“I will not have your death on my hands.” - Shaunna Nightshade
The sun shone brightly as Shaunna stepped from her tent. The air was clear and she felt a moment of vertigo as she beheld the breath-taking site that was the Sea of Skies. The birds sang cheerily in the early morning light. The others were still asleep, the exhaustion of the past few days stealing their ambition to arise and travel on.
She strolled toward the edge of the bluff in an attempt to maximize the effect of the view. The white cloud fish floated lazily across the placid surface of the sea. She watched them traverse the blue expanse, only half interested.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” Narissa sat beside Shaunna, drawing her knees up to her chest. She sat next to her friend for several minutes, shivering. “I forget how cold it gets when I don’t have fur.”
The words pulled Shaunna from her reverie. “Oh, I’m sorry Kitten.” Reaching into her pouch she produced the cape she’d given to Narissa.
The small woman sighed in relief as the magical cloth wrapped itself around her the moment that Shaunna placed it on her shoulders.
Narissa pointed toward the invisible horizon. “Watch.”
Shaunna looked at the point Narissa indicated. She watched as the strange cloud fish swam higher, until they passed the point that should have been the water’s surface.
“I don’t know. I’ve been here before, so I’ve seen it before.”
Shaunna looked at her, the question burning in her eyes.
Narissa shook her head. “Dareth sent me out to solve one of his ‘problems’. I caught up with the man in a clearing not far from here.” She sat thoughtful for several moments. “It was there that Amber found me. I didn’t know what she was at the time, and the forming of the connection scared me. I ran back to Dareth as quick as I could. I didn’t know that she would, or even could, follow me.” She shook her head at the memory.
“If you knew where this was, why didn’t you let us know?”
“I’ve only ever come here from the east. My home was in that forest somewhere.” She gestured toward the thick green cover on the east side of the sea.
“Dareth, the Lord of Night, lives in the woods to which we are travelling?” Shaunna’s eyes glimmered slightly with fear.
Narissa nodded once.
She never finished her thought as a loud yelp sounded not far from where they sat.
“Grathius!” Narissa was on her feet moving toward the sound.
“Narissa, stop, it’s not Grathius.” The voice felt foreign as it slid through her mind.
“Who...?” She stopped searching for the source of the strange voice, until realization struck. “Oh... Amber.”
“Yes, it’s me. Grathius is safe by the others. That was not him.”
“Time to go.” Shaunna rose quickly. Her voice was loud as she approached camp. “Everybody up. It’s time for us to leave.”
Hope was the first to rise. “What’s going on?” He fell silent for a moment, his eyes going wide. “Oh...” Without further objection he began to strike camp.
The others rose and joined in his efforts. In moments, any trace that they’d been there was gone, and they were marching swiftly eastward, heading for the trees.
“Why arre we rrunning?” Grathius’ tongue lolled from his mouth as the temperature rose
“I have it on good authority that, should he catch us before Mark is restored, you will die.” Shaunna’s pace didn’t slow as she spoke. “I will not have your death on my hands.”
“What makes you so surre that I will die? Wherre did you get yourr information?”
“From the man that raised me after my parents died.”
Grathius stopped walking. “I don’t understand”
“You’ll just have to trust me. I know what I heard, and I have no reason to doubt.”
Hope stepped forward. “This is a matter for another time. For now, we should trust her.”
The large wolf-man fell silent, panting as he fell back to take his position at the back of the marching line, starting to walk again.
The massive green canopy of the forest loomed ever larger as they travelled on an eastward track. Near dusk, they were finally able to make out the reddish-brown of the tree trunks supporting the leafy roof of the woods. Not rivals to the monolith timbers of the black forest, this forest was impressive in its own right. Thick red trunks extended from the ground to the leafy ceiling above. The trees grew sparse enough that they could see between them. During the day their path would be cast into a constant state of twilight, but even Parel should be able to see unaided.
“We should camp here”
Shaunna started slightly. She had not realized that Narissa was next to her in her dwarfish form, the magical cloak billowing around her in the breeze.
“It gets dark in the forest at night. Even I didn’t wander out after dark, very often.”
Shaunna nodded. “Then we camp here tonight.”
Hope yawned, raising his arms in a deep stretch as he returned to camp. He shook his head in exhaustion as he saw Shaunna emerge from her tent. “Good morning, oh, illustrious leader. The night was quiet, despite your concerns.” He made no effort to mask the derision in his voice. “The Crystal Blades could have handled the watch.”
“No offense to the blades’ aptitude, but I thought it would be a good idea to add an extra pair of eyes. Taloren is still out there, hunting us. He almost caught us, at least once. I don’t want to be taken unawares again. You of all people should appreciate my paranoia.”
Hope’s face softened as he remembered his brief stay at the Dark Elf under fortress. “Who do you think stopped him?”
Shaunna was silent for several moments. “I wish I knew.”
“Where do we go from here?” Tarea’s voice rang out from behind them. “I mean, this is an awfully big forest.”
Shaunna’s heart leapt to her throat at the unexpected incursion to their conversation.
“Whoa there, missy. I didn’t mean any harm.”
It took Shaunna a couple of moments to realize that her hands held her daggers, the cold blades glinting in the early morning light. Taking a deep breath, she placed the blades back in her belt. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m a bit on edge.”
“We are all on edge, Shaunna. It’s been an interesting few days.” Tarea smiled broadly. “Now, how about my question. Where do we start looking for someone who doesn’t want to be found among that massive expanse of forest?”
“We should start exploring the northern part.”
As one, they all turned toward the small, pale, woman huddled in a blanket on the ground.”
“Why there, Kitten?” Shaunna asked.
Narissa shrugged slightly. “I know every inch of the southern woods. I’ve never run across anyone else. Well, no one else that I wasn’t supposed to kill.” A single tear slid from her eye at the memory. “I haven’t spent much time in the northern woods. If he’s still here, that’s probably where we will find him.”
“That’s sound logic.”
“I’m glad you approve, Hope. Now I need you, Grathius, and Tarea to start packing up camp. Parel, Morganna, and Saria, please fix some food. I want to be out of here within the hour. Narissa, may I please speak with you?” Without waiting for any replies, she disappeared into her tent.
The sour smell of stale incense assaulted her the instant she entered her canvas home. “I can’t wait for this stupid journey to be over.”
“What is that?” Narissa wrinkled her nose. “It smells like a spice demon died in here.”
Shaunna laughed despite herself. “I need to let this place air out, I guess.
Narissa sneezed in response.
“Point taken.” Her face grew somber. “Are you going to be okay? We are awfully close to your twenty year prison.”
Narissa huddled deeper into her blanket.
Pity welled up in Shaunna’s heart. She’d never seen her look this small before. It was as if some force were bearing down on her with all the weight of the cosmos themselves. “You don’t have to come with us. You...”
“Don’t be stupid, Shaunna. The only two that can track this apprentice are myself and Grathius.”
Shaunna reeled back as if she’d been struck.
Narissa shrank again. “I’m sorry. The truth is, I don’t even know if he’ll be there. The three brothers have been more active as of late, and without me to run his errands he is probably away.”
“You spent twenty years as a tiger, with no company other than the madman that kidnapped you. How did you get so smart?”
“I don’t know. It still feels strange in this body. I would just stay the beast, but I’m afraid I would shame the memory of my mother and father.”
“You’ve done great things in the short time you’ve been free. I think your parents would both be very proud of you. I know I am.”
Narissa dissolved into a puddle of tears on the floor of the tent.
Shaunna wrapped her arms around her friend and just held her.
“Shaunna, the food is done.” Saria’s voice drifted into the tent.
“I’m okay.” Narissa climbed to her feet, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Shaunna hugged her tightly. “No harm done, Kitten. I’ve done my fair share of crying since this whole ordeal started. Let’s go eat, I’m starving.”
The smell of cooking spices wafted through the air, a stark contrast to the stale incense of the tent interior. The other tents were already packed. The others sat around the fire shoveling food into their mouths.
Hope stood when he saw them. “Everything is packed, except your tent.” He painstakingly accentuated the obvious fact.
“I’ll take care of my tent. Thank you all for being so prompt in getting things done.” She sat, taking the proffered plate from Parel.
She ate the meal in silence, pondering the conversation she’d just shared with her friend. She glanced at Narissa sitting next to her, awkwardly trying to eat with utensils, and smiled. Not wanting to bring attention to her companion’s awkwardness, she placed her own utensils on the log next to her to pick up the pieces of meat with her fingers. After a few bites she leaned toward Narissa.
“I don’t know why they even brought the utensils. This is no place for the niceties of society.” She smiled as she took another bite.
Narissa smiled broadly as she discarded the fork and knife to pick the hot meat up with her fingers and began to inhale the meal.
Several minutes later, the last two companions were finished eating and Shaunna had packed her tent into the magic bag hanging from her belt.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, let’s get moving.” She began the north-easterly trek.
As Shaunna finished speaking, Hope belched. The sound echoed around the area menacingly.
“Your mother would be so proud.” Morganna scoffed
“What do you know of my mother?”
“Don’t you know?”
Hope’s mood darkened at the mention of his mother. “What is it I am supposed to know?”
“Hope, your mother raised me. For years she protected me from the dangers of two worlds.” Her voice caught in her throat. When she was able to speak again, her voice was a whisper. “I was by her side when she died.”
Hope’s face flushed. He continued to walk in silence.
The air grew warm as they walked, skirting the edge of the forest. The trees grew with an almost unnatural uniformity. Their trunks were evenly spaced, allowing for the upper leaves to weave themselves together in the impenetrable canopy that cast the forest into an everlasting state of twilight. Dusk was falling as they saw the base of the mountains to the north.
“One more night before we venture into the woods.” Shaunna decided.
There was no argument. Even Hope didn’t argue. He’d been unusually quiet since the revelation about his mother’s role in Morganna’s life.
Dinner was prepared and consumed in silence.
“I’m exhausted. I say we skip pitching the tents tonight.” Tarea laid herself on the ground.
Shaunna nodded. “All in favor?”
Everyone raised their hand.
“Okay, bedrolls only.”
The bedrolls were laid by the fire, and occupied before sunset.
Tarea noticed Narissa’s tiny form huddled in the same blanket from this morning. “Narissa, won’t you be more comfortable in your other form?”
The small woman nodded. “Probably, but then I wouldn’t be able to ask the question I’ve been trying to ask all day.”
The others sat up in their bedrolls, facing their diminutive companion.
Following several minutes of silence, Narissa’s voice finally broke through the still dusk air. “So, if Morganna knew Sareth; that means that either Tarea or Saria knew my father.”
Saria’s gaze dropped to the ground. “Seth was a good friend. He was a fearless protector. He truly had the heart of a tiger. You remind me of him.”
“How did he die?”
Saria’s breath caught in her throat. “He died saving me from a dragon.” Her brow furrowed. “Come to think of it, I wonder where that beast came from. Dragons were not native to that world. Sure they had legends, but real dragons were hunted to extinction long ago.”
“Tarrea, that leaves you.” Grathius growled quietly. “You must have known my grand-father.”
Tarea nodded. “I knew him. He taught me to use my blades.” She sighed deeply. “I don’t know how he died. We were attacked by a large number of creatures, also not native to the world I grew up on. It was then I learned about my lightning powers. When I regained consciousness, I was surrounded by the stone statues of our attackers, but Griffith was gone. I never saw him again.” She spoke quickly, not wanting anyone to interrupt her.
Awkward silence permeated the area as she fell silent. All eyes fell on the prone form of Ularen Hope. He’d been uncharacteristically quite since Morganna’s revelation earlier that day. None of them knew what to make of his taciturnity.
Morganna shifted slightly. “Hope...”
She was cut short as Hope interjected. “Not interested. I don’t want to know.”
“No, I don’t want to know. I don’t really care what happened to her.” He was silent for several moments. “No, I really don’t want to know.”
Shaunna cut in. “She was your mother, don’t you want to know?”
His face was unreadable as he sat up to face the rest of the group. “You of all people should understand, Shaunna.”
“Well, I don’t. Why don’t you want to know what happened?”
“Because, she abandoned me.” As the words left his mouth, his carefully crafted facade crumbled. His shoulders slumped and ears began to pour from his eyes, streaking his cheeks. “She abandoned me to raise her.” He cast an accusing finger toward Morganna. “I was only twelve, and she left me to run the clinic. I waited for years for her to return. It was shortly after you came that I found out she was dead. She would never return for me. I had Maxx, but we weren’t bonded until that night. The proof I needed. I always need proof.” He shook his head sadly as his shoulders heaved with each sob.
Narissa shifted herself until she was next to Hope. He jumped as she placed a tiny hand on his arm.
“You need closure. Let her tell you what happened.”
“Science killed her.” Morganna whispered. “When I was very young, she was captured by Azriel, a horrible little man. He performed experiments on her. She escaped but her health was shattered by the awful things he did to her. She spent years confined to bed before she died.” Her voice cracked with emotion as she relived her childhood. “She always spoke highly of you. I wonder what she would think if she could see you now.”
“What do you mean by that?” He demanded.
“Look around, Ularen. There isn’t one of us here that hasn’t lived a life, at least, as difficult as yours. Most of us make your life seem easy by comparison. None of us show a modicum of the cynicism you exhibit every day. Yes, I knew your mother. Yes, she raised me. She did so at the command of her king, and friend. There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t think about you. She was always so proud that she knew you would be okay. I am sad to report that you are not at all what she thought you would be.” The silence she left when her words ceased hung in the air like the sky before a thunder storm.
Hope’s cheeks burned as he blinked back the tears from his eyes. “I don’t believe you.”
Morganna scoffed at him. “Thus enters the curse of the wielders. You would know if I was lying to you.”
He opened his mouth, but closed it immediately leaving his rebuttal unvoiced.
Shaunna scooted forward, placing her arm on his shoulder. “Hope, we were friends. I would like to think we still are, or at least we can be again. Please don’t be offended, but Morganna is right. It is time for you to rejoin the world and take your place as your mother’s replacement as a guardian.”
“What do you mean ‘rejoin the world’? I’m here aren’t I?”
“No, you’re not. Given your choice you would be back in your clinic hiding.”
Hope bristled. “What good does continuing the guardians do? If Paron was right, then we are doomed without Taren.”
“The prophecy has not been thwarted, so says Cerethe. We have been tasked with finding the new wielder. Before that, however, we need to speak to Paron’s apprentice.”
“Oh, so we’re to find your new boy toy, are we. So says a goddess that hasn’t spoken in hundreds of years.”
Shaunna climbed silently to her feet. Calmly, she offered her hand to Hope, helping to his feet.
“Where are we...”Hope began
He never finished as the sound of Shaunna’s fist striking Hope’s face echoed through the clearing.
Morganna lay down in her bed roll. “Well, this has been exhausting.”
One by one, they drifted off to sleep.