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The catastrophe of the e.., p.17
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       The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, p.17

           LR Manley
 
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  “You were never meant to know,” Mordalayn replied. “What you don’t have cannot hurt you or be taken from you.” 

  Kulkrain managed to smile weakly and then said “Takoba, this news is shattering. My comrades are dead. Only I made it through.”

   “What are they planning?” 

  And Kulkrain told him. 

  When he’d finished Mordalayn paused for a moment and then stood. “I have been by your side since they found you. Your loyalty will not go unrewarded Kulkrain, you have my word. Sleep now.” 

  As he went to leave Kulkrain spoke. “What will happen now? Do we have the ability to stop this?” 

  Mordalayn turned and looked at him then said “I don’t know my friend. Alegria has become complacent. We never thought anything as terrible as this could ever happen.” 

  Stepping outside he saw the anxious faces of Maximo and his wife, Leppard, Madame Veer and Challandra. He closed the door and turned to them. 

  “Anghofio are now more than a potential threat,” he said, iron faced. “I need to leave now and Jared needs to come with me.”

   Madame Veer looked concerned. “What did he tell you?”

   “That is something I cannot say,” he replied, “But the news means we cannot wait.” 

  Mordalayn turned to Maximo. “Do you have enough power to Shimmer us?” 

  Maximo beamed and replied. “Yes of course. We rarely use it but we have enough for you.” 

  “We leave now, fetch the boy,” Mordalayn said and Challandra moved off down the corridor. 

  She returned with Jared and nearly all the other boys, excited by what was happening and wanting to know what was going on. Bue was particularly keen and it took Madame Veer shouting loudly to quiet the noisy chatter in the cramped corridor. 

  “Jared and Takoba Mordalayn are leaving now. This is urgent and will not be discussed,” she said, her voice and stare as tight as the bun her hair was in. “You will all remain here until such a time as I deem it safe for us to leave. Is that clear?” 

  “Can I come too? Jared’s my friend. I can protect him,” Bue protested, looking hurt. 

  “No Bue,” Madame Veer replied tight lipped. “You stay here and set an example to the other boys.”

   There were murmurs of understanding and Mordalayn looked at Jared. “We leave now.”

  Maximo led them down the corridor and opened a door at the end. Behind it was a flight of steps that led down, winding to the left. Jared clutched his small pack and walked down nervously. The Shimmer was like at the orphanage, a small concave dish in the centre of the room. Maximo held his flaming torch up and turned to them. “When I tell you, step into the centre and do not step clear until you arrive.” 

  Jared stepped to the edge of the dish, with Mordalayn at his side. Maximo inserted an orange crystal into the mechanism like Madame Veer had done before. It shone brightly as it locked into place. Jared nervously looked around. Mordalayn stepped forward first and again Jared was reminded of seeing ripples in a pond. Around the huge cat man they appeared and he faded away and vanished. Maximo looked at Jared. “It’s alright my boy. Just walk on.” Jared hesitated and finally plucked up the courage. Just as he was about to step forward there was the sound of feet on the stairs. As he and Maximo turned, Bue emerged holding his pack and crossbow with Leppard chasing him,.

   “You’re not going without me,” Bue shouted and ran forward, grabbing Jared’s hand and pulling him into the centre. As Leppard tried to pull Bue back he tripped and fell into the dish. Before Maximo could react they all rippled and faded away.  

  The dish was empty. The room silent. Maximo removed the now clear crystal from the mechanism and sighed deeply. There were tears in his eyes as he turned and hurled the crystal against the wall where it shattered. He recovered after a moment and said quietly to himself. “May the gods forgive me for what I have done.”

  Chapter 21

   

  Jared woke up. His arms hurt, something hard was digging into them. He shook his head and tried to clear the fog that held him. Last thing he remembered was being at the Cherubs and stepping into the Shimmer. Now he was in a dark room and he felt scared and disoriented. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he squinted up and saw that his wrists were tied with some kind of metal bracelet with chains vanishing into the darkness above. He looked around in the dim light and saw Bue on his right. The boy was stirring, groaning and shaking his head groggily. Jared looked to his other side and saw Leppard restrained too. Jared looked around frantically and tried to see over his shoulder to check if anyone was behind him, but couldn’t turn in the painful position he was in. Bue shook his head and looked at Jared. “What the…?” he exclaimed and pulled in annoyance at the chains holding him. “Where are we?” The links held tightly and he began to thrash louder, squirming against the bindings.  

  Leppard snapped back at him. “Be quiet! We are prisoners,” and Bue stopped struggling. Jared looked around and saw that they were standing on some kind of huge, round, engraved floor. The rounded area finished some way ahead of them and the poor light there was in the room was coming from a doorway that looked to be about twenty metres away. 

  Jared groaned and his head jerked up as he realised he was trapped. He struggled briefly with his restraints before glancing at Leppard. “Is everyone alright?” he asked, straining to look around.

   “We are prisoners in Anghofio,” Leppard said quietly. “I never thought they’d be so bold as to openly declare war on Alegria like this.”

   “H…, how do you know where we are?” Jared asked, frightened and bewildered. 

  Leppard stared straight ahead and answered “The Shimmer was rigged. Only King James would need to do this. Ergo, we are in his kingdom.” 

  All three were now wide awake and their eyes adjusted to the murkiness in the room. There was no telling how big it was as the darkness above them was absolute and no one could turn around. The doorway gave some semblance of reassurance that they were in fact trapped within a normal place.  

  “How did they get us?” Bue said, still struggling against his bonds. 

  “The jump was rigged. When we Shimmered we came here where they were waiting, simple as that. That we are still alive proves that they want to talk to us. Otherwise none of us would still be breathing.” 

  “Why us, we don’t know anything?” Bue said, the fear in his voice showing. 

  “We have all been with Jared, it is him they want and need but they are clearly taking no chances.” Leppard informed them. 

  The door ahead of them suddenly opened with a loud grind and bright light flooded into the room. They all winced and squinted at the glare as three figures emerged from the yellow light that bathed the room and walked towards them. As their eyes adjusted Leppard whispered loudly “James!” 

  As Jared’s vision finally adjusted he saw that there were two guards escorting another man. They were standing in front of them, where the normal floor met the round area he and his friends were imprisoned upon. The other man was thin and tall with a black shirt and silver clasps on the sleeves. He had cropped, black hair and a long, slanting scar that ran from his left cheek to his forehead. His face was split by a big smile, but it was far from friendly. His eyes were black, like a crocodile’s. Cold and unfeeling. 

  “That’s King James or “your Majesty” to you, let’s not forget our manners shall we,” the man replied to Leppard. “My, my what a mess you’ve got yourself into!” he exclaimed with mock concern. “One moment playing with the fairies, the next caught like a rabbit in a snare.” 

  He looked at Bue and Leppard. He stared at Jared. “You must be the young man we’ve spent so much time looking for. A pleasure to meet you dear boy.” He smiled again and Jared squirmed under the malevolent gaze.  

  “What do you want?” Bue snapped loudly. 

  “Dear oh dear” the king tutted theatrically. “What I want, you rude little boy, is something you cannot give me.
 

  “To the hells with you!” Bue snapped and spat at him. The king pulled a face of disgust. 

  “Charming little orphan,” he mused then looked at Jared again. “Now then…Jared isn’t it? These people around you. Would you consider them friends?” 

  Jared looked around frantically but could find nothing to help him. 

  “Well?” James asked again. 

  “Yes…they are my friends. Please let them go. If it’s me you want I’ll help you.” 

  The king glanced at his accompanying guards. “Such a good lad eh? Willing to save his friends,” he said in a jolly tone. 

  The guards laughed nervously. 

  King James nodded to one and the man grabbed a lever on a panel next to him and pulled. The floor they were on suddenly began to grind and move. With a grating crunch the circular platform started to retract, triangular sections appearing with their points in the centre, where before it had looked like solid stone. The pieces slowly moved back and the three prisoners then sagged painfully where the floor had been, their feet treading into nothing. Bue yelled in pain as did Jared as the iron bracelets on their wrists dug into their skin. King James waited until the stones had fully retracted and then stepped forward. The guard threw a coin from his pocket into the yawning abyss. No one heard it land. 

  The king then raised the large object he was carrying. It was big and had a velvet cloth over it. He pulled the cloth free and it revealed a glass cage, an oval dome like a bird cage with a handle on the top and a wooden base. Inside was Kloee, looking extremely annoyed. 

  “I take it this is a friend of yours too?” King James asked Jared. “We found her hiding in your pack when we caught you. Didn’t we little one?” 

  Kloee glared up at him and her wings beat furiously as she pounded on the glass with her tiny fists. James chuckled at her futile attempts to break free and then turned back to the three prisoners. 

  “You are now standing above a drop that no one’s ever measured…mainly because it’s too deep to do so,” the king said in an offhand tone. He looked at Jared again and his tone changed to one of menace. “Now Jared… you will answer everything I say or I will drop your friends one at a time into that hole. Do you understand?” 

  Jared nodded, ignoring the pain in his wrists and straining to look down. There was only blackness beneath his feet.  

  Bue glared at the king but said nothing. Leppard gritted his teeth while trying to ignore the biting pain in his hands. 

  “Let’s begin shall we” the King said, his jovial tone returning. “I want you to tell me everything about the Emerald Queen that you know. If you lie to me I will know and one of your friends will die each time you do so. If you leave something out I will know. Do you understand?” 

  Jared gulped, petrified. 

  “First of all, where is she now?” 

  “I don’t know,” Jared stammered and then continued quickly. “After that monster tried to kill her at the hospital they moved her but I don’t know where.” 

  The king smiled, clearly believing him. “Where is she likely to be?”

   “I don’t know where another hospital is like that. They’re everywhere. She’s probably guarded now anyway.”

   The king laughed at that and waved his hand dismissively. “Let me worry about that Jared. Why have our oracles been unable to see her since our first attempt?” 

  “Again I don’t know,” Jared replied almost in tears, knowing that his answers were crucial to keeping his friends alive. “Mordalayn poured something on her when he stopped the monster.”

   King James glanced from Jared to the guards. “A masking spell. Very impressive.” He continued. “What is the problem with her?” 

  “She’s in a coma. She was in a car crash about three months ago.” The king looked blank. “She was hurt and fell asleep and she can’t wake up.” 

  The king looked thoughtful. “So this is why Alegria didn’t simply elect a new ruler,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. He chuckled again. “Who would have thought it. For all Alegria’s plans and magic they never considered their monarch could become trapped in limbo.”

   “One more question Jared,” the king said. “Is she likely to wake up?”

   “Again I don’t know,” Jared replied desperately. “She’s been hurt for a long time. Maybe.”

   “Thank you Jared, you’ve been most helpful.” He turned to one of the guards. “Tell them to signal our men in Alegria.” The guard bowed and ran to the door. The king paused for a moment and turned to leave. Then, as if remembering something he turned to Bue. “Oh and I don’t like being spat on by fatherless brats,” he glared at the boy and then turned to the other guard. “Drop him.”

   Kloee gasped and silently shrieked “No!” behind the glass. Bue thrashed frantically against his chains and Jared’s heart leapt into his mouth. The guard grinned cruelly and reached for one of the mechanical levers at his side. 

  “Wait!”  

  The voice carried not just pleading but also a tone of command. The guard hesitated and looked at King James who was staring at Leppard. 

  The old bow master cleared his throat. “This boy is young. He has his life ahead of him. If you have to kill someone, please…take me.” 

  King James looked at Leppard with surprise and a little admiration. He paused then smiled kindly. “Courage and self sacrifice, two qualities to admire in a man.” He shook his head and clapped his hands. “I applaud your gesture. Very well.” He turned to the guard. “Drop him instead.” 

  Bue screamed, “NO!” as the guard pulled the lever. 

  The chains holding Leppard detached from the bracelets. 

  He fell. Silently.

  Chapter 22

   

  “I’ll kill you, I swear on my mother I’ll kill you!” Bue screamed at King James, tears streaming down his face.

   “Yes, yes. Very dramatic,” the king said irritably and turned to Jared. “I think you can see now that I mean what I say. I will return in one hour. Use that period to think of everything you can about your time over here.” He turned and walked away holding Kloee in her glass prison and the guard followed him. 

  Jared stared and then nodded his head slowly, utterly terrified.

   “I’LL KILL YOU!!!” Bue screamed after King James, his voice cracking as he stared down into the abyss below them. 

  Jared was too scared and bewildered to feel anything. The king had, with not even a trace of anger, murdered Leppard. The old tutor had bravely given his life for Bue’s but the king hadn’t even seemed to care. Instead it appeared to be amused him to take one over the other. 

  The door ahead slammed and they were in gloom again. The floor ground its way back towards them. The triangular pieces arrowing to the centre where they locked with a crunch. 

  Bue was sobbing uncontrollably, his head bowed against his chest. Jared craned to look at him. “Oh God,” he whispered. “What do I do now?”

  Leppard lay at the bottom of the pit. He couldn’t remember how long he’d fallen for but it had seemed a long time. He could feel nothing in his body and above him, no larger than a star in the sky, was the light from where the boys were still kept prisoner. As he watched the light winked out and he guessed that the floor had been closed again. There was no pain which frightened him and in the pitch darkness he could see nothing, only hear a slow dripping coming from somewhere near. 

  He was scared at the thought that death meant spending eternity at the bottom of this hole. He silently prayed for Bue and the others and hoped his sacrifice would lead Bue to have a long and happy life. The lad was like a son to him and he knew deep down Bue was a good boy. 

  As he finished his prayer a bright light suddenly appeared from ahead of him. He squinted against the sudden glare and as he watched there was a scuffling noise and a small blue creature waddled towards him. He looked down and saw his own smashed body in the light the creature was radiating. He
winced and stifled a cry of fear. 

  The creature was incredibly short but with huge feet, like paddles with black claws on the ends. It looked like a cross between a rat and a kangaroo. As Leppard stared in shock at the creature it smiled and said: 

  “Don’t be frightened Leppard. I am your chaperon.” 

  Leppard stared at the creature, unable to move and stammered, “Gryphoid?” 

  The creature smiled. It’s eyes were a deep, limpid brown and its skin was baby blue. Its too-short arms were folded across its chest and its long, wide blue tail was curled around its feet.

   “Yes.” The smile was serene like a mother to a baby.

   Realisation hit Leppard then. He was dead. This really was it. The Gryphoids came for you when you died, or so the legends spoke. Only those who had been brought back from death had ever seen them and told of it. Now he knew it was true.

   He noticed the dripping noise had stopped and the air around him seemed to be static.  

  “Time has stopped for us, for a while,” the Gryphoid said by way of explanation and sat on a portion of its own tail, adjusting itself to get comfy. Its skin glowed with the baby blue and sensing Leppard’s fear it spoke reassuringly. “Don’t be frightened. You are a good man and you have led a good life. Let me tell you of all the good things you and your life have achieved for others, some that you will remember and some that you never knew of.” 

  The creature began to talk. It told Leppard of all the things he’d ever done that had helped others from when he was a boy until now. It reminded him of the things he had done that had made others happy. It said that there were people whose lives he had saved or forever changed by his generosity and self sacrifice. It reassured him that while many of his gestures had been forgotten by both him and others, some people had never forgotten his kindness towards them. 

  Leppard began to weep as he heard these things. Not with sadness but with joy and for what seemed like an incredibly long time the creature talked. By the time they had finished and Leppard’s soul moved on, he felt more joyful and at peace than he had ever felt before.

  Chapter 23

   

  Jared was thirsty, tired and his wrists ached. He could take most of the pressure off his arms by standing on tip toe but the bracelets cut into his wrists harshly. Bue was still crying quietly, his screaming and thrashing having ended after exhaustion took over. Jared knew King James would come back soon and to stop him killing another friend he had to remember everything he had seen, both at home and here. He had no doubt that they would be killed anyway. If only there was something they could do. He was downhearted at the sight of Bue imprisoned, a soul he thought could never be caught. Leppard's chains hung limply.

 
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