“Death awaits us all.” - The Nightshade
Pain... Unimaginable, unending, pain coursed through her body as living purple fire seared the flesh from her bones, replaced it, and burned it off again; over and over. A thick purple haze obscured her vision, fading in and out as her eyes were removed from their sockets only to be replaced moment later in an unending cycle of torture. The desperate screams of a woman reached her ears from somewhere far away. She wanted to help her, but was unable to move as the fire, once again, seared her body and soul.
An uncomfortable tugging at the back of her mind suggested she should be worried, but the pain drove the thought from her head the moment it entered.
She had no idea how long the sword kept making and unmaking her, but she was acutely aware of when it stopped. One moment she was burning, and the next she was floating in cool, black, darkness. She had the odd sensation of falling, even though there was no reference to judge motion by. She felt freer that she had in years; since before her parents had died in the attack on the palace. She felt none of the care or worry that she had her whole life. That, in and of itself, seemed wrong.
As her feet came to rest on firm ground, a light sprang into life in the distance. She watched in awe as the light spread, bringing her surroundings into stark, vivid, clarity. She saw colors that she didn’t know existed, and yet had always known were there. She could feel, taste, see, and hear the purity of the air around her. Somehow her senses were heightened to a level that she had never before experienced.
Her heart lurched as she beheld the scene that lay out before her. A vast green meadow, bordered by a deep forest spread itself across the expanse between where she stood and a magnificent palatial building in the distance. Light glittered off the parapets of the building, casting bright rainbow prisms over the whole area. A beautiful garden grew to the east. She could just make out the sound of a waterfall singing in the distance. To the west and rear of the palace, an enormous cliff.
“It can’t be.” She started to walk toward the building, but paused when she saw two people coming in her direction. Tears began to stream down her face as recognition dawned in her mind. “Grandmother? Mother?”
She was startled as she took a single step, only to find herself half way across the grand field standing in front of the two women. Sharlandarya Kaardrannan held a beautiful robe in her arms, which she offered to her granddaughter. The garment was a deep crimson, roughly the color of blood, with white pearls attached to the embroidery of the collar and arm cuffs. A green sash lay folded on top.
“Here child, put this on.”
Shaunna hadn’t realized before now that she wasn’t wearing any clothes. The temperature was perfect, the absence of covering had not bothered her. She nodded and donned the robe. The silky fabric flowed like water as it fell across her body. She marveled at the sensation. It was unlike anything she’d experienced before.
“What are you doing here, child?” Her mother asked. “It is not your time to enter this place.”
“I don’t understand.” Shaunna was confused.
“This is Charme, the place in between where the dead wait for the gates to open.” She looked at her daughter, a serious expression on her face. “You and the prince were supposed to open the gates. There are people here who have been waiting a long, long, time.”
“Is Taren here?”
“Why would he be here?” Sharlanadarya’s eyes dimmed a bit. “Did something happen?”
“He was bitten by a poisonous matsenga, and died before I could find an antidote.” Shaunna paused for a moment. This whole situation seemed wrong. “You knew that, didn’t you, mother? Isn’t that why you came to me the other night?”
Shaya Nightshade pursed her lips. “Shaunna, I’ve been locked here with no access to either side of the veil for twelve years. I didn’t come to you.”
“If you didn’t... Then who did?” The calm atmosphere of the in between placed sapped Shaunna of the fear that she should have felt. Even then, the unease of the situation was not so easily dispelled.
“I don’t know child. I think we need to go see the king.” Without another word, Shaya and her mother turned and vanished, reappearing instantly at the gates of the enormous building.
Not wanting to be left behind, Shaunna tried to hurry after her ancestors. She was unprepared for the immediacy of her travel, finding herself on the ground having misjudged where the wall was.
“I should be used to that, after Cera.” She sat on the ground shaking her head.
“You need to be careful with that castle. She is not reliable in her transporting ability. People have ended up on other worlds by her mistake.” Shaya cautioned.
Shaunna finished climbing to her feet, and turned to face her mother. Her cheeks red with anger. “Oh, not you too. She has been getting better. Not to mention, she is the only friend I’ve had for a long time.”
The ornate door that stood before them swung silently open. They stepped into a massive golden room with hallways extending from each side and a spiral stair case leading to the upper floors. The tiled floor held the facade of a black unicorn. Stain glassed windows shed multi-colored light upon the floor and walls of the entry way.
“This way.” Shaya turned and headed passed the stair case into the hall beyond.
The ceiling and walls of the passage connected smoothly to form an arch tall enough that Hope wouldn’t have had to duck to walk through it. The floor was a highly polished stone that Shaunna was unable to identify. No windows or doors broke the uniformity of the grand hallway.
Several minutes of walking later, they found themselves facing set of golden double doors with ornate runes carved into them. The runes pulsed with changing hues of light casting the illusion of movement in the shadows of those that stood before them.
“We will not go further than this. You will be on your own from here.” Shaya vanished before the words had finished echoing through the area.
Shaunna realized she was alone. She didn’t know when her grandmother had departed.
Unsure of what she should do now, she raised her hand to knock. The door slid open before her hand could make contact with the golden surface.
She had to shield her eyes as a bright blue light flooded out of the adjoining room. The temperature seemed to drop several degrees as the icy light engulfed her. She found herself shivering as she stepped through the door.
The room was bare, except for a raised dais that held a throne. The floor and walls were a flat white with no blemishes or decorations to break the monotony. No windows or lights were to be seen.
The source of the cold light was a sword lying across the lap of the man sitting on the throne.
“Cyan?” She moved forward hesitantly. “Taren?”
It took a few moments for her grandmother’s insistence that Taren was not found in the in-between. Looking closer at the man, she marvelled at the similarities to her friend. They were nearly identical in aspect, down to the shoulder length white hair, but there was something about the man’s eyes that showed the difference. The eyes looked old, as if they’d seen many years. Confusion was quickly replaced by recognition as memories of happy times playing with the baby princesses returned to her.
She bowed deeply. “Your Majesty.”
Paron Elloy looked at her with an appraising eye. “You look like your father, but you are much prettier than he is.”
She stifled a giggle at the compliment.
Paron held up the sword. “I can’t talk to him, or more precisely, He can’t talk to me.
Shaunna nodded. “You aren’t his wielder anymore. I’m not sure he has a wielder anymore.”
“Come child, tell me what happened”
She explained what happened starting with Taren’s matsenga bite. She delved into the dreams that she’d had, and Celeste’s prediction that the lost shall be restored.
He sat quietly, listening without interruption. When she had finished, he smiled. “Taren is not dead. Matsenga cannot kill each other, and there is little chance that he and his sisters could be anything other than magic. I mean, I am his father, after all.”
“I burned his body. How can he be alive?”
Paron smiled again. “Most people don’t know this, but I have ‘died’ many times over the years. The mother dragon and I could never actually kill each other. If one of us was killed, we would wake up somewhere new. Each time I died, a little bit of me was left behind. If I could find what was lost, the missing part could be recovered. Even then, I was never the same after each awakening. It is very likely when you find Taren, he will not be the same person you lost.”
Shaunna thought about that for a few minutes. She turned this new information over in her mind multiple times. There was something wrong, an inconsistency that kept coming back to her. “If Silax can’t kill you, how did you die? Why are you here?”
Paron smiled sadly. “It is true that matsenga can’t kill each other. Unfortunately, mortal, or once mortal, people can. Silax was not the instrument of my death. I survived the destruction of the castle, but I was badly wounded. Someone found me in that state and took the advantage of my weakness bring an end to my long life.”
“Do you know who it was?”
Paron’s smile faltered. “Yes, I do. It was my apprentice, Na’el”
“No!” It felt like a spear of ice had been shoved through her heart. “Why would he?”
“I don’t know, but you need to be extremely careful around him. He has his uses, and you will need him, Ne’al is not to be trusted.”
“Wonderf...” Her statement was cut off as an unpleasant pressure assaulted her chest. “Ow... what was that?”
Paron looked at her intently. “They are trying to bring you back to the world of the living. Before you go, the Sun Fire Orb is energy, and energy cannot be destroyed. The casing can be broken so the energy is released. Unfortunately, the orb can only be broken in the Halls of Naratha.”
“But the Halls of Naratha are said to be on the moon, and they are locked.” She winced as the uncomfortable pressure struck again.
“The original hall is located on the hidden continent. The dagger can only be formed in the light, or energy, of the Sun Fire Orb.”
“The hidden continent?” She stopped as he raised his hand.
“Time is short, you will either have to go back, or stay here forever.” His visage was serious as he spoke. “Last time I was at the hall, I fit the door with a lock. Cyan is the key to that lock. You must get Na’el to forge a new heart stone, or you will not succeed and the Dark Lords will win.” He looked at a point beyond her. “The time is now, you must choose to take the information I’ve given back to the living world. or stay here and doom everyone.”
No sooner had she nodded, than she found herself flying up through the darkness. A pin prick of light winked into existence in the far distance. No wind disturbed her snowy locks as she moved at unimaginable speeds toward the ever growing point of light.
Hours, or moment, slipped by as she grew ever closer to the illumination that she knew would take her back to the land of the living. She was startled as a light hand broke through the light to engulf her in its grasp.
“Shaunna, are you okay?” A steady stream of blue light flowed from Sariah. “What happened?”
Despite the healing light that engulfed her, Shaunna felt like her head was trying to split itself in half and crawl into the empty space that she had not known was there. This must be what Taren felt like after Cyan died. She thought to herself.
She had a vague sense of the people surrounding her, but she couldn’t see them through the blue veil that covered her.
“Saria, I’m okay.” She answered weakly. “I think I’ll live.”
Taren’s sister let out a nervous laugh. “You say that, but you just died.”
Shaunna nodded. “I know.”
She climbed unsteadily to her feet, despite the protestations of the two healers present. She found the small crystal crossbow lying on the table on the far side of the room. Na’el sat in the chair directly in front of him.
She made no sound as she padded over to the table. Lifting Erik from the table she was pleased when the warmth began to travel up her arm, causing her hand to involuntarily contract around his handle. This sensation had scared her the first time she’d experienced it. It was comforting this time. She stood still as the warmth traveled up her arm, across her shoulder, up her neck, and into her head. The pain quickly faded as Mark’s consciousness filled the void in her mind.
“Heaven’s child, you do like to strain my nerves, don’t you?” Mark’s tone was light, but Shaunna caught the serious under tones of his statement. “What happened?”
Apparently, the legends are truer than we thought. She answered silently. Apparently mortal beings can’t wield the sword.
“What happened?” Na’el stood over her, concern etched in his face.”
Adrenaline coursed through her body, giving strength to her muscles.
In a flash of movement, she was off the floor, and had her dagger to Na’el’s throat.
He didn’t seem bothered. “Oh, that happened.” He looked her directly in the eye. “You spoke with him, didn’t you?”
His nonchalance caught Shaunna off guard.
“Shaunna, what’s going on?” Saria’s voice quivered as the question escaped her lips.
“This man killed your father.”
Na’el sighed deeply. “A fact that I regret every moment of every day.”
The crackle of electricity echoed through the room. “Shaunna, move, I’m going to kill him.” The calm of Tarea’s voice barely concealed the rage that boiled in her soul.
“I can’t let you do that. We still need him.” She turned her attention back to Nael. “I need you to fix Cyan. Without him, the world is doomed.”
“What do you mean” Tarea asked.
“I know how to destroy the Sun Fire Orb, or more specifically where. Last time Paron was there he fitted the door with a lock, and Cyan is the key.” Shaunna never took her eyes from Na’el. She was a bit perturbed by his lack of surprise at her knowledge.”
“Yes, that sounds like him. Always one step ahead.” He seemed lost in thought. “Make an immortal creature the key. The only flaw in the plan was: the sword was only as immortal as he was.”
He winced as Shaunna’s blade bit into the flesh of his neck.
“You will fix him.” Shaunna demanded.
“And if I refuse?” An edge of steel that was not present previously, could be heard in his voice.
“Then I will kill you.”
Hope stepped forward. “Shaunna, your oath.”
Her voice cracked. “My oath doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t help us, we’re all dead anyway.”