Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chapter One

I Told You So

“Why don’t you just spit it out?” she said sharply.  “Just say what I know you’re dying to say—I told you so!
“All I’m trying to say is we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now if you had never used those powers in the first place.  The dragon’s heart would have remained out of Gemdorin’s reach, and you wouldn’t have had to abuse those cursed powers in order to defeat him.”
She summed it up concisely.  “In other words, I told you so!”
“Well, it’s true!” the captain finally admitted, throwing his hands in the air.  “I did warn you and so did your mother!” 
They were in the captain’s quarters arguing, a common occurrence for the pair.  His eyes followed the young queen of Harrowbeth as she pivoted about and stomped towards the exit.  Having proven once again that his imposing nature was more prone to lecturing than listening, Eena opted to end the conversation. 
“Where do you think you’re going?” Kahm Derian demanded to know, irritated by what he considered the worst stubborn streak he had ever seen in any woman.
She replied without turning her head.  “I’m going to go look for a time machine so I can travel to the past and do everything your way.  Then we’ll see if life turns out all hunky-dory or not.”
Derian wrinkled his nose.  “Hunky-dory?”
Being too upset to explain the expression she had picked up during her twelve years on Earth, she grumbled under her breath.  “Never mind.”
After slamming the door quite dramatically behind her, Eena stormed down a lengthy hallway towards a wide, wooden banister that curved along a descending stairwell.  Being cooped up in the same dwelling with that frustrating man seemed unbearable at the moment, regardless of the immensity of their home.  At the guarded entrance, she marched down the front steps of Lacsar Castle and headed for the gates.  Ian, her sworn protector and closest friend, trailed close behind.  He started up conversation, trying to slow down her flight.
“So I take it he wasn’t exactly understanding.”
“You think?” she replied with an acerbic bite.  She was letting off steam, though her stride failed to slacken even slightly.  “I don’t know why I even try to talk to that aggravating know-it-all.” 
Despite being a head taller than his queen, Ian found himself hustling to keep at her heels.  “Do you mind telling me where we’re going?”
Eena sighed miserably.  “I just want to be alone.”
“Alright, I understand.  So where are you going alone…..shadowed by your protector who can’t allow you to run off vulnerable to who-knows-what kind of potential dangers?”
“Ugh, Ian!”  This made her stop and turn to face him.  “Gemdorin’s dead, remember?  Enemy killed.  War over.  Threat gone.  Ring a bell?”  She was being rude, but her protector understood it was her way of dealing with the stress.  He chose not to take offense even though her anger was directed at the wrong guy.  When she started walking again, he kept at her side. 
There were few people up and around in Harrowbeth at sunrise—probably a good thing.  Eena had been awake for hours, finding it impossible to fall back to sleep after the unnerving ghostly visitation in the night.  Ian had likewise struggled with sleep after witnessing his queen’s nightmare, but being the protector of her dreams as well as her actual bodyguard, he had tried his best to slumber in case she suffered another nightmarish incident. 
Dreading the inevitable discussion with Derian, Eena had risen as early as she deemed acceptable to visit his quarters.  There she informed him of the serious threat posed by two immortal sisters in her nightmare.  As expected, the discussion had escalated into a heated quarrel. 
“I can understand why he’s upset,” Ian said.  “I mean, we finally have peace in Harrowbeth after all those years battling Gemdorin.  Everyone’s eager to rebuild and recuperate, not take on a new enemy.….or two as the case may be.”
“You know, I think I liked it better when you two were at each other’s throats.”
“We were never that bad.”
“At least you weren’t always on his side.”
“Eena, for crying out loud, I’m on your side.  I’m just saying I can understand why the man’s upset.”
She clenched her jaw to keep from commenting any further.  It wasn’t her desire to argue with Ian too.  
For a time they walked in silence across the extensive castle grounds known commonly as Lacs Flats.  The yard eventually steered them through a main check-point marked by high, white columns.  They then changed direction and headed away from town.  Eena removed her shoes when she stepped off a stone walkway that sloped downhill toward the heart of the city.  Ian kindly took her sandals, freeing up his queen’s hands so she could touch the needy plants.  Their world, Moccobatra, though smaller than Earth, had a great abundance of plant life requiring her care and nurturing.  Being Queen of Harrowbeth, natively called the Sha of Harrowbeth, and bearer of an heirloom necklace that possessed the power to heal life, Eena was responsible for the condition of all natural flora existing on their world. 
Less than a year prior, she had been oblivious to her heritage.  Raised on Earth from five years of age and called by the name Sevenah, she had adapted well to human life.  At age seventeen her perception of reality had been drastically altered when Ian, Kahm Derian, and those from the starship Kemeniroc had come to retrieve their young queen. 
The months to follow had been filled with incredible revelations.  She was told her real name was Eena and that she was a queen, the next Sha by birth—Sha Eena.  A necklace that only direct descendants of the Shas could wear turned out to be a sort of symbiotic life form, now permanently secured to her neck and upper chest, its tendrils embedded deep inside her bodily organs.  Eena and the necklace worked together as one, touching and healing natural life on Moccobatra.  This world was both old and new to her.  It was the place where she had been born, the place she had fled when hunted by Gemdorin as a young child, and now her home once again after twelve long years of absence.
Harrowbeth’s vilest enemy, Gemdorin, no longer posed a threat, for she had killed him in a fight to save her own life, protecting many others in the process.  That terrifying confrontation continued to stir up disturbing emotions whenever she recalled thrusting the fiend’s own sword through his heart.  Everyone assumed the worst was behind them now.  And so it seemed, until her recent nightmare. 
It had been no normal nightmare but a visitation from two immortal spirits—two sisters responsible for the creation of the necklace Eena wore, a charmed ornament they referred to as the dragon’s soul. 
Thousands of years ago they had formed the necklace, anticipating imprisonment at the hands of governing immortals for their destructive interference in mortal affairs.  These heinous, pompous siblings had all but caused the annihilation of the Viidun people on a planet called Rapador.  Their punishment for this atrocity was an eternity of separation from their immortal bodies.  The necklace had been created as a secret means of escape—a way to reunite spirit and body.  They insisted that Eena would be the one to help them do this, seeing how she was the Sha who had finally unleashed all the powers of the dragon’s soul.  She, of course, was determined to refuse them, having no intention of releasing two unscrupulous immortals to once again wreak havoc on the universe.
Eena stepped lightly through the meadow preceding Lacsar Forest.  As her bare feet contacted the ground, grasses pulled energy from their healer, soaking up the vitality needed to survive.  A trail of green spread out from around her, progressing with every step.  For the twelve years Eena had been stowed away on Earth, Moccobatra had endured without a Sha—without anyone capable of tending to the well-being of the flora.  Over that time the foliage had slowly withered down to a very sad state, most vegetation barely hanging onto life.  Now that she was home, the whole population expected her to revive the planet.  So far, only a small circle—a half-mile radius around the heart of Harrowbeth—had been healed at her hands.  The rest would take months of travel.
The process was physically demanding, draining energy from the young healer which she replenished by absorbing energy from surrounding sources.  Each time Eena’s touch fell upon a needy plant, pain and hunger were communicated before relief and gratitude settled in.  This transmission of emotion was part of the healing.  Eena felt what the plants felt.  It was typically momentary yet difficult to bear at times.    
Ian walked over the green trail created by his queen as she headed for the crooked trees of Lacsar Forest.  Only a portion of the wood’s perimeter appeared stout and healthy.  The majority of the trees, the thicker heart of the forest, still ached for much needed attention. 
Hurriedly, she stepped towards her destination.  Ian marveled at how the flora leaned in her direction, reaching, craving her healing touch.  Being her protector and best friend, his concern for Eena’s welfare was great.  No one except perhaps Derian cared for her more. 
While they were children, Derian and Eena had been “promised” in a Harrowbethian tradition of arranged marriage; however, only Derian had been old enough to comprehend the arrangement.  Due to her youth and years of hiding out on Earth, Eena had remained ignorant of the “promise.”  Her initial reaction upon learning the news had been less than positive.  Derian, on the other hand, had cherished the contract and devoted his life to the welfare of his future wife. 
Ian sighed bleakly, thinking of how he had stood in the captain’s way, nearly stealing Eena’s heart from the man.  It had been unintentional to begin with.  As her best friend and protector, constantly in her company and in her dreams, a desire to become more than friends had naturally developed.  In spite of these deep and earnest feelings, any sort of intimate relationship between them was forbidden.  It would violate tradition.  It would break promises made by their parents when they were children.  It would bring dishonor on them both. 
Furthermore, Ian had been promised to someone—a woman named Angelle.  He smiled at the thought of her and the short amount of time spent in her company.  For years Angelle had been lost to him, a pawn of the enemy, until finally rescued after Gemdorin’s death.  But convincing the timid young lady to give Ian a chance had proved a real difficulty.  Once past the initial awkwardness, however, their relationship set in motion something sweet.  Something comfortable and pleasant.  Ian felt himself genuinely falling for Angelle, despite the soft spot in his heart for Eena.  He had accepted his lot.  Things were as they should be.
Ian looked up at the amazing woman in front of him.  In his preoccupation with personal thoughts he had missed crossing over the line of healed ground into the withered forest.  Circling them now was the surviving ruins of a fragile, monochromatic wasteland.  The only greenery existed in the grassy steps beneath Eena’s bare feet.  She wasn’t taking her time as expected, but pushing hastily past the untouched trees on her way through the neglected forest. 
“Why in such a rush?” Ian asked.
Eena cast him a quick glance.  “I want to get further into the center.” 
He imagined she meant to repeat her performance from the day before, the celebrated day of her return to Harrowbeth.  Her first act upon arriving home had been to touch the grand old tree in the center of the village, restoring its strength and colorful canopy.  She had extended her powers in a half-mile radius from that point, creating a circle of green around the heart of the city.  It had been a miraculous show.
“Eena,” Ian began again, “can I ask you something?”
She gave him a shrug which he took as a sign of consent.
“I was just thinking about that dream…..or nightmare.  When Ishtura was speaking to you, she mentioned Pallador.  I know who he is because Shanks told me he was the immortal who took back the dragon’s heart.” 
Ian sped up to walk next to his best friend before continuing.  He glanced up frequently to catch her facial reactions.
“Last night, Ishtura said that you were tried and sentenced by Pallador and his governing body, just like she and Anesidora once were.  Is this true?  Because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.  What reason would they have to try you?”
Eena frowned.  Her eyes fell to the ground and her pace seemed to hasten even more.
“I’m sure it’s none of my business, but—does Derian know about this?”
She shook her head, eyes rolling up at the sky.
“No, Ian,” she huffed.  “No one was supposed to know about it.”
“Eena?”  His face managed to convey concern and disappointment simultaneously.  “How can we help you if you keep important things like this a secret?  For crying out loud, why didn’t you tell someone?  When did this happen?  Why did this happen?”
“Ian, there’s nothing anyone could have done.  Why worry you unnecessarily?”
“Who are you to say there’s nothing we could have done?”
This question stopped her in her tracks, and Ian had to turn around to face a doubtful gaze. 
“Do you really want to know what happened?”
Her protector nodded absolutely.
“Okay, fine.  I was forced to stand before a group of immortals while they deliberated my fate.  A governing council of pitiless people with far greater powers at their disposal than I.”  She lifted her gaze to the sky for a moment, clearly upset.  Her head wagged slightly as she tried to explain. 
“Pallador said I was being held responsible for Shanks’ abuse of the dragon’s heart—for the two-hundred thousand people killed on the passenger ship he destroyed.  He claims the tragedy was my responsibility because I was the one to uncover the gem.  I was found guilty.”  Her gaze lowered quickly, catching the horror on Ian’s face.  “But Pallador told me I was free to go.  He said to consider myself on probation.”
“For criminy’s sake, Eena!” Ian breathed.
“It’s fine.  Nothing bad happened.”
“Nothing bad?” he repeated incredulously.  “What if…”
“No!  No what-ifs.  Nothing bad happened; they let me go.  The dragon’s heart is back in Pallador’s possession, and it won’t be used to harm anyone else.  My probation will be spotless.  I’ll be fine, hence no reason to worry you…..and especially not Derian.”  Her eyes bulged at the captain’s name, emphasizing her desire for Ian to keep his mouth shut. 
“We’re here to help you, Eena; you do know that, right?  We can’t help if you insist on handling everything yourself.”
Her face softened at his show of concern.  It felt good to know he cared, but at the same time she cared about him too and didn’t want to cause him needless worry.  Her actions had already stirred up more trouble than she was worth, even though she knew they would all disagree. 
“Thanks, Ian, but sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”  Her feet moved forward again into the heart of Lacsar Forest.
“That’s not true, Eena.  I can always listen.”  He kept up with her quickening pace, staying right at her side.  “If you would just tell us what’s going on, we could give you advice and maybe come up with ideas you haven’t thought of.  Heck, we could speak in your behalf if it were necessary.”
“I don’t think they would have let you come to my trial, let alone speak.  I was hardly able to speak in my own behalf.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a fair trial to me,” he grumbled.
She smiled half-heartedly.  “I guess if you’re a powerful immortal you can do whatever you want, fair or not.  Anyway, it’s over.  It doesn’t matter now.”
“I guess.”  The disappointment on Ian’s face hurt the young Sha.  She hadn’t meant to upset him.
Continuing into the thickening woods, Ian went back to thinking—mulling over Eena’s words.  “Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”  More and more he felt that was true around her.  He wanted to protect her.  It was his job to protect her.  But with the incredible powers she had developed through the necklace, his job seemed almost pointless anymore.  When it came down to it, she was probably more his protector now.  Still, he was determined to do whatever he could.
When it seemed they had hiked at least a half-mile into the forest, Ian spoke up again.
“This is as good a place as any to stop, don’t you think?”  He slowed down, expecting her to respond similarly, but she kept on trudging briskly forward. 
“Eena?”  He jogged to catch up with her.
“I’m not there yet, Ian.”
“Not where?  All these plants need your attention and we’re pretty far from Harrowbeth now.”  He looked ahead into the darkening cluster of tree trunks.  “If you go much further, you’ll be in….” 
His voice trailed off as he realized what she was really up to.  He had assumed her brisk pace had been no more than an attempt to calm down after arguing with Derian.  Coming into the forest had made sense given the fact that she needed to heal the trees.  But now he understood the determined strides and her haste to reach the core of Lacsar Forest.  He ran a few steps in front of his queen, blocking her progression.  She halted, breathing heavily from so fast a hike.
“Eena, you can’t be serious.”  His eyes begged for a reasonable explanation.
“Get out of my way, Ian.”  She tried to sidestep him, but he moved in front of her.  Irritated by his interference, her hands planted themselves on her hips.
“Eena, this is crazy!  Does Derian know what you’re doing?”
She shook her head, scowling at the mention of the man who earlier that morning had refused to listen to her for one reasonable moment.
“I can’t let you do this.  You’re acting impetuously again.”
“I am not.”  She really hated that word. 
“Yes, you are!  I understand that you’re upset with Derian right now, but going to Wanyaka Cave is….well, it’s…”
“It’s exactly what I’m going to do.”  She successfully dodged her protector and launched into a run through the trees.  He caught up with her easily and grabbed hold of her arm.  She was a little surprised by his aggressiveness as he yanked her to a standstill.
“Eena, this is an awful idea!  Do you even have a plan or are you just making this up as you go along?”
She shot him a dirty look.
“And what about me?  What do you think those sisters are going to do with expendable me?”
“Ian, I wasn’t planning for you to enter the cave.  I honestly figured you’d be running back to Derian to tattle on me by now.”
Ian tried to hide his hurt.  “Eena, please.  Please reconsider this.  Come home and we’ll talk to Derian together.  Let’s at least come up with a decent plan before you go hand yourself over to those wretched sisters!”
“I’m not handing myself over…”
“You’re walking right into the witches’ lair!”
“No, Ian.”  She paused for a moment, trying to find a way to explain herself.  “Look…he’s right.  Derian’s right.  This whole thing is my fault.  If I had never used these powers, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now.  You guys have been fighting Gemdorin for twelve years and finally…finally…he’s dead.  At long last Harrowbeth has a chance at peace, and what do I do?  I go and attract an entirely new enemy!  I can’t drag anyone else into this.  It’s my problem and I need to solve it.”
“You’re not going by yourself.”  Ian squeezed tighter on her arm.  “You haven’t been listening to one word I’ve said this entire time.  I am sick of you keeping things from us, Eena.  I’m sick of you trying to handle things all by yourself!  You took on Gemdorin alone, and then Pallador, and now this?  How am I supposed to act as your protector when you insist on handling everything alone?  For heaven’s sake at least throw me a lousy bone!”
She couldn’t help but chuckle once at his silly, desperate plea.  Ian formed the tiniest grin, but his face sobered up fast as he continued.
“I’m your protector; it’s my chief duty.  But as powerful as you’ve become over the last few months, I’m starting to feel more and more useless to you.  All I seem able to do anymore is keep you safe from nightmares, and now with those ghostly sisters showing up in your dreams, I’m not sure I can even do that.”
“Ian…” she uttered softly, but he wasn’t about to listen.
“No, Eena, no.  You’re coming back home where Derian and I can help you.  You are not facing this one alone.”
He took her hand and attempted to pull her behind him, but she wouldn’t budge.  He turned to look at her sternly, almost glaring.  This was surprising too.  He wasn’t acting like himself—not like her kind, patient, understanding Ian.  She had expected him to object to her decision, but only verbally, never forcefully.  This aggressive, pushy behavior wasn’t Ian at all.  It was more like….Derian.
“Let go, Ian, I’m not going back.  I already talked to Captain Know-it-all and he doesn’t want to listen.  This is my mess and I’m going to clean it up myself.”
“Like hell you are,” he growled.  His eyes narrowed critically at her.  She stared at him, incredulous, seeing Derian’s intimidating look in her best friend’s features. 
“Ian?  What’s gotten into you?”
He tugged on her hand and pulled her forward a bit.  Her shock at his behavior momentarily distracted her resolve, but after a couple steps she successfully planted her feet again. 
“Give it up, Eena,” he growled.
“I don’t think so.”  She was half-stunned, half-offended by his forcefulness.  The next thing Ian knew, a sharp electric jolt struck his fingers, climbing swiftly up his arm.  Her strike only increased his determination.
“I’m not letting go, Eena.  You can shock me all you want to, but I will not let you do this!  I will not be the reason you end up dead!”
All at once she understood his extreme behavior—why the fierce determination to make her return home.  Her face softened, a sullen surrender taking over where stubbornness had been fueling her actions.  The truth hit her hard.  He wasn’t doing this for her, but for himself. 
He was worried for himself. 
Ian didn’t want to bear the blame if anything happened to her—if Harrowbeth lost another Sha.  He didn’t want to fail as her protector, not like his father had when Sha Tashi was killed by Vaughndorin.  Ian wasn’t protecting her, he was protecting himself and his family.  His concern revolved around his future together with Angelle. 
Eena tried to soften the emotional blow with logic.  She told herself his feelings were as they should be.  It was stupid for her to have dragged him into this anyway.  Her resolve melted like butter as she gave in, not wanting to hurt him any more than she already had.  There was time to come back later in the day—alone.  If anything happened to her then, Ian wouldn’t be to blame. 
Her feet complied to her protector’s will, walking behind him without resistance.  As he realized she wasn’t fighting anymore, his grip loosened and he stepped in line beside her.
“It’s better this way—you’ll see,” he tried to convince her.  “It’s the only reasonable thing to do.”
She laughed once, a single low chuckle.  “Yeah, right.  Like anything in my life is reasonable anymore.”
Ian didn’t say a word, but Eena swore his green eyes sympathized.  That was the image that lingered in her mind when the world faded to black. 

It took a second to comprehend the abrupt change in environment.  She was no longer outside in the shriveled forest but confined by a cold, dank darkness.  The enclosure smelled rotten and mildewy.  Tiny rays of light found their way through fractures in the walls, helping her eyes adjust to the near blackness.  
Slight trickles of moisture glistened in the scarce lighting as wetness dribbled down jagged rock walls.  Soft footsteps echoed weakly…..hers.  Her bare feet felt uncomfortably cold on the hard ground.  She drew in a shaky breath as understanding settled in.  She was inside Wanyaka Cave.  It had found her, just like Anesidora had said it would. 
For a second she panicked.  “Ian?  Ian!”  She heard her apprehension resound off the surrounding stone.  Where was he?  Had her impetuousness, as he had called it, put him in harm’s way?  “Ian!  Ian, where are you?”
Terrified by the lack of response, she tried to suppress her initial worries by imagining him still in the forest, almost certainly fine.  But how could she be sure?  Carefully, she felt her way along the cold stone, searching for a concealed exit.  If she could get outside, back to the woods….
“He is awfully adorable, isn’t he?  I can see why you want to keep him, Amora.”
Eena straightened up at the sound of a loud yet velvety voice she recognized from her dream. 
“Where is he?” Eena demanded.  Her eyes scanned the dark cavern, landing near two tall, jagged columns—the most likely place she thought to find the ghost of Ishtura hovering.
“He’s right where you left him, dear.  Well, maybe not exactly where you left him.  He seems to be searching the area for you now.”
“How can you see him?” Eena asked, both alarmed and curious.
“I have my ways.  The poor boy does appear very worried.  Perhaps I should bring him here.” 
“No!  No, please, leave him alone,” Eena pleaded.  “He can’t help you.”
“But he’s such a darling!  I could be content for centuries simply gazing upon him.”  The spirit sighed longingly.  “Ahhh, you two do make a cute couple.”
“We’re not a couple,” Eena said, correcting the mistaken presumption.
“Oh, you’re not?  How wonderful!” Ishtura chirped, clearly pleased.  “Then I shall have him for myself!”  The ghost was met with strong objection.
“No!  No, you can’t!  He…he’s in love with someone else.”
The news received a note of skepticism.  “Do tell—who is this lucky girl?”
“Her name is Angelle.”
The hovering spirit floated closer, her appearance now visible under thin beams of light filtering through cracks above.  Eena shrank at the sight.  Ishtura’s spirit was ugly—a wretched likeness of the chocolate-haired beauty imprisoned in one of two black-stone columns within the cave.  The second column held an equally gorgeous body, that of her redheaded sister, Anesidora.
“I know of no Angelle.  It is your name that falls from his lips, Amora.  I do believe the boy is in love with you.”
“You’re mistaken.  He’s my friend.”
And he’s your protector,” Ishtura threw in.  She smiled slyly at the young queen’s stunned expression before answering the look of surprise.  “Of course I know who the boy is.  We did create the protectors after all—watch guards for our Shas, to keep them safe.  We thought it wise to protect our interests.  That’s why he can see into your dreams.  What I don’t understand is why he hasn’t pressed his abilities further….like you have.  Perhaps he’s just not as motivated.”
“What do you mean?”  Eena wondered what more Ian could do if he tried.  Seeing into her dreams seemed intrusive enough—in a pleasant way, of course.
Ishtura didn’t answer the question but floated to the tomb that claimed her perfect immortal body.  She spoke to Eena while staring longingly at herself through a thick layer of sheer rock.
“I must admit I’m surprised to find you here, and so soon.  I was sure we would have to summon you forth against your pathetic stubborn will.  It’s nice to see you possess some good sense, Amora.”
“Are you saying you could actually force me to come here against my will?”
“You have no idea what we’re capable of.  Just as you truly have no idea what you, yourself, are in fact capable of, Amora.”
“My name is not Amora.  Stop calling me that.”
Ishtura laughed and taunted the girl.  “Oh, Amora, Amora, Amora.  When will you learn that there are things you can’t change, regardless of how you feel about them?  Like who you are, for example.” 
“I am Sha Eena.”
“Among mortals.  Not among those who matter.”
Seeing how her protesting was futile, the young queen ceased arguing.  Ishtura attempted to move things along. 
“Time is valuable.  We should get started.”
“No, wait.  I didn’t come here to help you.”
“Oh?”  The ghost looked up, a crooked grin wrinkling her distorted features.  “Then what did you come for?” 
“I came to talk—to find out what it is you think I can do for you.”
“You want information, do you?”  The spirit laughed aloud.  “Very well, let’s talk.” 
Ishtura was instantly in the girl’s face, hovering directly above her.  Eena shrieked at the impossible quickness exhibited by the ghost.  Succumbing to panic, she took off for an adjacent wall.  When her hands reached solid rock, she pressed her back against it.  Ishtura’s vile cackle filled the dank air.  Slowly this time, the apparition approached.
“I thought you wanted to talk.  Have you changed your mind?”
Eena voiced a strong reply, attempting to make up for her cowardly lapse in control.  “I have not.  Tell me what it is you expect from me.” 
“I was just getting to that, Amora, if you could manage to hold still for a moment.”  A translucent hand gave the appearance of patting Eena softly on the head.  It was a patronizing act, but no actual touch accompanied the gesture.  “The first thing you will do is free our bodies from the stone prison that claims them.” 
Eena glanced beyond the ghost at two tall, jagged columns.  The black, glassy stone shimmered wherever slivers of light hit the surface.
Ishtura kept talking.  “Unfortunately, your necklace is of little use for this.”
“Then you won’t be needing my services.”  Eena stepped forward as if she would walk away.  A ghostly palm stopped her, though it lacked any physical stock.
“On the contrary, there is a star-shaped platform Pallador used to imprison our bodies.  You will retrieve this same platform to liberate us.”
“I can’t.  I don’t know where it is.”
Ishtura chuckled without humor.  “The star has seven points, Amora.  It was separated into seven identical sections.  Over the years, each part has made its way to a different location on Moccobatra.  You will find all seven points to Pallador’s star and deliver them to us.”
“And where’s the treasure map?” 
“There is none.  The pieces will find you, just as the cave did.”
The young queen appeared troubled by this news.
Ishtura’s translucent finger moved to trace over the ovals impressed in the chest portion of the necklace.  The intimate gesture caused Eena to hold her breath. 
“Once our bodies are liberated, the dragon’s soul will be needed.  It was created to unite both spirit and body into one perfect immortal soul.  You will use the powers of the necklace to do this for us.  Then we will be free at last!”  Ishtura closed her eyes and grinned pensively, her crooked nose pointed upwards.
“And what will become of me?” Eena asked, interrupting the spirit’s reverie.
The ghost looked down on the girl and grinned.  “Concerned for your own well-being?”
“Is that so wrong?”
Ishtura laughed out loud while making her way back to the body she longed to possess.  “Free me, Amora, and you will also be free.” 
“And what of Moccobatra?”
“I don’t care to remain here; I’ve had far more than enough of this measly planet.  We’ll leave it alone if that’s what you wish.”  Ishtura raised a heavy eyebrow at the girl.  “Satisfied?”
But before she could answer, the ghost looked up with irritation in her gaze.  Within seconds she was pulled away—sucked back to the scarlet-gem prison that held fast to her spirit.  Her velvety voice echoed its last demand as she disappeared.
“Save me, Amora!”
Left alone, Eena resumed exploring her surroundings, skirting the perimeter of the cave as she felt along each inch of wet rock for a clue to some hidden exit.  She was scolding herself for not wearing the coiled bracelet King Wennergren had gifted her during a visit to his planet, Primas Quar.  The charmed bracelet enabled the wearer to walk through solid walls unscathed, a trick that would have provided a perfect way out.  Eena had barely begun her search in the dimness when Anesidora’s deeper, silkier voice startled her from behind.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t our little girl.  Eager to leave, are you?”
Eena tensed up, hating how this horrible woman spoke to her in a condescending and arrogant manner.  The last time this sister had called her a little girl she had objected, accomplishing nothing more than fueling Anesidora’s self-important ego.  Eena bit her lip as she turned to glare at the ghostly figure.  She was met with a dark, disturbing scowl in return. 
Anesidora’s ugly face somewhat resembled the red-headed beauty lying lifeless in one of the stone tombs.  Her long red hair floated in the air, giving the impression of a bon fire blazing around angry, sparking eyes.  Eena feared this sister most; she had proven herself extremely temperamental.
Taking a step back without thinking, Eena found security against a cavern wall.  Her actions only made the specter swell up more haughtily.
“I’m afraid you’re wasting your time, Amora.  There is no way out.  This cave is…..enchanted, if you will.  It not only finds you, but it releases you when and if it so chooses.  There is no other way out.”
That’s what you think, Eena thought to herself.  She truly regretted leaving her coiled bracelet behind.
“I understand my sister has informed you of your duties.”
“She’s told me what you want from me,” Eena corrected.
The apparition chuckled lightly.  “You still believe you can refuse us?”
Eena swallowed hard before answering, hoping her courage would prove greater than it had earlier.  “I won’t help you.  I told you that before.”
Anesidora merely smiled at the response.  “Hmmm,” she hummed.  “And how exactly do you intend to deny us?”
“I won’t do what you ask.”
“Oh, Amora, I thought you had a heart.  You would callously turn your back on family?”
“You’re not my family.” 
“You bear our gene.”
“That does not make us family.”
“Doesn’t it?”  The spirit’s heavy brow crinkled with the question. 
Eena dug deep for the courage to respond the way she wanted to.  “Pallador is more family to me than you could ever hope to be.”
Two lucent brown eyes narrowed angrily in response.  A growl was heard rumbling lowly like the sound of a dog warning a trespasser not to take another step.  In less than a second the eerie ghost hung threateningly overhead.  Eena cowered against the wall.
“You will not contact Pallador or so help me I will destroy you, little girl!  If you even attempt to defy me I will know about it!”
Eena covered her heart, her pulse thundering so hard and fast she feared it might jump clean out of her chest and take off running for safety.  She couldn’t tear her wide eyes away from the temperamental apparition, fearful of missing something detrimental. 
Anesidora seemed to grow a foot taller as she ranted on.  “You will do nothing but what I command!  My brother is watching you every moment of every day!  Must I prove to you that my eyes are truly everywhere?”  She turned to face the darkness, calming her tone by degrees.  “Edgar!  Brother, show yourself!  Our Amora apparently doesn’t believe in what she can’t see.” 
The frightful specter moved away, drifting towards the two stone columns.  If ghostly hips could sway, Anesidora’s appeared to, shifting slowly back and forth as she approached her imprisoned body.  Translucent fingers went to brush over the surface of the glassy stone as she stared at the beautiful redhead encased within.  After a moment of silence, she sighed irritably. 
Edgarmetheus!” the ghost hollered.  “You are trying my patience!”
A new figure appeared in the room. 
Eena slowly straightened up, staring at a handsome young man about the same height as Derian.  He shared the same build also, but these were their only common features.  This man’s wavy hair was red and his eyes a striking sea-blue.  It seemed an odd combination to Eena.  Edgar didn’t appear ghostly in the least.  He bore a perfect, ageless body as gorgeous as his sister’s bodies were beautiful.  When he spoke, his voice resembled Pallador’s compelling and unhurried tone.  He addressed Anesidora while his unblinking gaze rested on the young queen. 
“My dear sister, you can’t try something you don’t possess.” 
“Oh, Edgar.”  Anesidora seemed to croon as she turned to face her brother.  “Why don’t you tell our little girl how much you enjoy watching over her.” 
The young man’s face suddenly beamed.  His blue eyes never strayed from its subject.  Eena found it difficult to break eye contact with him.
“I like this one,” Edgar said.  “She’s spirited.”  Then his focus shifted and Eena breathed again, thankful he had broken the uncanny hold his stare seemed to possess.
Edgar began to whine, his lower lip protruding in a pout as he complained to his older sister.  “Why did you have to tell her I was here?  You’ve gone and ruined everything now.  It was much more fun watching her when she didn’t know I was watching.” 
“Oh, get over it, Edgar.”
“But I was enjoying myself.”  He turned his attention back to Eena as he mused aloud.  “I like how she tends to the flowers, how she giggles in her sleep, the way her fingers twist absentmindedly around her hair when she daydreams, and how her little toe plays with the faucet when she bathes.”
Eena’s mouth fell open in horror, and she found her voice again.  “How dare you!”
But the man ignored her objectionable outburst.  “Anesidora, can I keep her?  I really like this one.  Can she stay with us?” 
Eena shrieked in response to his outrageous request.  “No!  Are you crazy?  You can’t…”  But it was as if she were mute.
“Edgar, I still need her.  Besides, she’s practically your granddaughter.”
“Like a hundred times removed!  And I don’t care anyway.”
“Edgar, would you please try and focus.”
Eena turned to gawk at Anesidora.  She spoke up for herself—Edgar’s unbelievable request fueling her courage.
“You will never get away with this!  Your deplorable brother is not the only one watching me!”  She pointed to Edgar when she realized he was missing.  Glancing both ways, she felt his big hands on her hair, stroking tenderly.  Eena turned abruptly, automatically batting at his arms.  Her attention snapped back to Anesidora when the ghost cackled mockingly, finishing Eena’s original thought.
“Are you referring to Pallador?  Or Ascultone perhaps?  The mighty dragon no longer watches over you, Amora.  He only did so when you possessed the dragon’s heart.  As guardian of the gem he was bound to protect you, but I can assure you he wasn’t the least bit happy about it.”
As Anesidora spoke, her brother continued to play with the mortal’s hair, petting her soft tresses, lifting a long strand up to his nose, taking in its sweet fragrance. 
“Amora, I suppose now I can tell you the cruel irony of that situation.  You already know Ascultone hates you for what you are—mortal and yet bearing an immortal gene.  He finds your uniqueness threatening.  You can imagine his disgust, discovering himself obligated because you uncovered the dragon’s heart, the very gem he is duty-bound to protect.  Had he been able to, he would have killed you.  You know that.  But I bet you didn’t know this.  When a dragon is obligated to the one controlling his treasure, he must answer to his master’s authority.  For as long as you had possession of the dragon’s heart, Ascultone was bound to honor your wishes.  You had the power to command him to do almost anything!  Ironic, isn’t it?  He could have saved you a great deal of suffering.”
Eena failed to hide the shock on her face as she glanced aside to avoid Anesidora’s smug grin.  Was it true that her hardships with Gemdorin could have been avoided?  It didn’t matter anyhow.  She had defeated him without immortal assistance.
A soft caress on the cheek pulled her eyes up again; Edgar doted over her like a porcelain doll.
“Stop touching me!” she cried, shoving his hands away.  Eena headed for an adjacent wall, wanting to escape his fondling.  She shrieked when he beat her there, her eyes filled with astonishment, having missed him pass her by.
“Amora!”  Anesidora called.
Eena looked up to find the redhead floating nearer. 
“You can’t outrun us.  Edgar will always be right there watching you.”
“Pallador’s watching too,” Eena contended.  “He said so at my trial.  I won’t have to contact him because he’ll find me, you’ll see!”
Two hearty laughs echoed in the cave as both immortals dismissed the threat.
“You’re right, Amora, Pallador did say he would be watching you.  And it’s true he assigned someone to keep a close eye on your actions.”
“Not Edgar,” Eena breathed, concerned that her luck would be that bad.  She swatted at his wandering hands again.
“If only!” Anesidora chuckled.  “No, child.  It’s someone you know, actually.  Someone from the governing body itself.”
Eena thought of the eight members present at her trial—four personages and four dragons.  She was sure both Ascultone and Pallador were wrong answers.
“Naga,” she guessed.  “Naga’s watching me.”
“Yes, little girl.  He is.”
“Then he’ll report to Pallador who will stop you…”
Anesidora rudely interrupted, unable to wait any longer to divulge her next secret.
“Are you referring to my Naga?” 
Eena wagged her head back and forth—disagreeing, disbelieving.
The malicious spirit hovered closer to her doubter and commanded out loud, “Naga!  Show yourself, dragon!”
The giant creature appeared on command, filling up most of the empty space within the cave.  His head drooped from a kinked and lowered neck.
Incredulity paled Eena’s face.  “No,” she breathed.  “No, Naga.  How could you?”
His scaly eyelids slipped closed.  The old dragon appeared ashamed.
“I doubt Pallador will be made aware of your situation, Amora.  Isn’t that right, Naga?”
The hunched-over dragon growled deep in his throat.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Eena wailed.  She gawked at the dragon in whose company she had always felt safe; the one she referred to as her dragon.  “Why would you follow this awful woman?  You don’t have to listen to her, Naga!”
Anesidora watched the desperation play out, enjoying every tortured moment of Eena’s discovery.
“Naga, you guard the dragon’s soul!” Eena exclaimed.  “You guard my necklace….my necklace!”  Her eyes turned to the hovering spirit.  She addressed Anesidora, determined to make sense of Naga’s behavior without accepting him as a traitor.  It didn’t seem possible. 
“You said every dragon is subject to the one who controls his treasure.  Naga guards the dragon’s soul.  I bear the necklace!  I control it!  He’s subject to my command, not yours!”
An evil laugh permeated the room once again.  “Brilliant, isn’t it?  That’s exactly what Pallador and the others believe as well.”  The ghost floated right up to the girl, her hideous face too close for comfort.  Edgar approached from behind, handling Eena’s hair.
“What good would it do me to allow the bearer of the necklace exclusive control if she refused to cooperate when called upon?  When I created the dragon’s soul, I made sure that ultimate control would always be mine, and in so doing I guaranteed that Naga would always answer to me.  He never speaks to you because I forbid it.  And he only tells Pallador what I want that hypocrite to hear.” 
A devious smile warped Anesidora’s sinister face.  Her red, fiery halo plunged downward as she thrust both hands up in one quick motion.  The necklace responded to the apparition’s gesture, glowing brightly in the darkness.  Eena felt herself lift off the ground.  Her bare feet flailed as she tried to find something to support her, but there was nothing.  She grabbed at her neck as if hanging from a rope.  It was Anesidora’s doing.  She was using the necklace as a choker—a demonstration to prove her ultimate control of the dragon’s soul. 
Edgar objected at once.  “Sister, stop it!  You’re hurting my girl.”  He reached as if to assist Eena down from a high step.  His hands wrapped completely around her waist.
Anesidora grunted with disgust and released her control on the necklace.  Eena fell backwards into Edgar’s arms.  He placed her feet gently on the ground and proceeded to caress her face adoringly.  After sucking in a few necessary breaths, Eena objected to everything in one great outburst.
“Stop touching me!  I’m not a toy!” she screamed while pushing away from Edgar.  “And you!” she yelled at Anesidora, “kill me if you choose, but I will never ever agree to help you or your evil sister!”  Then she turned to gaze at Naga.  He sat as motionless as the cavern walls, his head bowed in shame.  “Naga?”  She didn’t know what to say to him.  How could this be—Naga a traitor?  She stood there shaking her head as the beast’s eyes narrowly opened. 
“Well, well, brother,” Anesidora huffed, “I do believe our little girl could use a time out.”
Edgar’s offended expression seemed to agree.
Eena heard the harsh, silky words resonate in her head as everything faded away. 
“Let me know when you come to your senses, Amora.” 
Eena closed her eyes at an unexpected brightness that attacked her sensitive pupils.  The damp and musty darkness of the cave evaporated, only to be replaced by a far worse environment.  Whiteness reflected from every angle.  It took a second for Eena’s eyes to adjust.  Feet that had felt so cold on the bare stone ground now burned with iciness, pressed against frozen tundra extending in every direction.  Great glaciers rose like jagged mountains on the horizon while a swift, frigid wind beat against her face.  This abrupt change in temperature was a shock to her system. 
Eena heard a soft rattle and realized it was her teeth chattering.  Both arms naturally wrapped around her torso, seeking warmth.  She groaned to herself, observing how moisture escaped her mouth in a mist.
“Crud, I really hate the cold.”

Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich

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