No Distance Greater than the Stars – Chapter 40

Chapter Forty – A Feather of Light to Shed the Darkness

Citlally waited until the room was completely silent before she so much as stirred. She had thought for certain that she would be found just by how loudly he heart had been beating. Mannarius had been just on the other side of the closet from her, after all. It seemed like far too much luck that those robed figures should miss her; she’d pulled the coats that hung in the closet close around herself, of course, but she remembered being found like that in games of hide-and-seek as a young child. She had hardly expected it to work this time.

Jalingan had called them the Dark Apostates. They had not denied it, but were they actually real? And of top of that, were they really so lacking in their observational skills? Still, the one who’d grabbed Mannarius had had his back to her. She knew there was more than one of them, but how many exactly, she couldn’t say. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough man power to search for her…

With a sigh, she peered out between the coats. The closet door had been left open, and Citlally could see much of the room. She wanted to wait for her heart to calm down before she moved any further, to prepare herself in case anyone was waiting out of sight, but she also knew that letting Endan and the others be taken too far ahead would only endanger them further. She slid out from under the coats and out of the closet, staying low the entire time.

Everyone else in the room was dead. The guards, Prime Lord Izan, S’sezelle… and beyond them, in the kitchen, Izan’s mate. Citlally looked them over, reminding herself that the Aztecs had no fear of death, and that all of them had wanted her dead. She picked up her spear, as well as Endan’s sword, then checked the bodies for other weapons that might be useful. She strapped on the ones that she could, moving slowly, keeping aware of her surroundings.

Citlally knew that her friends were being taken to some sort of jail. Normally, she would have despaired as to which jail it was, and would have followed their captors more closely. Somehow, though, she felt that she knew where the jail was: in the basement of the building, deep within the foundation, where it was dark and cold and shrouding. Where that feeling came from, she could not have explained.

“Time to get downstairs,” she whispered to herself.

She glanced in the kitchen, curious as to how the Dark Apostates killed. The prime lord’s mate laid on the floor as though she were merely sleeping. Her body was completely motionless, but there were no evident wounds on her. What the Apostates had done to her was a complete mystery. Citlally smirked and turned back around.

“I’ll just have to be that more careful,” she grumbled to herself.

At the main doors to Izan’s home, Citlally pressed her back to the wall and pressed the button to open the doors. She was surprised to not have any guards turn around when she peeked around the door frame.

“They killed every single one of them…” she breathed. It was starting to seem strange to her that Jalingan and the others had not been outright killed, but she was no less relived. “What kind of questioning do they want us for?”

Citlally hurried down the hall to the lift. It took a few moments for it to come back up to her, and once the doors opened, she hopped inside. There were several underground levels on the button menu, and she selected the deepest one. A touch-screen lit up requesting an access pass-code, and she stared at it for a long moment.

“Of course they have security on the jail…” she grumbled.

Eventually she let her finger float up to the screen, touching various characters, She had no idea what any of them meant, but she felt as though she was doing something right. It was the strangest feeling, being able to punch in the characters just so. Even stranger was that the screen beeped and faded away, then then the lift began to descend.

“How did I…” she asked herself. “That’s the strangest thing.”

Citlally stood still as the lift carried her lower and lower through the building. She would would have to figure out how she’d managed to guess the code so easily later; right now, she needed to focus on not getting caught while trying to help her friends.

When the lift finally stopped, Citlally once again hid beside the door frame in order to stay out of sight while she peeked around the edge and found a long, empty hallway. As she stepped out, she could see that it was an older construction, the gray stone cut ages and ages ago. It was worn down, stained in some places by calcium deposits from some age-old leak. It was also cold to the touch.

Citlally crept slowly along the hall, keeping to the shadows, thankful that there were plenty of them. A strange scent filled her nostrils. It was somewhere between the earthy aroma of the caves back on earth and the ozone astringency of a high-tech laboratory. There were echoes coming from beyond several corners; voices, footsteps, the sound of metal on stone. Some of the voices were deep and stoic, filled with foreboding tones of doom. She assumed that those where the Dark Apostates, and dared not approach them.

After a moment of kneeling there, wondering what she ought to do, how to avoid being caught if the figures came back her way, Citlally felt a pull. It was a deep-seated sense that she needed to go down a particular hallway, one cloaked in many more shadows than the one from which the voices came. She supposed that she might as well; staying near the lift would only cause trouble if the Apostates came back in order to head upstairs.

With careful footsteps, Citlally made a right going around the corner, then crept onward down the hall. The quiet that wrapped around her the further she went was unsettling. Even the echoes coming from the other hall had faded away, leaving behind an eerie quiet that felt like the depths of solitude. A metallic scent joined the earth and ozone that she’d smelled earlier.

“What is down here?” Citlally asked herself as she turned left to walk down the last row of jail cells. She had to whisper, unable to tolerate the silence any longer.

She could hardly see as she got to the end of the row. The darkness bothered her far less than her inability to explain why she’d come this way. Before she could ponder it out loud, she felt something under her foot, and stopped to kneel down and look at it. She picked it up, looking it over curiously.

“A feather…” she whispered. The hall seemed to grow colder, though she supposed that that it could have been because the coincidence was far too eerie.

Citlally pulled a small battery-powered light from one of her pouches and switched it on, keeping the level low. She inspected the feather, noting that it was entirely black, except –

“Blood.” She looked down and realized that there were several other feather on the ground, some of them different sizes. “They’re all spattered with blood.”

There was a groan then. It was faint, but she could not deny it. Citlally held back a gasp and reached out her light. She held it as close to the bars of the cell beside her as she dared, but all she saw was more feathers – and a lot more blood. She shook her head, trembling at how similar the scene was to her dream.

Citlally realized that her breathing has quickened, and she reminded herself not to let it get too loud. She glanced down at her abdomen, and breathed a sigh of relief. This was too much like her dream, and that had been too strange, too telling for her comfort. She looked back into the cell and held the light closer to the bars.

There was another groan, louder and longer this time. Still, the light only revealed more feathers and blood, just like in her dream.

“Hello…?” Citlally whispered, not knowing what else to say and not wanting to use the same words that she had in her dream.

“Ooohhhnn,” the voice groaned out, as through trying to say actual words this time. A chain rattled somewhere in the shadows.

“Can you talk to me?” Citlally asked.

She reached the light into the bars until it lit up a dark heap that laid against the farthest corner. It was a mess of black cloth, pale skin, and dried blood. The heap moved, chains rattling again, and Citlally could make out a face lifting up from behind an arm. The face was framed with straight black hair, filthy though it had become. The body trembled as the eyes looked towards the light.

“You’re… you’re not one of them,” the figure’s voice croaked out, the words emerging slowly and only with great effort.

Citlally shook her head. She wasn’t certain whom the figure was talking about, but she still had a sense that she wasn’t the same as them.

“Where is all this blood from?’

The figure sat up slowly, struggling just to not fall down again. As Citlally awaited her answer, she began to think that maybe her question had been a foolish one.

“They… they wounded me,” the figure told her. As it sat up even more, Citlally realized that it was a female. Her body was very humanoid, perhaps even elf-like. She could have so easily been mistaken for human, albeit a horribly bruised one. “They tore my wings… they cut my skin.. but they kept me alive.”

Citlally wanted to cry when she realized how badly this woman had been abused. “Why?” she begged, trying not to get too loud. “Why would they do this to you?”

The woman stared at her so long that Citlally wondered if she could see into her soul. She looked ready to cry as well, although she could not have possibly had any tears left to shed.

“They tried so hard…” she began, her voice trembling. “They have tried everything they could, for so long, but nothing that they did worked. They commanded me, but I could grant their dark hearts nothing. They beat me, they took from me using their needles, yet their minds still could not attain what they wanted. Eventually… they were so sure that if they could impregnate me, if they could fuse their DNA with mine, that they would bring a great new power to their race.”

“They –” Citlally gulped, realizing what had been done to her. “They’ve done that to you… for years? How have you been able to survive?”

“They won’t let me die,” the woman told her. “They take me to the brink only to bring me back for another chance to try again. They do not give up, those reptiles.”

“Was it the robed ones?” Citlally asked her. “The really big ones?”

The woman nodded. “They are horrible under those robes. They are mean and forceful, and everything that they do hurts. If only they would keep their robes on…”

Citlally shook her head, trying to steady her trembling body. She felt horrible for this captured woman, and was starting to realize that she had better not get captured, either.

“Did they call themselves the Dark Apostates?” she asked the prisoner.

The woman groaned and changed position so that she could move closer to the bars. “Foul beings do not always name themselves, precious visitor.” She began a slow crawl towards Citlally, who could now see the outline of what remained of her wings. “But they are incredibly dark, and they have forsaken all the rest of their race in pursuit of –”

She stopped suddenly. There was a loud clamor from another hallway, which made her retreat back into her corner, scrambling to pull her scraps of cloth close around her and keep her chains as quiet as possible. She seemed to want to disappear into the shadows, but could not. Citlally ducked down, too, shutting off her light until things quieted down again.

“Oh stars,” the prisoner said, the words hardly intelligible with the way her voice shook. “They are down here…”

“Not for you,” Citlally assured her. “They brought my friends and my husband down here.”

“Friends…” she whispered back. “Friends are allies to the merciful queen.”

Citlally swallowed hard when she heard the word ‘queen.’ This woman was speaking as though she recited some sort of prophecy, and Citlally was not so sure that she wanted to be part of it. Then again, perhaps it was too late for such wishful thinking.

“Listen,” Citlally began, hoping that she wasn’t making a terrible mistake. “This is so strange for me… I had a dream about you. Some of the things were different, but it was you… the blood, the feathers, the cell.”

“I am so glad that you heard my call,” the woman replied, slowly uncurling from the corner.

“So that was your way is calling me here?” Citlally asked. “To set you free?”

The woman whimpered and moved slightly closer to Citlally. “In a way, yes. But also your friends. One of them is going to bring an end to all of our suffering.”

Citlally blinked, not having expected to have so much information revealed to her so quickly. She thought a moment, then said, “They’re probably all locked up by now. It might have to be me getting you out of here.”

The woman shook her head. “Only the prince is the key.”

Sighing, Citlally asked her, “But which one is the prince?”

“I do not know the name by which you call him. He is noble and dutiful,” the prisoner said. “He is the defender of us all, even with all the risks he has taken.”

Citlally’s mouth scrunched up as she thought over the woman’s words. She thought back to the conversation she’d had with Allanah, and decided that there was only one man who could be this prince that she so longed for.

“How am I supposed to get them free, though?” she asked.

The woman thought for a moment. “The cloaked ones will leave soon. Your friends’ cells are not well protected.” She paused and moaned, as though a pain ran through her body. “When they are free, come back to me.”

“Okay,” Citlally said. She didn’t move, though. She supposed that she may as well stay where she was until the Dark Apostates went back to the lift. She sat quietly for a while, until she worked up the courage to ask her a question. “So… you sent me that dream?”

“I would not have intruded into your sleep had things not been so dire,” the woman replied.

“It’s okay,” Citlally assured her. “I’m not mad. I have to ask, though… why was I pregnant in the dream?”

The woman sat close enough to the bars that Citlally could see her eyes. They were dark, tinged with red, though she had been through so much trauma that Citlally supposed that she was not seeing her true eye color. “Dreams have a strange way of being interpreted by minds. I needed the prince to be delivered to me, but the dream hinted at a different type of delivery.”

“Maybe it means something more?” Citlally suggested, her mind racing as it tried to understand. “Perhaps through all of his trials, he will be reborn. He might be delivered from all of his past sins…”

Those dark red eyes watched Citlally for a long moment before she spoke again. “You are incredibly wise,” she said. “Perhaps that is so. I cannot see beyond my release from this place, though. I can cry for help, but I cannot see into the future.”

“Don’t worry. He’ll help you. All of us will. We came here to put a stop to the K’zzyrch’s renegade antics once and for all.” Citlally paused before adding, “And then you can tell us all about who you are.”

“I’d like that,” the woman replied.

She reached a hand through the bars to hold onto Citlally’s. They sat together like that for several minutes, quieting down while they waited for the Dark Apostates to leave. Citlally glanced at her now and then, wanting to cry for all of her wounds, all of her suffering. It was as though she could feel – however faintly – all of the terror that she’d been subjected to. She supposed that her heartache was endless, that she would never truly be able to comprehend just how badly this woman had been hurt.

Then she wondered what was going on above ground. How was the resistance faring? Had another wave of fighters come in? How many bodies littered the streets outside? Perhaps The Lionstar had been attacked and damaged. Then again, perhaps things were going well for the resistance, and the K’zzyrch were finding themselves terribly subdued. Citlally eventually decided that she shouldn’t think about it for too long.

As she shifted her mind to other thoughts, Citlally found that there were moments of awkward quiet in between times when she was able to whisper with the imprisoned woman. It took a long time for the robed figures to finally leave. They had spent some time shouting at the prisoners in the other hallway, some of whom lacked the good sense to keep quiet. Citlally shook her head and hoped that he wasn’t being too badly hurt. Finally, the Apostates talked about leaving and coming back later to question them. The Dark Apostate said that they hoped that the prisoners would be more cooperative when they returned.

Citlally crawled to the end of the hallway, crouching low at the corner, down in the shadows. She watched in silence, practically holding her breath, as each of the six robed figures headed down the main hallway to the lift. They all got inside, and the door closed after them. She scurried back to the cell with the single female prisoner, and whispered to her.

“They have gone,” she told her. “What should I do now?”

“Go to the men,” she told Citlally.

“But then what am I going to do?” Citlally asked her. “They’re locked up!”

The woman shook her head. “Don’t worry about that. Just go to them.”

Citlally gave her a curious look, but didn’t argue with her. She remembered the dream, the way she had been able to enter the code that allowed the lift to take her all the way down, and how she had found her in that particular dark hallway. She didn’t see the point in arguing with this woman now.

Citlally sighed, gave her a soulful look, and then nodded. She squeezed her hand reassuringly, feeling how cold and clammy her skin was, and headed back towards the main hall. Then she took the opposite direction that she had before, and headed down to the last hall, where she knew that her friends were.

The dark apostates had left it in complete darkness, making her glad that she had her small light with her. Citlally could hear them talking, Dhruv grumbling, Endan hoping that she was safe. Then she heard a moaning voice. Citlally kept the light dim as she headed down the hall. She stopped at the fourth cell, seeing that Endan was in it alone.

“Endan,” she whispered to her husband. “Are you okay?”

He looked up from where he was crouching, nearly gasping when he saw her. “You…” he began. He seemed almost afraid to talk. “But how…”

“Don’t worry about that now,” Citlally told him. “Just be glad that it happened this way. Are you hurt?”

“No,” Endan told her. “It was Mannarius who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and took a beating.”

“I see,” Citlally replied. She didn’t say anything, but she’d figured that it was Mannarius. Jalingan would know better, having been on the planet long enough to know when to shut up. Dhruv was too mild-mannered to talk back.

“Did they ask you any questions?” Citlally asked him.

“They didn’t really get to me,” Endan admitted. “They started with Mannarius, and he wouldn’t say anything, so they left. I think they have a lot in store for Jalingan though, because they put him in his cell and didn’t say a word to him. They just said that they would deal with him later.”

“Okay,” Citlally replied. “Let me go talk to the others. I’m going to figure out how to get all of you out, and what we should do from there.”

She leaned against the bars and held a hand out for him. He approached her, taking her hand. “I’m glad you’re safe,” he told her.

“I’m glad that none of you mentioned my name when you noticed that the Apostates hadn’t found me.”

Endan winked at her. “I think all of us are too smart to do something like that,” he said.

Citlally smiled and leaned in to kiss him, then moved over to the next cell. Dhruv was in that that one, and he was just as glad to see her. Next to him was Mannarius, lying on the floor, looking rather bruised. He groaned when Citlally shone the light into his cell.

“What are you doing down here?” he asked her. “You need to get out of the building before they find you.”

“I can’t leave you behind,” Citlally told him. “As much as you expect me to leave and come back with help, that’s not going to happen. There’s no way I’m going to get out of the building on my own, much less be able to come back for all of you. Besides, there’s something else going on that I have to tell you about.”

Mannarius groaned again. He did not seem impressed.

“What did you say to them that made them hit you like that?”

“Oh, nothing that your ears should hear.”

Citlally smirked and looked over at the next cell. Jalingan was sitting in it, looking rather unimpressed with everything. “I take it you didn’t know that the Dark Apostates would be showing up,” she said.

“Of course not,” he replied. “I never expected them to deal with minor issues. I thought they were going to be completely disinterested in us. At least they were glad to see Prime Lord Izan dead. I can’t imagine what they would’ve done to us if they had wanted him alive.”

“But they wanted you alive,” Citlally pointed out. “That can’t be a very good thing.”

“No,” Jilingan get admitted nonchalantly. “Not at all. So… you were lucky enough not to be found, but you came all the way down here anyway?”

“Yeah,” Citlally admitted. “Listen, you guys aren’t the only ones down here. There’s someone else in this jail. She’s all the way over on the other side, alone. I think she’s been there for years.”

Jalingan sat up straighter and gave Citlally a confused look. “Are you sure?” he asked her. “This level has been unused for a long time. There’s a level above us that’s used as a temporary holding area, but everyone gets transferred to a separate facility pretty quickly. Down here… this place isn’t even that secure.”

“That’s what she told me,” Citlally replied.

Jalingan’s head fell. He sighed and shook his head the way she had seen people do when they could not believe what they’d just heard. He looked incredibly disappointed, as though he hadnt expected her to be so gullible.

“Listen,” she told him, “I know it sounds naive, but I believe her. You should see her cell, Jalingan. It’s horrible; she’s been through hell.”

Jalingan scoffed. “So have you. So have all of us. Besides, she couldn’t have been down here all this time. She must be confused; maybe she doesn’t remember being moved.”

“Why argue the point?” Citlally sighed. “She’s been through years of abuse, Jalingan, and it shows. We need to get her out of here with us.”

Jalingan shrugged and thought for a while. “Is this prisoner K’zzyrch?”

“Not at all,” she answered. “She’s… She looks human or elvan, except that she has wings. Well… she did before the Dark Apostates destroyed them.”

Jalingan’s eyes widened and he shot her a surprised look. “She’s here under command of the Dark Apostates?”

Citlally nodded.

“This is bad…” he said, almost to himself, as if his mind were suddenly awash with thoughts and recalculations. “The Apostates kill indiscriminately. Sometimes the lower ranks keep someone to torture for information, but this is the only time I’ve ever heard of the Apostates keeping a prisoner.”

“She’s just on the other side…” Citlally said, wondering what he was getting at.

“That’s really bad, Citlally. The Apostates are the meanest K’zzyrch of them all. If those vile creatures are keeping her around, it has to be because they want something from her, and they plan to torture her until they get it.”

“Yeah,” Citlally whispered, her throat breaking on the word. She couldn’t bring herself to repeat what the woman had told her, what had been done to her for all those years. She just stood by the bars for a few minutes, her expression sullen, her mind trying not to give in to the depths of pain that she imagined had been caused by the Apostates.

“So, umm…”

“What?” Jalingan asked when her words faltered.

“How do I get you out of here?” she finally asked him.

“Heh,” he chuckled. “Like I told you, this jail isn’t all the secure, especially for someone as resourceful as myself.”

Jalingan began searching his pockets. He patted his chest, then opened up his jacket to reach into his inner vest.

“What do you have?” Citlally asked him, giving him a curious look.

With a smirk on his face, he passed his hand through the bars and pressed a small piece if metal into the palm of her hand. He grinned at her, looking very satisfied with himself.

Citlally looked down and her hand and raised on eyebrow. What he’d given her would have been a flat piece of metal, had it not been for the grooves across one side of it, and the jagged ridges along one edge. It was a little bit smaller than the payment cards that she had used back home, but bigger than what it seemed to look like to her.

“Jalingan,” she asked, almost in disbelief, “is this a…”

“A key,” her told her, his voice full of confidence.

“To what, though?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “To a lot of things in Sytherrinz, actually. It’s pretty much a skeleton key, if you find yourself at a door that uses these old-style locks. You’ve probably noticed that a lot of their doors use more modern electronic locks, so that thing wouldn’t do you any good. This old jail, though…”

“So that’s why you said it’s not secure.” Citlally smiled down at the key, then back at Jalingan. They could hear Mannarius moaning from the next cell. “He seems upset.”

“Yeah, but how was I going to tell him any earlier that I had it? I told him to shut up, but he doesn’t listen to me.”

“So you…”

He smirked. “I didn’t bother fighting the Apostates because it’s just plain dumb… it’s pointless, because you can’t win over all six of them at once. It’s better to sit here and wait for them to leave instead of taking the risk of pissing them off.”

Mannarius groaned again.

Jalingan gave an exasperated sigh. “And now we have to drag him out wounded.”

“He’s not all that bad,” she told him. “I’ll bet he can walk.”

“Sure,” Jalingan replied with a shrug. “Can you let me out of here now? We don’t know when the Dark Apostates are coming back.”

Citlally nodded, then carefully slid the key into the locking mechanism. It clicked, turning slowly until the latch was released. Jalingan wasted no time in stepping out of the cell and hurried closer to the other end of the hall.

“Can you let Dhruv out first? He needs to keep Mannarius away from me.”

Citlally gave him a baffled look, wondering what else she’d missed while they were separated, but obliged him all the same. It took both Dhruv and Endan to hold Mannarius back from rushing at his cousin. While they struggled to defuse the situation, she slid the key into her own pocket.

“I should’ve known you’ve been here before!” Mannarius was yelling. “What was the point in hiding that fact? You knew everything, and still you didn’t step in to –”

“Ye need to quit yellin’, lad” Endan told him. “We don’ know how much they can hear us upstairs.”

“You’re wrong any way you look at it,” Jalingan told his cousin. “There was nothing that I could have done but bring back information. You might as well be mad at Rapheus for not doing anything.”

“Who the –”

“Besides,” Jalingan went on, interrupting his cousin, “I didn’t know that anyone was being kept all the way down here.”

“That’s not the point!” Mannarius growled.

The others didn’t seem to be listening; neither did they feel his same anger.

“We should go back to her,” Citlally said. Then to Endan, “It’s important.”

“Of course, dear lass,” he replied.

Once they were certain that Mannarius wouldn’t charge as the half-lion, they followed Citlally to the hallway at the other end of the jail, all the way to its pitch-black end.

“By all the stars…” Jalingan breathed when they shed he light onto the woman inside the last cell.

“What’s happened tae her?” Endan asked. “This place is covered in more blood than an E.R. after a disaster.”

“Some of the worst things imaginable,” Citlally told him. “But Endan…”

“What is it, my Aztec princess?”

“Do you remember when I had that dream? The one that had me worried that I was…”

Endan nodded. “I’ll nae forget anything that spooks you that much, love. What about it?”

“The woman in the cell…” Citlally began, hardly believing that she was saying anything so strange. “It’s her.”

Endan blinked and took his wife’s hand. “Are ye sure?”

“As sure as anything,” she confirmed with a nod. “It’s as though that dream was somehow sent to me by her…”

Endan gazed into the cell as Citlally held the light aloft; it was hard to look at, but he dared not turn away. The woman, who had laid down on the floor when Citlally left, lifted her head and moaned.

“I’m back,” Citlally told her.

The prisoner sat up slowly, her chains scraping on the floor, and gazed up at them as though through a thick mist. She squinted as she looked up at Endan.

“He is your king,” the prisoner told Citlally, “and you shall be his queen forever and always, just as he has loved you for all ages past.”

“He’s my husband,” Citlally told her.

“Oh, indeed,” the woman replied, trying to sit up and finding that she could only move very slowly. “You share a love that is very deep and very grand.”

“Who are you, though?” Mannarius asked, even though his jaw hurt terribly. “Why do those scaly cretins have you locked up in here?”

The prisoner stared at him for a long time before answering. “They want something that I have, but that is impossible for me to give.”

Mannarius sighed. “And so you talk in riddles?”

“Oh, be nice, Mannarius,” Citlally told him. “Can’t you see that she’s been hurt enough?”

“This is impossible…” Jalingan whispered. He’d been staring into the cell for a long time, taking in the sight of the prisoner. He’d even picked up one of her bloodied feathers, turning it over and over in his hands as he examined it.

“What now?” Mannarius grumbled.

“She…” Jalingan started to speak, but faltered, shaking his head. “This is very bad.”

“Why?” Citlally asked. She moved closer to Jalingan to ask, “Could she possibly mean us harm?”

He shook his head again. “Us? Not at all… But the people who did this to her…”

“The Dark Apostates,” Citlally reminded him.

“They’re even more vile than I’d thought before.”

“What do you mean?” Mannarius demanded of his cousin.

Jalingan let out a heavy sigh and turned to the prisoner. “Were your wings always black?”

She looked up at him as shook her head weakly. “There was a time when they were like the freshly-fallen snow of a distant mountain top.” Her voice was weak, hoarse, and burdened by the terrible sadness of her memories.

Jalingan shot Citlally a serious look. “I can’t imagine the kind of abuse she had to go through in order for this to happen.”

“Of course you could,” Mannarius scoffed.

His cousin glared at him. “Well, perhaps I don’t want to go down a road so dark.” Then he turned to Citlally. “We have to get her out of here. Where did you put the key?”

She reached into her pocket and placed the key back into Jalingan’s hand. He wasted not a moment in opening her cell and rushing in to kneel at her side. He pulled her close to him, staring down at her.

“So you finally came…” she croaked, reaching a hand up to touch his cheek. “My prince.”

Jalingan raised a brow. “I’m no prince,” he told her.

“Not a noble bone in his body,” Mannarius scoffed.

“You can call me Jalingan,” he went on, ignoring his cousin.

“You are a prince all the same,” she insisted. “I’ve been waiting a long time for your dreams to bring you to me.”

He looked up at Citlally, then back down at the prisoner. “I haven’t had a proper dream in years.” He pointed to his head and added, “It’s all nightmares in here.”

“I know all about them, good prince,” she said. “You never understood them, but you needed them all the same, so that you could find me.”

“I’d say it was Citlally who found you,” he told her.

The woman looked up at Citlally. “And she brought you to me. What else is a queen to deliver but a prince?”

Jalingan gave Citlally a puzzled look, and she only shrugged. “If we can help her, what does it matter what she calls us?”

“But how do you know about the nightmares?” he asked, looking back down at her.

“I know the poison,” she nearly whispered, her voice weak, “and I know the beast. You know the poison as well… So you… you can hear my pain and…” Her words faltered, lost to heavy breathing.

Jalingan let her rest a moment, draped across his lap. He watched her, his eyes glistening even in the dim light that Citlally held.

“The poison she’s talkin’ about,” Endan said. “That’s the k’zshyrk venom, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” Jalingan replied, speaking slowly to keep his voice from shaking. “I just can’t understand why the K’zzyrch would do this to one of her kind… What did they expect to get from her?”

Citlally looked to Endan, her expression filled with sadness. He squeezed her shoulders, then she moved to kneel down beside Jalingan. She leaned in close and whispered into his ear.

Jalingan’s eyes went wide when he heard her words. He looked between her and the prisoner, needing several moments to regain his words. “How could they actually think that such a thing was even possible?” He shook his head, holding her closer. “The foul reptiles… they’re sick!”

“What was it?” Mannarius asked, obviously confused by his cousin’s reaction.

Citlally only shook her head. “I can’t say it again.”

“It’s all right, love,” Endan assured her, pulling her into his arms.

“Tell me,” the woman said once she could speak again, “is the moon shining tonight?”

Jalingan took a moment to answer, startled by the question. “Of course it is,” he said with a nod.

“And the stars?” she asked. “Are they sparkling?”

“Quite a lot of them,” Citlally told her. “The city is barely recovering from a blackout.”

“Good,” the prisoner said. “Take me outside… take me into the moonlight. Let the starlight shine down on me. …Please.”

“Of course,” Jalingan agreed, shifting his legs so that he could kneel beside her and unlock her chains. Then he looked to his friends. “It’s time to go. If the K’zzyrch find us, cover me. They’re not getting her back.”

Citlally nodded. Jalingan lifted the woman into his arms and stood up. She felt as light as one of her feathers, and she held onto his neck as though her life depended entirely upon him.

“Let’s get out of here while we still can,” Mannarius said. He looked down at his belt and scowled. “Those damned Apostates took my weapon.”

“Mine, too,” Dhruv added.

“I have us covered,” Citlally told them. She handed each man a couple of the weapons that she’d taken from the fallen K’zzyrch in Izan’s home.

“Good thinking,” Jalingan told her, giving her a grin.

She nodded to them, and shortly thereafter the group was heading towards the lift. The ride up to the main floor was incredibly nerve-wracking; they had no idea what they would encounter when they got up there. As the lift came to a stop, they had their weapons ready.

About Legends of Lorata

Eleanor Willow is the author of the high fantasy series Legends of Lorata, which takes place on a medieval-style world filled with elves, dragons, and faeries. There is also a fourth race, one that is rare and magical: the angelic Starr. Lorata is a distant planet watched over by four deities: good, evil, elemental, and celestial-- and there are plenty of legends about them all! One of the most important ones is the prophecy of Jenh's champion, Loracaz, who is promised to return to the realm whenever evil threatens to take hold. There are currently three books completed, and the first one can be read online. Book four is currently being written, and a fifth will most likely be in the future.
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