stay as she galloped out of the palace. He rushed after her just as Glycon landed back. "What? Where's Saoni and Arvid?" He said.
"Out front," I responded. We ran outside to see Arvid flying on top of the Pegasus statue. He said something to Saoni before turning towards us, their eyes locking momentarily. Ponte ducked under the doorway just in time for the start of his speech. "Saoni said mapped. That means that unmapped places won't have been searched."
Mary butted in with a good point. "But every single place in Fantasia has been mapped! Stronghold was the last location!"
"Yes," Arvid continued. "When was Stronghold discovered? Recently, too recently to be mapped. Which means..."
I finished his sentence. "Which means that we can still search Stronghold! That must be where it is!" Arvid looked at me. "Exactly! Safety is in numbers, so split up. Ponte will have to search the surface, so Mary will go with him, search from the air. Of course Junke and Goizu will go together."
Glycon nodded and spoke up. "I'll go with Klyo. We have deep history and we're a pretty great team. You go with Saoni." Arvid's kingly stance dropped into a more shy one as he looked over his shoulder at the Pegasus standing bravely on the head of her statue, smiling sheepishly. "What are we waiting for? Let's go!"
As she stepped into the air and began her rhythmic wingbeats, the head of the statue began to crack. I watched in horror as the stone crumbled around Arvid, his cries filling the air. While I was glued by fear to one spot, Glycon wasn't hesitating, and nor was Saoni. They dived into the rubble, searching for their friend. Goizu and I moved to help as the last boulders were removed. I held my breath as Saoni brushed a piece of amethyst off his chest and listened for a heartbeat. She stepped back, dazed, as tears began to pour freely down her face. We all looked to her. She shook her head and collapsed. Her knees buckled, and her eyes, still streaming tears, remained wide open. As I helped Goizu flip him over, something caught me eye. Klyo padded over to us and pulled it out of the rubble. From where Glycon was helping Saoni up, she suddenly burst to life and ran over.
As she beheld what we had found, she just stared past it.
She completely dismissed the same key she had cried over.
Good news... and bad
Saoni gulped. "I have some good news and bad news... good news first?" We all stared at her, except Glycon, who wore the same haunted expression as her. "Well," she said, smiling gleefully, "Arvid's not dead!" We all stared at her, solemn looks on our faces. "Saoni," I said, "he is. We heard no heartbeat. He's gone."
"Can dead people feel emotion?"
"Can dead people feel emotion?!" She repeated.
She sighed. "Junke, for someone so smart, you certainly need to learn up on your Pegasus knowledge. We sense emotion! And channel it, which is why I'm able to share people's sadness. So, if dead people can't feel emotion, then why am I feeling stuff from Arvid when I touch him?"
Glycon gasped and the entire Gang gathered around our fifth member. Saoni gulped and put a wing around him. She hissed in pure pain. Arvid suddenly sat up, his fur spiking up. He growled at Saoni. "Crazy girl, what are you doing?!"
She smiled through the pain, her feathers quivering. "I'm... sharing your pain! The only way to wake you... was to lessen how much pain you were feeling."
"Stop. Right now."
Arvid's eyes teared up. "Saoni, listen to me. I'm as good as done when you get too much pain. Loosing one representative would be ok, but I don't know about two! And certainly not..." he hesitated. Saoni looked at him expectantly. "And certainly not when it's you."
I nearly whooped into the sunset. I knew it! Now, at least, if Arvid were to die, he'd die happy, knowing that Saoni knew his forbidden secret. She looked into his eyes, dying light reflecting off his beak and her teary eyes. "Saoni," Arvid said gently, "let me go."
With that, Saoni stopped crouching by his side and stood up, wrapping her wings at her sides. As his chest heaved for the last time, I asked the silently bawling Saoni what the bad news was. She responded with just a blank stare.