Heart Stone - (The Dagger of Dragon Rose Book 2)

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The Sea of Skies

“Where ocean and sky blend into one, the cloud fish dance.” - The Canticle of the Sky
“What happened last night?”
The group was gathered around the fire, where spiced meats were sizzling aromatically. They each turned to Shaunna, hoping to catch the answer to Hope’s question. Morganna just stared into the skillet as she continued to stir the frying meat.
“We were attacked. Someone broke into my tent and stole the shards of Cyan’s heart stone and the blue gem that the magic gave to Taren. They used old magiks to set a trap around them. Morganna was able to disarm the trap.”
“It sounded like something died.” Saria remarked.
Morganna stifled a sob. “That’s because something did. The trap was a maaginen. A living creature that has been reduced to pure energy; only able to hold a single purpose. This particular maaginen was tasked with guarding the heart stones. Shaunna was able to get the stones away from it, but it would have followed us to the end of forever to get it back.”
The others just nodded in silence. It was to Hope’s credit that he didn’t push the issue. It was clear to see that the ordeal had deeply affected Morganna.
“What was it before?” Tarea stared at the ground as she spoke.
“I don’t know.” Morganna admitted. “I’d never actually seen this form of magic before last night. If there was a way to identify what it had been, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” In on obvious attempt to change the subject, she removed the skillet from the fire. “Breakfast is done.”
Breakfast was doled out and consumed in silence, the only sound came from Narissa as she noisily slurped up the fragments of meat.
Shaunna was tired from the late night, so she excused herself and returned to her tent. She was shocked to, once again, find her tent already inhabited. I tiny woman with grand butterfly wings paced across her pillow. When Shaunna first saw her the night before, she’d glowed with a brilliance to rival the mid-day sun. Now, however, it was hard to see any light coming from her at all.
Shaunna bowed. “You’re majesty, what brings you to my humble dwelling?”
The queen pixie curtsied briefly. “News of much sadness, I am afraid. My son has been missing since yester-night. I am afraid he may have been murdered. I heard his anguished scream in the early morning darkness. I was affrighted greatly, to the point that I durst not leave my sanctuary until the great light brightened the sky.”
“I am sorry, your majesty.”
“I do not blame you daughter of darkness. He was already dead before your sister put him to sleep.” She continued pacing as she spoke. “I know we promised you shelter as long as you wished to stay. However, nothing like this has ever happened here before. Evil has entered our vale. I must ask you to please not tarry long, lest the evil return and more of my flutter are lost.”
Shaunna nodded, stunned. Her voice was a few moments in coming. “With your leave, we will stay one more day and night, and leave tomorrow morning.”
The tiny woman nodded sadly, and disappeared.
“Well, that answers that question.” She again wondered how Taren did it. How did he continue through everything that kept going wrong?
With these thoughts weighing heavily on her mind, she slipped into a troubled sleep.

The sun was high in the sky when Shaunna emerged from her tent. The fire was burning low, the forest animals were singing their beautiful symphony, and her companions were warming themselves in the sun.
Narissa approached her hesitantly, her intelligent pink eyes bearing a quizzical look.
“I’ll be okay, kitten.”
The large cat purred loudly as she started rubbing her forehead against Shaunna’s hand.
“Are you really okay?” Sariah asked. “You look worried.”
Shaunna smiled sadly. “We need to leave tomorrow morning. Rest up as best you can today.”
“But the faeries said...” Hope began, but Shaunna cut him off.
“I know what they said. Plans have changed. That magical trap, was the prince of one of the flutters that promised us protection. His mother has asked us not to tarry long.”
“No!” Morganna gasped.
“She doesn’t blame us. She said he was gone before you put him to sleep.” The explanation did little to encourage Morganna.
“Who would do such a thing?” Sariah wondered.
“Who could do such a thing?” Morganna’s voice was flat as she voiced the thought that they were thinking. What kind of creature could enter a protected vale, sneak into an active faerie ring, and spirit the prince away from under his mother’s nose?
“I don’t want to think about it.” Shaunna rubbed her temples gingerly.
Climbing to her feet, Shaunna stalked silently from the fire. She wandered absently as she wracked her brain in an attempt to understand the implications of what happened. Her attempts to invoke her race’s protection of the fae had both resulted in tragedy. She didn’t remember anything like this happening when her mother had shown her how.
“I guess things have changed.”
She stopped short as soon as she realized where her meandering had brought her. She stood on the bank of the stream, indents in the muddy bank showed where both the gem and the creature guarding it were laid the night before. The water level was still higher on the far side of the bank, as if the water were still trying to escape the dying scream of the maaginen.
As she studying the scene in the light of day, other features came to her attention. Deep prints of some sort of animal were visible in the earth not far from the water.
“Erik, can you try to get Grathius to come here.” She knew it would be harder to get the in touch with the wolf, as Mark was still incapacitated. She hoped that one of the others would relay her massage.
Her hope was answered moments later as the large canine gamboled toward her.
“I am herrre, Shaunna. How may I serrve you.” Grathius looked and sounded better than he had in days.
She gestured to the prints. “What do you make of these?”
Grathius sniffed the area for several minutes, moving to and fro, trying to make sense of the scents. “It was a larrrge horrrse.” He sniffed some more. “I do not detect any trrrace of a rrrider.” Inhaling once more, he concluded. “It was definitely herrre last night and it came frrrom camp.”
“A large horse with no rider.” Shaunna repeated. “What does this mean? Why didn’t anyone see it?”
Grathius stared at her, panting in the warm mid-day heat.
“Thank you, Grathius.” He began to whimper happily as he scratched him behind the ear.
“We need to be morrre carrreful. It seems therrre arrre otherrr powerrrful enemies out to stop us. It doesn’t appearrr to be just the Darrrk Lorrrds.”
Shaunna agreed with him. This puzzle was concerning her. “Oh Taren,” she breathed his name silently. Turning to Grathius she spoke out loud. “Do you think Taloren might have found us?”
He shook his shaggy head. “My kind does not go nearrr horrrses. We frrrighten them.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t rrremembering him having any sorrrt of magical talent. I don’t think he could have done that to the faerrrie prrrince.”
“Grathius, have you had a healer look at you?” Saria smiled at him. “I may be able to do something about your... problem.”
Confusion filled his eyes as he looked at her. “The pack healerrr did everything that she could. She is the rrreason I can speak at all.”
Blue light surrounded Saria’s hands. “May I?” Her voice was soft, soothing even.
Grathius raised his muzzle to the sky, exposing his throat to the small elven healer.
The light around Saria’s hands flared brightly as she touched the wolf-man’s neck. It only took an instant for the blue light to change to a deep, dark, reddish-brown; the color of old blood. Several minutes passed as the light flowed between them, yet nothing seemed to be happening. The color didn’t fade, nor did it noticeably change in any way.
Sweat poured from her face as her hands came away from her patient. “I’ve never seen that before. I have always been able to heal people’s wounds.
Grathius’ voice was a bit smoother as he answered. The gruff, growly, quality lessening noticeably. “I am much olderr than any of you, and my wound was sustained as a pup. Something like that will not be easy to take away. It has become a parrt of me.”
“Something definitely happened. Your voice is different, even if it is still not perfect.” Excitement shone in her eyes as she went over what had just happened. “If you are open to it, I think we may be able to get you talking the way you were meant. It will take several sessions, but I am sure it will work.”
“Look at you.” Hope interjected, “You’re exhausted. How do you think you will be able to handle these multiple sessions. You are already more tired than the rest of us.”
Saria stuck her tongue out at him. Holding her gnarled crystal staff aloft, she defiantly spoke her answer. “I can share Terra’s energy.” She paused a moment, looking at the staff as it pulsed in her hand. “I don’t understand. Mhmm. What do you mean?”
“What did she say?” Hope’s tone was derisive.
“She says it will work, but it will require massive amounts of energy. Even with her support, it will be difficult and time consuming.”
Hope snorted in disbelief.
“Do not mind him, child. He is jealous of your abilities. Up until you arrived, he was the only mystic healer. The fact that you can do the same thing he does, only better, does not sit well with him.”
“Maxx!” Hope was furious.
“I am not trying to depose you as resident healer. I am just using the talents that I have to the best of my ability.”
“I apprreciate yourr efforrts, child, but I think I will stay as I am. It would not due for Crrynna to not rrecognize herr own fatherr when I return.”
Shaunna hadn’t heard him speak of his daughter since they left the Wolftracker den. Her thoughts drifted to the tiny, sick, pup she’d seen just before they left, then to Celeste. It had been hard enough to leave her adopted daughter, even though they hadn’t had time to create a real bond. She could only imagine how hard it had been for Grathius to leave, and then to choose to continue on when given the chance to leave.
“Let’s enjoy our last day of protection.” She sat upon a log next to Grathius, absent mindedly stroking his fur.
“Protection? We were attacked, or have you forgotten.”
Shaunna glowered at Hope. “I wouldn’t call that an attack. None of us were harmed. We never even saw the, so called, attacker.”
Hope sighed deeply. “You’re worse than Taren was.” Snot flew from his nose as he snorted again. Without another word, he rose and stormed to his tent.
“I don’t disagree with you.” She whispered to herself as she watched her oldest friend stalk away. Louder she continued. “Get what rest you can. We leave at dawn.”
Before anyone could reply, she turned and retreated to her tent. She only hoped that she wouldn’t have any visitors this time.

The interior of her tent was stuffy, stifling even. She found that her breathing was labored and sweat poured down her face, dripping from her nose and chin. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but something didn’t seem quite right. Her mind clung to fragments of the dream she’d been having, but the fragments slipped through her mental grip like water through a sieve.
“Get a grip, Nightshade. You’ve been falling to pieces since you found out he was alive. Even more so since he died. You are stronger than this.” Her little pep talk did little to help her feel better.
Strong warmth on her tent walls told her that the sun was close to setting, confirming to her that it was now early evening.
“I need to center myself.” The one good thing her experience as an assassin taught her was how to center herself.
The tent was soon filled with the scent of burning incense and candles, a kaleidoscope of smells that entranced and calmed her mind. As she knelt, straight backed, in the center of her tent, she breathed in the fumes. The stress melted from her body with each, deep, measured breath. Letting the darkness embrace her, she reached out with her senses. She could sense everything located within the confines of her canvas walls. The burning of the candles, the fire releasing the calming scents yet shedding no light. The wisps of smoke that drifted lazily from the smoldering sticks of incense. She felt every minute movement. The familiar senses flooded over her, calming her; and yet, there was something new this time. A presence that she’d never felt before.
Light ignited deep in her mind, small at first, it grew steadily in intensity. As it grew, she heard a voice; growing stronger with the light.
“Welcome daughter, I have been waiting for you to contact me.” The words flowed through her, calming her far more than her centering ritual had.
“Who are you?”
“I am Cerethe. I heard your prayer in Vidlice, but neither my sister nor myself are able to offer you the protection that you asked for. We have been locked in the council chambers by the three brothers. You must stop them.”
“Why are you coming to me now? I have done such terrible things. I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you did terrible things, but you never fell to the darkness that your actions provoked. You never killed for pleasure. In Vidlice, you helped my Oracle. Love her as only I could, and she will grow to meet every expectation that I have for her.
“You have a good heart, Shaunna. The violence of your past did not drive that from you. That makes you a rare individual, indeed.”
Emotions welled up inside Shaunna, pouring from her eyes. “Why now? Why did you wait to talk to me until now?”
“I didn’t, you contacted me. I am not able to speak to my followers while I am trapped here. None of us will be able to do anything until the brothers’ power is broken.”
“How am I to break the power of three gods?”
“You must find the new master. The prophecy has not been thwarted, and it must be fulfilled, otherwise the dark prophecy will win and the world will be plunged into unending darkness.”
Shaunna nodded. “I will do my best, mother.”
“I know you will child. I would bless you if I could.”
The light presence began to fade as the connection between Shaunna and her goddess broke.
A great sense of exhaustion washed over Shaunna. She fought to keep her eyes open, it was a losing battle. She fell into a deep sleep filled with dreams of light and dark spiraling around each other in an eternal round, the darkness trying to overcome the light; the light trying to maintain balance. Countless times, it seemed that the darkness would emerge victorious. Each time, an outside force would interfere, affecting the outcome at the last moment.
A flash of sharp blue and soft white seemed to crown each of the external intrusions into the eternal battle for dominance.
After millennia, there arose such a battle that it was impossible to tell where the light ended and the darkness began. Shaunna waited for the blue-white intruder to intercede, but the intrusion didn’t come. The blackness devoured the brightness, and all was cast into eternal dark.
As the light fell the chilling sound of laughter floated through the darkness, three voices mingled together in the maniacal cackling of insanity.

The cryptic images of her dream stayed with her after wakefulness reclaimed her mind. A sharp pain shot through her right hand, as if trying to explain what had ripped her from the disturbing vision. The air in the tent was clear, the candles and incense having burned out long ago. Her muscles were tight from the position in which she’d fallen asleep. Goose bumps covered her arms and legs, the result of the coolness that filled her tent.
The last shard of Cyan’s heart stone hung from her hand as she examined the source of her discomfort. A single drop of blood caressed the crystal shard. As the red liquid slid down the smooth surface, the broken heart seemed to glow a pale blue.
“White and blue.” She wondered aloud as she pondered the meaning of the obscure images that had plagued her this night. “Blue and white... Oh no!” Horror gripped her as the meaning of the vague images mixed with the meaning of Cerethe’s words. “Paron and Cyan: White hair and blue blade. They were the force that stepped in at the last moment to stop the darkness from winning. Now that they are both dead, there is no one to stop it this time.” She felt the truthfulness in the words as they flowed from her mouth.
Shaking her head sadly, she grabbed a blanket to cover herself. The sound of hooves slowly walking by reached her ears as she was about to lie herself on the sleeping mat.
“Erik” she hissed silently.
She didn’t have to say any more, as the little light available wrapped itself around her; obscuring her from sight.
Grabbing the small crossbow, she slid silently from her tent to see the horse with no rider that Grathius had mentioned previously.
The moons both hung lazily in the sky, illuminating the area so well that she would have been able to see, even if she hadn’t been half dark elf.
Her keen eyes quickly scanned the area, taking in each minute detail. The source of the sound was not to be seen. She paused to listen again. The sound of slow hoof beats sounded again, not far from where they were.
“There is a powerful photo-kinetic working nearby. I can sense it.” Erik’s voice slid through her mind. “I don’t recognize their signature.”
What do you mean? She asked silently.
“Someone is hiding the intruder from us, the same way I am hiding you from them”
Can they sense you, the way you can sense them?
“I don’t know. They are powerful enough to hide the intruder from sight. I don’t know much more than that”
Shaunna stooped briefly to study the new prints that had appeared next to her tent. They were large, deep, hoof prints, obviously belonging to a massive horse. She followed the trail toward the stream. Silent as shadow, she skulked after the beast.
“Where is it? I left it here to protect the crystals. Oh no. He is going to be so mad.” The voice sounded young, obviously female, and worried.
Shaunna reached out, slowly, with her hand. At the point that the tracks stopped, her hand touched something solid, furry, and well-muscled. She reeled as she was struck in the face with a whip like object that seemed to be made up of hundreds of thin, stiff threads. She got the impression that, had she been any farther to the right, she would have experienced how muscled the creature was. The sound of air moving, and something hitting the ground conjured images of a mad horse attacking.
The water of the stream was disturbed as the invisible intruder ran toward the forest.
“Erik...” Her voice sounded sharp in the darkness.
“Already done.” The air around her shimmered as the crossbow stopped bending the light.
Moments later, Grathius loped to Shaunna’s side. A wide yawn split his muzzle as he approached.
“Grathius, do these belong to whatever you smelled last night?” She gestured to the new tracks.
He began sniffing around the area. “The smell is farr strrongerr, but yes, it is the same.”
Shaunna nodded. “It’s stronger, because they were just here. I startled it and it ran off.”
“You saw it?”
She sighed in exasperation. “No, but I heard it. It can talk”
He cocked his head curiously. “How did you hearr it and touch it, but not see it?”
She let out a deep, slow, sigh. “Never-mind.”
Grathius inhaled deeply, sneezing violently as a blade of grass flew into his nose.
“I think we need to start posting a watch. This is the second time this thing has walked through our camp. If I hadn’t heard it, we may never have known.”
“I’m awake now, I’ll take watch for the rrest of the night.” Grathius shook, his fur flying around him.
The moons and stars showed that dawn was not very off. “I guess I should start getting things packed anyway. We need to be leaving soon.”
Grathius smiled wolfishly. “I’m glad I trravel light. It rreally saves on camp strike time.”
“Show off.”
Grathius laughed, a deep throaty sound that reminded her of a dog choking.
Feeling slightly better than she had a moment before, she retreated to her tent and began to pack things. She carefully placed the crystal shard and the blue crystal heart in her bag. This experience had shown her that they were not safe with her, and there was no place safer than with Cera. She felt around in the bag until she found, what felt like a shelf, where the crystals would be easily retrievable. Warmth flooded through the crystal around her neck as the heart touched the hard surface.
“I’m glad you understand.” She withdrew her hand and turned to pack her bed roll.
Several minutes later, she stepped from her tent into the pre-dawn light. The moments just before dawn had always been her favorite time of day. She’d always thought of it as a representation of how her people moved from the darkness to the light. She smiled sadly at the irony of that thought.
As she busied herself with striking her tent, her thoughts drifted. She no longer felt sadness over her past, or the loss of Taren. The sadness was replaced by an urgency that she could scarcely understand, and could never describe. She knew the others would awake soon, but she felt like running through the camp to wake everyone.
“The others probably wouldn’t appreciate that.”
“I know, Maxx, but we have to get going. We need to get to the sea of skies. The information that the apprentice has is critical. We need to find him before we find the new master.”
“New master? What are you talking about?” She could feel the curiosity in his voice as the words slid through her head.
“It’s a long story, and we don’t have time.” She felt his acquiescence
A few moments later, Hope stumbled from his tent. He was bleary eyed and still mostly asleep. He looked around as the sisters emerged from their tent. His eyes immediately locked onto Saria, looking pale and sickly. Sudden wakefulness intruded his mind.
“Saria, are you unwell.” He reached his hand toward her.
Stars exploded before his eyes as Saria hit him with her staff.
“Don’t touch me.” She spoke in slow, deliberate, words.
“WHAT WAS THAT FOR?” Hope shouted, holding his head.
“I know what’s wrong with me. It’s nothing you can fix, and it’s none of your business.” She stared at him for a moment, then, leaving Terra to stand guard, turned to commence packing her things.
The others took her lead, and camp was struck in a matter of moments. The sun’s first rays were reaching across the horizon as the last items were placed in their pack and the group turned to leave the vale of the faeries.
Shaunna and Narissa walked side by side as they entered the trees on the west side of the clearing. Shaunna stopped just inside the trees. Turning around she placed her fingers together, touched her heart, mouth, and forehead. When she was finished she released her fingers into the air.
“I thank you for your protection, and apologize for the trouble we caused.”
A bright light flashed from the stream in answer.
Shaunna nodded, turning back toward the forest to lead her party to their next destination.
They walk two abreast with Shaunna and Narissa leading, followed by Saria and Morganna. Then came Tarea and Hope with Grathius bringing up the rear. They travelled quickly and quietly through the trees, Shaunna’s sense of urgency propelling them through the trees at a quick march. They stopped briefly every couple of hours to rest and partake of a small snack to keep their energy high.
It was early dusk when they stopped for the night. It was warm and dry, so they didn’t bother pitching their tents, opting instead to sleep under the stars. The march of the day wore on them, and they were all asleep quickly, letting their weapons circle the camp.
They travelled like this for several days, rising early to start their hike and stopping before dark to fall into an exhausted slumber as their weapons circled.
Four days into their march, the terrain began to shift from dense forest to shallow woods. The ground began to soften as it turned from hard, packed, earth to sandy dirt. They started to climb again as the trees continued to thin. When they finally crested the top of the hill, the beheld an impossible view. They felt as if they would fall out of the world if they continued.
The sea and the sky merged together so completely that it was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began. There didn’t seem to be a horizon, and it felt to them like they were staring out of the world. White shapes floated smoothly across the view such that it was impossible to tell if they were clouds or fish.
“The Sea of Skies, I presume.” Hope wondered aloud.
A bluff stood over the sea, providing a place where they could rest and enjoy the majesty of the sight.
“I think we should camp here tonight
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