Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Three in The Harrowbethian Saga


Why is it we must
suffer the loss of something so dear
before we realize
what a treasure we had?

Why must the sun be darkened
before we feel
how genuinely impossible it is
to live without its warmth?

Why within the misery of absence
does love grow by such bounds?

Why must life be this way?
It is a strange existence
where such suffering
makes us far better people.

                                                     -Kahm Derian

Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich

Chapter One

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

Chapter Two

Iccarus Circle

On the edge of Lacsar Forest, just barely beyond the border of Harrowbeth’s last dwelling, Ian led the individual he had sought out toward the heart of the woods.  It was no challenge to follow the healthy trail created by Eena where her bare feet had tread earlier that morning.  Kahm Derian matched Ian’s hurried pace, scolding the young protector at every step.
“How could you let her do this?  How could you walk her halfway through the woods and then abandon her to face those witches alone?”
Ian clenched his jaw, struggling to keep his silence.  He was growing tired of hearing the captain berate his actions, and wondered how much longer the lambasting would go on.
“What in the world could she possibly have been thinking?” Derian complained.  His arms flailed in frustration as he jogged a few steps to catch up to his guide.  “I swear that woman has to be the most reckless, stubborn, unreasonable…”
“Then why do you want to marry her?” Ian snapped.  He should have bit his tongue, he knew that, but to hear the captain criticize their queen in such a manner was intolerable.
Derian’s response, though defensive, was sincere.  “I may find her stubbornness frustrating, I won’t deny it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the woman.  I just wish she would think things through first and make it easier to help her.”
That was something they could agree on.
The captain continued trying to put his concerns into words.  “It’s like she feels this need to prove something; I’m not sure what exactly.  She already knows how much she’s needed.  She knows I love her.  She knows how genuinely I want to be there for her.”
Ian muttered a possibility the captain hadn’t mentioned.  “Maybe what she wants is to know that you don’t blame her.”
“Blame her?”
“Yes, you know, ‘I told you so….this is all your fault.’  Your usual dose of criticism.”  Ian didn’t look to see if he had hit a nerve, but the volume in Derian’s response attested to it.
“I never said ‘I told you so.’  She was the one who forced me to…”
“Forced you to say it?”
“No!” Derian huffed disgustedly before continuing with his defense.  “She kept pushing me and pushing me to say it.  ‘Derian, just say I told you so—just say it!’  Well, I didn’t.  I refused!  But I could only take so much of her badgering before I finally agreed with her.”  The captain quickly added, “Even so, I never said the words!”
Ian couldn’t help but snicker.  “You two are quite the pair, I swear.”
Something incoherent fell from the captain’s lips.  Ian didn’t bother to ask him to repeat himself.
“You know, if you’d just try listening to her sometimes…”
“I do listen,” Derian snapped.
Ian groaned.  “Right, I can see that.  What I mean is, try actually listening without commenting on every other sentence—without blaming her or correcting her or throwing your know-it-all, two-cents worth in or anything like that.  Just open your ears and hear what she’s trying to tell you.  Watch what she’s trying to tell you.  I guarantee she can’t argue with you if you’d keep your mouth shut.”
“And I suppose you think you’re better at communicating with her than I am.”
“Light years,” Ian mumbled as if it were a clear and plain fact.
“I see.  And that’s why she listens to you so well….why she followed you home just now.”
Ian turned his head sideways to glare at the captain.  “She did agree to come home.  I told you, she disappeared the minute we turned back.  Neither one of us had any control over it.”
The captain’s eyebrows skewed in a skeptical manner.  “Right.” 
Ian slowed his steps to turn more towards his accuser.  “She was headed home to talk to you, even though she wasn’t very happy about it.”
“But she was more than happy to talk to you, huh?  Is that why she told you all about how she planned to confront those wretched sisters today?  Or were you just not listening at the time?” 
Both men came to a standstill to fully face one another.  Four fists balled up in response to the heightened tension.
Ian growled through clenched teeth, “I think you’re getting us confused.  You’re the one who never listens, remember?  That’s why she comes to me all the time.  That’s why I’m her best friend and you’re not.”  His jab was directed well below the belt, but Ian was too angry to care.  Meeting Derian’s glower, he waited for a defensive comeback.
The captain drew in a deep breath.  “I guess it’s nice to know you’re good at something……considering your family’s monumental failure as protectors.”
Ian lost it, not expecting such a ruthless retort.  He charged forward and grabbed two fistfuls of shirt, forcefully shoving his antagonizer against the crumbling bark of a nearby tree.  Derian simply smirked, almost arrogant in how he had caused Ian to lose his self-control.  A trembling grip tightened around the captain’s collar. 
“My father did everything he could to protect Sha Tashi!  He wasn’t prepared for what happened to her!  He would have given his life to save hers had he known what your father had planned!  Eena isn’t just my queen, she’s my best friend!  I’d do anything within my power to keep her safe, including lay down my life for hers.”
“As would I.” 
Ian stared at the truth smoldering in the captain’s eyes and then pushed himself away.  He turned to trudge further into the forest, not bothering to wait.
Derian took a moment to breathe before following at a distance.  It would require no special tracking skills to keep on the trail.  His weak victory faded soon enough, and he felt an appropriate regret for his harsh words.  Of course Ian’s father had done all he could to protect Sha Tashi and Shen Laynn.  The man had been unjustly criticized by many Harrowbethians for the deaths of their king and queen, but it was hard not to bring up that unfortunate error now and then when Ian’s closeness to Eena threatened the captain’s confidence. 
As boys, Derian had developed a strong loathing for the young protector from the day he had appeared at Lacsar Castle as her personal guard.  That wasn’t Ian’s fault; he had been born into the calling.  But it was hard not to feel a bitter envy toward the guy and his position in her life.  After years of hiding, Eena had returned to them, but who had successfully wriggled his way in as her best friend? 
Derian grumbled in his throat, recalling his strict order to his entire crew, insisting they not speak to Eena while looking after her on Earth.  Those sent as watchmen were to observe from a distance until the time was right to bring her aboard the Kemeniroc.  Ian, however, had “accidentally” caught her attention and within a day had attached himself at her hip as chums.  The captain could have recalled him to the ship then, but it seemed convenient to have someone keeping an extra close eye on her.  The man was her protector, after all.  In hindsight, the decision smelled of regret.  Derian had failed to foresee how over time Eena might fall in love with Ian—with the wrong guy!  She was promised to Derian, a fact Ian knew well, yet the conniver had allowed himself to grow overly attached to her.  Consequently, she had developed improper feelings for her best friend.   
Derian combed his fingers over his scalp.  It didn’t matter that she was past those feelings now.  The fact that it had ever happened was unacceptable, and it made him angry every time he thought about it.  None of the mix-up was her fault; Eena had known nothing about their promise.  But her protector had been well aware and once again had stepped in where Derian belonged. 
It’s true that after a good fist fight over the matter Ian had backed down.  And yes, he had done his best to gently push Eena away from their forbidden love.  Ultimately, he had done the right thing.  And once Angelle, Ian’s promised one, had entered the picture, winning Eena’s heart had proved easier.  In spite of everything, those initial trials may actually have strengthened their love. 
  Derian smiled feebly to himself, thinking of the previous evening.  A perfect evening.  After weeks of courting his love, Eena had finally agreed to wear his promise pendant.  He had vowed not to rush her, wanting to give her time to make up her own mind, wanting it to be her decision to accept the pendant willingly.  It had felt like a dream when she asked him to attach the gold chain around her neck.  Seeing that symbol of commitment dangling over her chest had meant more to him than life itself.  And then later that evening when she whispered those precious words to him for the first time….I love you.  It gave him hope that her feelings for Ian were truly changed.  Not nonexistent, but not a real threat anymore either. 
The only threat he felt now was Ian’s constant reminders of how the two were, as he put it, best friends.  It seemed like a childish notion—a way for them to continue their closeness under an acceptable label.  Worse still was how Ian visited her dreams every night.  On one hand he understood the necessity of it.  Ian was the only one able to keep her from suffering horrendous nightmares.  But on the other hand, it was disconcerting knowing another man existed in her dreams.  The fact that it was Ian—the guy whom she had wept anguished tears over not so long ago—really stung.  Derian wasn’t sure there would ever be a time he would not envy Ian’s relationship with Eena.  All he knew was that he was the one promised to marry her.  She loved him now.  They would be Shen and Sha of Harrowbeth soon, and Ian’s dreamy, puerile friendship wasn’t going to stand in the way.
The captain sighed at his own petty jealousy.  Of course he should apologize for his harsh words; it was the mature, honorable thing to do. 
But he knew he wouldn’t. 
The two men walked on quietly for almost half a mile, well into the thick of the withered forest.  Dead, dry underbrush crunched beneath their footsteps, loudly protesting the bitter silence.  Derian continued to mull over his emotions.  Between his resentment toward Ian, his concern for Eena, and the guilt he felt for both, he was quickly sinking into a foul mood.  He nearly walked right into his guide when Ian stopped short in front of him.
“This is it,” Ian announced at the end of the trail of green footsteps.  “This is the place.”
“Where she disappeared?”
“Yes—no warning at all.”  Ian turned to point at the surrounding graveyard of tree stumps.  “I searched all around this spot, but I couldn’t find anything.  Not her, not the cave…”
“You mean Wanyaka Cave.”
Derian scanned the bare trees as he spoke, avoiding eye contact.  “You still think that’s where she is?”
Ian sighed in an agitated manner before repeating what he had already explained more than once.  “Anesidora told her to go to the heart of Lacsar Forest.  That has to be where she is; it’s where she was headed.  Somehow the cave found her like the ghost said it would.”
Derian started forward again, moving into a wide cluster of knarred tree trunks that had been cut low years ago.  Ian followed, grumbling behind the captain’s back.
“We should’ve brought help so we could cover ground faster.”
“I told you, Ian, I don’t want anyone to know about this.  Not yet.  After all we went through to get her home, can you imagine how the council would react if we told them we lost her in one day?”
Ian grimaced, allowing a low groan to cross his lips.
As if he felt the need to defend his decision, Derian assured his guide, “She’ll be alright.  They need her alive, they won’t hurt her.”
The dry plant life seemed to multiply as they progressed past the cluster of stumps and on deeper into the woods.  Bare limbs didn’t prevent darkness from closing in on them as tall, lanky branches mingled high above their heads.  Each footstep seemed extra loud, broadcasted by the sound of brittle scrub collapsing under their weight. 
Ian took off to the right when Derian veered left.  They could easily hear one another as the echo of crackling twigs bounced from tree to tree.  Progress slowed the further in they hiked, the fragile forest giving the illusion of huddling to keep out trespassers.  Even the underbrush appeared to thicken at their advance, growing taller and more prickled as they progressed.  When neither seeker had found a cavern or even a hint of an entrance to one, both men circled around and met up. 
Ian wiped the sweat from his brow, letting out a deep, discouraged sigh.  He was growing more worried and impatient by the minute.  Derian stood tall and still, his usual commanding stance.  His jaw stiffened and his dark eyes narrowed below a low line of furrowed eyebrows. He focused on a hollow stump up ahead and questioned Ian again.
“Are you certain there wasn’t something more Anesidora told her?  Some other clue as to how to find them?”
Ian pursed his lips, irritated.  He had already gone over this.  “She told Eena to come here and the cave would find her.  Maybe that’s the problem—maybe it was just meant for her.”
“Come here,” the captain repeated.  “What do you mean by here?  What exactly did she say?”
“Criminy, Derian, do you think I’m lying to you?  You think I’m trying to hide her from you?  I already told you everything I know.” 
The captain didn’t react to Ian’s defensive outburst but restated the same request.  “Tell me exactly what Anesidora said, word for word.  What instructions did she give Eena?”
Ian hung his head, letting it sway back and forth as he thought.  “Okay.  She told Eena to come see her so they could talk more.  Eena said something about not knowing where to go, and Anesidora said to head into the heart of Lacsar Forest.  Ohhh…”  Ian looked up remembering something.  “She mentioned the heart of the forest near Iccarus Circle.  I’ve never heard of it.  I assumed she meant some open grove in the woods.”
Derian frowned deeply.  “I’ve heard of the place.”
Ian dared to appear hopeful.  The captain met his gaze for a second before turning his attention back to the trees. 
“When I was a kid my father told my brother and me about a spot in the woods he had stumbled across.  He talked of a circle of red bushes tucked in a narrow passage.  He instructed us never to go there—said it wasn’t a safe place.”  A quick glance at Ian caught a silent appeal for more details.  “Of course we tried to find the place; we were young and curious.  But we never did come across anything like what my father described.”
“A circle of red bushes?” Ian repeated.
“Yes.  My father said….” Derian paused as if unsure about sharing his thought. 
“Said what?” Ian prodded.
“Well, he said, uh.…he said it was the forest bleeding for the treasure it held captive there.”  Derian caught the way Ian’s eyebrows arched with skepticism.
“The words of a foolish old man,” the captain muttered.  “But he swore he’d found the place.  And he called it Iccarus Circle.  You think….perhaps?”
“Maybe,” Ian shrugged.  “But where is it?  How do we get to it?”
Derian ran his fingers over his scalp and then down the back of his neck.  He squinted, staring forward, recalling a long-ago conversation.
“I remember him explaining how he happened upon it—that it wasn’t a traveled area.  He told us the circle rested in a perfect hiding place because no one would ever think to step there.”
“So what do we do?  Wander blindly around until we trip over a bleeding log?”
“Ian,” the captain grumbled.
“What?  You’re not giving me anything to go on here, and Eena’s still missing!” 
The captain groaned with frustration.  He wasn’t certain what they were looking for.  “Just keep searching.” 
The hunt continued, both men scanning their surroundings for any sign of a place no one would think to trespass.  Their present conditions—in the center of a congested mass of trees, trying to avoid the prickly twigs accumulated there—seemed like a perfect description of such a place to Ian.  Derian could hear his companion’s exasperation in louder, more frequent sighs.  Neither stopped searching, however.  After another good hour of pressing through the thickening forest, Ian stopped Derian in his tracks, yanking him back by the collar. 
“Let go!  What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Look at your feet,” Ian explained.  “There’s a cliff two strides away from you.”
The captain’s eyes fell, making out an abrupt ledge.  He might have walked right off had he not been stopped.  Crowded by trees, he had been completely focused on maneuvering around them.  Those growing up from below the cliff were tall enough not to give away a lowered point of origin. 
Derian backed up and stared at the ledge.  It appeared they had hit a dead end.  Or perhaps not.
“You know, this sure looks like a place you might stumble across and yet never purposefully step.”
“No way.  You have no idea how far down…”
But the captain wasn’t listening.  He marched determinedly forward.
“Derian, stop!” Ian cried.
The captain hesitated for only a second.  “Just think of it this way—if it kills me, she’s all yours.”  Then he stepped out over the brink and vanished.
Ian rushed forward.  “Derian!  Derian!”  His knees hit the ground and he peered beyond the cliff, desperate to glimpse any sign of the captain.  His head leaned this way and that way, but the mass of trees growing up from the ravine below blocked any decent view.
“Derian are you alright?  Captain?  Captain!”  Ian stood up and took a quick look around, wondering what he should do.  Then a voice rose up from a distance.
“Ian, I’m okay!  You aren’t going to believe this—Iccarus Circle is real!  I found it!”
Relieved and angry at the same time, Ian called back, “Criminy, Derian!  That was a really stupid move!”
“Just get down here!”
Ian decided against the captain’s way down, instead taking a running leap for the nearest tree extending its limbs from the ravine below.  On the climb down he estimated the descent to be about sixty feet.  It was hard to believe Derian hadn’t broken a bone with his fall until Ian spied the curved ledge.  Loose gravel and fresh, dark soil outlined his skidded slide down.
Lucky bastard, Ian thought.
When he reached a point about three feet from the ground, Ian jumped out of the tree.  Derian turned at the loud thud, a crooked grin on his face.
“Took you long enough.”
“You’re fortunate to be alive.  You had no idea what you were stepping into.”
“I had a gut feeling.”
“And what if you’d been wrong?”
The captain chuckled in a derisive way.  “Like you wouldn’t have appreciated my early demise.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Ian insisted, adding with an adamant rise in his voice, “And Eena especially wouldn’t have.”  Derian appreciated the thought.
“Anyway, I think we found what we’re looking for.  This definitely resembles a red, bloody circle, and that looks like either an awfully big pile of rocks…..or a cave perhaps?”
Ian’s attention shifted to a heightened mound of jagged stone that rose from within a surrounding hedge of crimson.  The hedge curved around the mound like an extended horseshoe moreso than an actual circle, lost on either side as it merged with cliffs on the opposite flank of the gorge.  Every red twig was covered in healthy foliage, strangely unaffected by Eena’s years of absence.  No obvious entrance into the cave was visible.  The captain pressed forward through the barrier, but his guide hesitated.
“Your father was right.”
Derian scoffed.  “I guess, about one thing anyway.”  He turned to look at his companion.  “Are you coming?”
“Sure, sure,” Ian muttered, still not budging.  “I was just wondering…”
“If your father was right about this place being here, then he’s probably right about it being dangerous too.”
The captain cast him a harsh look that conveyed how little their safety mattered while Eena’s was at stake.
Ian quit hesitating and pushed forward through the fence of bushes, on up to the mound of jagged stone.  The cave’s exterior wore spots of moss here and there—not the usual green moss, but a burgundy fuzz that blended with the black rock.  Ian reached out to touch this odd-looking fur and felt a layer of beaded moisture.  He followed a trickle of water up the rock and further on over the mound behind.  Then his ear moved in to listen.  His eyes closed at the same time, amplifying his sense of hearing. 
“Anything?”  Derian asked, wondering if Ian had tuned in to some unusual sound.
“Just water.  Dripping water.”
The captain made his way around to the left side of the cave, feeling at protruding edges of stone for some sign of entry.  Ian began calling out for their queen, feeling sure this was indeed Wanyaka Cave and that she was somewhere inside its walls.
“Eena, can you hear me?  Eena, are you in there?”
He continued around to the right.  “Eena?  Can you give me a sign you’re in there?  Yell or pound on the walls—anything!”
Without any forewarning, a strong wind swept through the ravine, behaving like a sudden tsunami of air flooding the narrow valley.  Ian was knocked onto his back, somewhat sheltered by the cave outcropping.  Derian, however, experienced the entire force of the gust, tossed like a rag doll away from the cave.  He landed a couple yards beyond Ian’s location.  His fingers grabbed for the base of a nearby bush to anchor himself.  The harsh wind subsided for only a moment before a second, violent burst of air pushed through. 
The captain tried to call for his companion, but his voice was drowned out by a fierce crack of thunder.  Both men followed the boom upwards and watched fretfully as a dark mass of rolling clouds gathered overhead threatening a violent storm.  At the next break in the wind’s fury, Derian jumped up and raced for Ian’s side of the cave.  He hunched against the rock, seeking protection from nature’s fury.  Ian quickly scuttled to his side, shouting above the roar of the storm. 
“I’d say Vaughndorin was right about a couple things!  I swear, Derian, if the ground starts bleeding…” 
Hunkering down to keep from being blown away, Derian hollered, “How are we supposed to get inside this thing?”
“It finds you, remember?  That’s what Anesidora said, the cave finds you!”
“So what happens when you find it first?”
“What?”  A sudden crash of thunder made it impossible to hear.
“What the hell do we do now?”
No response followed the captain’s question.  He did a double-take at his side where Ian had been crouched a second ago.  The man was gone.  Nothing but a tiny swirl of red leaves flicked against the black stone in his stead. 
Derian tucked in his head, raising his shoulders protectively against the battering storm.  “Great,” he murmured.  “What next?”
Overhead, the clouds burst open releasing an ample supply of rain.

Darkness blinded him for the first few seconds.  Ian rose from a hunched position beside a wall of cold stone, his hand shoving him away from wet rock.  His back was drenched.  The wetness chilled him like a river’s icy touch.  His eyes blinked a few times before limited beams of light allowed him to focus on new surroundings.  He immediately understood where he was.  The cave had found him.
“Derian?” he uttered without a reply.  He could only assume the captain remained outside.
A faint patter of rain was accompanied by a shrill hiss from wind that squeezed through tiny fractures in the stone.  The sound resembled a ghostly howl—too ideal for what he knew lived imprisoned here.  Ian was aware that Derian faced the storm alone now, but his top priority was their queen.  He squinted, scanning the cave for her.  She had to be inside somewhere.
“Eena?  Eena where are you?”
He swallowed at the lack of response.  Silence couldn’t be a good sign.  With cautious steps he moved toward two columns positioned in the middle of the room.  He understood that the bodies trapped inside were lifeless, but this knowledge didn’t ease his hesitance to approach.  He fell short of the first tomb when he froze at a soft cooing in his ear.  A cold shiver crawled up his spine.  Had he not recognized the voice from Eena’s dream, he might have been seduced by its velvety sweetness. 
“Protector,” the air seemed to breathe, “you are persistent.  Amora is lucky to have such a courageous and dedicated young man watching over her.”
Ian gave the voice a name.  “Ishtura.” 
He turned his head to look for the ghostly sister.  No presence was visible even though her words seemed to originate from beside him.  A soft sigh warmed his neck, and he stepped away, finding the sensation unnerving. 
“Where is Eena?” he demanded to know.  “What have you done with her?”
“She’s fine.  Don’t fear for your queen, brave one.  We’ve no intention of harming her.”
“Give her back to me then.”
“I can’t.”
Ian turned in a complete circle, baffled by how the seductive utterances seemed to travel around him with no apparent source.  “I’m not leaving here without her, Ishtura.  Let her come home.”
The voice chuckled softly, ending in a purr.  “She is home, protector.  More so than you realize.”
Another delicate laugh.  “Come, young man.  Come forward and look upon the beauty behind the voice that soothes you.  I am much to be desired.”
“No.”  He turned his back on the black columns, refusing to even face them. 
“As stubborn as your queen are you?”
Ian jumped when the next words sounded in his ear as if the seductress were leaning over his shoulder.  “Be warned, Protector, your interference will not be tolerated….no matter how desirable I find you to be.” 
He quickly whirled about to face nothing again, staggering a few steps in the process.  The two stone columns stood before him now.  He stared at the glassy tombs.  They seemed to draw him forward.
“That’s right,” Ishtura encouraged.  “Come closer.  Look upon me.  Tell me if I’m not the fairest you’ve ever laid eyes on.  Just….one….glance, Protector.”
Her persistence sent warning signs churning in his gut.  Ian forced himself to step away, feeling for the nearest wall.  He struggled against temptation, battling an intense curiosity to see the immortal beauty for himself.  But something told him doing so would prove detrimental.  He remembered what Shanks had said about the Viiduns being seduced by these women.  It was hard to believe, given the hideous appearance of their spirits in Eena’s nightmare.  That’s probably why Ishtura wasn’t showing her ghostly self to him presently.  She didn’t know Ian had witnessed her gruesomeness in Eena’s dream.
“I don’t need to look at you because I already know what you look like, witch.  You’re an ugly, repulsive creature!”
Ian realized too late that his insolent remark was a serious mistake.  He shrank at Ishtura’s howl—a pained and bitter cry.
“How dare you insult me, you puny mortal!” she screeched. 
From out of the blackness her spirit appeared, looming above.  Hers was a nasty, angry face glowering down.  She curled her fingers and swiped at Ian’s head.  He ducked, but not low enough to escape the vaporous nails that appeared to claw right through him.  Luckily, there was no physical consequence to endure.  Ian scrambled to put distance between himself and the apparition.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she hissed, her sweet voice vanished entirely. 
“I’m not going anywhere without Eena,” Ian bravely replied.  “You can’t harm me; you have no physical body.” 
Ishtura floated slowly toward him.  “You miss her, do you?  Is it just too difficult for you—a protector with no one to protect?  Is that your problem?”
“Where is she?  Tell me!”  Ian took a wider stance as if cementing his feet to the ground, determined not to move.
The spirit rolled her disproportionate eyes at his obstinance but answered the question.  “Your little queen was sent away.  Anesidora thought the girl needed a time out.  My sister has little patience for you mortals and your insolent tongues.  But not to worry.  Your queen will be returned to you……eventually.” 
“That’s not good enough.  Bring her back now.”
“I can’t.”
“Anesidora is punishing her.  She’ll be back after she learns her lesson.”
The ghostly spirit dropped down directly before Ian, invading his personal space with her ugly face.  He wondered how it was possible for this woman’s body to be so irresistible with such a revolting spirit possessing it.  He tried to imagine her actual physical features, those only Eena had been close enough to see in her dream. 
The words he had spoken earlier to Derian echoed in his mind: I would gladly die for her.  It was this determination that fueled his actions.  Ian stood his ground, knowing Ishtura couldn’t physically touch him, but not knowing for sure what kind of limited powers she possessed. 
“I want to see Eena now,” he demanded.  “Right now!”
A sly smile inched across the spirit’s face.  One green eye narrowed, making it appear to sink drastically lower than the other.  Ian squinted, wanting to look away from the foul expression but not daring.
“Very well, Protector, if that is what you wish.  Go see your precious queen.  I hope you can tolerate the cold.”
Ian heard an awful cackle resonate in his mind as the blackness withdrew.  In a flash, everything glared bright white. 
His eyes closed protectively against the unexpected brilliance.  At the same time, he wrapped his arms tightly around himself, feeling a drastic drop in temperature.  A blistery wind attacked his back and he realized his wet shirt was already frozen over, sheeted in ice.  He was at once afraid.  These subzero temperatures wouldn’t allow him to survive for long; however, concern for himself was overshadowed by honest fear for his best friend.  If this really was the place she had been sent—if Anesidora had left her here….
“Eena!” Ian shouted into the arctic air.  He could tell his voice wouldn’t carry far drowned out by the howling wind, but that didn’t stop him from trying.  He searched in every direction, catching no sign of life.  White flurries made it difficult to see far ahead.  Stepping with the wind, he called out repeatedly for his best friend.  “Eena!  Eena!”  He could think of nothing else to do but walk.  Walk, hope, and pray.

Outside Wanyaka Cave, Derian contemplated the wisest course of action.  Two people had disappeared from sight now, both Eena and Ian.  If he stayed long enough he might be the third.  In the process he might find his queen.  Possibly.  Of course, that would leave no one to explain what had happened—no witness to the awful powers hidden in the heart of their own forest. 
Drenched in the downpour of a thunderous rainstorm, Derian made the decision to retreat. 
He took off running for a tall, twisted tree closest to the ledge on which he had originally slid down into the ravine.  The rain made it difficult to maintain a good grip, but he managed to pull himself into the branches.  The wind seemed bent on shaking him loose, threatening to break the overgrown twig in half.  With great effort he climbed up far enough to reach ledge-height.  He managed a few more feet and waited for one powerful gust of wind before jumping.  Reaching out, he grabbed onto the rocky cliff and pulled himself up out of the gorge, helped along by a forceful blast of air that wailed as it shoved him violently away.  As suddenly as it had started, the storm came to an unnaturally abrupt halt as if to emphasize its wordless command: “Don’t come back—ever!”  

Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich