by J.M. Arlen
The story begins.
Chapter 1. An Unlikely Thief.
And here it was, the place where this story begins: on a dark cloudless night, in a land some might say was far far away. Although, that was not entirely true; because in fact this land was not far far away, but very nearby: located in a separate but equal place in time.
And in this land that existed not far far away there stood a city called Denengear. An ancient city. A beautiful city. A city of gold, and stone, and wood. A city with thousands upon thousands of buildings, and people also to live in them. And at the very farthest reaches of this city, acting as its head, sat a mansion. Connected to this wide and luxurious mansion there was a tower. And within this tower there lived a girl. A girl--who was no ordinary girl. No, this girl was extremely important. She could control the rarest of all the Crystals of Power, devices which once fell from space so many years before. This item, which seemed to be a rock, blue in color, was an item that the King believed might save his people from the most dire threat his land had ever faced: a disease. A disease that had appeared five years before without any warning at all.
The King asked this girl to help him, and so she did, day and night, performing whatever actions he might ask of her. It was because the King believed this girl to be so important that he one day locked her away in her tower. Never would he allow her to be harmed. Never would he allow her to leave. It was within this tower that the girl read, and dreamed, and even wondered, whether or not she would die there. Or whether or not she could escape.
But it was also on this dark and cloudless night that something unimaginable happened to this girl. An unlikely thief appeared in her tower, and from that point forward, things would never be the same for the girl again.
This girl I refer to was named Manie, and tonight her story began.
* * *
Manie shoved the wood doors guarding the stone-brick hallway, causing them to collide with the walls on the opposite side with a loud thwack. The passage ahead was dark and empty, but she proceeded anyway, using the walls as her guide.
As she slid her palm along the moist and gritty bricks, Manie felt fear pulsing through her veins. Fear of what lay ahead. Fear of what lay behind. The event that just unfolded might well have been the most exciting occurrence in all her short years, if extreme terror and worry could be considered ingredients for excitement. The future was now uncertain for the first time in Manie's life, but she did have a goal. And within moments that goal came sliding into view.
Manie saw a door near the end of the long hallway, glowing inside cones of blue light projecting straight from her eyes. There was a sign marked weapon storage, and Manie immediately retrieved the key which had been left behind for her in the tower. She slipped it into the lock, twisted with a click, then watched in horror as the door swung inward towards the last thing she ever imagined could be true.
Tears broke and began to spill down Manie's cheeks. They weren't tears of sadness, or pity, or regret; but tears of betrayal and anger and shock. Inside the room before her was tens-of-thousands of empty glass jars, stacked halfway to the ceiling in a seemingly infinite stone hallway. Manie had never seen so many before in her entire life. She immediately knew that everything the King had ever told her was just an elaborately designed lie, created to help capture the creatures that she loved so much. And here they were, kept as prisoners, right beneath the place where she ate and slept and studied, every single night.
Manie lifted the necklace over her head and hung the Blue Crystal by its long, silver chain. It was covered with blood, her blood, drenched by the fresh-cut wound across her left forearm. She wiped the surface of the stone until it shone clean. Within the inner chamber she saw a swirling, black tornado: one that drained down into an endless abyss. Minutes before it held a bright blue flame--just like the one in Manie's own eyes--but now it was dead. Her ability to reveal the creatures contained inside the jars was gone, and with it, her usefulness--especially to her King. Tonight death would find her, that Manie was sure of, but she did decide she wasn't going to wait around expectantly for it to arrive at her doorstep.
Manie approached the stacks of jars and began smashing them against the floor. Hand by hand, a mound of rising, shattered glass, and dented tin lids began to pile on the stones beneath her. She stepped forward and grabbed a wooden pallet holding up hundreds of empty jars. Screaming with rage, Manie pressed with all her strength until the stack toppled over and broke against the floor. The collision sounded like an uproar of exploding glass and splintering bits of wood. Tin lids rolled everywhere.
Manie stepped away from the glass and waited. She watched the pieces slide and shift around as hundreds of invisible creatures started burrowing their way out. At the edge of the destruction, a single jar began to hover--all on its own--then it dropped and smashed against the floor, spreading into a wide burst of glass. A few more started following suite, and before long, hundreds of the empty jars were floating into the air and smashing down against the flat stone blocks as quickly as they could. The entire room progressively became a symphony of bursting explosions and tinkling shards of glass.
Manie felt a wide smile crack over her face, the first one in years. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt so undividedly happy. She turned and exited the storage room, retreating back down the dark, empty hallways; then up the nearly endless twisting staircase to her bedroom at the very top of the lonely tower.
Once inside the quarters she had been confined to for more than five years, Manie gathered the last of the glass jars that were left unbroken: three, which were resting alone on her fireplace mantle. Sitting beside them was a particular book, "On Ancient Beasts of Now and Then," which she also grabbed.
Manie put the book and the jars inside a brown leather bag. She proceeded by her red-sheeted bed and towards the open stained-glass window waiting beside it. Manie looked over the edge and saw the rope dangling below, still latched on by its hook to the iron rung of her windowsill, and its owner, still lying at the bottom of the rope's slack in a smoky pile: undiscovered.
Manie climbed out of her window and began descending the very same rope that helped a thief into her room. Now it helped a thief escape.
Deep inside Manie knew that tonight her life was changing. Tomorrow would be new and unknown for the very first time. She tried her best to cry silently while descending the eight stories of rope to the ground. Once at the bottom, Manie released her grip and dropped to the grass below, feeling wind and cool night air ruffle her sleeves and tickle her skin. The sensation was a drastic and welcome change. So different from the stone corridors, the iron devices, the endless and suffocating solitude. It was liberating for her to taste true freedom. The last time she had been allowed to leave that world was when she was only twelve years of age. Now at seventeen, Manie felt like she had been dropped onto a completely different planet.
But she tried to keep calm despite all those things. Manie focused her thoughts to the details of the map she had memorized from long hours of study. This map told her which stars would lead her north, and that's where she decided she would go. Manie recognized a beacon, high in the sky alone, glimmering and blinking like a silver gem of hope. It hovered high above the place where Manie knew safety was waiting for her. At once she set out, skimming along like the shadow from a bird, avoiding the eyes of towers where guards mostly slept their shifts away.
She left behind the massive stone walls, and wrought iron gates. The feasts where hundreds of people would gather, and the sanctuary of home. Manie climbed and descended the half-ring of craggy cliffs that partially encircled Denengear, and never once was she seen by anyone, and never once did she try to look back. She was unsure if it was fear, or regret, or sorrow that kept her from turning to see her forgotten home one last time, but she never did.
Beneath Manie's bedroom windowsill lie the motionless and broken bones of an unlikely thief. Manie tried hard not to think about who they belonged to, or why they were there, or what strange and unforeseeable goals had lead such an event to unfold on that dark and cloudless night; but buried deep inside, Manie knew the true answer to that unpleasant question.
* * *
Three months. That was the amount of time that passed Manie by before again something notable would happen to her. The place she now occupied was within another cage, though admittedly, a much safer one. The walls that built this new cage were set in a compact square, and formed from hard white clay. She was in a basement, one located at the bottom of a tavern; a tavern which was owned and operated by a man named Danyal, and a most generous man at that. He and Manie had met during a chance encounter along the roads of this strange land. Danyal had given his word to keep her safe, and safe was where he kept her.
After returning home with Manie, to a town in the North called Ferengul, Danyal cut his basement staircase across the middle, added a pair of brass hinges to the back of the bottom steps, boarded up the door that lead to the room behind the stairs, then painted it: making the secret staircase the only usable entrance to Manie's new hideaway. Manie herself had thought the idea drastic when communicated, but once finished, welcomed its safety with open arms.
And there she sat, day and night for three full months, hoping again for change. In front of Manie sat a dusty, wood table. In the back left corner of this table sat her book, "On Ancient Beasts of Now and Then," also covered in a fine layer of dust. And situated in a row of three, right before her eyes, were the three glass jars she had stolen with her on the night of her escape. Atop each lid now were triangular patterns of holes: providing air for the creatures inside. Manie wanted to be sure that they didn't die from a simple mistake.
Across from that book sat a candle, reflecting orange tinted images off the surface of each jar, dancing with a flicker that made Manie feel tired. The wax surrounding the candle's flame had melted itself down to a deformed lump at the base of a small dinner plate. This little dancing flame, with its cozy, orange outline, and white-hot center, was the only real comfort Manie had in her deeply lonely basement; and if it became low enough to extinguish itself, the room would be plunged into complete darkness. Because this room that became her cage had no windows, and again she could not leave.
Outside of the Tavern, covering Ferengul from head to toe, were King Dukemot's wanted posters. They offered a grand reward of twenty-five-thousand gold pieces for the return of the girl known now as Manie-the-witch. A tidy sum, but one unappealing in nature to the man named Danyal.
It was because of this branding that Manie soon learned to hate the moniker of witch. She only accepted "she-wizard," as her necessary title. Never would she allow "witch," to become what she was. Witches were evil, and Manie wasn't that.
These flyers bore a petite innocent face, one who had shoulder-length dark hair that was described as being blue. The words below the face accused this witch of murder, and sabotage, as well as treason to the city of Denengear. But these posters also demanded that this witch be brought back alive. Near the bottom of each, marked with thick black ink, was the threat: that if this witch were to be harmed or helped in any way, the committer of such crimes would be hanged by the neck until dead; and any known relatives inducted into the Royal Army.
Drastic, sure, but Manie could only contemplate the horrors that await if she herself became captured. Dukemot was not one to let go of something willingly, and torture was his preferred method of dealing with criminals. That, or a noose. And he obviously wanted nothing more than to retrieve the power which Manie had stolen from him, as well as punish the person who had done so.
But despite all Manie had learned of the Crystals and the life-bond they create with their users, it all ended on that night: when a thief came to steal the power away for herself, and Manie couldn't allow it to happen.
Manie knew much about the Crystal she possessed. It came from a time long ago, when rocks containing Magic fell from the sky like rain. She read the journals of a man named Mikhail, this Crystal's first owner. The journals told stories of a blue fire residing inside the stone, one which granted immense power to those of whom it chose, and it was within these same stories that Dukemot formed his theory on why Manie had been born with a similar energy contained inside her own eyes.
But now only the swirling, black abyss remains. A twisting, turning reminder of how it all went wrong.
For three long months Manie had tried to reactivate her Crystal, and for three long months she had failed. Remedy after remedy became nothing more than a waste of time, using her practiced skill with lightning as its energy source. It was widely accepted and believed that overuse of one's magic could take years off the caster's life, but Manie ignored those beliefs, exhausting herself to the edge of losing consciousness almost every single night. It was all in the aim of reclaiming what had been lost, but hopefully, this night would be the end of such reckless tactics.
Danyal had connections with the local traders. They would roll in and out of town on their horse pulled carriages, and once in awhile, show up with word of something truly remarkable. In this case, a Charging Station: devices which were created to help people gain the ability to use the Crystals in the first place.
As a result of the civil war between Light and Dark Magic that took place nearly a thousand years before, these Charging Stations--things once owned by the most potent of Magic users--became increasingly rare. As time went on, they became relics. Lost artifacts of a time when Magic was an everyday occurrence. Something to be collected by brooding old men with the desire to own a piece of history. Creations to be gawked and sneered at, but never to be used.
And that was what made this Charging Station so special. The seller of this particular Charging Station had promised it to be in such good condition that it might even be usable. If Danyal could get his hands on such a device, and Manie end up being able to successfully awaken Mikhail's Crystal by performing the charging process in reverse, this could be her final night of hiding in the dark, dusty basement.
Manie sensed that the tavern above had grown quiet. Most of the drunks had probably made their way home by now. Boredom had long taken over Manie's mind. She was forced to sit alone with her thoughts: which was never a good thing. Danyal had gone to retrieve the Charging Station early on in the morning, but he had yet to return; and Manie was beginning to grow impatient.
Then, with a roaring fire of excitement, Manie heard slow footsteps begin to descend the stairs. After a few seconds of silence, three knocks signaled Danyal's return.
Manie jumped out of her squeaky wooden chair and rushed to the back of the secret staircase. She clicked open two brass locks then pressed upwards against the bottom steps, folding up and out the inverted staircase. She locked eyes with Danyal, a tall, balding old man with wispy, blond-grey hair. His bones seemed as frail as glass, but there was a sturdiness to him, also. He held a mug of steamy hot chocolate in his right hand, and in his left, a plate of turkey and baked potato.
"Brought you some dinner," Danyal said, stepping through the entrance.
"Did you get it," Manie immediately replied.
"Get what?" he asked.
Danyal set the plate of food and mug down on the surface of Manie's table. She crossed her arms and stared at him.
"The Charging Station!"
Smiling, Danyal replied, "Of course I got it. What, you think I'd go all the way to Shor-Wood and come back empty handed?"
"Well, when you come in empty handed, what else am I supposed to think?"
"I didn't, I came in with dinner; now eat, it's getting cold."
Manie sighed. She sat in her chair and leaned forward, examining how well the turkey had been cooked. Satisfied at its done-ness, she hooked an icy finger around the handle of the steaming mug of rich hot-chocolate. She took a long, analyzing sniff of the steam pouring off it, feeling her mouth water; then she began to sip slowly from the edge, careful not to burn her tongue. She tried the turkey and baked potatoes next, each cooked to perfection.
"The turkey is amazing! Did Stella roast this?"
Danyal frowned and crossed his arms.
"No! Why do you ask that?"
"Well, it's just, after the last three, I wasn't sure you could cook a turkey to save your life."
Danyal huffed a breath of sarcastic air.
"There are perfectly reasonable explanations as to why those three failed. Each one as convincing as the last."
"Sure, sure... And would it kill you to put some stuffing inside one of these? As much as I love potatoes, I think I'd prefer a side with a little more flavor on the rare occasion."
Danyal shook his head in immediate resentment.
"Now I've seen it all: a beggar who criticizes!"
"Hey, that's she-beggar to you, mister."
Danyal and Manie stared at each other for a long moment, then finally broke into laughter. Although they had been strangers three months ago, she and Danyal became fast friends, bonding almost to the point of father and daughter. They regularly teased each other and even played practical jokes. Though with Manie, that usually meant explosions.
After a while their laughter died down. The basement became completely silent in its aftermath. Not the breeze, nor a cricket, interrupted this quiet for quite a long time, and in its emptiness Manie began to feel anxious.
"So, where's this Charging Station," she finally asked.
Danyal reached into a bag hanging behind his back by a belt loop. He then placed a small metal Charging Station on the surface of the table. Manie examined it with scrutinizing eyes. It wasn't what she expected.
"Why is it so small? The ones I've read about in books were huge!"
Danyal scratched his temple.
"It's supposed to be a portable Charging Station, one to use when you're far away from home. The seller promised that it would work, said he kept it in a glass box."
Manie leaned over the top of the device to get a better look. It was shaped like a brick with a dull metallic bowl on top. The base was made from shiny, silver metal. Though it did have a few wide rust marks covering one edge, it seemed to be in very good condition.
Without saying a word, Manie twisted Mikhail's Crystal out of the setting hanging from the end of her silver necklace. She propped it inside the notch on top of the Charging Station. It was too small to fit snug, at about the size of her pinky finger: and with broken and jagged edges--but Manie hoped those tiny imperfections wouldn't interrupt the process enough to stop a reaction from occurring.
Pushing the seemingly empty jars--as well as her plate of food and mug of hot chocolate--to the back part of the table, Manie grabbed the Charging Station and set it as near to herself as she could. She reached out and clutched the short iron handles extending off either side, allowing the user to absorb the Crystal's energy.
This was the moment she had been working towards for so truly very long. Three long and grueling months had gone by with Manie hiding in the dark, dusty basement. Now, without a speck of doubt at all, would be her best chance at escape: if there ever was one to begin with.
"Blow out the candle, it makes it easier to see," Manie requested.
Danyal leaned forward and blew out the candle with a swift puff. The basement filled itself with the smell of hot wax and burning wick. The room quickly became caught in an ink black shadow. Feeling the smooth, cool metal of the device's handles between her fingers, Manie sent a single quick surge of her magic lightning jolting through the device: causing bright, blue sparks to light up the room momentarily. The Crystal bounced around inside the small metal notch, then rattled to a stop: showing that some type of reaction was occurring. She squeezed again, sending another wave of pulses shooting through the device. She kept her Magic lightning flowing for much longer this time.
As she squeezed, bright, blue arcs were bolting between the walls of the metal cage and the Crystal's sharp and broken edges. The entire Charging Station began to grow red hot as its temperature increased to near melting point. A buzzing and popping sound consumed the entire room as the pine wood table beneath caught a rogue spark, and that was the only excuse it needed to burst into a steady wall of flames. Manie sent one final jolt of her electricity arcing through the device, just to be sure she would make an effect, then stopped the Magic pulses for good. The Crystal hopped, and the fire slightly died down.
Danyal sprang out of his seat and began racing around in utter panic.
"Fire! Manie, don't you see? There's a fire!"
Manie ignored his cries as well as the reaching fire. She snatched Mikhail’s Crystal from the glowing red pedestal it sat in. The flaming table was now lighting up the room even better than the candle, making it difficult to see inside the Crystal -- so Manie was forced to go to the dark corner near her bed to get a look inside. Over her shoulder, Manie listened as Danyal rushed out of the secret bedroom and slammed the staircase behind him: his footsteps creaking up to the tavern as quick as she had ever heard.
Now in the dark, Manie let out a long pressurized sigh from the anticipation building in her stomach. The smoke hovering at the ceiling was becoming quite thick, so Manie focused on the Crystal's inner chamber, scanning for any sign of light. Deep inside the center, the swirling black tornado persisted, still draining into darkness. The blue flame hadn't returned. The Charging Station didn't seem to have worked.
Danyal came banging back down the staircase and lifted open the secret door. He rushed inside holding a wooden bucket of water. He tipped the container and doused the table with a clumsy--but effective--portion of liquid. Hisses and steam flowed upwards from the Charging Station as water collided with its red hot metal. The room now smelled like a soggy campfire.
Coughing, Danyal re-lit the candle sitting at the back corner of the table.
"That thing got hot! Did you see those flames? Nearly burned down the whole Tavern!"
He came striding over to the dark part of the room.
"Manie, what are you doing? Doesn't that burn your hands? How could it be cool?"
"The Crystal's not hot, only the Charging Station was. What's more important is that it didn't work."
Danyal set the bucket down on the floor and walked to Manie's side. He looked at the Crystal in her hands, not that he could see anything inside.
Manie felt alone again. It was Denengear repeated, the night she fled from her home, the night it was nearly stolen. What she had been forced to do in order to reclaim Mikhail's Crystal had taken its power away, but not before she was told of the betrayal that had been built to sustain Dukemot's agenda. She knew there had to be some way to re-start the flame, she just couldn't remember how. For three long months she had been probing her brain for clues or hints from Mikhail's journal, but there was nothing left to work from. Her near photographic memory was being pushed to its extreme limits by this point.
Without anywhere left to turn, Manie knew that she would have to go in search of her mother. Somewhere in Milly's forest was an aging alchemist who once lived in Denengear--long before her daughter was stolen away at birth. It wasn't the best option, but it did seem to be the only one left. She shoved Mikhail's Crystal into her robe pocket and turned towards Danyal.
"Danyal, I need another favor."
With a somber tone, Danyal replied, "Yes, Manie? What is it? You know I'll help if I can."
"I need to find my mother. She's the only other person in the North who might know how to restart Mikhail's Crystal."
Danyal let out a deep sigh.
"I was afraid you were going to say that... Yes, I can help. I'll arrange for a wagon to take you to the Crossroads. From there, though, you'll have to go by foot. The roads are getting dangerous these days, so no driver will go into Milly's forest anymore. I can give you a pack of food, and a sleeping bag, but Manie, after this, I won't be able to help you: not with money anyways. I've spent every last coin I had saved. And, I was glad to do so. But I'm afraid I've run dry. That Charging Station alone cost me 400 silver. Believe it or not, those things are collectibles these days."
Danyal looked over his shoulder at the lump of melted metal that used to be priceless.
"Look, Manie... I know you think this is what you need to do, but it isn't. You don't have to give up your life. You can dye your hair, change your name; it'll be like a clean slate, a new beginning. Don't you want that? A normal life? I can't offer much, but you can stay in one of my rental rooms for as long as you need to. I can even offer you a job as a waitress! You and I both know I need more of those."
Manie was excited for a moment, but then she became immediately disappointed in herself. It didn't really matter what she wanted. The Crystal was in control, now.
"Danyal, I can't... I've tried to dye my hair before. The color just burns off from my Magic..."
Danyal crossed his arms and frowned.
"Well, we can get you a wig! I could see you as a blonde."
"Danyal, as much as I would love to wear a wig for the rest of my entire life, there's more at stake here than just the Crystal, or even Dukemot's revenge against me. If I can't find a cure to the disease soon, who knows what he might do."
Manie wished she could tell Danyal what she really meant: tell him what was hidden inside the jars. But doing so would only put him at greater risk.
"I want to tell you more, Danyal, but you just can't understand how much Dukemot would do to find me, and especially this Crystal... You just have to trust me when I say that it's probably the most important effort anyone has ever put time into. One day, when this is all over, maybe I can tell you what went on. But for now it needs to remain a secret."
Danyal looked Manie over with a catch in his eyes. He rubbed his chin, then inched towards Manie's bed and plopped down on the squeaky wooden bed frame. She immediately sensed something was bothering him.
"Everything alright, Danyal?"
"Oh, yes... I'm alright... Just got to thinking about what it'll be like once you're gone."
"You mean all the extra food you'll have?"
"Well, you know, these pants could use a bit of tightening up."
His voice became low and scratchy, like he had suddenly gotten very tired.
"I really have enjoyed you being here... I had a hope that one day you might meet my son, Arabel, but it looks like that won't be coming true either... I want you to be safe, but I know I can't stop you. Just remember that you've always got a place to stay, right here under my stairs."
Danyal peeked out the corner of his left eye towards Manie, and smiled.
Manie felt sleep hanging off her eyes like ten pound weights. It seemed that all the excitement of finally finding a solution, then the letdown, had begun to take their toll. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, which was repeated seconds later by an also tired Danyal. He stood from the bed while rubbing the crook of his back, then began his exit from the hideaway.
"Well, I'll see you in the morning, then we can-"
Thump, Thump, Thump, roared across the entire tavern. Both Danyal and Manie jumped from the suddenness. Manie looked around the walls and roof nervously. Her stomach tied in knots while nausea bubbled up her throat.
"Who could that be," she whispered.
Danyal peered over his shoulder at Manie, looking just as nervous as she was.
"It's one o'clock in the morning, your guess is as good as mine."
* * *
Fifteen Minutes later.
Manie pumped her legs as fast as she possibly could. Over her shoulder, the town of Ferengul was coming alive with activity. Dogs were barking, bells began to ring out, and the sound of doors being kicked in echoed throughout the night.
The Royal Army had caught up with her, and they were conducting a town-wide search of every house, barn, or hole she might be hiding in. Manie couldn't allow them to catch her, so she tried the only thing left she could think of.
Much like the civil-war of Light and Dark Magic that happened long ago, many people had heard stories about the secret doors that dot Talmoria's landscape. And much like the Crystals that opened them, very few were known to exist.
Outside of town, near the waterfall that flowed down from Mt.Ven, was a living specimen of one of these doors. It was first described by Mikhail in his journals, a door that could take you anywhere, or anytime, supposing you have the correct key. And Manie was counting on having the correct key. If she was right, Mikhail's Crystal would open the door despite being drained of energy. It was the only hope she had left.
Up the cobblestone path she ran, twisting back and forth towards the waterfall. Sweat streamed across her forehead and dripped from the tip of her pointed nose. With one hand she held the sharp blue hat that adorned her head, and with the other, secured the bottom of her black robe to avoid tripping.
Out of the concoction of sounds emanating from Ferengul came a very disturbing one. At the top of her lungs, a woman screamed, "There she is! Headed for that waterfall beneath Mt. Ven!"
Manie shot a quick look back to see that a group of six soldiers were now lumbering swords drawn up the cobblestone path. She pushed her feet against the ground, sprinting to the very edge of exhaustion. The guards, although weighed down by heavy, metal armor, were catching up rather quickly.
Manie emerged around the final grassy hill and the path broke off to the left. Abandoning the trail, she ran cross-country until arriving at the edge of a small river. Manie took no time to wait and gasped as she splashed waist deep into the freezing water. Her breath dropped away while she paddled to the opposite shore. Manie stepped up the bank and allowed her robe to drain the icy water. The door was just ahead.
The waterfall beside her covered any sounds Manie once could hear. She looked behind, but the soldiers pursuing her were nowhere in sight. She approached the stone archway nestled into the rock-wall at the base of the cliff. The door inside was covered by a sheen of mist that was blowing over from the waterfall. A shiny, brass ring served as its only handle. The rest of the door's surface was as smooth as paper.
"Please work: I know you can!"
Manie grabbed the Crystal dangling from her necklace and clicked it against the stone door. Right below the brass ring, a tiny pinhole began to open. It turned and twisted as if the material was made of clay, suddenly locking itself into a particular position and shape. She shoved her Crystal into the newly formed keyhole. It was deep and wide enough to fit her Crystal perfectly: chipped edges and all. Manie twisted left, then right, and the door began to moan.
Manie stepped away from the entrance and snatched Mikhail's Crystal from the lock. A deep rumble came from inside the mountain itself. It sounded like the ground was about to explode. The top half of the door leaned forwards like a loose piece of paper, then snapped back into its stone frame, causing a thick puff of mist to jump into the air.
"Stop right there," a guard ordered from behind.
Manie turned and saw a few guards wade into the river. Without time to decide, she grabbed the brass ring and pulled back with all her strength. The rocky door scraped against the ground as it wedged open a few inches, and air suddenly began rushing inside the opening. She pulled a little more, enough to fit inside, then released her grip and squeezed through the door.
On the other side was a small, stony cavern. Blue light was pouring through tiny holes from above. Manie turned and grabbed another brass handle, this one shaped like a ball and attached to a white wooden door. Although much smaller and seemingly thinner, the new door weighed just as much as its stone opposite. With the last of her adrenaline induced strength, Manie yanked the door shut, just as the guards reached the entrance. She barely escaped capture, again.
Manie backed away from the white door and let out a short relieved breath. She leaned against the wall, balancing atop shaky and tired legs. She pulled Mikhail's Crystal to her lips and kissed it.
"I knew you still worked," she beamed.
Manie felt herself shivering. Jets of air were whipping through the cave. The freezing water soaking her robe, paired with the icy breeze, caused Manie to lose all strength. Her legs let loose and she slid down the rough, rock wall, all the way to the floor. She huddled her arms together inside squishy wet sleeves.
The fear came pouring back as she sat there. Manie knew she was alone and on the run again. She could only wonder--at the horror of her own imagination--what might be happening to Danyal right now.
She looked down to her sleeves. Shiny red liquid had soaked deep into the black fabric of each arm. It was Danyal's blood, and not even the river could wash it away. A permanent reminder of her failure to save the people that she cared about most.
Tears welled in Manie's eyes like tiny rising lakes. Grief threatened to take what little confidence she still had. Manie wiped them dry as quickly as she could. There was no use dwelling on things here and now, she couldn't change what had happened. Besides, the situation was still too uncertain. She had no idea where this door had taken her, and more importantly, how she hoped to find her mother once she could return back to Talmoria.
Manie began to wonder if she even should return. Perhaps the Royal Army would be waiting for her, and the moment she stepped through the door, that's when they would spring their trap.
Manie shook away the paranoia and climbed to her feet. This was no time to panic. But just to be sure, she decided she would return only after a few days had passed. That would at least give her a chance to come up with a plan if she did have to go rescue Danyal.
Manie studied the circular chamber one last time. She pushed away from the wall, approaching the passage near the back of the cavern. Manie went through a hallway in the rock, and as she did, a small winding staircase carved straight from the stone drifted quickly into view; leading up, and hopefully, out. Manie approached the steps and began to climb.
The slender staircase spiraled four times until slowly leveling into a long hallway. At the end of said hallway, the path abruptly ended, leading straight towards a large stone wall. It was strange, though. It seemed like the wall had been placed there intentionally, rather than formed naturally.
During her time locked away in the tower, Manie had become fascinated by the ruler Mikhail and his famous journals. She had memorized nearly every detail of every page. And inside those pages, he made mention of such abnormal formations. Objects from nature that acted as barriers: seemingly designed to hide the doors from view of the world's inhabitants.
Manie approached the wall and started sliding her hands along the surface. She sent pulses of her Magic lightning into the wall every few seconds, just like Mikhail had described himself doing with his own special power.
As she was pressing her right hand around the middle of the rock wall, Manie suddenly slipped wrist-deep inside, like nothing was even there. She pulled her hand back, then slipped it through again, feeling a warming sensation run up her arm as she did. It was a Magic barrier, and she had just found the door. Manie put her hands through the wall, then leaned forward and slipped completely through the rock.
A warm, tingly wave passed over her body as she fell through. On the opposite side was a powder white forest: covered head to toe with snow. Manie came down and smacked arm first against what seemed like a fresh-fallen pile bunched together on the ground. Although it appeared fluffy and inviting during the fall, it ended up being nearer to the consistency of stiff gravel as Manie touched down. She scraped across the ice on her forearms, then immediately rolled to her back as she screamed. She pushed up the cloth of each sleeve to get a better look at the damage. The bottoms of her arms were already turning purple, while bloodied scraps of skin fluttered around like flags in the wind.
As soon as she saw her wounds the pain became apparent. Her arms began to sting and throb with every new heartbeat. Manie tried to ignore the pain, but it was no use. The burning sensation was worsening by the second.
Above where she lay, pine trees creaked and bent as wind blew their snowy branches around, sometimes causing them to snap off from the added weight. Manie tried to focus on the sound. The symphony of the forest was beautiful to her long sheltered ears, and the cold air helped slightly ease the pain. She then noticed the moon hanging just above the treeline. It was much smaller than the one she had grown used to back home. The aura put off a comforting yellow glow.
Manie turned to her hands again. Choking on sobs, she pressed herself to standing position. As she bent back up, Manie heard a crackling and high-pitched whining sound that brought a great seriousness to her situation. As she contorted her body upwards, the fabric of her robe crunched and cracked like a barely frozen lake. The soggy garment had already begun to ice over, and Manie was now feeling the full intensity of this world's winter. She looked down at her chest, and as her eyes came back to focus, cold winds blew across her clothes, forming a thin veil of frost right before her eyes. It smoothed over like a ghostly, white blanket.
Manie wiped away the layer of ice, then shuffled forward, sending tingles tearing through her toes. She winced once she realized they were beginning to numb. Manie tried her best to keep standing, so she huddled herself close to the cliff wall for wind protection, as well as a steady shoulder to lean on. With the rocks at her right, she began walking aimlessly through the trees--into the dead of night.
* * *
Chapter 1 continued below.
"The Crystal Keepers CH.1 PART 2"