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

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Apprentice

“She’s right, lad. Hiding yourself away is no way to live.” - Na’el
“Stop your whining, you big baby. If it had been me, I wouldn’t have stopped at a single punch.”
The scene that met Shaunna’s eyes when they opened would have been comical, if not for the fact that she knew she was the cause. Hope sat on the ground holding his head in his hands, his left eye purple and swollen. Tarea sat next to him sticking small bits of meat into her mouth.
“You shouldn’t have said what you said, regardless of how upset the topic was making you.” Tarea’s words were a bit jumbled as she spoke around the meat she’d just ingested.
“I know she was just trying to help. Morganna’s exposition on my mother’s fate unnerved me. Then when she attacked my character, it set me that much further on edge. I didn’t need Shaunna to join in the attack.”
“I wasn’t attacking you, Hope. As I said, you have been my friend for a long time. I am trying to help you start living again.” Shaunna scooted over next to him. “I’m sorry about your eye. I shouldn’t have hit you.”
Hope shrugged.
“She’s right, lad. Hiding yourself away is no way to live. Take it from one who has been hiding for millennia.”
Shaunna and Tarea were instantly on their feet, weapons in hand.
“There’s no need for that, ladies. I am the one you seek. My name is Na’el. I was Paron’s apprentice”
Na’el was unremarkable in every way. Long white hair framed an average face. Deep-set brown eyes glittered in the early morning light. A long white beard hung from his face. He was adorned in plain brown robes with a belt tied around his middle. No shoes adorned his feet.
“How do we know you’re who you say you are?” Tarea lifted her swords toward him.
Na’el held up his hand. Not seen before was a glove of curious workmanship. Small crystal spikes extended from each knuckle. Small emeralds orbited a larger stone that was clearly a heart stone.
“Wielders cannot lie to each other. Em has been on contact with the little miracle, you should ask her.” He gestured toward Narissa.
“He is who he says he is.” Eric confirmed.
Tarea relaxed, but Shaunna kept her weapons drawn: Eric in one hand and her trusty dagger in the other.
“Tarea, what’s going on?” Saria yawned deeply as she sat up to look at her sister.
“We’ve found our quarry.” She walked over and deftly plucked the dagger from Shaunna’s hand. To Shaunna she said, “Let’s at least hear him out before we kill him.”
The arm holding the small crystal cross-bow sank slowly as Shaunna relaxed her guard. “I’m sorry.”
With nimble feet, Na’el bounded from the tree. His landing left no evidence he was there. For a brief instant, the slightly pointed tips of his ears were visible as his white hair fluttered in the breeze.
“Come, let us retire to my home. It should take us approximately half a day’s leisurely walk...” He was unable to finish his statement as a large grey wolf walked into camp.
“Grathius Wolftracker, come out and face me, runt.” The wolf stood up, on his hind legs, drawing a sword from his back. “It is time for a reckoning.”
Grathius stepped forward. “Leave, Talorren, you have no place herre. You chose to disobey pack law when you rrefused me as shaman.”
Taloren bared his teeth. “I still say I will never follow the pack runt.” He fell silent as he pointed the sword at Grathius.
Crimson flames leapt from the dark blade of the sword, engulfing the area in deep red fire.
At the moment before the fire struck, Tarea stepped into its path. Bright gold light filtered through the dark flames as they caressed her skin. Her white hair glowed a deep red. The clothes that Morganna had created for her disintegrated under the intense heat.
“Back away slowly. I will shield you as best I can.”
Grathius nodded as he began to inch slowly back from where he stood. He hadn’t gotten very far before the flames abruptly vanished.
Tarea’s skin glittered in the morning light, as gold as the pommel of her swords.
Taloren stood frozen, his sword still pointing into the clearing. Morganna stood to the side, her finger pointing in an accusatory manner.
“The spell will only last a few minutes. We need to get away from here as fast as we can.” She seemed a bit uneasy as she bent to snatch her pack from the ground.
Within moments, the others had followed suit, and were marching out of camp. Na’el led the way, his swift movement doing little to disturb the natural order of the forest. Shaunna and Narissa followed just as carefully. Grathius padded softly behind. Parel and Hope plodded along at the rear of the column.
The young tree leaves rustled slightly as they passed as if the forest itself were acknowledging their passage. Shaunna’s attention was grabbed by a sudden movement seen out of the corner of her eye. She turned to see a group of small animals run across their path behind them.
“What was that?” She pointed to the retreating mass of fur.
Na’el smiled cryptically. “The forest is protecting us from your pursuer. The shimmer of the leaves fills the air with pollen to confuse any airborne scents. Those animals have been running across our path periodically, to erase the footprints of our less graceful members.” He pointed to Parel and Hope. “You, sir, are quite heavy footed; especially for an elf. It makes me wonder if you are an elf at all.”
Hope’s brow furrowed. “Of course I’m an elf, what else would I be?”
Na’el seemed to brighten at this. “What else indeed? Come, let us not tarry here, We will discuss the possibilities in safer surroundings.” Without further words, he turned and continued on.
It was around mid-day when they broke from the rustling trees into a large clearing that held a simple cottage. A river flowed next to the house, turning a wooden wheel that was attached to the north wall. A long expanse of green grass gave way to a rainbow of flowers, meticulously cared for and cultivated. Not far from the front door was a patch of freshly tilled earth.
“Welcome to my home, guardians. Please, make yourselves comfortable. No harm will befall you while you reside within the protected confines of this clearing. Once you leave here, I can make no such promise.”
Hope looked away from their host as he mumbled under his breath. “We’ve heard that before.”
Shaunna stiffened, her hands balling into fists. “Ularen Hope, are you trying to offend our host?”
Hope flinched away from Shaunna, his hand absently moving to cover his blackened eye.
Na’el looked from Shaunna to Hope and back again. “I don’t understand.”
Shaunna sighed deeply. A few nights ago, we found ourselves in the protective custody of a couple of flutters of faeries. They told us the same thing you just did. While we were there, the son of one of the queens was stolen and turned into a maaginen. We weren’t so welcome after that.”
Na’el shook his head sadly. “And so it begins, again.”
“What do you mean?” Narissa sat cross-legged on the floor.
Na’el shook his head again, and lowered himself into a chair. He sat quietly for several minutes, staring off into a time long past.
“Near the end of the last great war, the enemy started creating maaginen to use as weapons.” He raised his hand as Morganna began to speak. “They were excellent weapons, all that was needed was a single strand of hair, or a drop of blood, and they would hunt their quarry to the end of the world and back again. Many nights we would go to bed, only to find that many of our comrades in arms were missing the next morning. The maaginen having found their marks in the night. We were all frightened of the shining monsters of the night, but we didn’t understand the real problem with them.
“Paron was the only one that saw the real danger. The world was built on a delicate balance. For every maaginen that was created, the balance shifted further away from the light, toward the darkness. He took his guardians on a search for those responsible, to stop them. When they returned none of them were the same. They wouldn’t even talk about what happened.” He shook his head sadly. “It was as if some of the life had gone out of them. It was shortly after that the first of the guardians died.
“Shalarandra was murdered trying to save her friend Knoro.” He chuckled briefly. “Friends... right... I digress.”
“What does this have to do with us?”
Na’el sighed. “What do you know about how a maaginen is created?”
Morganna chimed in. “A maaginen is created when a magic user breaks one of the magic creatures down to its base essence.”
Na’el considered for a moment. “That is true, to a point. However, the term ‘magic user’ is a misnomer. People can’t use magic on their own. They require the assistance of a matsenga. This is the actual name of the magical race.”
They all stared at him quietly.
“Maaginen can only be created by good matsenga. Those that are willing, and inclined, to help others. The magic user asks much of the creature, more than the creature is able to compensate for. It literally helps until it pulls itself apart at the seams.” He shook his head again. “Only the vilest of intentions cause this. It can’t be done accidentally.”
Hope scoffed at the explanation. “That doesn’t explain what any of this has to do with us.”
“You are much like your mother, Ularen.”
Shaunna smacked Hope on the shoulder. “He’s far worse than she was.”
A grin spread across Na’el’s face. “This should prove interesting. Matsenga have the ability to make changes. For instance, some have the ability to cause wounds to mysteriously heal. Others may have the ability to magically, for lack of a better word, restrain a creature. Others yet, may have the ability to change their shape at will”
Morganna inhaled sharply.
“Ahh, I see where you see what I am getting at.”
Confusion flashed across Hope’s face. “I still don’t understand.”
“Let me try to explain it a different way.” Na’el paused for a moment to consider his words. He turned to Parel and Grathius. “I’m sorry, but I am going to have to leave you out of this conversation.” Without waiting, he continued. “I want you all to look at each other. Provided you consider dark elves as actual elves, Shaunna is the only full elf in this room. The rest of us are all half-elves. I am half-human, half-elf. The rest of you are all half-elf, half-matsenga. Again, if you count dark elves as elves at all.” He added, gesturing to the three sisters.
Hope bounded to his feet. “Now, just hold on...” he shouted.
“Master Ularen, I would like you to explain how it is you are able to heal wounds, please?”
Hope visibly calmed as he considered his answer. “I will the healing light into the body of my patient...”
Na’el interrupted his train of thought. “And ‘magically’ change the person such that the wounds cease to exist.”
Hope bit back a retort as realization slowly seeped into his mind.
Na’el continued, “Your father was an elf, your mother was more than that.” He turned to the sisters. “Your mother was a dark elf. Your father could do things with crystal that just weren’t possible.” Finally he turned to Narissa.
She nodded, and spoke before he could. “Mom was an elf. Dad wasn’t a dwarf, not fully anyway.
“You are correct. None of your parents were full matsenga.
“So, you’re saying that we need to be careful using our abilities, or we might become maaginen?” Hope surmised.
“However unlikely that is, it is a possibility. I don’t think it will ever come to that, as you are not compelled to help others as full light matsenga are.”
Hope slumped into a chair. His mind was reeling from the revelation. Shaking his head, he brought his usual cynicism to bear. “Say I believe you, how would you know any of this?”
“I have spent several lifetimes studying the matsenga. Light, dark, grey... all of them. I know of your power. You have the ability to make wounds ‘magically’ disappear. Do you know of anyone else that can do that, your mother excluded.”
Hope gestured toward Sariah. “She can.”
Na’el raised his eyebrows. “Really, that is very interesting.” He turned to address Tarea. “I would assume you also have special abilities.” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement of fact.”
She smiled sweetly. “Why sir, I barely know you. It would not do to give away all our secrets.”
“You are truly your father’s daughter. He always erred on the side of caution. Because, or perhaps in spite, of that he always tried to do the right thing. I know you better than you think. You are Tarea. You bear the mark of the dragon. You are a grand warrior, and have been since you were a small child. You were raised by Griffith Wolftracker.”
Tarea’s mouth hung open as she stared at Na’el.
“I knew your parents well. I was there the day the palace was attacked. I was there when your father handed you to the Traren with instructions to take you to safety.” He looked at the other two sisters. “I saw you all leave. All, except the prince. I fear he was killed.”
Shaunna took half a step forward. “He was killed, just not in the attack on the castle. His demise was rather recent.”
“Oh? What happened?”
Shaunna closed her eyes momentarily reliving the horrific memory. “He was killed by the venom of one of the magical creatures.”
Na’el thought for a few moments. “Interesting. Normally matsenga cannot kill each other. Taren only being partial, I’m not sure if the same rules apply. Part matsenga are not very common.”
The words Celeste spoke before she left her home echoed through her head: Do not despair, that which has been taken from you will be restored. Keep the feather with you always.
She winced as Cerethe’s words joined the maelstrom of thought in her head. You must find the new master. The prophecy has not been thwarted.
Saria laid her hand on Shaunna’s shoulder. “Shaunna, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Shaunna shook her head to clear her mind, forcing herself to smile. “It’s nothing, really.”
Hope’s voice brought her back to the issue at hand. “You don’t really believe any of this, do you?”
“Young master Hope, it seems you will only be persuaded with hard facts.” Na’el began to explain. “Since time immemorial, elves have been born with white hair. Genetically speaking, it is impossible for a full blooded elf to have black hair, and yet here you stand. Your raven locks are testament that what I claim is true.”
Hope’s face contorted in confusion. “janeti-what?”
“Right, that science has been lost.” Na’el sighed deeply. “Genetics are the science of physical traits passed from parent to child through generations. A full blooded elf would not have the cross contamination of traits that would lead to a black haired child. So, again, the hair on your head supports my claim that you are not a full elf.
“I have already eluded to your healing ability ‘magically’ changing wounds so they no longer exist. Only a Matsenga would be able to accomplish such a thing, without the help of an outside influence.”
Hope sat silently shaking his head in disbelief.
“This does confirm some information that I’ve received since Taren died.” Shaunna was practically bouncing up and down with excitement. “Twice it’s been hinted that Taren is not really dead.”
Hope visibly rolled his eyes. “How can you believe that? We burned his body. We all saw the ashes that were left.”
“I know, but I have it on good authority that all is not as lost as we thought.”
Hope made no attempt to hide the derision in his voice. “You mean the witch girl from Vidlice.”
Lightning flashed in Shaunna’s eyes as her expression went instantly steely. “If you ever call her that again, I will make you wish that I had not vowed to only kill in self-defense.”
“Why are you defending her? You barely know anything about her.” Hope’s voice went a bit whiny.
“First off, her name is Celeste, and she is as much my daughter as you are Sareth Hope’s son. Second, I know enough about her for now. In fact, I probably know more about her than she wants me to know. Third, and last, your sword vouched for her. That was enough for me. I fully intend on being the mother and friend that she needs, as soon as this business is finished.
“For your information, yes is one of the sources. Further information came from the goddess Cerethe herself. She told me that the wielder is out there and the prophecy has not been thwarted.”
At this, Grathius raised his shaggy head. “You’ve had contact with the council?”
She shook her head. “Only Cerethe”
“No memberr of the council has contacted anyone for many yearrs. Why did she contact you?”
Shaunna reflected on the last time she went through her centering ritual. She hadn’t done anything unusual. She focused on what the goddess had told her. “She didn’t contact me. Apparently, I contacted her.” She raised her hand to stop the incoming flood of questions. “Don’t ask me how, I don’t know. It happened right before we left the faeries’ clearing. I felt an overpowering desire to center myself, so I performed the centering ritual. Somehow, in doing so I created a connection with the goddess. She says that the other six members of the council have been locked in the council chambers by the dark lords. They will be stuck there until the dark lords are defeated.”
“Wonderful,” The usual not of sarcasm in Hope’s voice steadily rose. “This has gone from ‘find and destroy the SunFire Orb’ to ‘Save the world and defeat the Dark Lords’. This is doomed. Why are we even...?” His tirade was interrupted as Maxx struck him in the forehead with the flat of his blade. “Will you stop? What do you mean? How dare you!”
The other’s watched the half of the exchange they could see with a sense of detached fascination. It was clear that Maxx was chastising his wielder. After a few moments, Hope’s shoulders slumped and he became increasingly somber as the, seeming, one sided conversation went on.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.” Hope sounded truly contrite.
Tarea leaned over to Shaunna to whisper in her ear. “I wonder what Maxx said to him.”
Shaunna shook her head, “It’s probably better we don’t know.”
A deafening boom echoed through the room, bringing their attention back to their host. “Enough business talk. Let us feast. We can continue this in the morning.

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