“Blood runs thicker than prejudice, apparently.” - Shaunna Nightshade
Shaunna gently lifted Taren’s body from the table. She was surprised at how light he was, especially with his wings. Reverently, she carried him to the room in the back of the house. The one that her mother had built special. The one that she was not allowed in as a child. The dark wood doors, carved to look like the trunks of the trees that surrounded the dark elf village, seemed ominous as she approached them with the dead in her arms.
“How appropriate,” She thought out loud. “I have caused so much death, and now I get to bury the last person that might have loved me.”
The grand doors swung silently inward as she approached them, revealing the dark elf burial chamber. A single dais stood in the center of the room on a stone floor. The sound of water flowing could be heard from the back wall, but she couldn’t see what caused it yet. Two piles of dry wood were stacked along the left wall, fuel for the pyre that would reduce the dead to primordial ash. Between the piles a glass bowl and ornately carved wood box stood on a shelf attached to the wall
A single tear slid down her cheek as she placed the body on the dais. She carefully brushed the wrinkles out of his shirt, trying to locate the hidden pockets that she knew were there. She found where he hid his thief’s tool kit. It was a small pouch containing several long, thin, lock picks. The picks were well worn, and she could tell that if anyone other than a true master of the art tried to use them, they would snap. Setting the small leather case to the side, she continued her search for the hidden portals that might open to her.
She found several more hidden pockets in his shirt as she continued to brush the wrinkles from it. When she was finished, she moved to his trousers. She knew that there was at least one hidden pocket there. She had seen him pull the Starfire Sword from it numerous times. It took little time for her to find the opening to the pocket where he’d stored the crystal cylinder. Her heart sank as she pulled it out to find it colorless.
She was surprised as words flashed across it. Choose your color.
“Purple” she whispered. She watched it once again began to glow the brilliant purple that it had whenever Taren had used the celestial weapon.
Loosening a loop on her belt, she attached the cylinder.
“TAREN!” Parel, Tarea, and Morganna shouted as they ran into the room.
“I am sorry.” Shauna apologized to them. “I did everything I could to help him.”
Parel wrapped her arms around Shaunna’s waist. “We know you did. Hope and Saria told us.”
It was clear that the women had been crying. Their eyes were red and puffy, and salty tracks could be seen on their cheeks.
“Will you help me grab the wood?” Shaunna asked.
Each of the girls gathered arms full of wood, placing it around the body of the brother, fiance, and friend, until there was an unbroken ring of wood surrounding him.
Shaunna crossed Taren’s arms across his chest, placing his thief’s tool-kit under his hands as if it were a warrior’s sword.
With reverent purpose, Shaunna strode to the shelf that hung on the wall between the two piles of wood. She carefully lifted the lid of the box that stood there, removing flint, steel, and tinder to ignite the funeral pyre.
“Why are we burning him, again?” Tarea asked.
Shaunna smiled, sadly. “We are doing this in honor of your mother’s heritage. She was a dark elf priestess. Your grand-father would be sad to know that he’d outlived his only grand-son.”
If the words surprised the girls, they kept it to themselves.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?” Saria asked.
Saria walked slowly into the room.
“No, I think all of the important people are here.” Shaunna answered.
Sliding the steel blade across the flint rod, she ignited the tinder. Cradling the small flame she moved to the head of the dais.
“Mother Cerethe, we commend this man’s soul into thy loving embrace.”
The dried wood ignited the instant the flame touched it, the fire spreading quickly until it completely enveloped the corpse.
Without another word, Shaunna left the three sisters with the burning body of their dead brother.
Weariness washed over her as she entered her room. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do now. The one chance that she had to change her life, to put the past behind her, was now gone.
She stopped short halfway through the door, staring at her bed. A dark brown pouch lay on her pillow. It looked very much like the pouch that the mage had given her in the tavern where she had been hired to kill Taren and Parel. It couldn’t be, that pouch was still in her room at the crystal castle, wasn’t it?
Grabbing her pouch, she shoved her arm into it clear up to her shoulder, concentrating on the pouch of gold that should be there. Her fingers were electrified as the brushed the leather of the pouch. It was still there.
Her gaze returned to the pouch on her pillow.
Tossing her portal pouch onto the bed, she hefted the leather bag. It was heavy, at least as heavy as the first one had been.
She started as a piece of parchment fell from the bag, alighting on her satin comforter.
Her heart leapt to her throat as she lifted the note and read the neat script:
She screamed, hurling the pouch with all her might. It hit the wall, exploding with a shower of gold coins. The weight of the situation thrust her to the floor. Not even trying to rise, she just lay there gasping for breath as violent sobs wracked her body.
The fire was cold and the moons were high when Shaunna re-entered the funeral chamber. The stone floor and dais were covered in ash. She removed the bowl from the shelf and moved to the center of the room. Ash billowed into the air as her foot came down on the stone that surrounded the “burning” table.
With a soft brush, she began to push the ash from the table into the bowl. She paused a moment when a stroke uncovered a single feather that somehow survived the inferno. Lifting the feather, she gently brushed it off, removing the grey dust, and stuck it in her hair above her left ear. So decorated, she continued to fill the bowl with Taren’s ashes.
It took several minutes before the surface ot the small platform was clear of the dust that covered it.
A stream flowed from the back of the room, the water rushing through a hole in the base of the wall, falling hundreds of feet to the sea below.
Shaunna knelt on a cushion beside the rushing water. “Travel well, until we meet again. May Cerethe guide you to the glory that you deserve.” As she finished speaking, she dumped the ashes into the water.
The clear water grew murky for a few seconds, before the muddy ash was washed away by the current. In the instant before Taren was washed out to sea, Shaunna thought she saw the image of a sword, or maybe a dagger, in the water. The image was so brief, she wasn’t completely sure that she had not imagined it.
Tears were streaming from her eyes again as she grabbed the large broom that would be used to clean the ash on the ground surrounding the dais. She’d been so close to a way out; so close to a better life. Then, it was stolen from her. Stolen by Satchel, the best thief in Bright Bay. She laughed at the irony, causing herself to look utterly silly in the process.
Once the ash was cleared, she dropped the broom, striding purposefully from the room. Narissa was waiting just outside of Shaunna’s bedroom.
“Shaunna, what are we going to do now?” Her voice was small, increasing the illusion of fragility and weakness that surrounded the small woman.
Shaunna didn’t answer, she just brushed pass.
Shaunna emerged from her room in full travel apparel the next morning, eyes still puffy from tears. She was stopped short by the tiny form of Ellie staring at her, a question in her intelligent eyes.
“What is it, girl?” Shaunna asked.
Ellie growled sharply.
Shaunna sighed deeply. “I wish I could understand you.”
Ellie let out a sharp bark.
“She says Taren owed her a favor. She does not want to be left here alone when you leave again.” Erik explained.
“How do you know that?”
She shook her head. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Ellie emitted a sharp blast from her trunk as she turned and walked away.
Shaunna shook her head again. “Wonderful, this is all I need right now.”
She hurried out the front door, passing silently by the dining hall where the others were partaking of their morning meal.
The sun shone brightly in the morning sky as she emerged from her home. The steps in front of her house were still wet from the rain. The streets of the town were submerged under several inches of water. Walkways floated just above the water’s surface, held aloft by magic.
She shook her head as she quickly descended the stairs into town. She paused a moment before stepping onto the magical bridges to lovingly caress the handrail.
“I’m sorry.” the whisper barely audible.
She was surprised by how sturdy the bridge was when she stepped onto it. There was no sway. She had only been a child last time she walked one of these, bet she remembered how they swayed under her weight. She watched as someone stepped on another of the bridges. The walkway swayed and bucked as they travelled from one side to another.
She hurried across the bridge to the steepled building. She paused momentarily to steel her nerves. She hadn’t been in this building in eleven years. She didn’t know who the head priest was, and she didn’t know if she would be welcome. She had only been a child when the banished her, after all. After a moment she opened the large wooden door and stepped inside.
Her head swam as the sweet smell of the incense assaulted her nose. She paused again just inside. Row upon row of ornate cedar pews lined the room, left and right, from the back wall to the lectern at the front. Light filtered in through large stained-glass windows illuminating the floor and pews in an ever shifting rainbow. A thin elf in a long white robe stood in the front of the chapel with his back to her.
Quieter than a shadow, she moved up the aisle to the statue alcove. Graven images of the Council of Nine stood in a semi-circle, sightless eyes observing the building’s single occupant as he went about his duties. She knelt in front of the statue of Cerethe, the Mistress of Light, to give obeisance to the goddess that accepted her mother’s people. Placing her thumb against the tip of her middle finger, she touched her chest, just to the left of the breast bone. Slowly drawing the hand away from her, she placed it on the feet of the statue.
Next she knelt before the image of Laura, the Mistress of Dawn. Placing her forehead on the floor in front of the statue, she prayed to her father’s deity asking protection for the remainder of her journey. She didn’t know what the other’s planned, but she fully intended to continue Taren’s quest.
“May I help you?” A soft voice sounded behind.
She hadn’t expected anyone, so the voice, as soft as it was, startled her.
“Excuse me, I was just praying.” She felt stupid as the words slid from her mouth.
“It is not often we have children of the night in our humble church.” The priest stated. “I find it especially interesting that you were praying to the Mistress of Dawn.”
She grew wary as the priest continued to speak. “You know what I am?”
He nodded. “I not only know what you are, I know who you are. I’d not expected to see you again.” She began to speak, but he raised a hand to stop her. “I never believed what the others said about you and your mother. She was always so kind to me. You and I were friends.”
“Stelan?” She asked warily.
“It’s good to see you, Shaunna. I’ve missed you.”
“You’re a priest?”
He smiled, warmly. “You have a keen sense of the obvious, my friend. I felt I could make a difference as a member of the order. However, the difference I’ve been making has made me very unpopular among the local populace. We don’t have many dark elves visit, but there have been a few.”
“If there have been others, how did you know who I was?”
“None of the others had white hair, and none of them prayed to your father’s god.” He wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace. “Welcome home, my friend. What brings you into the presence of the gods?”
“I need to adopt a child.”
He thought for a moment. “What are you looking for?”
“I need someone to live in my house and care for a small animal.”
“I have just the child. Follow me.”
She followed him into the back room.
“This child might seem a bit strange. She has been with us for a long while, and the elven prejudice will keep her here longer.” He began to explain. “Then there’s the fact that we don’t even know her name. She refuses to tell us. We just call her Nara.”
The orphanage was a single room with beds lining the long walls. White sheets glimmered in the sunlight filtering through the rows of bay windows. A single pillow lay at the head of each smartly made bed and a blanked was folded at the foot. Small wooden chests stood at the foot of each bunk.
A small girl sat at the end of the row to their right. Long white hair obscuring her face entirely. She was clad in a simple white blouse and brown pants. No shoes adorned her dirty feet.
Shaunna had the distinct impression that she was under scrutiny as she approached the single occupied chair.
“You have done very bad things, but you are not a bad person.” The girl’s melodious voice floated from beneath the hair.
“Nara, we’ve discuss...” The priest began, but was brought up short as the girl shifted, a solid white eye staring at him.
After only a brief pause, she continued. “You have had a hard life. Mixed into that have been some amazing experiences. You have few friends. Those friends you do have; you protect with all of your might. You have recently suffered a tragic loss, and you are here trying to keep a promise that this person made.” She paused for a few moments, clearly frustrated by something. “I can’t tell who this person was, or what promise was made.”
“You have great insight for one so small.” Shaunna remarked. She reached for the untidy cascade of hair, but the girl drew away from her touch. “May I see your face, please?”
A delicate hand brushed the flowing silvery locks from her face. Her face seemed to be chiseled out of ice. She was beautiful, but unwelcoming. The eye that had not been seen through her hair was ice blue. It reminded Shaunna of Cyan’s blade when he was still alive. The other eye was a flat white. There was no iris, or pupil. Dirt streaks decorated her angular cheeks. Her lips were thin, with no upward or downward cant to them.
Shaunna went to a nearby basin of water. Lifting a sponge, she dipped it in the clear liquid. Without a word she moved to the small girl and began to wipe the dirt from her face.
As the wet sponge slid smoothly across her skin, her eyes closed and her chin lifted a little.
“Oh, you are beautiful.” Shaunna said after she had finished. “I think you will do nicely.”
When the girl answered, she sounded different. Her voice was not unpleasant, but it no longer held the musical quality of the strange pronouncements. “My name is Celeste. My tenth birthday was yesterday.”
Stelan looked at her in disbelief. “Three years you have been with us, and now you tell us this information? Who were your parents?”
Celeste shook her head.
“That is not important. How would you like to be my daughter? I need someone to live in my house to care for a very special pet while I am away.”
“What will happen when you come back?”
“Then we will take the time to get to know each other, and I will be the best mother to you that I am able.” Shaunna lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m not that much older than you.”
No emotion showed in Celeste’s countenance as she voiced the next question.” What will happen if you don’t come back?”
“Then the big house on the hill will be yours, along with the charge to take care of this special pet.”
Celeste’s white eye flashed briefly. “That is brilliant. Nobody would suspect you. Why would you use your real name?”
Shaunna was taken aback. She wasn’t sure what just happened, but it was clear that Celeste had just had another flash of uncanny insight.
“Celeste Nightshade.” The girl spoke flatly. “Yes, that will do nicely.”
It only took a moment for Celeste to gather her few belongings.
The magistrate’s office was cold, both in look and feel. Neatly kept tables lined the walls hemming the people sitting behind them to the wall. Light gleamed off the shiny floor. Cabinets were placed equidistant from each table, so that each worker could reach the drawers without leaving their seat. A cold breeze blew through the room, dropping the temperature to an uncomfortable frigidity.
“Can I help you?” The magistrate was overly cheerful as he asked. His mood darkened quickly when he saw Shaunna. “What do you want?”
“I would like to adopt this child.” Shaunna motioned to Celeste standing behind her.
The magistrate didn’t even look. “What makes you think I will allow an outcast monster like you to adopt a child?” He gestured vaguely behind her. His face grew even darker when he saw the small child standing behind Shaunna. “Why that child.”
Celeste’s white eye flashed briefly. “She doesn’t know. You haven’t told her.” Shaunna looked at her in surprise, but Celeste didn’t seem to notice. “She still thinks they are all dead.”
Understanding dawned in Shaunna’s mind. “Stelan, can you please run to my house. There is a small albino woman there. Can you please ask her to join us?”
“What are you doing?”
Shaunna smiled brightly. “I am being the monster that you were so kind to mention.” She lowered her voice. “By the way, I am only half monster. The other half is still your niece, regardless of whether or not you recognize that.” Her eyes brightened a bit as realization dawned. Her face split into an enormous grin. “Oh, she’s going to love this. Now, about Celeste.”
Fire burned in his eyes. “No, I will not allow it. Not even with this... this... child.” He spat the last word like it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“We shall see, won’t we uncle Marl.” Leading Celeste by the hand, she led her into the soggy streets.
As she stepped onto the closest floating bridge, she heard Celeste behind her. “That’s interesting.”
She paused at the top of the stairs. “What?”
“I’ve never seen the spiders do that before.”
“The giant spiders that hold the bridges in place. They usually make the bridges sway, trying to knock people off. As soon as you reached the bottom step, the spiders holding this one tightened so the bridge would be steady for you. Oh... Brother Stelan says I shouldn’t talk about the spiders.”
Shaunna smiled. “It’s all right. You can see these spiders?”
“Can you talk to them?”
Celeste’s face fell as she nodded again.
“Do they talk back to you?”
Shaunna knew the answer before the hesitant nod came. She stepped off the bridge, kneeling in front of the scared girl. “I bet you can talk to things other than the spiders too.” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I don’t think you’re crazy. In fact I know what it means that you can communicate with these creatures. I also know that it means you really are perfect for the task that I need you to perform.”
“If I’m not crazy, what’s wrong with me?” The hard face seemed to soften a bit as she asked.
“Nothing is wrong with you, Celeste. I can’t see the creatures, but I know they are real. The fact that you can see them, and can talk to them, means you can communicate with magic.”
Shaunna nodded. “You are a very special young lady, and I will feel safer knowing you are taking care of my house.”
The ice seemed to melt from the countenance as her mouth twisted upwards into a radiant smile. Shaunna wrapped her arms around the small girl, pulling her into a tight embrace. It took several minutes for Celeste to relax into the hug enough to return it.
“Shaunna, what’s going on?” Narissa was standing behind them on the bridge.
She was all smiles as she turned to face her friend. “Narissa, you will never believe what I just realized. We’re cousins.”
Narissa was confused.
“My father and your grand-father were brothers. Apparently, my dad was a bit more opened minded about things than your grandpa.” She shook her head slightly. “Anyway, I need your help.”
Shaunna led Narissa and Celeste to a house not far from the magistrate’s office.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Marl spat as he approached them. “Stay away from my house.”
Shaunna smiled innocently.
Narissa nodded. “Grand-father.”
Anger flashed in his eyes. “I am not your grand-father. She stopped being my daughter the moment she agreed to marry that... that...” He slammed his fist against the wall next to him. “I don’t even know what to call it.”
“Marl, what’s going on?” A woman’s voice called from the within the house. “Who are these people?”
Shaunna stepped forward bowing deeply. “Hello Auntie.”
The woman looked confused.
“It’s me, Shaunna.”
Narissa wrung her hands nervously. “Hello, grand-mother”
Marl snarled viciously as he advanced on Celeste. “You little witch. I should have had you drowned years ago.”
Without sound, and quick as lightning, Shaunna had him pressed against the wall behind him, a dagger to his throat.
Her voice was low and deadly as she spoke. “She is not my family yet, but I fully intend to remedy that. I will not allow you to harm her.”
“Shaunna, is that really you?” The woman from the house called. “Why did the little one call me grand-mother?”
Shaunna watched as a wilted old elf stepped through the door. She was a fraction of the woman that Shaunna remembered. She was thin, with a far off look in her old eyes. Wisps of white hair fluttered in the breeze. She was clad in a lavender robe that fell to just below her knees.
“Lyra, go back into the house.” Marl commanded.
As she turned to obey, she noticed Shaunna holding the knife to her husband’s neck.
“What is going on?”
“Auntie Lyra, I would like to introduce you to Narissa silvermoon...”
Lyra cut her off, “Silvermoon, like that queer little fellow that Rosaria married? That can’t be. They all died. Marl told me they died.”
“Lyra, go back in the house.” Marl said through clenched teeth.
Celeste stepped forward and took Lyra by the hand. “Congratulations, Magistrate, you have thoroughly broken her.”
“Who are you?”
Celeste’s face showed little emotion as she answered. “I am Shaunna’s daughter; or I will be as soon as your husband allows it.”
Lyra cocked her head slightly.
“Enough of this.” Shaunna’s voice rang out. “Auntie Lyra, it was thought Rosaria and her children were killed twenty years ago. It was found out, very recently, that this thought is not entirely accurate. The youngest, Narissa, survived and I can prove it.”
“No!” Marl Nightshade snarled, trying to throw Shaunna off of him.
Shaunna stepped closer, pressing the knife further into the flesh under his chin. Blood began to seep from a small cut as the blade bit into him.
“I have killed better men than you, uncle. Father always said you represented the worst of us.”
“I always knew it was you, but I could never prove it.” He snarled. “I will have your head for this.”
“Not today.” She whispered, then louder. “Narissa, I would like you to enter that house. The one that aunt Lyra just came out of.”
“NO!” Marl screamed. “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME IN MY HOME!”
Narissa paused in front of the door for a moment. She didn’t really know what this would accomplish, but Shaunna seemed to think it would help them. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and walked into the house.”
Lyra dissolved into tears. She slumped to the floor, dragging Celeste to the ground with her. “The little one survived.” She whispered over and over between sobs.
“Shaunna, I don’t understand” Narissa said as she came out of the house. “What did this prove?”
“The enchantments on my uncle’s house are identical to the ones on my house. As long as a member of his family lives, only his blood line can enter the house without his permission. This proves that you are his daughter’s child. Blood runs thicker than prejudice, apparently.”
Heat radiated from Marl as his fury raged in him. “You have destroyed what is left of my wife.”
“You are wrong, uncle.” Celeste rose from the tangle she’d been pulled into. “This has started to heal the damage you’ve done.”
He tensed, but he didn’t move under Shaunna’s knife.
“How long have you known?” Lyra asked her husband. “You don’t look surprised, so you must have already known.”
“He’s only known for a few days, auntie.” Shaunna answered. Shaunna pushed her uncle away from her. “Now about the adoption.”
“Never! I already have monsters in my family. I will not add witches.”
Nobody saw Lyra move from where she had fallen, until the sharp crack of her hand striking her husband’s face sounded.
There was steel in her voice when she spoke “You should have told me as soon as you knew. You know the hell I’ve been going through since you disowned our only child.” She turned, grabbing Shaunna and Celeste by the hand. “I am still just as much Magistrate as you are. I will approve the adoption.”
Celeste was impassive as they approached the enormous building at the top of the hill. Shaunna didn’t know what her new daughter thought. The more she considered what had happened, she wasn’t sure she knew what the child should think. She shook her head sadly, afraid that she’d saved her from a life of misery just introduce her to another life with a different kind of misery.
“Who was it?” Celeste asked in a small voice. “The person you lost.”
The thought of Taren forced the need for her to blink back tears. “He was to be my husband.”
Celeste’s white eye flashed. “He was your ticket out of that life. A way to dislodge yourself from your soiled family name.”
“You know that your family name was soiled long before you became the nightshade. Your uncle saw to that.”
“Uncle Marl is like the majority of the others. Very few elves have ever accepted me. In fact only three, out of the entire kingdom, ever accepted my mother.”
Celeste thought for a moment. “I wish I could have met the king. Unfortunately, he died before I was born. Had he still been alive, things might have been different for me.”
Shaunna hugged her. It didn’t take as long for her to melt into Shaunna’s arms this time. “No matter what happens, things will be better for you from now on. Here, I would like you to open the door and enter. What we did should be sufficient, but I want to be sure.” Shaunna stepped back to allow Celeste unfettered access to the door.
The small girl stepped forward, placing her hand on the doorknob. She stood there for a moment, her face an icy mask.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Shaunna asked, misreading the hesitation.
“No, my life has not been a happy one. I’m trying to decide how I should feel about all of this. I have a family now. An aunt that adores me and an uncle who hates me. And a mother,” She paused a moment savoring the sound of the word. “Who is barely older than I am, but understands my pain.”
“I have to go, Celeste. I will do everything in my power to come home to you. I know what it’s like to be alone. I don’t want that for you.”
Celeste nodded, turned the nob, and stepped into the house.
As she entered the house behind her daughter, Shaunna was met by the small, white, elephantine creature. Ellie was staring at her with her intelligent eyes.
Shaunna gestured toward the magical creature. “Celeste, this is Ellie. She is the special pet I was telling you about. Go ahead and introduce yourself.”
Ellie emitted a short trumpet from her trunk.
“Hello, Ellie, I’m Celeste. I will be here to keep you company.”
Shaunna smiled. “I will leave you two to get acquainted, I have some more business in town I need to attend to.”