“Commander Hallon, if you think for one second that I’m just going to let you send over two of your agents to take control of my kingdom, and then on top of that let you use my daughter for bait, you’ve got another thing coming.” The queen had on her evening prayer robes with white satin gloves that covered her scarred arms up to her elbows. Her arms crossed tightly over her chest, the queen did her best to hide the outright contempt from her face.
Garreth almost smiled. Now he knew what his father meant when he said the queen was feisty. He had to hand it to her for not simply laying down to the orders of a man.
Commander Hallon’s image wavered as a new series of ripples crossed the surface of the Echo Basin. “We’ve had fifty reports this week of new shadow sightings in the Kaitu Kingdom alone, Queen Cassandra. The reports are getting closer to your islands.”
The king placed a hand on the queen’s thigh. “People are getting scared, my wife. Senators are itching for the chance to blame each other and start a war.” Garreth noticed the queen bristle with anger when the king used the tone he’d use with a clueless child. “Your daughter is obviously involved. We put her in a visible location and we can finally have the chance to capture one of these creatures. Our High Priestess is confident they can use holy power to confine them.”
Garreth uncrossed his arms. “That power is just a remnant from when the Goddesses died. These people lie to your public. How can you expect any different treatment?”
“Silence Garreth.” Commander Hallon sighed. “I know this situation isn’t ideal but you need to understand the bigger picture. If we can capture one of these creatures, perhaps we can determine a way to find and destroy the Betrayer. I would think you of all people would want that.”
The queen fell silent. Commander Hallon smiled. “Then it’s settled. Miranda will appear as scheduled for the temple blessing. Our agents will be on alert in the event of a shadow creature sighting. We appreciate your cooperation.”
The vapors holding his image glowed bright for a moment before collapsing onto the surface of the water below. The queen stared into the blue liquid. The king smiled, “See that wasn’t so hard. I think I’ll turn in, getting a bit of a headache I think. Maybe a neck ache too. I’ll just have Hilla work my whole body tonight. Be a dear and have one of the servants send up a flagon or two of wine.”
The queen clasped her hands tightly together in her lap. Garreth was just about to leave when the queen spoke. Her voice was strained and exhaustion swept over her face. “Sir Garreth, a moment if you please.” Although she was smiling, Garreth saw worry hiding in her eyes.
He nodded. “Of course, your majesty.” He turned to Vanar and the other two guards. “Excuse us for a moment and keep an eye out Vanar.”
Garreth waited a few moments once the door was shut before taking a seat beside the basin. The liquid glowed with an eerie bluish light as pockets of gas bubbled up from the bottom. He pulled a chair out for the queen but she continued standing. “It is not often I have to keep things from my men let alone my superiors. I would appreciate some answers.”
“I’m afraid it is no longer possible to trust Commander Hallon. The last time I talked with him in Wynlan I found something odd in my chambers. It was a strange pendant strung upon a leather chord. Symbols were carved into the black wood so that they formed concentric circles all over the pendant. When I reached to grab it, a sharp pain pierced my hand. After I dropped it, I looked at my palms and saw this.”
She removed her white satin gloves, grimacing as the satin touched the wounds. Although several weeks old, they burned afresh even now. Garreth gasped as his eyes moved over the scars on the queen’s hands. “These symbols are very old, your majesty. Older than the three kingdoms some say.”
“Can you read them?”
Garreth reached for the queen’s hands, leaning forward to examine the symbols. His eyes widened when he saw the twin crossed swords with chains dangling from the hilts and fire engulfing the blade. The Betrayer’s symbol was in several of the circles, increasing in frequency the closer the circles got to the center, and alternated with the cross of rebirth and the seven pointed star. In the center of the palm a male figure held a child by its ankle over a patch of black, dead skin.
Garreth dropped the queen’s hands. “How long have you had these?”
“Long enough. I suspect the shadow creatures are being drawn to it. I will not let my daughter be used as bait. If Naonet’s children get their hands on her, he is that much closer to reopening the door from his world to ours. I want you to make preparations to take Miranda into hiding. Until such time as I send for the two of you, you are never to leave her side.”
“Your majesty, with all due respect you sent Sir Caldon into hiding with her when she was a child and they still found her. My men and I will keep vigilant watch over her.” Garreth walked over to the window. “I have two of my best agents keeping an eye on her as we speak. I would suggest that you and your husband dissolve the marriage plans to High Senator Brennus. Adina and the other seers have seen him in dreams with the Betrayer. I don’t trust him within one hundred miles of any innocent person. I’ve also received information that the Zukalans’ army has been increasing at a higher than normal rate over the last three years, which was when the shadow creatures started becoming more frequent.”
“Then it appears that the Goddess’ Stone is our only chance. Even if going into hiding failed for Sir Caldon, it might work long enough for a small team to find the other pieces of the Goddess’ Stone before the portal weakens enough for the Betrayer to slip through.” The queen joined Garreth by the window, pulling on her gloves. “Time is something we have little of and I fear the Trinity Knights have less.”
Garreth’s forehead furrowed. “Excuse me?”
“When I went to talk to my husband about Commander Hallon and the pendant I found, I overheard him and our high priestess talking. They were using a language I did not understand, but I saw Rolanda stash away some papers in a secret drawer. After they left I found them but they too were written in a strange language but they appeared to be the same symbols from the pendant. They also had schematics of the Grand Temple on this island with the date of Miranda’s temple blessing ceremony stamped on them. Hallon wants Miranda clearly visible to draw these creatures out. I will not let my daughter be in such danger.”
Garreth remained silent for a moment, watching the rain. “I will disguise one of my agents to look like her. These shadow creatures are often controlled by some master so if we fool him and he reveals himself, we can get closer to figuring out a way to beat these creatures. Meanwhile, myself and Sir Vanar will guard Miranda until whatever incident occurs passes over. I will keep agents out in the field searching for leads regarding the Goddess’ Stone. Adina’s visions have gotten clearer over the past few months with the approach of the New Year star shower. She has gotten glimpses of the other two pieces ever since we brought Miranda back.”
“Then perhaps you and your team should take Miranda in search of these pieces. Once you find them, you are to destroy them. Without the Goddess’ Stone, Naonet cannot hope to return or if he does, he will be weak enough for the Trinity Knights to finish their job.”
The raindrops thudding against the window filled the silence.
“I don’t know how far the sickness of corruption has spread in the knights, but it might be wise to warn those you believe to be innocent. I fear the temple blessing ceremony will be a curse on many and death is sure to follow.”
Before Garreth could answer, Vanar pushed into the room. “Sir Garreth, Queen Cassandra, Miranda has disappeared. Her professor was found stabbed through the heart.”
Garreth felt a rush of dread flood into his heart but let none of it show on his face. “Take me to him and explain all you know. Have one of the lieutenants escort the queen to her chambers and do not leave her side until I come back.” He turned to the queen. “I will find her. I will keep her safe.”
Garreth and Vanar took off through the intricate, winding castle corridors. They climbed another two flights of stairs before reaching a door that was barely ajar. Two castle guards snapped to attention when Garreth and Vanar arrived. “We tried to…”
“At ease.” Garreth pushed open the door and looked down to find a blood stained robe with a pile of books haphazardly thrown beside it. “Explain this.”
After a few minutes of stumbling over words, the second guard managed to speak. “A few minutes after Sir Vanar left, there was a strange sound and the shadows seemed to start moving. There was this sort of pop and then children’s laughter. A large shadow skittered away from the body. We tried to stab it but it moved too fast.”
Garreth’s shoulders stiffened with anger but he took a deep breath. The two guards looked like new recruits with their rounded eyes and shaking hands. “Seal off this room. No one goes in or out until I say so. Where did you last see Miranda?” The guards pointed to a room ten feet down the hallway and to the left. “Vanar, send a message to all the guards in the castle. She can’t have gotten far. I want her found immediately.”
Garreth looked through the room. Nothing looked out of place, but he couldn’t help but feel something was just a bit off. Three more rounds around the room and still Garreth couldn’t find what he was looking for. He stood in front of the fire place, searching the dying embers when he noticed the embers on the right side looked far less red than the ones on the left. He placed his hand on the brick wall and leaned closer, almost losing his balance when the brick under his hand moved into the wall. He stood and examined the hole, feeling the inside until his fingers found a switch. A door to his right swung open. Smells of damp moss wafted in through the dark corridor. Garreth called in one of the guards.
“Grab a torch, keep a hand on your sword and follow me.”