“What are we doing here, Empress?” Adaline stood in the ankle high reeds which had sprung up in the field.
Elena finished placing the last of the gem stones in the small clearing. “I want to understand your abilities better, Adaline.”
Elena eyed her four guards who stood outside the borders of the farm. It’d been quite a task to convince them to leave her alone with Adaline outside and they’d only agreed to it as long as she remained within their line of sight.
Elena walked up to the petite girl. “We have barely scratched the surface of our abilities. I learnt what I did in the past few months. And unless we continue doing that, there is a lot we will miss out on. And I don’t intend to be stuck managing houses, ration and all the stupid administration all day. We need to train.”
Adaline nodded with enthusiasm. “How do you propose to do that, Empress?”
“I have laid out different gems. Each allows me to use a different ability. You say your magic can enhance mine…”
“Or block them. At least I can dampen them. Like the day of your attack when I blocked Neptius’ attack and then helped boost yours. But you were weak then, so you didn’t feel much of a difference.”
“I did feel the power, Adaline. As if someone had put a burning sun in my brain. Which is why I want to know what we can achieve together.”
“I am ready to aid you in any way I can.” Adaline bounced up and down on her toes.
Elena half-smiled. In quite a few ways, she could relate to the girl’s enthusiasm. They weren’t so far apart in age so as to not feel the thrill of the unknown.
“But Empress, how do you decide when you want to use which gem?”
Elena shrugged. She’d never thought of it. “I…I don’t really know. It comes naturally to me, I guess.”
“For me, I have to sense you. Once I do that, I also get a sense of your ability and then I can aid you. Maybe, your ability lets you sense gems and their kinds.”
“That makes sense, Adaline. Let me try.” Elena reached out for a blue-streaked iolite. She immediately felt a connection to the stone. She switched her attention to a green sapphire. “You’re right. I can sense them. Almost like I know where they are. But…”
“But what Empress?”
“I already know these stones are here. What if I’m without gems? How will I find them then?”
Adaline shrugged. “I’ve tried sensing people from afar. But unless I know they are around me somewhere, I can’t connect to them.”
“Maybe, I can. Let me try.” Elena closed her eyes and reached out. The ten stones in the field popped up in her mind. She couldn’t see them or visualize them but she could somehow tell them all apart. She pressed harder. She began sensing a couple of agates and a string of pearls to the west. She opened her eyes and looked towards where she’d sensed them.
“What happened, Empress?”
“I could feel the stones, Adaline. There’s a pearl necklace in that house.” Elena pointed to a solitary house standing a few hundred paces from them.
Adaline’s eyes widened with surprise but then her freckled face broke into a smile. “Really? Let’s go see if you’re right.” The girl grabbed Elena’s hand and tugged at her.
Elena pulled back her hand.
The young girl looked up in shock and an instant later, dropped her head. “I’m sorry, Empress. I did not mean to…”
Elena shushed her. “I can sense something else. Something a lot bigger.”
Elena closed her eyes and reached out towards the house again. The pearls and the agates appeared in her mind instantly. But something dark and huge loomed just out of her comprehension. Elena scrunched up her face and concentrated. A looming darkness engulfed her. Elena wanted to open her eyes but something about the darkness enticed her. A low hum of power resonated through her body. But the gem wasn’t in the house or even to the west. The more she felt for it, the more it seemed to spread, stretching out for leagues all around her. Where is it?
Elena forced her mind away from the humongous stone. A huge void opened up inside her as if the sweet sense of happiness had been suddenly severed.
“Empress, are you okay?” Adaline caught her.
“What….? Adaline?” Elena righted herself. The ground spun for a moment before her mind steadied. “Oh my…the rush….”
“Empress, are you all right?” Catlia came running to her side.
Elena waved the girl away. Even though the Maray girl was supposed to be her magical guard, she’d taken to dressing like a proper guard of Maray complete with armour and a sheathed dagger at her side. Elena had never seen so much vigour in the demure girl before. Catlia backed away keeping her eyes trained on her.
Adaline clasped her hands together. “What happened?”
Elena looked around. Where could something that big be? Then she brightened. “Adaline, I believe there is a whole bed of black crystal below us.”
“Black crystal? Isn’t that a myth?”
Elena spoke excitedly, her words barely contained in her lungs. “I thought so too. But I felt it. I felt it calling to me. Humming to my thoughts. Adaline, I can’t describe how wonderful it felt.”
“Do you want to dig it out?”
“It would take months to dig out so much of the crystal. I can’t bear to wait that long. Maybe we can use some magic…” Elena stared at the brown soil beneath her feet. “Maybe I can pull it out myself.”
“You can do that? You can pull crystals towards you?”
“No.” Elena admitted, irritated with herself. She couldn’t move objects. Only displacers can. “Halam, come here, now.” Elena shouted to her second magical guard.
The middle-aged man with sunken cheeks rushed towards her. He hadn’t taken to wearing armour but wore a jerkin embroidered with the crest of the Maray guard.
“You can move and stop objects, right?”
The guard nodded. “That is why Lord Androl put me in your guard. To stop any arrows or knives.”
“Don’t you worry about those now. I need you to pull out a black crystal from under the ground.”
Halam looked up, baffled. “What crystal?”
“Halam, there’s an entire bed of crystal under the ground. Pull up some of it now.”
“Errr…Empress, I don’t…I can’t move something I can’t see.”
“Aaaargh!” Elena screamed. She felt the crystal’s sweet humming call to her. “Adaline, maybe you can help him pull it out. Increase his power.”
Adaline shook her head. “Empress, I can only bolster his power. He has to be the one who uses it. If he doesn’t know what to do, I have nothing to aid.”
Elena pulled at her hair. The high of the power she’d tasted dimmed away with every passing moment. Focus. “I can sense it. Halam can move it and you can help him pull it out. We just need to let Halam know of my senses.”
Adaline clapped. “That can be done, Empress. I can aid both of you at the same time. I can sense the crystal from you and then direct Halam’s pull.”
“You…can?” Elena asked, stunned. “But you couldn’t aid me and block Neptius’ attack at the same time.”
Adaline blushed. “I’m sorry, Empress. I was weak then. But helping you identify magic in people every day has made me stronger. I can now sense four minds at the same time.”
Elena pulled the young girl into a tight embrace. “Then, let’s pull this rock out. Are you ready, Halam?”
The guard nodded, his face betraying nervousness. Elena didn’t care. She closed her eyes and reached for the mass of the black crystal again. A surge of energy poured through her. Adaline.
She could sense the layer of crystal below and the intoxicating buzz of power engulfed her again. She drank in the feeling, warmth creeping up from the soles of her feet.
Elena rocked back, unbalanced as a rumble sounded, breaking her trance. The ground about ten yards from her ruptured throwing up a cloud of dust and mud. Elena turned away and closed her eyes.
“That was astounding, Empress.” She heard Adaline’s voice.
Catlia and the other guard picked her up. Elena leaned on her knees, her breath labored and eyes misting with strain. Astounding sounded too small a word for what lay in front of them. A dull black slab, jagged where it’d been broken off from the rest of the bed, stuck out from the ground. But as Elena stumbled forward towards it, a glint showed her a crystal on the other side. Elena’s eyes lit up. She didn’t care if black crystals remained a myth. What she’d obtained was far rarer.
“That isn’t black, Empress.” Adaline said, rising up from the ground.
Elena stepped forward and ran a hand over the crystal. “No. It’s Ianthine.” A dark violet crystal shone from under the black rocky exterior, as if ink had been diffused in it. Dirma had told her stories of violet crystals that could take or give life. Evidently, they hadn’t been stories.
“By Sucellok’s beard, it cannot be.” Halam held a broken fragment of the black rock which had crumbled off the ianthine. “It’s gneisstone.”
“Gneisstone?” both Elena and Adaline chorused.
“It’s the rarest of all rocks. It can withstand the worst of storms without so much as chipping. We had a small figurine in my master’s building workshop. It’d been with his family for over five centuries and yet it looked new as they day it had been carved.”
Elena’s ears pricked up. “Are you saying if one were to make houses of this, they would never fall? But this rock just broke when we pulled it up.”
Halam laughed. “There never has been enough gneisstone to build a foot of wall, much less a house and then turned somber. “I apologise Empress. Gneissstone will break with force yes, but it will not decay with time.”
Elena’s face broke out in a wide grin. “We have no dearth of gneisstone, Halam. Find all the gemmers in town and get them here and as many minders and displacers as you can as well. We have a city to build.”
Darius felt light-headed from the gash on his forehead. He’d been slipping in and out of consciousness, for how long he didn’t know. His hands strained against the rope holding them behind his back. Captured. His lips felt flaky and chapped with an aftertaste of sea-water lingering in his mouth. He twisted and scraped himself up against a wooden wall to a seating position.
“You’ve come to again, I see, Remus.”
Darius took a moment to adjust his eyes to the light. “Tar…Tarvus, wha…Who’s Remus?”
The captain sat by his side with a puffed up eye and a gash running past his eye all the way to his chin. “That’s your name.”
A dull pain throbbed on the left side of his temple. “What…no...I’m ….” Darius looked around. They sat around in a large barn like building made of logs tied together with a thatched roof. About twenty other people in differing conditions of pain sprawled around the walls. “Where…”
“The ship….oh!” Memories came flooding back as Darius winced at the memory of his collision with the rock.
“So you remember?” Tarvus nudged him with his feet. “I was beginning to think the blow to your head and the fever had claimed your memory for good.”
“I’ve been up before?” Tiny blotches of darkness obscured his sight every other moment.
“Yes, but you barely said anything coherent before.”
Darius shifted his left leg from under him with a groan. Except the hammering in his head and the dull ache in his arms, nothing else seemed to be hurting. “How long has it been? The bandits?”
Tarvus nodded, the left side of his lower lip, swollen and purple. “Most of us made it ashore. But turns out a few of the bandits took cue from us and swam back to their boats. They had weapons; we didn’t. End of battle. It’s quite lucky you washed up ashore after you cracked your head on the rock.”
“And the bandits took me off the island?”
“Well I earned that with the lovely scar on my cheek,” Tarvus smiled. “They just piled us all in in one of the boats, one atop the other and transported us back to the bandit lands and we’ve been here two whole days. I almost wish I was unconscious for the journey as well. Yargo, there, dislocated his shoulder bumping around.” Tarvus jerked his head to the right, where the head oarman lay with his right arm strapped to a wooden plank with sheets.
“What do they want with ….?” Darius could not complete his question as a group of men walked in. A couple kicked the sailors near the doorway.
A man with a curved blade hanging on his side stepped forward. Two longs matching scars decorated his cheek and Darius had a suspicion, the man had carved them himself.
“What were you stinking binge rats carrying, eh? I see no gold, no spices, no anything. The fastest ship of the royal fleet and no cargo?” The man growled. “You, captain, get over here.”
Tarvus sighed and pushed himself up to his feet and faced upto the bandit who wore a white tattered shirt, whose sleeves had been ripped off.
“Tell me, Throdden scum. What were you carrying?” A crunching kick to the gut forced Tarvus down to his knees.
Darius flinched. Tarvus had evidently been bearing the brunt of such beatings.
Tarvus spat on the ground. “I’ve told you. We had spices to trade with the Halans. We jettisoned it along with the other stuff in the chase.”
The man with the scars scoffed. “There were no spices in the water. Do not take me for a fool.” He pushed the young captain’s face down on the ground with his foot.
Darius squirmed against his bonds. This was too insulting to bear. But one look at the Tarvus’ eyes stopped him. They were filled with a steely determination. Not of pain, or anger but a will to find a way out.
“I hate obstinate men, Captain. And I hate waiting even more.” The man drew the long curved dagger from the sheath on his hip. “And I know what a good captain hates.” The man sneered and walked across to where the Yargo lay bound and hauled him up by the good arm. The bulky oarmen let out a scream of pain. “I will carve each of your crew in front of your eyes one by one.”
Tarvus looked back, thunder clouding his face.
“Strong bunch of lads you’ve got here, captain.” He said, running the tip of the dagger around the face of the oarman. A thin slice of blood appeared around the trace.
The young captain did not budge. Darius realized Tarvus was going to play it through, even if it meant losing his crew.
The scarred man yanked Yargo’s head back and raised the dagger. Darius’ face burned in anger and shame. His men were about to be killed and he was helpless.
“Don’t be hasty, Courash.” A large dark man entered the barn and strode in.
The scarred man sighed and lowered the dagger. “What now?”
“Why are you wasting strong men? Killing them will not get you what was on their ship.” The man looked older but his eyes held no kindness.
“Then what do you propose, wise one?” the scarred man bared his teeth in a smile. Two teeth on the upper row were broken in half, carefully shaped like fangs of a snake.
“Do not mock me, Courash. You do not have the wit to see that able men can make us stronger. Those who do not join can go in the ring and earn some coin. If they die then…” the dark man shrugged.
“Use the royals as ringers?” Courash scratched his chin, amused. “Utter humiliation and we get coin for it. I like it. The wise one does have brains.” Courash laughed out. A few of the other bandits suppressed sniggers of their own.Darius sighed in relief. He’d to get his men out of this predicament. The dissension between the bandits would help.