By Abi Walters
Earth, 2053My name is Bradley Warner, Junior. I'm here to tell you a captivating story that my father has been telling the world for 20 years…and has been telling me for 12 years. My mom hates it when it comes up, because she thinks Dad's imagination is too large for his own good. She thinks he hit his head or something, but I believe him, as sure as the day. I mean, Dad wouldn't lie.
Twenty years ago, there was a baffling police case that had taken place that hadn't even come close to being solved, with no evidence and nothing left behind, everyone with an alibi. Four children had been missing, all who were eerily born on the same day, April 7, 2017. My father was one of the four…the only one that came back to his family alive.
My grandfather recalls the day my dad rushed through the door, panting. He had been missing for about a week. "Call the police," Dad cried. "Call them now!"
"Wait…what happened?" Grandpa asked him.
It was then my father presented him with a nearly unbelievable explanation of where he had been, and the three unfortunate deaths of Evenlyn Marshall, Shay Johanssen, and Kevin Schultz…an odd an eerie tale that would have been impossible to believe if it hadn't been heard by Grandpa…because he only smiled, a secretive look in his ice-blue eyes. "So, you found your identity, Jade," he told my father, "and your mother's as well."
And now I tell you the story of Bradley "Jade" Warner, my father and my own flesh and blood, whose anecdote is filled with heroics and heartbreak, glory and woe. The year is 2033, when my dad was only four years older than myself…
Bradley Warner considered himself average. That's all he was, an average 16 year-old kid. He couldn't play football or basketball or baseball, didn't have a beautiful new black Porsche like his rich best friend, and wasn't witty and clever. He didn't have too many friends, wasn't very smart…and he was even somewhat outlandish, with his dyed black hair and his strange collection of clothing, and being half a head shorter than most guys his age was a little disheartening.
Nevertheless, there was one thing about Bradley that no one could miss…his eyes. They were a brilliant shade of turquoise…sometimes sapphire and sometimes emerald green. They were as bright as the day and his pupils were ringed in gold, so they stood out from the rest of his face. There were girls from his school who would give their right arm to go out with him…just because of those stunning eyes. And because of them, he earned his nickname.
"You got those eyes from your mother, Jade," his father would always tell him. And then he'd get a saddened look on his face, and look toward the floor and shut his eyes, as if praying for his deceased wife. "God bless her soul."
Jade would go to bed every night with the fear that he would have it again. That dream. And he sat up again in bed, panting, his mind racing, all because of the repetitive hallucination that went through his mind over and over and over again. He would sit up in bed trying to decipher it, and then get tired and fall asleep again.
There's that girl again. The girl with the silver hair. She's sitting on a bench surrounded by plants and trees, and she wears a green satin frock with a belt of animal hide, and has red wildflowers in her hair and tucked in her leather slippers…and she speaks the same thing she has been for weeks, the same thing that has taunted Jade and made him restless.
"Jade…Jade…we need you." Her tinny voice is almost an echo, and tears run down her dark face. "Agilanta needs you. This is your country, Jade, you must help defend it."
Then, as it had the nights before, the daylight turns pitch black and the stars fall around the girl, creating a ring of fire surrounding her saddened face, and the last image Jade sees before he awakens is a symbol…four interlocked rings surrounding a beautiful eye which sparkled like sapphires.
"Find this symbol!" the voice cried. "Find it Jade!"
And he woke up again, his heart pounding and his mind racing, and before he knew it he was slipping on his jeans, grabbing a flashlight and creeping downstairs.
Jade reached the back woods near the community park before one in the morning. He knew he had seen that symbol before…he just couldn't remember where. He flicked on his flashlight and crept down the path he and his best friend Darren had created when they were kids. That symbol has to be around here somewhere…I've seen it before…
Then, he remembered. The bench the girl was sitting did, in fact, exist. Jade knew where it was, and he had seen the red flowers too…it was an abandoned garden overgrown with moss and weeds and wildflowers. He stepped out of the path when his flashlight flickered and dimmed.
"Damn!" he cried, and shoved it in his back pocket. The moon, fortunately, was full, and shone through the treetops, creating a glimmer of light on the path. Jade grabbed at tree branches until he had a clear view of what was ahead of him, and then fell on the ground. "What the hell am I doing?"he cried. "God, I am a moron."
Then, he saw it. The garden. His heart jumped, knowing it was the same garden in his dreams. His knees still on the ground, he crawled towards the bench, wary of his surroundings. A thick coat of black dust suddenly appeared on his palms, and he held it closer to his face to analyze it. His enormous blue-green eyes widened as he realized what the dust actually was. "It's ash," he whispered. "Ash!" There was a ring of it surrounding the garden…just where the fire had risen in his dream. A chill ran down his spine.
"Four rings and an eye," he told himself. "Four rings and an eye…" He gripped the side of his head and looked toward the stars in the night sky. "Can someone help me? Please?"
There was no response. He let out a sigh and slumped on the mossy bench, his hopes almost given up…when he saw it. The symbol. It was small and engraved in the side of the bench, but it was there. His eyes lit up and he put his hand over it. "How is this supposed to get me anywhere?" he asked himself. Suddenly, the four rings glowed, each a different brilliant color, and the eye turned a shining turquoise. Jade grinned and traced his finger over each of the rings…one was yellow, one red, one blue, and the other violet.
"I've been looking for you, Jade."
He gasped, afraid to turn around. "Who said that?"
A figure appeared in front of him, the girl with the long, silver hair…except this time she was only ghost-like, with no color and was so light she nearly faded into the mist. Jade gasped. "Is this a dream…?" he asked, standing up to face her. She shook her head and smiled. "It all is happening so quickly…" he stated, sitting on the bench again. "I don't know if you're a hallucination, or what…"
The girl didn't speak, only pointed to the glowing symbol. She ran her translucent index finger over the yellow ring. "Nensical," her soft voice explained. Then the red. "Emmaria." Then the blue. "Aslac." And finally, the violet. "Agilanta." She smiled at Jade, who looked confused.
"Isn't Agilanta the country you wanted me to save or something?" he asked. She only smiled again, and took Jade's hand, intertwining her fingers in his and holding it up between their faces. "Chava," she whispered. "I am Chava." She blinked once, and the wind lifted her hair behind her head, floating in the air like feathers. "The wind is changing. We must leave."
"Where are we going?" Jade asked, and Chava didn't answer. She placed her hand over the symbol, sending different colored beams of light through her fingers, so luminant it almost lit up the sky. "I suppose you don't know how to fly, do you?" Jade shook his head in awe, so Chava gripped his side with her right arm, her grip surprisingly strong for her translucent state.
Suddenly, two enormous silver wings emerged from her back, breaking through the satin layer of clothing over her skin. Blindingly bright stardust fell from around the sky, making the grass in the garden burst into flames, creating a ring of fire around them, just like in Jade's dream. He was astonished, but only for a moment, because before he knew it he was being lifted into the night sky.
His stomach dropped as he looked over the woods below him, his only support the grip of the translucent, ghost-like girl at his side. He felt the wind rushing into his lungs, forcing him to go into a fit of coughing. Oh my God, he thought to himself, what am I doing here? This is a dream! I know it is! He bit himself, half expecting to wake up in his bed and look around and his blank blue walls.
Before Jade could think any further, the multi-colored lights that had shot up from the bench intertwined around the winged girl and Jade, sending them spinning even higher and faster than they had been traveling before. Jade shut his eyes, trying to forget the magnificent height he was at. The air became colder and the wind faster, and choked Jade until he could barely breathe. He tried to scream, but the wind had blocked his lungs.
Before he didn't think he could stand it any longer, he felt himself being lowered into a breathable atmosphere. The hand around him didn't budge. He opened his blue-green eyes and looked into the most blinding light he had ever seen. "Don't open your eyes!" screamed Chava. He shut them quickly, but still felt the light creeping through his eyelids. The massive wings behind the girl beat back and forth, hitting his arms. His heart was still beating at a rapid rate as he felt himself hit the ground.
"Can I open my eyes yet?" he asked.
A high, twinkling voice answered him. "Of course you can."
He blinked his eyes, still blinded from the light, looking into the face that he had seen in his dream. Chava now was in entire color, her silver hair twice as sparkling, her skin nearly brown and her eyes…her eyes were…turquoise, with a ring of gold.
"Your…your eyes! They look like mine!" Jade cried, astonished.
Chava nodded. "Now look around you, at your country, Jade. This is Agilanta." Her wings folded back and she smiled. Jade had never seen a place so beautiful in his entire existence. The flowers around his feet were violet, as was the water running from the waterfall and splashing drops on his face. The trees were more enormous than any he had ever seen, all with leaves as green as emeralds and grass the same. The sky was as white and sparkling as a diamond, and the air around him smelled of a crossbreed of hyacinths and geraniums.
"The water…it's purple." Jade laughed.
"Yes, of course it is purple," Chava said scornfully. "What other color would it be?"
"Earth people confuse me at times." Chava giggled. "Of course, you are not on Earth anymore. You are on Agilanta, the most beautiful Star for miles!"
"How can I possibly be on a star?" Jade insisted. "Stars are burning balls of gas! Everyone says so. Our own sun is a star, and no one can even fathom the heat coming from that! There is no possible way that we are, right now, standing on a star." Jade crossed his arms.
"There is much you don't know," Chava said. "Come, you must meet our Empress."
The path leading out of the woods was lined with red and violet wildflowers. Jade noticed there was no sun, and convinced himself that he was still dreaming as he followed the little fairy tale-like girl through the woods, finally emerging onto a wooden path lined with bushes sprouting tiny violet flower buds. "Look up," Chava whispered. Jade lifted his eyes and was awed to see a palace suspended by ivory pillars at least a hundred feet in the air, decorated in flowers and ivy and moss.
"It's that high in the air for enemy protection," Chava explained. "Come now, She awaits you."
"Good Empress Ruby Adyss of Agilanta, it is I, Chava Sophavala, and I bring you the Majestic Human, who calls himself 'Jade'."
Jade was astonished to see that the Empress looked only about twelve years old. Her wings, unlike Chava's plain silver ones, were bright, blinding gold and bejeweled with sparkling gemstones. They spread over her magnificent golden throne and outshone even her dazzling golden gown. Her black hair was cut short and showed her numerous earrings, as well as the tiara placed on her head.
"Is it true that you are the Majestic Human?" the Empress questioned, raising one eyebrow.
"To tell you the truth…I really don't know what a Majestic Human is," Jade laughed. "But yeah, I'm human."
The Empress narrowed her eyes. "You will address me as your Sovereignity, Good Empress, or your Majesty, are we clear?" Jade gulped and nodded his head. "Good. Well, if you are human, and you survived the trip from Earth to Agilanta…then yes, you must indeed be the Majestic Human. Come here, and let me see your hand." Jade stood and opened his right palm. "Ah yes, you are indeed human. The squiggles on your fingertips, they show your human-ness. Chava Sophavala, please rise and come here."
"Yes, Good Empress?"
The small figure of royalty smiled, and dropped a velvet bag in her hands. "For your troubles. At least this one did not die like the last three." Both laughed, and Jade was confused and even frightened. He felt his heart leap to his throat. There were three before me? he thought, now completely confused. Then it hit him. Evelyn. Shay. Kevin. The three kids his exact age who he had seen missing on the news for the past two weeks.
Empress Ruby smiled at Jade. "Yes, there were three before you." Jade's eyes widened, and she laughed. "And yes, I can read your thoughts. Not all of us can, only true royalty." She beamed. "Now listen carefully. For the past 16 years, the people of Agilanta have been searching for the Majestic Human. The human would have three traits…he or she would be born on the Earth day of the fourth month, the seventh day, and the one thousandth, two thousand and seventeenth year. Also, the human would have eyes like you have. That same color, with the ring of gold." Jade blushed. "And third, the Majestic Human's eyes would be able to survive the harsh light of our good Star Agilanta, and their lungs survive the enormous height."
"But-but why do you need me?" Jade stammered.
"We need you because you are the only one who can help us!" cried the Empress in despair. "For the last twenty years now, our good Star has been running out of power. It will no longer be able to burn brightly or provide heat and light without it. Somewhere on this Star is an almost endless supply of Stardust!" Ruby looked heavenward in hopefulness. "Once we get the Stardust, it is most certain that our good Star will live on for another century."
"But…were there not other Stars that you mentioned?" Jade asked Chava. "What about the other three in the interlocked rings?"
Chava sighed. "Yes. There are three more in our small constellation. We have Emmaria, which is a bit larger, and Aslac, and then Nensical, the largest of them all. But their rulers are all so extremely selfish that they won't even spare a year's worth of Stardust to keep our little Star spinning." She looked extremely disheartened. "Without it…we will all die. And very soon, no less."
"How does Stardust keep the Stars providing heat and light?" Jade asked the Empress, who looked nearly as sad as poor Chava, who had tears running down her face.
"Stardust is poured into the center of the Star," the young Empress explained. "It creates a massive heat and intense light to keep the inhabitants alive. Our crops are grown from the heat as well as the plants and trees and flowers…the light…we could never live without our light, we would all surely die. And now it grows dimmer."
"How am I supposed to help you then?" Jade asked. Even if this is a dream…and a surely strange one it is, I suppose I should help these people…
"It is not a dream!" cried the Empress. "Somewhere on Agilanta is a door. No one living now has ever seen it…at least, I do not think. We know it exists because of past historical references of it. There is a handprint on it, and the Majestic Human is the only one who can place his hand over the engravement…it tracks fingerprints. It is called the Calestia Dela, Agilantian for 'Stardust Source'. Then the door will open, and the Stardust will be revealed, and Agilanta will live for many more years and so will its inhabitants." The Empress rubbed her gloved hands together and smiled. "And once we get the Stardust…Emmaria, Aslac, and Nensical's rulers will all be begging for even a small portion of the power we have!"
"Tell me, Good Empress Ruby, how was I chosen? I mean, how did I become this Majestic Human or whatever?" Jade asked, his curiosity overpowering him.
"Well…as you probably do not know because you are a human and you are far too stupid," the Empress began, with a flick of her wrist, "your own mother was an Agilantian. Your father was a human. A long time ago, humans could be chosen by the Agilantians to visit our home Star. It doesn't work that way anymore, unfortunately." The Empress clicked her tongue and shook her head. "You were born, and your father and mother decided to raise you as a human, so you were brought back to Earth to live. Besides, what good is living on Agilanta when you have no wings?" The Empress laughed. "You were unfortunate enough to have the worst traits…you're short, and you have no wings…"
"I didn't agree to come here to be mocked!" Jade cried.
"I didn't ask if you wanted to come or not," the Empress stated boldly. "I sent Chava to etch a repetitive dream in your mind. It was guilt that forced you here. And without a pendant," she pulled a necklace with the four-ringed symbol from her dress, "you cannot travel off of this Star. In fact, you cannot travel anywhere without a pair of these." She threw her hands in the air, and gold and silver dust swirled around Jade like a dust storm. His back felt like it was being torn apart, and he screamed as two enormous white-gold wings emerged from his spine.
"Jade…you have wings!" cried Chava. She looked at the Empress. "Your Sovereignity, how did you do this?"
The Empress smirked. "I am but the Empress of Agilanta, am I not? Can I not do everything? Besides, if the Squols saw an Agilantian without wings, they would certainly know it was the Majestic Human and kill him right away." Jade raised an eyebrow. Squols…? The Empress looked at him. "Jade…there is much you must learn. The Squols are an uninviting species who, unfortunately, inhabit our Star and live among our good Agilantians. They're quite frightening little creatures, actually…small and white and scrawny, with the features of the humans but even more ugly." The Empress smirked. "They live underground and, if a chance is gotten, will pull you right under with them."
"Well, my time here isn't appreciated any further," Chava stated, slowly backing away. "Have a safe journey, Jade, and I hope to see you in the future…"
"Oh, no you don't, Chava Sophavala!" cried the Empress. "You are going with him."
"What?!" Chava cried. "I cannot do such a thing, your Majesty!" She sunk to her knees and held her hands in a prayer position. "Am I not the one who brought him to you? Am I not the one that took a perilous journey to Earth to bring him here? And now you expect me to be his personal bodyguard? Oh your Majesty, too much is expected out of little Chava!" She faked a sob, and Jade rolled his eyes.
"Will this help you make up your mind?" the Empress laughed, and tossed her a handful of gold pieces. Chava's eyes widened. "There's much more where that came from…if you do your duty…"
Chava stood up. "At your service, your Majesty."
"Good." The Empress grinned. "Jade, I will also provide you with two mages to help protect you…meet Ryo Sanelle and his elder sister Zaila, both of whom are extremely good at their gift of magic." A woman and a boy walked through the ivory double doors and stood before Jade. The woman looked about 30, and had short, rich red hair and pale skin, and wore a green silk frock with a red rope tied around her waist like a belt. The boy looked sixteen, and had blonde hair, which was almost as large and spiked as Jade's was, with tan skin and a blue shirt and pants with an animal hide belt around his waist, and two small ropes above his knees. Jade found their fashion taste considerably strange.
"Ryo! Oh Ryo!" screamed Chava, and she ran and jumped on him. "I haven't seen you for months! Where have you been?"
"Chava! I have counted the days when I could see you again!" Ryo cried, and hugged her back.
The Empress rolled her eyes. "That's enough, all of you. You will all start your journey tomorrow, when our Star is at its brightest. Get some sleep and be back in my palace tomorrow. I will be sure to see you off."
"So, uh, who's this Ryo guy? Is he like your boyfriend or somethin'?"
Chava had taken charitable efforts to make Jade feel welcome. He, after all, was the key to the Stardust…so, there she was, walking him to her own home and trying to avoid questions such as this one. She shook her head. "No, he's not my boyfriend. He's just a kid, I mean…I know him, that's all."
"What do you mean he's just a kid?" Jade raised an eyebrow. "He's just as old as I am."
"Would you please make an effort to shut up?" Chava quickened her pace. "I live near here." She looked toward the sky, which was dimming. "This is as dark as it gets here. I hope you weren't planning on nighttime, because we have none." She clicked her tongue. "Stupid humans."
"Come on. I've just been taken from his only home to another place in the universe, on a star, no less, and there you are treating me like a piece of shit on the ground." Jade rolled his eyes. "I mean, give me a break."
Chava sighed. "It's Star, Jade, not star. You must emphasize it…but I do suppose you're right. I'm sorry, I'll try to back off a little." She stopped in front of a large, hollow tree. "Well, here's my little home. Population, one."
"Were you expecting a palace?" she laughed. She spread her silvery wings and lifted herself to the first branch, hoisting herself in the small hole on the side of the trunk. She poked her head out. "Well? Aren't you coming? They're like arms, Jade, just beat them back and forth and try to catch some wind."
After numerous attempts, Jade finally made it to the branch on which Chava was sitting. "See?" she grinned. "It's not that damn hard."
Jade narrowed his eyes. "Just let me sleep, okay?"
"Suit yourself." Chava showed him inside the small, round hole and patted a pile of leaves. "You can sleep here." Jade raised an eyebrow. "What, is it of too much discomfort for your royal tastes, your Highness?" Jade sighed and shook his head, but was immediately surprised that when he landed on the leaf pile, it turned into a small, round green mattress, made of pure cotton-like material. Chava giggled. "You see, Jade? I'm not an evil person."
"I knew that." He looked around at the little room, which was no bigger than his own bedroom at home. There were two holes with black shades hanging from the sides, a small pile of rocks and sticks for building fires in the petite stone fireplace, and a spit-like machine for roasting animals, no doubt. A pile of Chava's green frocks sat in the corner, as well as a number of folded blankets and leather belts. The floor was made of compressed sand and small weeds were beginning to sprout from the corners of the room. But what caught Jade's attention most was, inscribed in the wall like graffiti, the words CHAVA LOVES RYO.
"Aha! I knew it. The mage is your boyfriend."
"He is not!" cried Chava. "Well…we were once married, but he had things to do, places to go, people to see…"
"Married!?" cried Jade. "How can you be married? You look about sixteen!"
"I was married when I was twelve, I am married no longer." Chava lifted her nose in the air. "And I am not sixteen. I am of seventeen years, you silly child."
"Child!" cried Jade. "I'm only a year younger than you!"
"I've lived, dear." Chava yawned. "Perhaps, now that Ryo is in my life once more, we will get back together, wouldn't you say?" She stretched on her own cotton-y green mattress. "And besides, why do you care?"
"I don't." Jade looked at her warily. "Are you a mage, too?"
"My mother was one. I never learned her craft, she died when I was very young."
"Yeah. Mine too."
"Your mother died seven years after you were born, Jade," Chava told him, in such a haughty way that Jade cringed. "She did not die in childbirth, like your father says she did. She wanted you to live on Earth, not…here. Not this wretched place." Chava kicked a loose stone on the floor. "I hate Stars. If it were my choice, I would live on Earth. Alas, I cannot."
"Why can't you?"
"My body cannot take the wind," Chava told him, discouraged. "Whenever I travel to Earth it is in ghost form only, like a spirit, somewhat. If I were to go in the form I'm in now, I would most likely die. You are lucky to be half and half. You can go wherever you please. I mean, Agilantians can't go to Earth and Earthlings cannot go to Agilanta."
Jade nodded. "That's interesting. I just find this place so…odd. Why is the water such a color?"
"Light." Chava smiled. "Isn't it beautiful? You will rarely find anything natural and white here, it is all violet, reflected off of Agilanta's gases. There is the occasional red and green, of course, but those are chemical. I think." She grinned. "Not many others have such a talent for knowing things, as does myself, Ryo, and Zaila. I am able to clearly understand six languages…English, Agilantian, Emmarian, Nensicalese, Aslacian, and Chinese."
"Well, aren't we modest." Jade grinned.
"Jak ena pola seoran!" Chava muttered under her breath. Jade rolled his eyes and curled himself up in his green bed. Chava giggled. "Good night, little human boy. Tomorrow is our big day…in which I will earn big money." She opened her mouth and let out a stream of musical notes, which sounded like bells, and Jade found himself drifting to sleep.
"Damn, it wasn't a dream after all." Jade woke up, dizzy from his light sleep. "I had the funkiest nightmare, Chava," he told the silver-haired girl, who was sitting in front of him with a pan of some sort of red berries. "Here, give me some of that…" Jade took a handful and shoved them in his mouth. "Well, I dreamt that there were these people trying to kill me…scary skinny little white people, and they had long arms and were freaking scary looking. It was hellish."
"I know." Chava nodded, uninterested. "I planted that dream in your head."
"I planted it in your head. To make sure you're aware of the Squols. I don't want you underestimating their power, Jade. To misjudge their skill would be like suicide…especially to a weak little human boy like you." She shoved the pan in Jade's arms. "There you go, I'm full. Now listen, if you ever come across a Squol, don't look them in the eye. Just get on your hands and knees and look toward the ground." She snapped her fingers. "They'll summon the rest of them like that, Jade."
"I'm not as weak as you think I am, just because I'm short…" Jade was clearly offended, and Chava giggled. "Oh, silly Jade, I only meant that you don't have the true powers of an Agilantian. You understand. You're not a mage or anything…that's what Zaila and Ryo are for, right?"
"Then why do you have to come?"
Chava gave him a sly grin. "I'm your bodyguard." Before Jade knew what she was talking about, Chava did two flips in the air backwards and rested her foot in mid-air right in front of his nose. His eyes widened. "Any objections, darling?"
"Jade? Have you discovered how to work your wings yet?" the Empress queried. Today she was adorned in a blinding red, a color much too bright for that early in the morning. Jade shaded his eyes and nodded. "If you are so very good at it, then lift yourself to the ceiling."
Ryo crossed his arms haughtily, while Zaila and Chava looked at Jade hopefully. They're like arms, Jade, just beat them back and forth… He shut his eyes and beat them back and forth, like Chava had told him to do. It was a little more difficult in the palace, seeing as there was little wind, but Jade flapped until he was out of breath and felt his feet being lifted off the floor. A small breeze came from the velvet-curtained windows and lifted him to the ceiling. His small audience clapped in appreciation…all except for Ryo, who raised an eyebrow and yawned.
As Jade lowered himself, he looked at Ryo straight in the eye. "If you don't want to be my guard, just say so. I don't need you and your damned magic crap."
Ryo looked at him, his turquoise eyes burning into Jade's. "I'm in it for the money."
"And I'm in it to save your insipid Star, so show some appreciation and get over yourself." Jade shook his head and smiled at the Empress. "Where do we start, your Majesty?"
"Well-spoken, Jade," the Empress said, grinning. "Remember, Ryo…anything happens to our Majestic Human and you get no pay at all, how do you like that?" Jade smirked and Ryo sulked. "Jade, Ryo, Zaila, and Chava…the Calestia Dela rests somewhere in our deep forests, or so I believe," the Empress informed them. "The Fates will show you the way. Just follow your own instincts, Jade, and no one else's." She shot a look at Ryo, who lifted his hands in retreat.
The silk curtains leading toward the path were suddenly parted by two handmaidens, who sunk to their knees. "May the Fates be with you," they both said to Jade, their eyes never lifted from the floor.
"Wait…you mean, we don't get a map?" cried Jade.
"You do not need a map, I promise you." The Empress smiled, her eyes childlike. "The Fates will tell you, the Winds will lead you. You are the Majestic Human, Jade. When you exit this palace, you will choose from the four directions. Choose wisely."
"Yeah, don't screw up," Ryo whispered. Chava gave him a look, and he lowered his eyes. The four of them walked out of the palace, surrounded by the scent of flowers and warmth and brightness coming from the outer layer of the Star. Jade shut his eyes and felt something in his mind willing him to go Eastward.
"East," Jade whispered. "We're going East."
After the handmaidens had supplied the travelers with handbags filled with food and extra clothing and canteen-like bottles for gathering water, Chava gripped Jade's hand and bade him to shut his eyes. She ran her fingers up and down his palm while chanting, "Bulee da carine se quona." She repeated it four or five times and gave Jade a small smile. "You are blessed." A small hint of pink came to her cheeks as she pulled her hand out of Jade's.
"Thank you, Chava."
The four of them walked until the small village of tree-homes and the palace were all out of sight, deep into the woods but still with plenty of light for them to see where they were headed. They had to jump over a few of the swift violet streams and once even wade through. Often they would come across a part of the dirt which felt hollow under their feet, and they would all quickly run until the ground became whole again.
"Why is it hollow?" Jade queried.
"The Squols," Zaila informed him. "They live under the ground, in dark villages and tunnels in Agilanta and Emmaria, nowhere else, I think." Jade saw goosebumps go up her arms, which she quickly tried to rub away. "They come out during the dimness of night, when the Star has reached its climax of dark. Of course, they would never try to capture an Agilantian while they are flying or in their trees, or even in the pure daylight, it is much too dangerous for the little bastards. But when we walk upon their grounds…" Zaila shuddered. "They have small climbing shafts that they use to come out at night. Secret ones, hidden away somewhere Agilantians don't know about. And before they know it, the Squols have grabbed them from behind."
"Wh-what do they do once they attack?" Jade stammered. Zaila's story of these Squols sounded similar to the haunting nightmares he had when he was a child, as most do. The imaginary creatures that live under your bed, and get you when you leave it. Except this time, it was real. And there was nothing he could do about it.
"Oh, first they strip you of your wings," Zaila explained. "No one knows what they do with them, because they can't use them themselves. And after you cannot fly away, they rip the soul out of your body and use it to prolong their own lives." Zaila shook her head. "Selfish little scoundrels. I have seen too many victims, laying lifeless on the dirt ground with scars where their wings once were."
"Did you ever know a victim?" Jade asked.
Zaila nodded. "Yes, we did know one, didn't we, brother?" Ryo nodded and Zaila continued. "Our cousin. We called him Little Cray, because his father was Cray. He was a sweet boy, he was. Him and his friend were playing tag nearly eight years ago, in the climax of the night. He…he…tripped. On a tree root, and fell on the ground. His friend couldn't do anything…he tried to grab Little Cray, but he fell…and they got him. The damned things got him." Zaila shook her head. "What a horrible day. I couldn't even look at the body at the obsequies."
"That's awful. What an awful place this is." Jade sighed. "Back on Earth, there was no dangers like that…only other people, you know? To think that these monsters live with you! Hasn't it ever occurred to the Empress and her advisors that they could just bomb their hideouts?"
"What a terrible idea!" cried Ryo. "The Squols are too clever to let something like that slide. They have built their villages and tunnels near the core of the Star. To bomb them would blow up our entire world. And they outnumber us a hundred to one, at least. It is best we just let them be, I suppose." Ryo shot Jade another haughty look, which he smartly ignored.
"Here we are, kids." Zaila came across a large, hollowed out tree. "Someone's old residence. It will do for a night's stay." She floated to the third tallest branch, and beckoned the others to follow. Jade was last, still getting the hang of his new wings. A large moss bed covered the shelved floor of the tree, and soon everyone found themselves nearly asleep.
"Do the Squols come out just for the hell of it?" Jade asked Zaila nearly an hour later, at the darkest point of night. "I mean, if I were to look outside, would I see some crawling around?"
Zaila shook her head. "No, unless some unfortunate Agilantian were to come running across their grounds at this moment. They only come out when they need to. They hate the light."
"I see." Jade nodded, and rolled on his side, unable to sleep. But when he finally did drift off, he had the strangest dream, a dream he'd never imagined having, and certainly something Chava couldn't have planted in his mind.
Jade's hand reaches the engravement. It is rested between a bed of five-petaled violet flower bushes. His fingers brush the stone, and he feels his energy being drained. Standing on both of his sides are Chava and Ryo. Chava is on his right, Ryo his left, and Zaila stands in front of him, holding a pendant with the four-ringed symbol. The ground beneath him opens and he falls downward. Jade lands in a net, a large fishing net with metal spikes surrounding him.
"Die, Human, die," he hears the voices around him say. He cannot see who is saying them, until a pair of glowing red eyes interrupts his line of vision and glares at him so evilly and with such repulsion that he has to turn away. They are filled with fire and hatred and burn a hole in the net. He falls again, his sight blinded but his nose filled with the sweet scent of flowers and the bell-like singing of Chava's beautiful voice.
"Chava!" Jade cried, rolling her over. "That was a God awful dream! It was cruel!"
Chava yawned. "I did not give you a dream, you silly boy! Go back to sleep, it is not time to wake up yet."
"But…but…Calestia Dela! I saw it! I saw Calestia Dela!" cried Jade. Chava sat up as quickly as she had shut her eyes before and grabbed Jade's shoulders, her turquoise eyes widened. She shook him and gasped. "Where is it, Jade? Tell me now!" she cried. Ryo and Zaila both sat up and rubbed their eyes at Chava's commotion.
"I…I don't know, but it was between a pair of some flower bushes, and when I placed my hand on the engravement I fell, and someone was trying to scare me, but you saved me, Chava." Jade blushed. "I…I mean, I think you saved me, I heard your voice and everything…"
"Listen, Jade!" cried Ryo. "Lead us to Calestia Dela now!"
"But Ryo, I have no idea where it is!" Jade looked heavenward. "That dream must have been sent from the Fates or some higher power. There is no other explanation, but I think I'll know it when I see it…oh God, I hope so."
The River Pria
"Look! I found a boat! Ha!" Ryo cried, rushing towards the edge of the wild river. The other three slowly followed, their legs tired and heads aching. Jade's instincts had led him to the edge of the savage violet river Pria, as Zaila had called it.
The boat was small, wooden, and almost futuristic looking with its rounded edges and large motor made of iron. The cabin in the center was a clear plastic bubble with two doors and two windows, surrounding wooden chairs and an iron control center. Ivy grew on the sides, and the edges were rusted. Jade was fascinated by it, but the others looked at it as an average, or even a little worse, wooden boat.
"I never was able to understand these things," Chava said, disgusted, kicking the edge of the boat. "Ryo always loved them…didn't you Ryo? He bought me one once."
Ryo grinned. "Then I sold it."
Jade sat in the control seat. "This thing works kind of like a car…doesn't it?" he queried, placing his hands on the wheel. There was a stick for turning the boat into forward and reverse, and an acceleration pedal. There was a brake button above the wheel, which was red. Ryo pushed Jade out of the seat. "You have no idea how such a device works, you dumb human," he mocked. "What is a car, an Earth boat?"
"No, it's an automobile that drives on roads, not rivers," Jade answered back just as arrogantly. He pulled out his wallet out of his jeans pocket and shoved his driver's license in Ryo's face. "I bet you don't have one of these, do you?"
"No, but I have one of these," Ryo replied, flinging his wrist at Jade. On it was a bronze bracelet encarved with some sort of language Jade had only seen on signs in Agilanta. Ryo stuck his nose in the air. "I have a boat license. Your little driver's license is no good here. Move over."
Jade sighed and let Ryo in the seat. "You'll never be even the least bit nice to me, will you?"
"I have no intention to, and I have no reason to." Ryo turned on the motor and put the boat into forward.
"Jealous," Jade muttered under his breath.
"Jealous of what? Your living on Earth? Your being a human? Ha! Just because I'm not a half-blood like you are…"
"All right! Would you both please give it up?" cried Chava. "Let's just try to survive this voyage and not get in any more arguments! We're all on the same side, remember?" She narrowed her eyes at Ryo. "Try not to start any more fights, please?"
"For you, Chava, anything," Ryo replied, recollecting himself.
"The River Pria leads to a large desert, I hope you realize this, Jade," Zaila said indignantly. Jade opened his mouth to object, but Zaila interrupted him. "It's all right, don't worry yourself. You're the Majestic Human, the Fates are most definitely with you." Her eyes clouded over in a somewhat nervous expression, but she quickly shook it off. "If this is where you were inquired to go, I trust you. One hundred percent."
The river was crowded with jutted rocks and branches fallen from hanging trees, which Ryo tried to dodge, but occasionally one got stuck under the rudder, and he made Jade rip it out. Jade didn't complain, he hated fighting the kid, who was at least half a foot taller than him and was much more built. "The Squols can't attack us while we're in the boat, huh?" Jade asked nervously.
"Of course not," Ryo laughed, like everyone should know the answer to such a stupid question. "They hate water, and anything associated with it."
"Well, that's good. At least we're safe then." Jade sat near the edge of the boat, inhaling that flower scent that had surrounded him since he arrived. The sky was brighter than ever, white and sunless, which was a strange sight to see. Trees surrounded him at all sides, but he heard the occasional laughter of a child throwing rocks in the river, or floating toy boats. "It's too bad about Little Cray…"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Zaila said, smiling. "That was eight years ago. I still think about the kid, but hey, it happens to everyone."
"Oh sure. It happens a lot. You have to watch your back here in Agilanta…for Squols and for spies…from other Stars, I mean." She smiled. "They disguise themselves and try to steal the Star's secrets. Anyone could be a spy. It's hard to spot them." Zaila smiled again, and patted Jade on the back. "Don't worry, we're here to guard you, aren't we kids?" Chava and Ryo nodded.
"Has anyone here ever been to another Star?" Jade asked the small group of people, who all shook their heads in disappointment. "Well…why not?"
"We Agilantians go only on the Empress' request, with a pass, of course," replied Chava. "If we were to go without one, we'd be enslaved. For sure. Or locked in the dungeons. The other Stars' rulers aren't as good to us and others as our Empress is. If our Empress finds someone from another Star trespassing on our territory, she sends them back to their Star immediately and forbids them to return, even with a pass from the ruler of their Star. Others are far worse."
"Are they all so very young?" Jade asked.
"No, no," Chava answered. "Emmaria and Aslac's Emperors are both at least in their fifties or so, and Nensical is ruled by twin sisters who are both nearly forty. They were given an option to fight for the throne, but they wouldn't do such a thing." Chava grinned. "I find it quite noble."
The travelers reached a bed of sand, which beached their little boat. "Damn!" cried Ryo. He put the motor in the highest gear and tried to move it forward, but the boat wouldn't budge. "Stay in here, I'll get out and push it."
After numerous attempts, all four of them had given up. "Well, I suppose this is where we sleep for the night," Ryo stated with discontempt. He pulled a blanket out of his bag. "I don't know about you, but I'm pretty tired," he declared as the Star sky started to dim.
The other three followed his example. "You know, if we were on Earth right now, you could look up in the sky and see hundreds of Stars, some brighter than others. The sky would be nearly black and it was a real sight," Jade told Chava as he pulled out his blanket and spread it on the boat deck.
"I know," Chava whispered. "I saw it a few times, when I came to Earth in my spirit form. And it was cold, too. The darkness brings coldness, does it not?"
Jade grinned. "I suppose you could say that." The sky reached its darkest point after a few minutes, which was only as dark as a rainy summer day, and a deep violet at that. Jade put his hands behind his head and looked over at Chava, whose long, sparkling silver hair was spread around her like a pillow. Her own blue-green eyes were only half-open and her face in a content state. The insects around him were large and their chirps sounded like bells.
"It sounds somewhat like music," Chava remarked on the bell-like sounds around them.
"What, Ryo's snoring?" Jade whispered, chuckling.
Chava giggled. "No…the insects. They make such beautiful sounds. Unlike those wretched insects on Earth, what are they called, crickets?" Jade laughed and nodded. Chava made a disgusted face. "And frogs. Those are quite awful."
Out of the blue came a long, beautiful note, followed by more, until they were strung into what sounded like fairies singing and bells chiming. Jade had sort of a half-smile on his face, and he grinned at Chava. She felt her heart pounding in her chest, and she gulped to help herself swallow. "Listen to it, Chava," he told her. The singing had grown louder and even more beautiful. "I've never heard anything like it."
Chava shut her eyes, her pulse racing. "Jade…I have to tell you something." She pulled away and rested on the edge of the boat, her face turned away. "Not even Ryo knows this, I never told him and I shouldn't even tell you…"
"Why is what you're about to tell me so sacred?"
"Jade, you need to promise me you won't say a word. To anyone. I don't need pity." She grabbed Jade's hands in her own and her eyes were filled with tears. Jade nodded in agreement. Chava bent over and removed her shoes. Her feet up until her ankles were pure white, like a bleach stain. A tear ran down her face. "It keeps growing, Jade. It's like a curse. There's no cure anyone knows of, and once it reaches my brain, I will die." She sunk to the floor and buried her face in her hands.
"How much longer do you have?" Jade asked frantically.
"I…I don't know. Maybe a year. Maybe two or three. It's unpredictable. But it will be the cause of my death. I'm going to die Jade. I'll never live to see twenty, or even nineteen."
"How…how did you get it?" Jade asked her, his pulse racing.
"I never told anyone this but my own father. Only he knows, but when I was only ten years old, one of them got me. A Squol…it got me and it was strange, because it didn't take my wings, it only started to remove the very soul from my body." Chava shuddered, and goosebumps went up her arms. "My father rescued me from its grip in time to save me that time, but the curse remains. A few cases have been known of this, and everyone has been the victim of a slow, spreading, but painless death."
"Oh Chava…I've never heard anything so horrible…so there is no cure?"
"There is one, but no one knows of it. In the old history books it has shown surviving Squol victims with such a curse as I have, and they are later cured, but no one knows how! Lately, everyone has died from it after nearly ten years of falling victim to a Squol."
Jade put his arms around her and hugged her, something he had never done. "Oh Chava, why did you tell me that?"
"Because," she whispered, "I…I wanted you to forget me. There is no pain greater than losing someone you…someone you…"
"I'm going to find your cure, Chava," Jade interrupted her, his eyes filled with his own tears, which wetted the side of Chava's face in their embrace. "I promise. I'm the Majestic Human, remember? I can do anything…the Fates are on my side…" His ambitious proposal finally left his words, and a sob started in his throat. "I'm sorry."
The Desert Calapen
Chava immediately regretted telling Jade. She now knew that everything he did for her would now be out of pity. But at least Ryo didn't know. Ryo could never know…and she told Jade because he would eventually have to go back to Earth and never come back…Chava sighed and recited a spell under her breath that her father had learned from her mother a long time ago.
"This curse that has been put upon me, will the Fates conceal
And let the world know I've nothing to reveal."
The white marks on her ankles faded into her natural color, to be hidden for the time being. She looked at Jade, who had long ago fell asleep with a distraught look on his face. Why is he so upset…? she thought to herself. After all, once the Stardust had been found and returned to the center of the Star, he would return to Earth with no looking back. He didn't want to live on Agilanta, it was clear…there was no reason to remain on this Squol-infested, hot and nearly windless Star.
"I just won't look at him," Chava told herself under her breath, trying to stop her pulse racing. "There's no reason to…he's here for one purpose only, to save Agilanta."
She fell asleep with a small smile on her lips, knowing that the next generation of Agilantians would grow up on a bright, warm Star, and Jade would help that happen…even if she'd never live to see it.
"Ha! It works!" cried Ryo, sitting behind the control center in the small boat. The motor was again running and the water was relatively calm for the current being so swift. Jade sat in the corner of the boat, his legs tucked to his chin and a forlorn look on his face. "Say, Jade, what's wrong?" Ryo asked him, confused.
Jade shook his head. "Nothing."
"All right." Ryo shrugged and started humming some unheard of tune.
"It's going to be fine," Chava whispered in Jade's ear, and smiled. "Just lead us to the Calestia Dela and everything will be fine." She patted his arm and sat next to him, and lowered her voice even more so that only Jade could hear her. "Everyone has to die sometime, Jade…my time will just come sooner than the rest, there's no need to worry about it."
"Hey!" cried Ryo. "What are you telling him, Chava?"
"Nothing, darling!" she cried. "Where are we headed?"
"Well, I just passed the Calapen Mark, which means we're pretty near to the Calapen Desert…was that where we are intended to head, Jade?" Ryo cried. Jade nodded, still forlorn. "Good then," Ryo said under his breath, "we're all going to roast to death in the largest desert in Agilanta." Chava slapped him on the arm to shut him up, which he did immediately.
The river eventually started to narrow and the boat began bumping on the edges of shore. To ease her own tension, Chava began to sing. Her voice was so clear and crystallic that no one stirred as the words came from her mouth like a stream of bells. Jade couldn't understand a word she was singing, since it was Agilantian, but was so mesmerized that his troubled mind cleared and all he could think about was that voice.
Chava blushed. "Were you all listening to me?" she said quietly. "Oh grand…I'm embarrassed now."
"Oh, Chav, you have a great voice," Ryo commented, then shot a look at Jade. "A voice I've heard many, many times before."
"Chill!" Jade told him.
"How am I supposed to chill when you're trying to take my girl away from me, huh?"
"That definitely wasn't my intent!" Jade insisted.
"Shut up, both of you!" cried Zaila. "We're nearing the oasis leading into the Calapen Desert." The trees starting to become thicker and the scent of plants was dense, as was the humidity. Jade had rarely been in such heat his entire life, but he could stand it. He had sort of an inherited love for Agilanta, like it was driven somewhere deep in the back of his mind that this was home…and even under the extreme conditions he felt a sort of appreciation for it. He shut his eyes.
"It's not here," he sensed. "It's past here…"
"What is? The Calestia Dela?" Chava asked him.
"Yeah." Jade closed his eyes again. There was a vision in his mind, of the violet flower bushes hiding the entrance. He jumped off the slowly pacing boat and onto shore, frantically tearing apart every bush he saw, but he had little hope. He knew it wasn't there. It couldn't be…he couldn't feel it. "No…it's not here," he said, a little disheartened. "We need to move forward."
Ryo parked the boat on the sandy shore and helped his sister and Chava out while Jade started to walk through the oasis jungle, his tennis shoes hardly a match for the twisted and tangled web of weeds crawling up the trees and onto their roots. He beckoned the others to follow, which they did.
"There's a much easier way to do this, Jade," Zaila told him, a wry smile on her lips. Jade looked confused, and she answered for him by beating her wings in the still air. Jade's heart jumped; he was still afraid of being that far from the ground. But he followed her example, and lifted himself above the trees, trying to avoid looking down.
"Oh Jade, you'll get used to it," Chava told him. The ground laid out before them after exiting the oasis was pure, untouched desert, the sands with a whitish-violet glow and the heat extremely intense. Chava grabbed his hand. "You'll need to fly higher than that, if you want to get anywhere fast." Jade felt a burst of wind strike his face and body, and he suddenly felt like he controlled everything, like he could go anywhere.
"These wings..." he told Chava, once they were at least four hundred feet off the ground, "they resemble angel's wings, don't they?"
Chava laughed. "Is that what you call us on Earth? Angels?" She shook her head. "No…all we are is little do-gooder Agilantians who come to Earth to help people. You know. Sometimes it's part of community service, as you call it." She flipped her head back, which made her sparkling silver hair glisten in the light. "Angels, huh?"
"So-so there are no such things as angels, then?" Jade asked her, awed.
"I wouldn't say there are no ghosts or spirits, no, just no angels." She smiled. "We're all angels here. You know where that name came from, didn't you? The name Angel?" Jade shook his head. "Oh, I don't either. Probably some little nutcase on Earth who misheard the word 'Agilanta' or 'Agilantian' or some sort and heard 'Angel' instead."
Jade was confused by it, but didn't bother himself with any more questions. "Well then…where do you go when you…when you die?" he asked her, regretting it afterwards. He was still getting over the initial shock of when Chava told him about her curse.
Chava saw the pale look on his face. "Don't worry about it, Jade. No one knows where we go when we die. Maybe our bodies just become Stardust, you know? And maybe our spirits go someplace better." She smiled, and looked in peace. "Don't think about such things any more, Jade. You'll only worry yourself to death."
"Chava!" cried Ryo, nearly swooping in front of her face. "What are you doing, talking to him?"
"He's my friend, Ryo, so please show him some respect!" Chava shook her head in disbelief at Ryo's obvious envy. "Besides," she added, "you're much too busy for me anyway." She flapped her wings and shot upward, Ryo following close behind.
"But Chava, please…you know why I couldn't be with you anymore, it was the pressure and the Empress' neverending requests…but everything is different now, and you know it, Chava." Ryo hung his head, his wings suddenly drooping. "I hoped that if you came back you'd maybe forgive me. I guess I was wrong."
"I will think upon it," she answered him, and kissed his blonde head. "Meanwhile, do not worry so much."
Jade felt the wind hit his face. He felt like a bird. Never had such a glorious sensation come over him…it was like he was free from everything that ever held him back. Maybe I could stay in Agilanta…and not have to go back to Earth… He remembered what Chava had told him. She had only a year or two, if that, left to live…wouldn't it kill him to see her die? She was his weak spot, there was no denying that.
All of a sudden, the clouds above him opened and rain started to pour from the deep purple sky. "Damnit!" cried Jade, and fell lower, the rain beating on his wings.
Zaila pointed to a hollow cave entrance, which was surrounded by rocks. "We go there…hurry." She ducked under the clouds and flew straight toward the entrance like a bullet from a gun. Ryo grabbed Chava's hand and tried to follow, but Chava held back, her voice barely heard over the pelting rain. "No, Ryo! I have to help Jade! I have to help him!" Ryo shook his head in disbelief and followed his sister into the cave entrance.
"Jade, are you all right?" she cried. He nodded, his wings drooped. She could sense that he was about to fall. Draping his arms around her neck, she tried to dodge the hateful raindrops, but she could barely see. She felt herself falling, but quickly regained consciousness.
"Chava!" Ryo screamed from the cave entrance. "Chava…hurry!"
But it was too late. The rain had ruined her wings for the time being, and she felt herself descending quickly into the red, jagged rocks below.
"She'll be just fine."
"There's just a large gash on her forehead, but you can take care of that. Go stick this cloth out in the rain, will you?"
Chava didn't open her eyes, her head still spinning, but she had regained consciousness and heard the hushed conversation around her. There was a throbbing pain in her forehead, but the rest of her was covered by blankets and her head was held up by two pillows. It was Jade's pillow, she could smell him on it…sort of a lingering scent of grass and something else she couldn't decipher, but it was nice.
She blinked and saw a small fire being started, with Ryo and Zaila both next to the wall. Ryo was kicking sand in the flames. But where was Jade…?
She saw his tennis shoes walking towards her, so she shut her eyes again. She felt something damp on her head, wiping away the dirt and the blood. "You'll be fine," he whispered, "just fine." He dropped the cloth at her side and sat next to her. "You awake yet, Chava?"
"My wings…are they ruined?" she asked him frantically, her voice a hoarse whisper.
"No, they're fine, just a little drenched."
"Thank you, Jade," she told him, her lips curved into a small and weak smile.
"No, Chava, I should be thanking you," he said. "You saved me…if it weren't for you, I would have plummeted and gotten a worse beating than what you took." He brushed the silver strands of hair off her face.
"No…thank you for giving me your pillow." She grinned.
"How'd you know it was mine?" he asked, surprised.
"It smelled like you," Chava answered, her eyes luminated by the fire. "Like grass, and clouds, and the sky."
"I smell like the sky?" Jade asked her, obviously pleased at it.
"Yes, you smell like the sky. And the Earth, and rain…" She blushed. "All good things." Her pulse quickened, and her heart started beating even more rapidly. She could see why everyone called him Jade now. His eyes were more beautiful than anyone's she had ever seen, maybe because the flames caught their reflection, and maybe it was just because the rest of him was so striking…and here she was, weak little cursed Chava Sophavala, with nothing special about her as far as she could see.
"Jade…I'm sorry, I…" she stammered, and turned her head so she couldn't look into his eyes. "I shouldn't do this, Jade, and I'm sorry if I've been forward or anything…"
"What are you talking about, Chava?" Jade asked her, lifting her head and cradling it like a baby's. He ran his fingers through her hair, and down the side of her cheek, tilting her chin so he could look in her face. His other hand gripped hers, and he intertwined their fingers. "Are you all right?"
She wanted to tell him. No, Jade, I'm not all right, I didn't want to fall in love with you…
But all she could do was nod her head. "I'm-I'm fine."
Ryo had become more and more suspicious of Jade. He often wondered what he and Chava were saying to each other, and a constant jealous streak ran through his veins. There they were, sitting by themselves away from he and Zaila, in a damp cave…the perfect setting for something to happen. He felt his ears turn pink and his face grow hot, when suddenly Jade stood up and walked towards the fire. Ryo felt a sigh of relief escape from his mouth.
"She'll be all right, won't she, Jade?" he asked him, tossing him a handful of red berries.
Jade nodded. "She's doing great, Ryo." He stuffed the berries in his mouth, and grinned. "I mean, she had to save me. After all, I am the Majestic Human." He laughed when he saw Ryo's disgusted face. "I'm kidding."
Zaila turned toward Jade. "So? Have you any sensations of where the Calestia Dela could be, Jade?"
Jade looked thoughtful. "It's near here, but not too much…is there any more oasises around? I sensed the entrance to the Calestia Dela between those bushes with the violet flowers on them…what are those called, anyway?"
"Ephilea bushes," Zaila answered him, shaking her head. "Tell me, Jade, did the flowers have five petals or three?"
"Yes, I was right, Ephilea bushes." She threw her hands in the air. "I officially give up."
"What do you mean?" Jade asked her, astonished.
"They don't exist, Jade," she told him, her eyes lowered. He thought he saw a tear trickling down her face, but she brushed it away before he could notice. "Ephilea flowers are among the most common myths in Agilanta. No one's ever seen one. Therefore, our chances of seeing them are extremely slim. They're only in dreams, Jade."
"But if they're in dreams…aren't the dreams Fate-sent?"
"Yes. It is said that when you see Ephilea flowers in your dreams that the dream isn't real. It's fake, Jade. There is no Calestia Dela. We all might as well die." She looked toward the sky, which had cleared from the rain. "If there's any such thing as the Calestia Dela, will the Fates please tell our friend Jade?" Now she was crying, and she couldn't hold it back. Ryo looked awestruck and Chava had fallen asleep.
"We have one choice now," Ryo told Jade quietly. "We either die as the Star will, or we become enslaved by the other Stars."
"Oh, don't give up!" cried Jade, trying to put some enthusiasm in his voice. "I'm sure we'll find the entrance! We can't just let everyone die, can we?"
"Give it up, Jade! There is no Calestia Dela!" cried Ryo, his head in his hands.
Jade sighed and slumped on the sandy floor. His hand brushed against a rock, and something soft. He looked down and found that, in his reach, was a small violet flower…with five petals, pointed at the top. The scent was so strong that his nose nearly went numb…the smell of a crossbreed of hyacinths and geraniums. He looked at Ryo and grinned. "Oh, yes there is."
Zaila looked at the flower in Jade's hand, her green-blue eyes widening, almost looking like saucers. "My God! It's…it's an Ephilea flower!" She shook her head and grabbed Jade's hand, looking him straight in the eye. "There's something magic about you, kid."
"Yeah, the smell of it has been lingering the entire time I've been in Agilanta." Jade looked confused. "You mean…you haven't smelled that?"
"No…no…of course not. You mean, not only have you actually found an Ephilea flower, you've smelled them also?" Zaila looked awestruck, but her gaping mouth quickly turned to a smile. "The Fates are with you, Jade. I know they are." She stood up. "We're going to find that entrance."
"Of course we are," Jade agreed.
Ryo had shaken Chava awake, and explained the situation. Her eyes widened almost as much as Zaila's had. "You mean-you mean, our Jade's found an Ephilea flower?" she cried. "An Ephilea flower? You're joking!" She rushed toward Jade and snatched the flower from his grip, studying it closely. "Oh my, you're right…it's definitely Ephilea." She looked at Jade. "How near are we, Jade?"
"Not near enough," Jade said, "but we're getting closer. I know we are."
"This time, we don't fly nearly as high, all right?" Zaila instructed her three fellow travelers, who nodded in agreement. Chava had a bandage wrapped around her forehead, and her hair looked a little tangled, but no one cared. They were all refreshed from their deep sleep in the cave, and now the desert sand was hotter than ever.
Jade smoothed out the back of Chava's hair with his hand and placed the small violet flower above her ear. She smiled at him, and flapped her angelic wings. Zaila looked ahead of her. "Are we heading East still, Jade?" He nodded, and lifted himself above the ground.
Chava was a few feet ahead of him, her leather boots laced, but not tightly enough. Jade saw the white outline of the curse peeking above her laces, obviously still spreading. He gulped back the tears in his throat. Her eyes were blinking from being tired, and her silver hair was still tangled and matted…it was so endearing he could hardly stand it. The scent of the Ephilea flower was so strong still that it drifted off her hair and forced him to breathe it in.
There she was, flying right next to Ryo, being her normal self, laughing like she always had…that high, twinkling fairy laugh of hers…Jade shook it off his mind, trying to concentrate back on the entrance of the Calestia Dela and its whereabouts…but he couldn't. Back home, tacked on his bulletin board were at least a dozen girls' phone numbers and e-mail addresses…but there she was, and in the past few days she had become a part of him, this cursed, dying girl who he had come across by chance.
Nothing is just chance, Jade…he almost heard himself think. Fate decides where you end up, does it not?
The Temple of the Seven Fates
There was another oasis. Jade could see it, even from the distance he was at. He was thankful, too, for his back was becoming sore and his throat dry. Ryo was carrying a worn-out Chava on his back, and Zaila too looked tired and ornery. "Another oasis!" cried Jade happily, pointed to the patch of jungle far in front of him.
Zaila nodded. "That, my dear boy, is no ordinary oasis. Here in Agilanta, we call it the Temple of the Seven Fates. May I give you a warning?" Jade nodded. "Try not to disobey them, and try to listen to them as carefully as possible. They will pay special attention to you, however, for you are the Majestic Human."
As they neared the Temple, Jade could see a beautiful ivory building peeking through the treetops, and could hear water rushing. He looked at Chava, who was asleep, with the small Ephilea flower still tucked behind her ear and miraculously, still in brilliant color and bloom, even in the intense heat of the Calapen Desert.
"Chava. Chava, wake up." Ryo poked the sleeping girl, who slowly blinked her eyes and yawned. "We're reaching the Temple of the Seven Fates, Chav."
"We…we are?" she stammered, lifting her enormous white-gold wings.
"Yeah, and Jade's going to get us to the Calestia Dela in no time." He shot a look at Jade. "Aren't you?"
"Yes, Ryo, I'll get you to the damn entrance." Jade rolled his eyes. "I've been telling you that for what, the past four days? God, get a life."
"All right, that's it, you bastard, say your prayers!" Ryo reached out to Jade and grabbed his arm, trying to throw him off balance. Jade kicked him in the shin. "What the hell are you doing, Ryo, trying to kill me?!" he screamed, thrusting Ryo to the other side of him. Jade gave him a look of disgust. "Grow up, for God's sake."
"I'm going to check this place out," Ryo told the girls, keeping an eye on Jade. "Make sure he doesn't get you lost or something." Ryo plummeted to the oasis' edge, which was surrounded by a narrow, winding stream.
Jade rubbed his arm. "What's his problem, anyway?"
Zaila smiled. "I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, Jade." She leaned over to his ear and whispered, "I'll tell you later." She swooped down from the sky to join her brother.
Jade smiled. "So…Chava, have you ever been here?"
"No." She shrugged. "My father came here once, to give me a blessing when I was born. I think all parents do that, or should anyway." A disheartened look appeared in her once-sparkling eyes. "This may be the first and last time I'm ever here." Tears welled up in her eyes, so she turned away. "I'll never have any children, you know."
"Oh Chava." Jade was beginning to form his own tears. "You'll be fine. I told you I was going to help you, wasn't I? I won't leave here until your curse has been diminished."
Chava looked awestruck. "You promise?"
"Of course I do. First I have to go home, and tell my father where I am…he'll be deathly worried, I'm sure of it. But I'll come back, and we'll find a cure, all right? You and I…I promise you." Jade could barely finish his last sentence when Chava wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him so tightly he could barely breathe. "How can I ever thank you, Jade?" she asked him, sobbing.
"You can start by watching where you're going," Jade laughed, pulling her away and tilting her chin so she could look at her surroundings. They were headed for a tree. Chava screamed, and Jade yanked her away before she could run into it. Chava giggled, that high fairy laugh of hers, and Jade grinned. "Would it hurt your pride a little for uh, a human to give you flying lessons?"
Zaila looked up at the large ivory building, surrounded by pillars and decorated in rich red flowers. The windows had been locked and shut with wooden slates and ivy and moss grew up the sides, making the Temple look almost abandoned. However, the large stone fountain in front was still running, shooting water from three different places.
"Must we go in now?" Chava begged, looking longingly at the clear little pond only a few feet away from them. "I'm hot and quite tired…may I take a swim?" She clasped her hands together. "Please, Zaila?"
Zaila laughed. "I am not your mother, you can do as you please."
Ryo shook his head. "Do what you want, Chav, I'm going to make us a campsite in one of those trees. Maybe I'll join you later." He grinned at Chava.
"Of course you will, darling," she said, smiling. Jade rolled his eyes and took off his tee-shirt. "I don't know about anyone else here," he stated, "but there's no way in hell I'm not jumping in that pond!" Before anyone could say another word, Jade took a mad sprint towards the water's edge and jumped in, creating a huge splash.
Zaila sighed. "I'm going to search this place for any other Agilantians. Maybe they have a way to get in this place." She kicked a stone at the ivory building and started walking around the other side, as Ryo grabbed the bags and started flying towards the edge of the oasis, looking for a hollow tree.
Chava didn't bother to take off any of her clothes, including her shoes, as she slowly lowered herself into the lukewarm water. Her surroundings were absolutely stunning…there were trees that looked like willows and drooped so far down that they skimmed the water, and the beautiful red flowers scattered the grounds so it looked one one big garden. She felt something kick her leg.
"Ow!" she screamed. Jade emerged from the water. "Sorry, I didn't know it was you."
Chava smiled. "It's all right." She dunked herself underwater and came up to the surface to braid her hair as quickly as she could, then followed Jade through the hanging plants and their shadows.
"What are these called?" he asked her, picking one of the flowers.
"Ashira," she answered. "I suppose in English that it means the ruby flower." She looked at Jade, who had drops of water on his face and his once-spiked hair had been matted to his forehead. "It's also a part of Agilantian folklore…when you kiss someone in its presence, it…it gives you good luck." She blushed an unbeatable shade of red.
"Well, we all need good luck, don't we?" Jade gave her sort of a half-way smile, held her chin up and kissed her on the cheek. Chava swallowed the lump in her throat and ran her hand over his head, spiking his hair back up to its normal state.
She shook her head and pulled away. "Don't do this to me."
She tried not to let him see the tears in her eyes. "Jade, I'm dying! What good will it do either of us if…if I start to fall in love with you?" She clenched her fists, and shut her eyes. Why did you just say that, Chava? she scorned herself. Jade didn't say anything, so she continued. "I don't know what's wrong with me, I wasn't supposed to fall for you, Jade…it wasn't part of the Plan…I was supposed to help you find the Calestia Dela and that's all."
Jade turned her around, so she was looking in his face. He smiled again and brushed the tear away from her eyes with his thumb. "Things change, Chava. All I know is that in the past four days you couldn't have possibly know the way I feel when you look at me, or talk to me…" He lowered his eyes to the water he stood in.
Chava shook her head. "No Jade. I know exactly how you feel." She clasped her fists together. "What are we supposed to do now?" she whispered, a tear trickling down the side of her face. "Are we just supposed to let this all pass?"
"I couldn't do that, I really couldn't." Jade grabbed her hands. "Chava…listen to me, I know you have Ryo and all, but…
"It's not that. It's this curse." Chava hung her head. "Of all people, it happened to me. I mean, my father sent all of his advisors to seek out the best healers in-" She suddenly clamped her mouth shut, as if she had said something wrong. "I-I mean, his friends to seek out healers, and no one could find one that knew how to cure it."
"What are you saying?"
"I can't let anything happen…or it'll cause more pain for us both. You understand, Jade. You know there's nothing more I want than all of this, and you, but heartache is worse than even the deepest physical pain." She shut her eyes. "I hate myself for this. For falling for you…and I hate myself for even telling you in the first place."
Jade was confused at it, but he shook it off. "You know what, I'm sorry and all, I really am, and I promised you I'd help you with it, but you can't give up on the rest of your life because of your own self-pity!" He sighed, and slowly got out of the water. "Maybe I better help Ryo."
"Yeah, maybe you should." Chava crossed her arms and turned away.
The Empress sat at her throne, letting her servants fan her with bird feathers. "It's too hot in here, isn't it?" she complained. She looked out her window, covered only by silk curtains. "I wonder how those four are doing," she said to herself. It had been three days without any sign of them.
"Dana, would you please go send for Deidre? It's taking her forever to prepare my meal!" she asked the small blonde-haired girl at her right side. She nodded and sprinted off towards the kitchens. The Empress yawned, bored with herself.
All of a sudden, an arrow flew past the Empress' nose and straight into the wall beside her. "What…what's going on? Who threw that arrow?" she demanded.
"I did." The voice was dark and low and seemed to emerge from the shadows. A figure appeared in front of her like a silhouette from a nightmare. The Empress blinked her eyes and looked into the face of a brown-eyed stranger, dressed in iron armor and with a dark complexion. He bent on one knee. "Your Majesty, I'm here to deliver a message from the Emperor of Emmaria."
The Empress raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what message is that?"
The stranger gave her sort of a half-smile, his eyes creased with crow's feet. "That he will enjoy your company very much."
"What are you talking about? I demand an explanation!" the Empress cried, stomping her gold-booted foot on the floor.
Without warning, two more of the iron-clad men appeared at her side and grabbed her arms, and spread their wings, lifting themselves from the throne. The weak little girl who had been fanning her had slunk into a corner of the room, terrified out of her mind. "Celeste! Celeste, go find Jade!" the Empress screamed at her. "Find Jade and tell him I've been kidnapped! Go!" Before the men could get her too, Celeste bolted off through the nearest exit and started to soar above the desert-hot sky.
"Why are you doing this to me?" the Empress screamed. "Why!"
"We can't have you figuring anything out, you stupid girl," the guard spat at her. The Empress' face turned beet red at what he had just called her. "The Emperor of Emmaria can't have you ruining any of his plans, can he?"
"What plans?" the Empress cried, feeling herself being hoisted to the outer atmosphere of the Star. She kicked the air. "I demand to know what plans you speak of!"
The guard smirked. "Only that your Majestic Human will be of little use to you and much use to Emmaria."
"How can that possibly be?"
"Oh, you'll see." He grinned. "We already have it completely under control. The Emperor will explain it to you once we reach his palace."
"Did you find anything?" Ryo asked his sister eagerly as she emerged from around the ivory temple. The answer was clear when he saw from, out of the mist, Zaila with a small burden draped over her shoulder; a little girl with a crooked wing.
"Is she all right?" Jade asked Zaila, and she nodded. "She needs some water, maybe, and some blankets, and I'll try to help her regain consciousness." The little girl was given Chava's blankets and pillows, and Zaila gently splashed some of the lukewarm pond water on her face.
The little girl blinked, and squinted in the daylight. She looked up at the four concerned faces above her. "Zaila…Zaila Sanelle?" she asked.
Zaila touched her face and nodded. "Yes, it is me…is this the little servant girl, Celeste?"
"Yes." The girl was barely recognizable from the dirt on her face and in her hair. She coughed twice, and blinked her eyes. "I am Celeste…and oh, Zaila…the Empress has been kidnapped…" Ryo, Zaila, Chava, and Jade all gasped in surprise, straining to hear the girl's small voice. "Three men from Emmaria kidnapped her and took her away." At the mention of Emmaria, Chava slunk back and bit her lip. "She told me to find Jade…who is Jade?"
"I am." Jade nodded. "What did she say?"
"I cannot remember. I darted out of there as quickly as I could…I couldn't hear what she told me to tell you, but to know that she's been kidnapped. I…I also heard them tell her that the Majestic Human is of little use to Agilanta and of much use to Emmaria, or something like that, and that it is already under control."
Chava dampened an edge of her frock and used it to cool down Celeste's small face. "There, there, dear, you've done enough for today. You can rest now." The little girl smiled and immediately fell into a deep sleep. Chava looked at Jade. "What are we supposed to do?"
Jade folded his arms, still cynical. "Why don't you ask Ryo?"
Ryo gave him a look, and then nudged his elder sister. "Are we supposed to look for the Empress or what?"
His sister shook her head. "No, no. We look for the Calestia Dela. Agilanta is as good as dead without it. Once the Stardust is found and returned to the center of the Star, we can find the Empress. But even if she is in danger…who would you rather have die, the Empress or the entire Agilantian population?" Her fellow travelers' faces were stone still, as if not daring to disagree with her. "I thought so. Now, Jade, come with me. We are going to see those Fates."
"I'm coming too." Ryo stood up.
"No, you are not." Zaila pushed him back with her hand. "It would only upset them if so many were to ask their advice at the same time. Please, Ryo, just stay here with Chava and look after Celeste." Ryo nodded, glad to get Chava away from Jade.
"All right, Jade, are you ready?" Zaila asked him, standing near the entrance. Jade gulped, and then nodded. She closed her eyes, and lifted her arms in the air, chanting something strange and doing a sort of figure-eight motion with her hands. The creaking double doors finally opened, revealing a large, musky room with little daylight that streamed in through the cracks in the barred windows.
After adjusting his eyes to the light, Jade saw seven statues sitting out before him, all enormous and made of stone. He jumped back when suddenly, fourteen torches lit up around him, illuminating the statues and revealing their alikeness to both humans and Agilantians. All had engravings of the Agilantian language inscripted on them. Zaila stood in front of him and named them off. "These, Jade, are the Seven Fates. Choose wisely of whom you want to summon, for they may be the key to the Calestia Dela." She started at the left and worked her way toward the right. "The Fate of Courage…of Trust…of Love…of Sincerity…of Deception…of Charisma, and of Objective."
Jade bit his lip. "I will have to choose the Fate of Objective, Zaila."
She nodded. "Very well then. Good choice, what I would have chosen myself." She kneeled before the large stone statue, which was pure white and resembled a young man of about twenty-five, with waist-long hair and wisened eyes. "Kora sela juso Majestic Human, silantra se." She repeated the phrase nearly ten times, her mind obviously focused.
A wind rushed through the room, sending a chill up Jade's spine. As Zaila sat kneeled with her eyes shut, a voice spoke to Jade through the wind. "Is this Bradley Warner, the Majestic Human?" the voice asked him.
Jade nodded. "Yes, it is I."
"Tell me, Majestic Human, are you searching for the Calestia Dela?"
"Yes, so I can save Agilanta, good Fate of Objective, and I was hoping you could lead me towards the right direction. I have also found a rare and, as I have been told, mythical Ephilea flower, of which bushes I have seen protecting the entrance to the Calestia Dela."
"You have taken good judgement thus far, Bradley, and headed Eastward as I have instructed you to. I have one last instruction for you, and that is to use your courage to travel to the subterranean part of Agilanta…the Underground Kingdom." Jade took in a silent gasp. "Yes, Jade, you will have to encounter the Squols. But we are with you, all seven of us, and do not be afraid. Fear will get you no place, and only in trouble, do you understand?" Jade nodded, and the Fate continued. "Once you reach the Underground Kingdom, we will help you through."
"But how am I supposed to find my way down there?" Jade queried, nervously.
A small, five-petaled violet flower fell at his feet, and the Fate's voice grew dimmer. "Follow the Ephilea, Jade. It is the key to your heart."
"But I only know of one Ephilea flower in existence, besides this one…"
"And where is that flower, Jade?"
Jade shut his eyes, remembering. "Chava has it."
"But I cannot put her through that danger, good Fate of Objective! Is she supposed to go with me? I don't understand!" Jade cried frantically. The Fate only hummed, sort of appreciatively. "Just follow your heart, Jade."
The Underground Kingdom
"Well? What did the Fate of Objective tell you, Jade?" Zaila asked him.
"He just told me to follow the Ephilea flowers," Jade answered, confused. "And he kept calling me Bradley…which is my real name…and…oh God, this is the most terrifying part, but he told me to head to the Underground Kingdom."
"The Underground Kingdom!" Zaila cried. "As in Squol territory?"
Jade nodded. "I suppose I'm supposed to find a shaft leading downward, but he told me not to worry, because all seven of the Fates would be with me and guide me through." He closed his eyes. "Let's just get out of here."
"Is Celeste going to be all right?" Zaila asked Chava and Ryo as she approached them. Chava nodded, and pulled a blanket to the little girl's chin. "I think she'll be all right. It'll be better if she went with us for awhile, I'd hate to send her all the way back to the palace by herself," she replied.
Jade decided not to tell Chava or Ryo about his incident with the Fate of Objective. Whatever happens will happen, he said to himself. He looked at the sky, which was growing dimmer. His heart raced as he looked at his fellow travelers, knowing what was about to happen. "Maybe we better head up towards the tree," he told them. "It's getting dark."
The five of them flew up to Ryo's well-picked out tree, which was large and hollow and big enough for all of them to cram into. Chava tucked the Ephilea flower in her pocket, which hadn't faded or become dead even in the harsh conditions they were in. Jade's eyes followed the flower, knowing that something was about to happen. "What are you looking at?" Chava scorned at him, still mad.
"The flower." Jade narrowed his eyes. "Don't worry, princess, I wasn't looking at you."
Chava's eyes suddenly widened. "Why did you just call me princess?" she demanded, raising an eyebrow suspiciously.
"Because that's what you're acting like. A royal snob." Jade rolled his eyes. "Now if you please, I'm going to sleep." He rolled over in his blankets and faked falling asleep, but he was actually eyeing Chava, who had the flower tucked away in one of her pockets.
"Rejection," Ryo whispered to Chava, chuckling. "The poor kid can't take it, can he?"
"Shut up, Ryo!" cried Jade, throwing his pillow at him. Ryo dodged it, and it fell out the hole leading into the tree. Chava gasped. "You stupid ass!" she cried at Jade. "That wasn't even your pillow! That was mine! My older sister made it for me, a long time ago."
"I'm sorry, Chava, but if you want your pillow so much, why don't you get it yourself?" Jade scoffed.
"Why, you arrogant bastard!" Chava stuck her nose in the air. "Fine. I suppose I'll go get it. But if the Squols get me, it's all your fault." Jade's eyes widened at the mention of the Squols. His pulse raced, knowing that somehow, Fate had told him to throw that stupid pillow. And now Chava was headed down there…he peered out the hole and saw her retrieve the pillow safely…but the Ephilea flower had dislodged out of her pocket and was falling slowly to the ground.
"The flower," Jade whispered.
"My flower!" cried Chava. "I'm going to go get that, too." She spread her wings and swiftly flew downward, retrieving the small purple flower in her left hand. "Aha!" Jade kept an eye on her the entire time. She floated in the air, and leaned against the tree. "Well, look who's the hero now, Jade," she told him haughtily, and then screamed.
"She disappeared!" screamed Ryo. "She's gone!"
Sure enough, right below their sleeping space was a gaping hole in the tree, obviously a secret compartment. "Zaila, explain to Ryo what's going on." Jade took in a deep breath. "I'm going in." He lowered himself into the space in the hollowed tree, and looked around. It was a shaft, all right. And Chava was gone.
"Fates, wherever you are, please help me," he prayed. There was a lowering unit that he was standing on, with cables leading downward. There was also a gaping hole on the sides, leading to God knows where, and that was obviously where Chava had gone. Follow the Ephilea flower…Jade lifted his wings and stretched his arms out in front of him, feeling for the side of the tree. Once he had found it, he slowly lowered himself until he saw light.
Peering into the light filled underground, he saw they were only torches, lighting through a musky, dirt-filled path. There were small footprints in the sand, and then larger ones. Chava, he thought to himself. Oh, good Fates, please don't let them hurt Chava.
He was being as quiet as he possibly could be, but his breathing echoed through the tunnels. The Squols must have captured her. He felt along the walls, to make sure the entire place wasn't booby-trapped. He was prepared to be ambushed, he was so frightened.
The tunnels eventually led to a dead end. Jade blinked, trying to see through the dimmed light. Jade pushed his hands against the wall, trying to find an opening. There was none.
"Chava!" he screamed. "Where are you?"
It was then he noticed the hinges on the sides of the wall. The sound of them opening was like nails on a chalkboard, and open they did. The huge slab of wall was slowly being pushed through the other side, and Jade could see light streaming through the cracks.
"Who goes there?" a screechy voice demanded. The voice was muffled from the wall, but Jade knew it was hoarse and raspy and the sound of it sent chills up his spine.
He gathered up his courage as quickly as he could. "It is Jade Warner, the Majestic Human," he replied, yelling so whoever was on the other side could hear him clearly. The wall pushed even further inward, and then fell with a crash, the sound echoing through the tunnels.
A small creature, which was extremely pale and thin and hairless but almost human-like, glared at Jade. It stood in a room that was filled with machinery and lit by hundreds of torches hanging from the walls. "Welcome, Jade Warner, we have been expecting you," the creature rasped. It extended a white, flesh-ridden hand out to Jade, who was forced to shake it. "My name is Iko, and I am, what the Agilantians call, a Squol."
The name Squol sent goosebumps up Jade's arms, which he quickly rubbed away. "Tell me, Iko," he said as politely as he could, "where Chava Sophavala is."
Iko laughed, a high-pitched, squeaky laughter, and grinned, his teeth almost fang-like. He reminded Jade of a snake with arms and legs. "If you really must see her, then I bid you to follow me." Iko turned his heel and walked through the middle of the room, which almost smelled of metal there were so many machines in it.
Iko led Jade into a long corridor, which was also lit by torches, but was dimmer than the first room. He hissed, and scrunched up his wide nose. "This is our prison, Jade, and I hate to do this to the Majestic Human, but if you really want Chava Sophavala, I suggest you go in this cell." Iko reached onto a hook and pulled out a rusted key, which he slammed into the lock of a dimly lit cell. Jade saw a figure crouched in the corner, her silver hair draping her shoulders.
"In you go!" screeched Iko, and shoved Jade in the cell. "I will be back later," it hissed, and shut and locked the cell door.
"Terrible creatures, aren't they?" Chava said, somewhat meekly. Jade nodded and sat next to her, folding his legs up to his chin. Chava looked at him, and blinked her eyes. "Why did you come in after me, Jade?" she asked him.
"This." Jade picked up the purple flower, which still was with Chava, but laying at her side in a sad little heap.
"Oh." Chava hung her head, and rested her chin on her knees. "Did the Fates tell you to follow it, Jade?"
He nodded. "Yeah, they did."
There was an awkward silence, until Chava threw her arms around Jade's neck. "Jade, I'm so sorry, about everything…I mean, this curse, this wretched curse…"
"It's all right, Chava," Jade told her. "We'll both get out of here alive, and we'll get the Stardust, and everything will be fine, all right? Everything will be just fine." He hugged her back, smiling. "It wasn't just that flower, Chava. I came in here after you."
The Art of Deception
"So, good little Empress Ruby Adyss, we meet again."
The small Empress glared her eyes at the man sitting in the throne above her, the walls of his palace a deep ebony and his throne a blood-red. Two heavily-clad guards were at her side, and had her hands tied behind her. The Emperor was nearly forty-three, but despite his age, his hair was pure silver, like he had had it his entire life. His eyes looked down at the Empress, who gritted her teeth. "What do you want?" she demanded.
The Emperor of Emmaria only chuckled, his laughter echoing through the black walls. "So, I hear that the Majestic Human has come to Agilanta at last?"
"Yes, he has."
"And you did follow our little deal, didn't you?" The Emperor raised an eyebrow. "Tell me the names of Jade Warner's bodyguards."
Ruby hung her head. "Ryo Sanelle, Zaila Sanelle, and Chava Sophavala."
"Ryo Sanelle!?" the Emperor roared. "There are two mages then!"
"Yes, they are mages, have you a problem with that?" the Empress screamed. "I sent Ryo along with his sister!"
"Well, at least you followed a small part of your deal." The Emperor smiled, somewhat wickedly. "In that case, I won't kill Jade Warner. But you, my dear, might as well sit back and relax, because your little Star will soon go up in smoke. That is…without any Stardust."
"I'll get my Stardust!" screamed Ruby. "I will see to that!"
The Emperor laughed. "Oh, my dear little Majesty, you have so much to learn…for the entire situation is under my control, and it has been for the past seven years." He pulled a golden, bejewled dagger from inside his robes. "Do you see this dagger, my dear? There are only two others like it in the entire constellation. And I assure you, they're in very good hands." He twisted the blade, admiring it. "One stab in any creature's body will sent poison through their bloodstream and kill them in a matter of minutes."
The Empress gulped, still not knowing where this was leading. "Where are the other daggers? And for whom is it intended?"
The Emperor smiled. "I told you, they are in very trusted hands. Well, trusted by me, of course." The Emperor laughed again, this time even more evil and repulsive. "You're not very skilled in the art of deception, are you, my little Majesty? For if you were, you would see very well that one of your most trusted would turn out to be the one who betrays you."
Ruby shook her head in disbelief. The pieces were finally coming together, and she knew very well who had the other dagger, and who it was intended for. Fates, she thought to herself, if you can hear me, please spare Jade Warner. He is the only hope for my people. She hung her head, knowing that hope was little. "I suppose you win," she muttered with a sigh.
"Good. I just had to check up on you, my little Majesty." He looked at his guards. "Take her back to her planet so she can burn in peace with the rest of Agilanta's population."
I'll get that Stardust, Ruby promised herself, if it's the last thing I do.
"I can't trust Jade to save her!" cried Ryo, sitting on the shelved floor in the hollowed tree. Celeste was fast asleep, huddled at Zaila's feet. Ryo picked up a stone and threw it out of the hole in the tree, obviously disappointed. "I don't know what she sees in him. I really don't."
"How do you know she sees anything in him at all?" Zaila reassured him, trying to comfort her brother.
"I…well, I must confess. I spy on them, quite a lot." Ryo hung his head, as if in shame. His sister patted his back. "I know you're disappointed, Ryo, but don't do anything foolish." She smiled. "The Fates will help you, my brother. You have nothing to worry about." She wrapped Celeste in her blanket and huddled in her own corner, the dim light casting a glow on her face.
Ryo sighed and tossed another stone, unable to sleep. All he could think about was her…with her silver hair and her luminescent eyes. It's your fault, Ryo, he told himself, for leaving her. He could cast a spell on her, a magic spell, but he was much too moral…it wouldn't be the way of the Fates. He looked outside, the peak of darkness turning lighter as the minutes progressed, and he thought about Chava, which always brought a smile to his saddened face.
"Hello. What's your name?" The girl looked about twelve with short-cut silver hair and dark skin. She smiled at Ryo, who had tripped her accidentally. He apologized, but she only smiled and looked up at Ryo with those large, enormous eyes of hers.
"Ryo Sanelle, son of the mage Jennan Sanelle." He bowed lightly, and curved his lips into a grin.
The little girl stood up and brushed the dirt off her frock, extending one flawless, beautiful-skinned hand. "I am Chava Sophavala. I am very glad to have met you, Ryo. Are you a mage yet?"
"I do not have a license to be a mage yet. I do, however, have a boating license." He extended his wrist with the gold band on it to shake Chava's small hand.
"My mother was a mage," she said, delighted. "She showed my father many tricks, and many he taught to me. Would you like to see one?" Ryo nodded enthusiastically, and Chava started to hum a bell-like tune that Ryo had never heard before. She blinked her eyes, which had turned from the normal blue-green to a deep brown, and then in seconds later, they were the jade color again.
"How did you do that?"
"Oh, just a little secret."
Ryo blinked his eyes, his mind quickly emerging from his daydream of his first meeting with Chava. He felt a chill run up and down his spine, remembering that certain little "trick" that Chava had. She could change her eye color. It suddenly was coming to him now, something he had never even thought to realize before...
"Zaila! Zaila, wake up!" Ryo shook his sister awake, who stretched and yawned. "Hurry!" He looked toward the slowly dawning sky. "I think Jade's in trouble."
"You mean…you risked your life to save me?" Chava asked Jade, with tears in her swollen eyes.
"Of course I did." Jade smiled weakly. The cell was damp and dark, and insects crawled on the floors. It smelled musky and raw, and he wondered whether they'd leave alive. But he kept the smile on his face, and bent over to pick up the flawless violet Ephilea flower that laid on the floor. He looked at it and sighed. "The Fates aren't only with me, Chava. They're with us."
"Look, Jade, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. It was stupid of me…" She hung her head, her silver hair shielding her face. "I was just scared of you."
"Scared of me?" Jade was confused.
Now there were tears falling from her cheeks and hitting the dirt floor. "I was scared of you and the pain you threatened me with." She withheld a sob, and turned her face. "I know you'll go back to Earth, Jade, it's a given. Don't pretend you're going to come back for me, because you won't."
Jade shook his head. "Chava, that's not true." He brushed her long bangs from her forehead with the back of his hand, and turned her face back to his own. "Just answer me one thing, Chava Sophavala. What can I do to make you mine?"
Chava's heart raced and she felt weak in the knees, but she did the only thing she could do. She kissed him. She had never kissed anyone like she had Jade in that underground confinement cell, and he knew it too. It was like everything was building up to that moment, every bit of tension and every heartbeat and every close call, in that one kiss. And then they both saw the light flooding in the hallway, and immediately stopped.
"Jade Warner." He heard the hiss of the Squol, the dangling keys in his pale hand. "Sir Iko wishes for your disgusting self to speak to him." The cell door unlocked, and the Squol gave him a look of distrust.
Chava turned to Jade. "Jade…tell me one thing…you have to tell me one thing, Jade…"
Her voice came barely above a whisper. "You need to tell me the truth…do you love me, I mean, for the person I am that you have seen?"
Jade's shocked look softened, and he grabbed Chava's hand. "There is not one soul that I am more in love with."
The Squol grabbed Jade's arm and dragged him out of the cell, leaving Chava slumped to the floor, her face pale with shock and her heart racing a hundred miles a minute, but a smile curved on her dark lips. It wasn't content, but it was happy. For the time being.
"Jade Warner. We meet again."
The voice sounded larger and even more snake-like when Jade heard it for the second time. He was in a different room this time, a room made of polished wood and curling ivy and vines. Iko stood in front of a wall that had been carved in an enormous shape of a face…a Squol face, that terrified Jade so much he could barely look at it.
"Iko, tell me why you haven't killed me," Jade demanded.
"Oh, Jade," Iko laughed. "You are of great use to us. Without you, Agilanta would cease to exist, and unfortunately, so would our population. That's why we're here to help you find the Calestia Dela."
"You mean…you're going to help me?" Jade said, awestruck.
"Of course we are. You poor human, you are jaded enough as it is." Iko paused to snicker at his own joke. "Those nasty Fates told you to follow the supposedly non-existant Ephilea flower, did they not?" Jade nodded. "Well…so tell me Jade, where is it?"
"With Chava, the girl you imprisoned."
"So then, you followed her here instead, and that is how you arrived in my clutches, is it not?" Jade nodded again, and Iko chuckled, his seething laughter echoing through the wooden walls. "It is funny how those Fates bring things about, isn't it? Tell me Jade, which Fate did you speak to?"
"The Fate of Objective, Iko."
Iko gritted his teeth. "If you and your helpless human instinct would have been more wise, you would have chosen the Fate of Deception, Jade Warner." Jade looked confused. "I will explain," Iko hissed. "Seventeen years ago, before you, the Majestic Human, turned up missing, there was a little Emmarian princess born with one purpose in her whole existence. To kill you." Jade gasped. "Yes, it is true, Jade, she was born with an uncurable disease that threatened to kill her by her twentieth birthday, or even before that." Iko's eyes widened. "That was why she was sent on her murderous mission," he hissed, his eyes widening. "She had no future ahead of her."
Jade slowly started backing away, a chill running down his spine. "Iko…this can't be true…"
"Bring her out!" Iko barked.
Two Squols emerged with a kicking and screaming girl between them, her long silver hair flying in all directions and her wings drooped from her back. Jade's heart fell to his stomach. "I'd like to introduce you," Iko began, "to Emmaria's very own Princess Chava Desdemona the Third."
Chava raised her eyes, which had turned an almost chocolate deep brown. "I'm so sorry," she stammered, tears falling down her face.
One of the Squols at her side suddenly ripped off her leather belt. A bejeweled dagger clattered to the floor. Iko slowly walked toward it, and once he picked it up, he twisted the blade in the torch lights surrounding him, making the silver reflection bounce off the walls. "If those helpless Fates hadn't been so good to you, human, this blade here would have sliced through your skin and through the depth of your heart," Iko snarled.
"Jade! Listen to me, I wasn't going to do it!" Chava screamed, still kicking. "Father made me! He made me, Jade!"
Jade narrowed his eyes, his voice soft-spoken but with hints of hatred. "You lied to me. You were going to kill me." He slowly backed away. "And after all this time…we all trusted you…and your curse turned out to be some royal Emmarian disease?"
Iko glared his gold-glinted eyes, not taking them off Chava for a second. "Say the word, Jade, and she's dead." He twisted the blade again. "I'll stab this in her heart instead." He smiled. "And her soul will be mine."
Jade gulped. "I cannot kill her, Iko. Just lock her up again." He shook his head in disbelief. "You monster," he snarled at Chava. "I'm never going to speak to you again." He spit at her feet and turned his heels, forcing himself not to look at her. "Everything you have ever said to me was a lie!" he cried.
"That's not true!" Chava screamed, sobbing. "Jade…I'm in love with you! I always have been, since the first day I laid eyes on you!" she screamed. "Look at me! I'm facing hell for you, and standing up to my own father, the Emperor of Emmaria! Isn't that good enough for you, Jade Warner?"
"Lock her up, I said!" Jade shouted, tears running down his face. "Lock her up, and this damned thing with her!" He picked up the dagger from Iko's hands and threw it at Chava's feet. He didn't turn around until the sounds of Chava's screaming were in the far distance.
"Now, Jade," seethed Iko, "we find the Calestia Dela."
The Princess Escapes
"What do you mean, Jade is in trouble?" cried Zaila. "Of course he's in trouble, he's trapped in the Underground Kingdom, for God's sake!"
"No, that's not what I meant." Ryo grabbed his sister's shoulders. "Listen to me. When I was almost thirteen, Chava showed me this magic trick of her mother's. She could change her eye color. She could change it from dark brown to turquoise in a matter of seconds!" Ryo gritted his teeth. "Don't you see, Zaila? She's not from Agilanta!"
Zaila gasped. "But…the Emmarians eye color is dark brown."
"Are you saying she's a spy from Emmaria?" Zaila shook her head in disbelief. "I hate to say it, but your idea is plausible."
"So what now? Do you think she was going to kill him?"
"You mean…with this?" Zaila reached under her leather belt and pulled out a dagger, which was sparkling with jewels. Ryo's eyes widened. "Zaila…where did you get that?" he cried. Zaila smirked. "Oh, only a toy I was going to use once. But it looks as though Chava has everything under control."
"What are you saying, sis?" Ryo demanded through clenched teeth, slowly backing away.
Zaila closed her eyes and grinned. When she opened them, they were a deep brown. "I'm saying that my little sister may be in trouble." She smirked again. "I may have to help her eventually."
"You don't have a sister, Zaila," Ryo told her, unsure of himself. "I'm your brother, remember? Your only brother…"
Zaila slipped the dagger back under her belt. "Ryo Sanelle, I'd like to introduce myself. My name is Princess Zaila Desdemona. I was sent here to watch over my little sister…Chava Desdemona." She grinned, her eyes narrowed. "My father sent me here when I was thirteen years old, which was right before you were born. I changed my eye color, pretended I had amnesia, and flung myself at your parents' doorstep. They were good people, and took me in, of course. Worked like a charm. Why do you think they've never told you about my life before then?"
Ryo's heart raced. The pieces were finally coming together. Chava and Zaila were both sent to kill Jade…both were to be used as back-ups for each other in case something happened to the other sister…and both were here to steal the Stardust from Agilanta. Ryo narrowed his eyes. "You evil bitch."
Zaila stroked Celeste's head. "It's a good thing she is asleep, it would be a shame to have to kill her, too." She removed the dagger from her belt again, and gripped it in her hands. "You were a good brother, Ryo Sanelle. You'll make a good spirit." She pointed the dagger in his direction, one eyebrow raised and a smile painted on her pale face.
"Are you saying you're going to kill me?" Ryo said, clenching his fists.
"Of course I am," Zaila laughed. "The man who knows too much information eventually dies anyway, does he not? I'm doing you a favor." She slowly advanced on him on her hands and knees. Ryo spread his wings, which was difficult to do in the enclosed area around him.
"Archa malin de yalanida," he whispered repeatedly. Zaila shook her head. "That mage crap won't work on me, Ryo," she said, but he hinted some doubt in her voice. "It may not work on you, but it will work on me," he stated, almost triumphantly. Before she knew what was happening, Ryo had created a blue shield around himself, which was almost laser-like, and the vision of it had disappeared as quickly as it had come. His face glared from behind it. "I'm going to go help Jade, your Highness," he told her, waving his arm. "I hope your father isn't too ashamed of you."
Zaila's face turned beet red. She hurled the dagger in his direction, which only bounced off the invisible barrier surrounding him and clattered to the floor. "I'll get that Stardust, Father," she muttered to herself as Ryo flew down to the shaft below him, leading to the Underground Kingdom, where he could, with any luck, save Jade from being killed.
Chava saw her chance to escape. Her face was sticky with tears, after she had huddled into a corner and cried herself to various light sleeps. "I wish he could just see that I didn't want to hurt him," she muttered to herself. "I wish he could see that I really do love him."
Her stomach twisted in knots when she thought of Ryo and Zaila. Please don't hurt him, Zaila, she thought to herself. Zaila had the other dagger. Chava removed her own gift from their father and kissed the blade. "You will be the end to this misery," she whispered, and tucked it back in her leather belt.
She saw the light streaming into the hallway again. She gulped in fear, and quickly crawled up the side of the wall, spreading her wings apart so that they held her suspended from the ceiling and invisible to anyone who wasn't in the cell.
"We have brought the princess her dinner," she heard a voice rasp. She stayed completely silent, her feet nearly slipping from the edge of the wall. The Squol peered in the cell. "She's gone!" There was two of them, Chava could hear, rasping and wheezing. "Go get Iko!" one cried to the other. "The princess has escaped!"
No, not Iko,Chava prayed. She was silently overjoyed when she heard the click of the key in her cell lock. The door swung open, and the Squol entered her cell cautiously. She swung from the ceiling and kicked it over. It screamed and thrashed its white arms at her. "Eeee!" it squealed repeatedly. "Eeee!"
Chava landed on her feet and sprinted down the corridors. She heard Iko's voice in the distance. "Where is she?" he hissed. "She could not have escaped!"
Chava found a small set of stairs spiraling downward. She gripped the iron edges and suspended herself in the inky blackness, as she heard footsteps going through the corridors. She peeked over the railing to see the outline of those nasty Squols, followed by a somewhat hesitant Jade, perspiration on his forehead and his hair wet and spiked. She gulped in fear, praying that some miracle would get her out of there alive and on Jade's side.
"How could she have escaped?" Jade asked the Squol guarding the cell.
"She…she kicked me!" it squealed, rubbing its forehead.
"Want me to send my guards to find and kill her, Majestic Human?" Iko seethed.
Chava gritted her teeth. Her grip was slipping from the rails.
"No, no," Jade answered, his voice so quiet that Chava strained to hear what he was saying. "She may be a traitor, and a liar, but I know she is still Chava Sophavala, and if she dies…I will have to die with her." There was a hesitation, and then Jade turned to Iko. "Iko, help me find the Calestia Dela, with or without Chava and Zaila and Ryo."
"Yes, Jade Warner," Iko hissed.
Suddenly, two Squols emerged from the double doors leading into the prison corridors. "Iko, there is a human that wishes to speak to Jade Warner!" one of them wheezed. Iko only nodded, and the doors opened again to reveal Ryo, his face dirt-streaked and his clothing torn.
"Jade," he coughed, falling to his knees. "Chava…she's not who you think she is…"
Jade smiled wryly, and placed a hand on Ryo's shoulder. "I know. She's an Emmarian princess. I know, Ryo. But thank you for trying to tell me."
"And…and Zaila is one of them, too…Chava's sister."
Chava's eyes widened listening to the muffled conversation. Damnit, Ryo, you didn't have to tell Jade…now he'll hate me even more. She clenched her whitening fists and gritted her teeth again, hoping she wouldn't fall. She listened as Ryo explained the story to Jade, about the dagger and Zaila's trying to kill him and her true identity, and Jade just shook his head in disbelief.
"I can't trust anyone on this whole goddamned Star, can I?" he said, disheartened. "Everyone is a traitor…don't tell me you're one of them, Ryo."
"I'm not, Jade, believe me." Ryo slunk to the floor and put his elbows on the ground wearily. "And I'm sorry for all the shit I've put you through. It wasn't worth it." He clasped his hands together, almost praying, and tears running down his face. "Let me help you get there, Jade. To the entrance. I'll do whatever I can."
Jade nodded. "Thank you, Ryo."
Chava couldn't believe she had made it out of there alive. She sat on a tree branch, her ankles throbbing. She ripped off the leather boots and saw the disease spread. It had, in fact, been inherited from her great grandmother, who called it the Desdemona Family Curse….a royal curse.
"I hope you find it, Jade," she whispered, imagining that somehow talking to herself would ease her pain. The sky had turned pale by then, and all she could do was pray that Ryo and Jade would be all right.
"You tried, Chava, you tried." The voice came from behind her. She swiveled around to see Zaila seated next to her, smiling somewhat deviously. "Sister, we have come a long way from Emmaria, and we aren't about to defy our father, are we? So what do you imagine we do now?"
Chava lowered her eyes. "I'm not helping Father anymore, Zaila."
Zaila gasped. "You must be mad! After all the work we both went through!" She shook her head. "Father won't be pleased with you, Chava. He might even refuse you the crown, now, even in your last years alive."
"I don't want the damned crown!" screamed Chava. "All I want is to live a thousand years with Jade Warner, on Earth, maybe two thousand." Chava smiled, almost hopefully. "I want to live a life with no more lies and no more pain and no more suffering."
Zaila narrowed her eyes. "I knew it. I knew you were in love with the stupid human!" She slapped Chava across the face, which felt like a wasp sting. "That's why you refuse to kill him, isn't it? Because you're in love with him!" Zaila laughed hatefully. "You have much to learn. And I'm sure Father will appreciate hearing about this. Besides, I will enjoy getting to sit in that throne."
Before Chava could utter another word, a silver cloud emerged from the sky, shielded by silver and ebony wings which were so large that they spread out for at least ten feet on each side. It left a trail of black streaming through the sky like day turning into night, and the Emperor of Emmaria appeared, hovering in the air like a bird of prey.
"Father!" Zaila gasped, slinking backwards. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
"Why aren't you both following your duties!?" he screamed, rubbing his temples in utter nausea. "I can feel it. That boy is getting closer to the Stardust with every step he takes! Those damned Squols are helping him, I know it! He is in the Underground Kingdom as we speak, is he not?" Chava nodded, terrified. The Emperor turned to Zaila. "And you killed Ryo Sanelle, did you not?"
Zaila put on the most straightforward face she could. "Yes, Father, I killed him. He is dead," she lied.
"Good. Well, at least there's one weight off my back."
Chava narrowed her eyes at Zaila. "Father, I stumbled into the Underground Kingdom and was captured by the Squols. They led me to a cell, locked me up, and then revealed my identity to Bradley Warner," she stated, as calmly as she could, glancing at Zaila while she spoke. "I escaped, but remained underground for at least two hours, and only escaped twenty minutes ago, or so I imagine. Well, I have quite an interesting thing to tell you."
"And what is that?" demanded the Emperor.
"Ryo Sanelle decided to grace the presence of the Squols, Father," Chava stated boldly. "He told them and Bradley Warner of our dear Zaila's true identity." Chava laughed. "Obviously a little mage was too strong for you, was he not, Zaila?"
"Is this true!?" screamed the Emperor.
Zaila turned completely pale. "No…no, Father, of course it is not true! Chava is making up lies again!" she cried, pointing a finger at Chava's face. "She is the one who refused to kill Jade! She is the one who is in love with him!"
Jade gripped the sides of his head, a terrified look on his face.
"What is it?" hissed Iko.
"How can I get out from the Underground Kingdom as fast as possible?" he asked Iko frantically. "I feel this God awful premonition…Chava's in trouble, I know she is." Ryo looked confused, and so did Iko, but he answered him, nevertheless. "You go out the way you came in," he replied, a wheezing sound in his voice.
"I promise I'll be back," Jade said. "I have to see what's wrong." He looked at Ryo. "You, stay here, with the Squols, and try to find the Dela." Jade swiveled his head and glared at Iko. "He better not have a scratch mark on him when I get back, you hear me?"
"Jade!" cried Ryo. "I can't trust these creatures! They killed my cousin, remember?"
"Oh, you'll be able to trust them, all right…because if I see one scratch on your body, I might just accidentally cut off my hand." Iko gasped. "Or I might just…fall off a tree?" Jade continued, enjoying Iko's reactions. "Or maybe I'll…"
"All right, I get your point!" Iko seethed. "Make sure nothing happens to the mage," he hissed at his followers. "Be back soon, Jade. Your time is running out. We need to find the Calestia Dela or we're all doomed."
"I'll be fine." Jade turned his heel and sprinted through the corridors, and through the large, machine-filled room until he found the shaft leading from the tree. He could almost smell the Ephilea flowers as he emerged from the Underground Kingdom and onto the soft ground, nearly blinded by the harsh daylight.
"Jade!" screamed Chava. "You're all right!" She had obviously completely forgotten about the episode beforehand. He glared at her, but his expression softened after hearing the concern in her voice. Zaila sat next to her on the tree branch above his head, and her back scraped the sides. Her look was almost menacing. Hovering above him, near the tree, was the looming and dark Emperor of Emmaria, his black wings blocking the light surrounding him.
Jade was unafraid. He knew he was the key to the Stardust, the Majestic Human…no one would try to kill him. He stood as haughtily and unfazed as he ever had, but his heart was still beating rapidly, looking into the threatening eyes of the enemy above him. The Emperor slowly descended from his place in mid-air, and his eyes stopped at Jade, looking directly into his face.
"And so, we finally meet, Majestic Human," the Emperor chuckled. "So…you are what all the fuss is over." He clicked his tongue in disappointment. "Kind of scrawny and short, aren't you?"
"Lay off!" Jade cried. He turned to Chava. "I felt this…sort of premonition that you were in trouble…"
Chava clenched her teeth. "I planted that in your head, Jade."
The Emperor laughed. "What trouble, Chava? You aren't in trouble! You're with your dear Father, are you not?" He turned to Jade. "Tell me, is Ryo Sanelle alive?"
Jade cast a haughty glance at Zaila, who hung back in fear. "Alive and well, your Majesty."
"So it's true! You didn't kill him!" the Emperor screamed. Zaila gripped the tree trunk in fear. "I tried my best, Father!" she cried. "At least I remained true to our kingdom!" She turned and glared at her sister. "Unlike some traitors!"
"It's true! I am a traitor!" cried Chava, standing on the branch. "I am a traitor because, instead of planning to murder Jade, I was even more near to murdering myself!" She gritted her teeth in defiance. "And if being a traitor means that I lose Jade, then so be it!"
Zaila gasped. "Father! What am I to do about this…this renegade?"
"Let her be." The Emperor crossed his arms, truly beat. "I am through with this. My daughter, Chava Desdemona, has less than two or three years to live. I am going to do nothing any longer." He glanced at Jade, who saw the deceitfulness in his eyes. Jade clenched his fists, knowing that this wasn't the end. It couldn't have been. The Emperor of Emmaria wouldn't give up that easily, he knew that. "I am in no need of you both any longer," he said to his daughters.
"Why not, Father?" Zaila asked, disheartened.
"Oh, you will soon find out." The Emperor smirked. "If Ryo Sanelle had been killed sooner, maybe we'd get the Stardust quickly also. But you had to screw that up too, didn't you, Zaila?" She hung her head in shame.
"He…he did this protective mage trick…"
The Emperor shook his head. "A mage trick? You let a mage beat a Princess of Emmaria? That's shameful, Zaila, really shameful."
"I'm dreadfully sorry."
"You should be." The Emperor looked at Jade hatefully. "Well? Aren't you going to get me my Stardust, human?"
Jade glared. "I don't know what you're up to, but I'll find out. And I'll stop you. Mark my words, I'll stop you."
The Calestia Dela
"I hope you don't expect me to be kind to you," Ryo told the Squols surrounding him.
"I could kill you just as easily as you speaking sharply at me!" Iko hissed. Ryo shook his head, knowing that Iko wouldn't touch him. Come on, Jade, hurry up, he thought to himself, I'm not in the mood to be surrounded by these disgusting creatures. "So…where is the Calestia Dela anyway?" Ryo asked Iko, who only looked forward, his gold glinted eyes fixated on the torches.
"It is underground, of course," the Squol smirked. "Don't you think those stupid Agilantians would try to open it if it were above ground, on some place they could get their dirty hands on? We Squols have respect for such things!" It hissed at Ryo, its white tongue clicking in its mouth.
"You're abominable!" Iko seethed. He turned to his fellow Squols, who were examining Ryo from a distance. The walls in the tunnel they were walking through started to narrow. Ryo didn't notice it at first until he realized that they were all walking in a single line, trying to avoid the torches above their heads.
A large door stopped them, black and looming above them at least fifty feet. There were two large door handles made of brass and shaped like the heads of Squols. Ryo shuddered. "Can we get in here?" he asked Iko. Iko nodded, and gestured to Ryo to open the door. He pushed it, and found it easily opened, screeching against the pavement below them.
Ryo was flabbergasted at what lay before him. It was like an underground utopia, dim but with blue light flooding over the entire room. A waterfall poured over the edge of the steep cliffs, and Ephilea bushes were everywhere, filling the paradise with their sweet scent. Trees brushed against each other and the floor was paved in bronze and gold, with grass lining the waters. Above the waterfall sat a luminescent blue cupola, with a beam of yellow light shooting across the room.
"Is…is that the entrance?" Ryo asked Iko, awestruck at its beauty.
Iko nodded. "The Calestia Dela is hidden within the cupola. All we need now is Jade Warner."
"I've never seen anything like it," Ryo commented. He started to walk on the gold pavement, when a hand reached out and grabbed him.
"Do not soil it!" Iko screamed. "This place is Majestic." He emphasized "Majestic" as if it were its name.
"Sorry, don't have a cow."
"I don't have time for this stupidity," Jade remarked, casting a glance at Chava. "I have a Star to save." He turned his heel and went back through the hole that led to the tunnel to the Underground Kingdom. Chava looked at her father eagerly.
"Father…I'm going to leave you to help Jade. I refuse to help you get the Stardust."
"Very well. I hope that you don't die along with the rest of them." The Emperor laughed. "Go on. Save your precious human. Or attempt to, at least…not much can save him now."
"I will try," Chava replied, and followed Jade into the hole, making sure not to let him know she was there. If he did, he would surely shun her for the deceit she had displayed. Nevertheless, she knew her father's tricks, and if she had anything to do with it, Jade wouldn't die. He couldn't.
He was, after all, the Majestic Human.
Two loud, sharp knocks banged at the black doors guarding the entrance to the Calestia Dela. Iko swiveled around menacingly. "Who goes there?" he hissed.
"It is Jade Warner," Jade cried.
"Very well. Let him in!" Iko demanded his four Squol confidantes to open the doors, which revealed a dusty Jade, his face dirt-streaked and his hair spiked with sweat. "Well, Jade, this is the Dela. I hope you find its appearance suitable."
"Oh, very much so!" Jade replied, his eyes widened in incredulity. It was splendid. Beyond splendid. It was extraordinary…so extraordinary in fact, that Jade had a hard time believing it was real. He blinked his eyes. "And…and how do I open it?"
"Do you see the gold beam shooting from the blue cupola, up there?" Iko hissed slowly, and pointed to it. "Your hand goes there. It will track your fingerprints…and then the cupola will rise and reveal the Calestia Dela, the Stardust Source, of which we had been longing to find for sixteen years!"
"Then I suppose I will have to go open it." Jade glanced behind him quickly, and started walking forward on the gold pavement.
"Jade! No! Stop!" a shrill voice screeched behind him. Jade spun around and looked into Chava's blue-green eyes. She was obviously out of breath, and she grabbed Jade's pant leg and fell to the floor, on the verge of tears. "Jade…my father has plans to kill you, you know he does…don't open the entrance yet, Jade, until I find out what's going on!"
Jade grinned. "I'm one step ahead of you, Chav." He hoisted her off the ground and while he did, he slipped his hand under her belt and retrieved the enchanted dagger, hiding it quickly in his jeans pocket before anyone could see him.
"Well? Do you want us to lock her up?" Iko seethed, hissing through his clenched teeth.
"That won't be necessary," Jade replied, and as quick as lightning, drew the dagger from his pocket and posed himself on the gold pavement below him, the dagger glinting in the blue light that spread over the entranceway. "Well? Who wants to die first?"
Ryo's eyes widened. "Hell no, not me…"
"I wasn't talking about you!" Jade cried, and then turned to Chava. "Chava, shut the doors!" She did so as fast as she could, trapping the five Squols in the entranceway.
"Jade…I don't know what you're doing…you can trust me…" Iko wheezed, his voice becoming weaker with fear. Ryo and Chava quickly took places at Jade's side.
Jade narrowed his eyes. "So, tell me the real story before I kill you, Iko. What did the Emperor promise to give you in exchange for the Stardust, huh?"
Iko lowered his head, obviously surrendered. "His right hand on Emmaria."
"I thought so." Jade laughed. "You thought you could fool me, didn't you?" Ryo then raised his eyes to the ceiling and cried, "Archa malin de yalanida!" An almost laser-like beam shot from the sky and circled itself around the three of them, protecting them like a shield. It had been the same spell Ryo used on Zaila when she tried to murder him.
The five Squols had circled them, all hissing and spitting like serpents. "Don't worry, I've got it covered," Ryo whispered, and yelled, "Pila en starka!" Five replicas of the daggers suddenly appeared in their hands, Chava and Ryo with two of them, and Jade with the original.
"Attack!" screamed Jade, and they rushed forward and plunged the knives into the Squol's bodies, releasing their sickening bluish blood from their white veins. Their screams sounded like nails on a chalkboard, or a strangled cat, as they slowly fell into heaps on the floor, dead as doornails and far more ugly.
"Adinalay ed nilam ahcra!" Ryo cried, throwing his arms in the air. It was, as Jade had noticed, the first spell backwards. The shield surrounding them dissolved and they were broken loose from the spell. Jade blinked heavily, and kicked at a Squol with his foot. "They're sure dead, all right," he told his comrades.
Chava looked forlorn. "Jade, could you please give me back my dagger," she said, almost monotonously.
"Yeah…sure…" Jade pulled the blade from Iko's heart. The other replicas had disappeared, all leaving their victims silent, pale and still.
Chava turned the blade in the light. She got up closer so her eyes were matching Jade's, and her face wasn't an inch away from his. "This dagger had a purpose, Jade," she told him. "It was meant to kill you. My father told me that one stab from this dagger would leave its victim helpless, the poison running through their body and in minutes, leaving them with a silent, painless death."
Jade gulped. "Were you really going to do that to me, Chava?"
"Jade. How could I do that to you? I'm in love with you. And I betrayed you. I betrayed everyone." She looked to the floor, her eyes sparkling with tears. One fell from her face and onto her frock. She removed her shoes. The white surrounding her ankles had spread. "This disease I was born with…it's getting worse every day. It's going to kill me, Jade, but I'm not going to let it."
"No, of course you're not," Jade insisted. "I told you, I was going to help you."
Chava shook her head. "I didn't mean that I was going to live, did I? All I said was that the disease would kill me." She twisted the blade. "If nothing got to it first." She grabbed Jade's chin in her hand and kissed him. "I'll see you in the Afterworld, Jade."
Before he could say another word, Chava had plunged the dagger straight into her heart. She fell to the floor, and pulled the blood-stained dagger from her chest, heaving it to the pavement. Jade kneeled. "Chava!" he cried. "You can't die…Chava, you can't die…"
"I can die," she said weakly, smiling lightly. "And my time is running short." She pulled herself up so she could look straight into Jade's eyes, which were brimming with tears. "Don't forget me. And remember, I died for you."
Her eyes closed and she fell into her everlasting sleep, her wings spread out beneath her and her silver hair cloaking her entire body, but with a still and meak smile on her beautiful face. A small breeze through the cracks in the doorway picked up one of her silver feathers, which floated into Jade's hand. Jade choked on his words as he slipped the feather clumsily into his pocket. "One day I will see you again, Chava Sophavala," he whispered.
The Majestic Human
"I can't believe she's…gone."
Ryo and Jade had sat next to each other, too muddled and perplexed to be forlorn, but in the depths of despair, for the past hour, just looking at her. Ryo stood up. "You know…you ought to go open that Calestia Dela before any more of those Squols get suspicious."
"You're right." Jade stood up shakily, and walked toward the golden stairsteps leading to the blue cupola. He looked behind him at Ryo, who just stood watching. There was a golden handprint in the cupola, with a beam of light shooting from it.
"Go ahead, go ahead," Ryo yelled.
Jade took another gasping breath after his endless sobs, and stood before the handprint, looking at it like it were evil. Because of it, Chava was dead…or so, that's how he thought of it. He placed his right hand over the print and held his breath.
"Nothing happened!" he cried to Ryo, who was below him.
"Try it again!"
He tried again. Again, and again. "Damn thing!" Jade screamed. He bent over and peered at the golden handprint. There were fingerprint marks were they were supposed to be…the thumb was swirled and sort of circular. Jade looked at his own right hand thumb's fingerprints. Arched.
"Oh my God," Jade muttered. "Oh my God."
"What?" cried Ryo. "What is it?"
"They got the wrong goddamned Majestic Human!" Jade screamed, kicking the cupola. "I'm not the Majestic Human!"
"But…you have to be!" Ryo clambered up the golden steps and stood next to Jade, examining the golden handprint. He grabbed Jade's hand, and looked it over. "Your fingerprints don't match it, do they?" he said. Jade shook his head. Ryo looked at his own hand. "The thumbprint is kind of arched, isn't it? Sort of like…mine."
"What?!" screamed Jade. He grabbed Ryo's hand, examining it. "My God, Ryo…you're right. Put your hand in. Quick!" Jade shoved Ryo's hand onto the handprint. A golden beam shot through his fingers and a rainbow-ish light filled the room. The cupola shot up from the ground, revealing the Calestia Dela…a small closet-spaced room filled with the most beautiful, glistening gold Stardust either of them had ever seen.
"H-how did that happen?" Ryo stammered.
"Ryo…you're the Majestic Human," Jade told him, awestruck. "But…how can that be? You're not even human!"
Suddenly, seven figures emerged from the walls, surrounded by a white aura. They were the Seven Fates. They had to be. Their figures and faces then appeared in full detail, and Jade recognized them from the statues he had seen in the temple. The Fate of Objective, whom he had spoken to earlier, appeared in front of him.
"Jade…Ryo is human," he said, smiling. "You're the Agilantian."
"What?" Jade screamed. "But…but how could that be? Agilantians can't survive on Earth, and I've lived there for the past sixteen years!"
"Ah yes, but, you see…no Agilantian has ever even attempted to live on Earth. It's quite possible, actually. They were just too petrified to even try!" He chuckled, and grinned at Jade. "You know, Jade Sanelle, you were the first Agilantian to live on Earth. I believe you broke a record."
"What are you talking about…Jade Sanelle?" Ryo insisted. "I am Ryo Sanelle!"
"No, you are Ryo Warner. That is Jade Sanelle. You two were switched at birth…an unfortunate accident. Both of you were born on the same day…April 7, 2017. Am I not right, Ryo?" Ryo nodded, awestruck. "Jade, your purpose here was never completed, was it?"
"I had a purpose?"
"Unfortunately, you did. It wasn't your fault, it was her own belief in you that caused her downfall." The Fate waved his hand at Chava's body, which looked almost glowing in the rainbow light. "You were sent here to save her; there is one cure to the Emmarian royal disease, for if someone loves you as much as you loved Chava, Jade, in that short amount of time…it is enough to cure anyone of anything." The Fate shook his head, disheartened. "Alas, her time ran short, and she left this world."
"I can't bring her back, can I?"
"No. But you can cherish her memory." The Fate looked at the ceiling, his white eyes sparkling. "Her father believed in her a little too much. Alas, she deceived her own father and risked her own assassination to save you from harm, Jade. And sometimes, she will be able to speak to you in your dreams."
Jade nodded, and swallowed the lump in his throat. "Thank you."
"Now that you have the Stardust, it must be returned to its rightful place." The Fate looked at Ryo. "Will you promise me to return the Stardust to the Empress, Ryo?" He nodded. "And Jade…your home awaits you."
The rainbow-colored lights above their heads twisted and churned in the air, spiraling down to the gold-paved floors. The yellow lights created an enormous circle, and then the red lights another circle adjoined, and then the blue and the violet. A jade-colored beam shot from the ceiling and carved an eye-shape in the center. The symbol glowed and the air was filled with light.
"Jade, to return to Earth, you must walk around the entire symbol," the Fate of Objective instructed him. "You must wish yourself back."
Jade nodded forlornly, and hugged Ryo. "I'm gonna miss you, bud," he told him, tears in his eyes. Ryo nodded and gave him sort of a half-smile. "You watch out for Agilanta, okay? I'll be back, one of these days."
He cast another look at Chava, who was laying on the floor, positively glowing this time. "She's happy where she is, isn't she?" he asked the Fate.
"As happy as she can be without you," he replied. "You'll see her again someday."
Jade traced his fingers over her face, trying to hold it in memory for as long as he could. He made sure the silver feather was still in his pocket, and then started to walk around the rings, as slowly as he could to savor his last day on Agilanta. The pain and conflict and sorrow that he had endured was enough to make anyone want to leave…except for Jade. He cast another glance at the Seven Fates and Ryo, who stood protectively over the Stardust.
"Good bye, Agilanta," Jade whispered, and finished walking over the symbol. He closed his eyes and felt himself being hurtled through space and time and, finally, back on the dewey grass where he had started, next to the rustic old bench and the moonlit treetops.
"I'm home," he whispered.
I don't think my dad ever went back to Agilanta. He came back to my grandfather, after he had been missing for about a week, and told him about what happen to Kevin and Shay and Evelyn…well, after he told him the entire story about his Star. His father only chuckled and told him it was quite a story. He believes him. I mean…he was once there, after all.
You know, that makes me half-Agilantian. If I'm half-Agilantian, than I can survive a trip to Agilanta, can't I?
No, Bradley, you're too young,Dad tells me. Maybe next year.
Well, I know it's out there. It's waiting for me, calling my name. And every day I sit and stare at that silver feather…the secret silver feather that dad has hidden in the attic, encased in glass. Chava's feather. I saw her once, in a dream. She spoke to me.
There she is, Chava. I know that's her, because Dad's described her a million times. She's got beautiful waist-length silver hair and angel wings. She's sitting on that bench that's a few blocks down from my house, and the wind is whipping her hair and she is smiling.
"Tell your dad I'm all right, Bradley," she says. "Tell him that we're waiting for him."
"Can I go to Agilanta, Chava? Please?" I always ask.
And she only smiles, sort of a half-way smile. "Maybe next year, Bradley. Maybe next year."