The Shadow's Work
Gaea had taken shelter in the heart of a sleeping volcano. A rustling noise broke his sleep. From the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow climbing down the volcano. There was nothing to light the cave, save the faint moonlight coming from the high sky. Gaea could not see the face of his visitor but he need not see it to know the man.
He waited patiently for the intruder to reach the ground. He was ready for him, had been for a long time. ‘Just a few more minutes,’ he said to himself.
“You are a hard man to find,” the man said as a way of greeting. He had not concerned himself with stealth. He knew that he had not come unseen.
“Still it took you only a few months to find me,” Gaea said, not bothering to get up. “It took me less time to plan my revenge.”
“No wonder it failed,” the intruder mocked.
“Did it really?” Gaea asked opening his big honey coloured eyes. They shone like two burning fire pits.
“Yet.” The culprit stood up. Even though the man towered above him, he fancied himself intimidating as he gave his lips an upward twist.
“The prince is alive and so is the unfortunate collateral.”
“Not for long. Both will die soon,” Gaea said cocking his head. “You will die here today and she will turn mad with fear.”
The intruder drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword. “What have you planned for me?”
“Many things, my prince.” He scoffed. “My first plan was to use you secret against you.” Gaea burned a fire in a corner. He already had a pile of wood gathered. “Oh, don’t look so mad. I have spied on you for long. I know your secret.”
Whatever Gaea knew, it was not his secret. Neal was sure about that much. Since he did not wish to reveal it, he kept quiet.
The host continued, “But then I thought, why use your existing weakness against you when I can give you a new one.” He allowed a sinister smile.
“Then you came here to get your hands on the formula of the poison,” Neal stated a fact that he knew to be false. He was sure Gaea had entered his kingdom only once and with his plan well formed. Nevertheless, he decided to give the man a little satisfaction before he was imprisoned.
Gaea was taken aback by Neal’s statement. He composed himself as best as he could and said, “Yes, I had decided to turn you mad with fear. But unfortunately the starlite got the raw end of the deal. It’s a shame really. Hers will not be the most painful death; instead it will be the most painful life.” Gaea looked at him playfully. “Death would be a blessing for her.”
“I know she can be cured,” Neal said without betraying any emotions.
“Of course you do.” Gaea laughed. “You followed the breadcrumbs that I left for you. They would have told you everything. I wanted you to know it all, before you came to me: about faklin, about Edward, about the real poison.”
In that moment Neal realized that Gaea had been waiting for him.
When Gaea had acquired the knowledge of his misfired shot, he had started the preparation for his final stand. He returned to the forest, thanked the tribes for their knowledge and help; knowing full well that the prince himself will come enquiring after him. He had told all of them that he was going to live in the volcano.
The tribes held truth to be sacred. They never told lies, were never interested enough in the worldly affairs to do so. Gaea trusted them to tell the prince everything he wanted. And that they did.
They told him about the poisons, they offered him the cure if he could live with them for half a year and prove himself. They also assured him that by the time he had learned everything Sophie will be dead. No matter what Neal said or offered, none of them agreed to come with him to cure Sophie. They were bound to their land, to the forest and would not leave their home for anything. Neal had asked if he could bring Sophie to them, and they had said no. They couldn’t let a starlite on their sacred land.
Neal was left with no recourse but to follow Gaea.
“What now?” Neal asked.
“Now you ask me why I’m doing all this.”
“I know you are mad.”
“I am mad because I plan to kill one person, but the prince, who killed hundreds in war, is sane?”
“Everyone I killed was trying to kill me or someone else,” Neal said.
“And you aren’t here to kill me?” he argued.
“No,” Neal said, “I will tie you up with your own clothes and dump you in front of the emperor.”
“I’m afraid I can’t permit that.”
“Good thing I’m not asking for your permission.”
“Enough talk,” Gaea said. “You should die now.”
Neal looked at him. He was as calm as the moon outside.
“I won’t,” Neal said.
It was Gaea’s turn to be stubborn. “You will.” He picked a log from the fire. “Let me tell you why. This is no ordinary fire. It is the volcano’s catalyst. This volcano will erupt any minute now.”
“Won’t you die too then?” the prince asked.
He let out a laugh. “And how does that matter?”
Neal smirked. “That will really put a dent in my plans of punishing you.”
“You can safely assume that none of us is getting out of here.”
Gaea was irritated now. “Open your eyes. This is a sleeping volcano. The only way you can leave is by climbing the same rope you descended. It will take hours for any human to climb it and we both are due for death in minutes.”
“You, my friend are grossly misinformed about me,” Neal said, “in more ways than one.”
Before he could respond, Neal grabbed Gaea from his armpits and flew him out of the volcano. Gaea dropped the log in astonishment. When they were out in open air, Neal realized that that he held a corpse in his hands.
“Seems like I underestimated you too.”
The dead body was found the next day on the footsteps of the human castle. The emperor was not too happy about it. The cause of death was a mystery to everyone and thus added one more feather to the shadow’s tale.
Prince Neal returned to the castle exactly five months and twenty five days after he had left and two days after Gaea’s death.
The day after Neal had arrived, a starlite messenger gave Suffle the happy news that King Philip and Queen Sia were blessed with a daughter.