The thunder crashed, and as lighting danced across the sky, a light rain began to fall. The only light was the brilliant, fierce strikes that lit up every shadow from the highest window, all the way down to the courtyard paths below. The moon, it seemed, was in hiding. But hiding from what? She shuddered under the sheer drapery that clouded her queen’s bedchamber.
“Layla, sweet child, what are staring so intently at?” asked Nora from her over stuffed chaise lounge.
“It’s dark outside, Fairy Queen.” Layla breathed.
“It is night, child,” Nora replied simply, with a slight smile from her rose colored lips. “And as with all nights, darkness seems to come hand in hand.”
“I know, but something isn’t right. I can feel it.,” Layla replied, slowly approaching her queen and kneeling down on the stone floor beside her. The stone was cold and unforgiving, but here beside her queen, she had no reason to complain about insignificant things. She placed her head on Nora’s lap and looked up with intensely amethyst eyes.
“Sweet Layla, it is time for you to retire, no? Will you please find Zane and send him to me before returning to your bedchamber?” She patted the young girl’s head and continued to read the parchment she had perched in her lap.
Wishing she could stay, Layla closed her eyes for the briefest of moments before giving into to her queen’s request. She loved her queen, as she had all fourteen years of her life. Nora was beautiful in a way no other before has been. Her skin was cream, her hair was blessed by the golden sun and as soft as silk. Her kind and compassionate eyes were of diamonds. In fairy form, her wings shimmered with the purest white and lined in the richest gold. Her smile could heal the sick and her sincere words and soft whispers brought peace. Never knowing her mother, Layla sometimes felt as if the queen whole-heartedly took on the role, whether with her knowledge or not.
Nora’s hands felt like a mother’s hands might, and there was never any question that she cared for her. Layla would fulfill her destiny, not for herself or any other, but for Nora. She owed her so much.
After leaving the fairy queen’s bedchamber, and tightly securing the door, she ran down the corridor without so much as making a sound. A soft torch light as her guide, she slowed her pace. Finally reaching a section where six tunnels connected, she took the fourth one on her right and continued piercing the dark with the flickering light she carried. Hesitantly she reached the last door.
Zane’s room, the guardian’s second in command and the man who oversaw her development and training. A soft rap against the door caused it to slowly creak inward. It’s not even shut all the way, she thought.
“Commander Zane?” No answer came from within. Layla knew she had no right to enter her teacher’s bedchamber without his permission, never the less, she felt drawn to it. Like a moth to a flame. In the back of her mind a voice whispered, a moth always gets burned by the light. With careful eyes, she nudged the door open the remainder of the way with her small palm. Nothing seemed out the ordinary, but she couldn't know that for sure as she had never been in here. She didn’t stop to notice how the room was arranged or what interesting possessions Zane might have. A sudden thought entered her mind. With relief, she scolded herself for slightly panicking. He’s in the guards’ hall, she concluded. Her small head nodding with realization. Where else would he be at this hour?
All morning Zane had felt odd, apprehensive and paranoid. He did not like it one bit. He was so edgy that the other guards were starting to notice. He had nearly bit Maggie’s head off over lunch, for Heaven’s sake! Things hadn’t got much better as night had begun to fall.
Zane’s palms began to sweat and it frustrated him. He flung his strong legs over the side of his bed and slipped on his knee high soft leather boots. His golden eyes followed the path of rugs, strewn across his chamber, to his door. Did he just hear whispering?
His short, saggy hair flew every direction in a brilliant golden spray as he marched towards to old oak door. He threw it open, expecting to see some of the young boys from the corridor above. Instead, he saw nothing but the glowing torches on the opposite stone wall.
As the second in command of the Jewel Guardians, Zane was an intelligent fairy of twenty-three. Quite young for a leader, yet highly qualified for the position. His enchanting eyes never failed to seek the truth. He was slim and quick, built for stealth and flight. His tough wings were the color of the burning embers in the fireplace by his bed.
“What is going on?” he growled to the empty tunnel. He returned to his room to don his jewel-encrusted sword, discreetly hidden in his tan overcoat. Closing the heavy oak door behind him, he swaggered down the hall with deadly intentions.
“Something’s not right.” he mumbled under his breath.
Ras entered the extensive labyrinth beneath the castle with his head held high. He had been planning this moment for a long time now, and it had finally come. The night was here and his hands trembled with anticipation.
The maze of tunnels hidden beneath the castle were scarcely used. Only fairies that were brave enough or remarkably dense traveled through the darkness of the labyrinth. Centuries ago, it was commonly used as short cuts to different sections of the castle. Then the last Great War happened between the fairies and nymphs.
Thousands were trapped and forever lost in these catacombs. All entrances were ordered to be sealed. Knowledge of this place was forbidden to be passed down from generation to generation.
As the younger brother of the queen, he was expected to portray himself in a certain manner. Nora favored him above all others, and Ras knew some resented it. Those were the smart ones. The ones he might even consider not killing tonight.
Ras was expected to behave just like his sister, the queen. Polite and compassionate, listening and caring of the common problems. No more, he declared to the iron door that stood before him. The door held no key hole, but was fortified nonetheless. Only a privileged few knew the way to gain access to the reformatory. A whisper of a chant brought the rusted door ajar, and slammed shut as he silently shifted inside. Once he’d entered, Ras first felt the unnatural chill of the caverns beyond.
His ebony hair, secured tightly by a thin cloth at the nape of his neck began to shift with the breeze. A breeze that came from deeper in the labyrinth than anyone had ever been, anyone but him.
As a boy, he’d spent hours roaming the caverns and mazes until he alone knew every crevice and niche in the stones. Ras’s almond skin shivered in excitement, because he knew it all began here. A single torch was placed at the reformatory’s end, surrounded by those who he didn’t necessarily trust, but had complete control over.
Quickly, he changed into fairy form, keeping the height of a human. His wings swung out in a fury, blacker than the night’s abyss itself. Because his world was a secret to the humans and other races, the abilities to hold fairy form became less and less natural. It took great strength and concentration to even produce one’s wings. The human form had been survival for them. Ras would change that.
How dare they hide their true selves in fear? A new reign was forming. No more would we be inferior, and no more would we remain in secret.
A single ivory colored elf stepped forward and dipped low to the rancid stone and straw ground. The elfin breed was forbidden to cross into the land, they were conniving hunters and thought of no one but themselves. However, with the promise of great power, their leader quickly submitted to Ras. He gave his legions in service to him.
The ivory elf bowed his head down to avoid eye contact with the fairy prince, and lifted a quivering thin hand up to Ras with a large elegant diamond in his palm. Ras’s obsidian eyes light up with praise and a thin smile formed on his crooked lips.
Nora’s eyes fluttered open, but not everything she saw was familiar to her. A fog clouded her mind and twisted her sight. The soft amber light hurt her eyes so she squeezed them shut against it. I am still dreaming, she thought. Then the bitter coldness shocked her senses and scattered the fog in her mind. She instantly tried to sit up, but found she could not.
The cold was a slab of polished stone that she laid tethered to. Distant, hushed voices were all around her, as she fought to break her bonds. The clasps were iron clad and unbreakable. She knew she could shift to fairy form, but paused before trying. She felt the slick bonding oil that covered the stones that she lay on. It smelled of sludge and mold. The oil kept a fairy from changing, and if one were actually able to change, their wings would die along with their mind.
Bonding oil had not been used since the Great War, when the nymphs slaughtered their own kind and the fairies.
“Don’t shift Nora. It would be very unfortunate,” Ras commented in a dull tone. He sounded as if he was bored.
“Ras! What is going on? You must help me brother!” Nora tried to yell, but her voice came out barely above a squeak.
“Really Nora, you would think a Queen should be able to help herself.” He smiled. Several other deep voices quietly laughed in the background.
Nora could not believe what she was hearing. Her own brother had betrayed her and their people! Tears stung her face as she realized the other voices belonged to several elves.
The queen became aware of something shining out of the corner of her eye, and slowly turned her head. There at the edge of the slab, lay a diamond on top of a small piece of black velvet. She knew her fate. Not long ago she had watched as her brother performed this same rite to a master thief.
The Rite of the Jewels was the only way to successfully imprison anyone in this realm. A prince, through out history, must perform the ritual. The criminal was bonded, and their essence was offered to a particular jewel. The jewel, if accepting, would begin to hum from deep within. Soon it sounded as if they were standing at the oceans edge in the middle of her fury. When the humming became the only sound to be heard, the victim would begin to fade out. The glowing crystal would absorb the essence of its offering, forever imprisoning them when in its precious walls.
“NO! How could you, what of our world brother? What of our love? What could I have done?” she demanded, with no hope of being answered.
The dark man before her, slowly chanting, was not her brother. The brother she knew had died, and she felt her heart break.
Nora felt light as a feather in the summer’s warm breeze. Her whole body began to tingle and fade in and out. It was almost over, she knew what was to come next. She just never thought in a million years, her sweet brother would turn this dark and menacing.
As her mind began to drift off, she recalled days from their childhood. In her memories, it was winter and the ground lay heavily with fresh pure snow. They were running with the deer and laughing as children should, when she fell over a stump hidden beneath the snow. As she cried, he sang to her. Holding her tightly and rocking, he promised everything would be all right. That was the memory she would take with her forever. It was the memory that might bring her hope.
There was no one in the guards’ hall, so Layla turned around to search the grounds to honor her queen’s request. It was getting later, and she should by all rights be in her bedchamber. However, she had promised Nora that she would deliver the message to Zane. Yet she had not found him.
Down a short flight of stairs, Layla paused at a small grate in the wall. A barely audible sound came from beneath. Why would Commander Zane be down in the labyrinth? Her mind raced with possibilities.
She continued through the corridor, and turned right down a winding staircase that seemed to take hours to descend. When her footsteps finally fell at the landing on the bottom, she reached for the ornate brass handle of the entrance. Her breath caught in her throat as she opened the door.
The darkness inside seemed to seep out towards her. Taking an unconscious step backwards, she fell on the last step of the stairs behind her. Just as she began to lift herself up, Zane came rushing out of the door. Out of breath and sweating like a mad man.
“Layla! Take this! Run! Run to the human world and hide! There is no time to explain child, go!” He gasped as her pulled her up off the steps and shook her wildly.
A loud clatter rang from behind him. He whipped his head around and slammed his sword into the stone floor. She hadn’t even notice it was drawn. A strangely beautiful glowing orb suddenly radiated around her and Zane.
A lesson from her studies came breezing through her mind. This was a protection shield, cast by the Jewel Guardians. Nevertheless, it would not last long; it took great strength from the host to hold it.
“You must hurry! Guard this with your life. Your life Layla!” he yelled. As she stumbled backwards to flee in fear, he grabbed her outstretch arm and yanked her to him one last time. As he put his rough palms over both her cheeks, he looked her directly in the eyes and whispered a promise, “I will find you, with all that I am. I will find you.”
He let go of her so suddenly and twirled around to face the elves bombarding the doorway that she stumbled as she fled up the staircase as if the devil himself were on her heels.
Once at the top, she closed her eyes and thought of nothing but the human world. In a one single solitary breath, she was in a dark and wet alleyway on the streets of Austin.
It was summer, and the humidity clung to her, making her feel thick and sluggish. Layla crouched behind some old dumpsters and listened, sure someone had followed her.
After several long moments of waiting, Layla finally stood up, relaxing her tense muscles. Something had happened back home that was so terrible, even Zane was troubled. Nora…. her mind whispered throughout her body. With the first silent tears streaking down her face, she stood up and silently wandered away.
Careful to stay hidden in the shadows, her amethyst eyes took on a darker shade of confusion.
Layla found a small wooded area in the midst of the town, and poured her weak body on the ground beneath the ancient oaks. She had never crossed realms before, and it took almost everything she had. She didn’t know how she had accomplished it or if she could ever do it again.
Her trembling hands reached deep within her pocket and fingered the diamond Zane had given her. She knew what it was; she remembered stories told in her childhood. She also knew the secret of the Jewel Guardians and their purpose.
Fighting to stay awake, she cried into the night, knowing that she had to keep moving. The elves she had seen at the door were fierce hunters. If they knew Zane had the diamond, then they would know she now had it. They had to have seen her running away. Maybe Zane killed them all. She shook her head in dismay. Of course he could not. There were simply too many to take on for one fairy. Even if that fairy was the strongest she had ever known.
“You damn, worthless elves!” Ras howled into the night. Just as Nora’s essence was finally absorbed into the diamond, Zane, that stupidly loyal fairy, had appeared to snatch it from the stone slab.
He was gone in a flash of an eye, and the elves around the table stood frozen in disbelief. None of them even bothered trying to catch him. They looked at Ras as if he sent that schemer here to deceive them.
His power lashed at them until they all lay dazed, in pain on the ground at his feet. “Get it back, you fools!”
Zane appeared outside the reformatory and forcefully set himself in motion. It took some strength to disappear like that but he knew he must call upon his reserve and do what needed to be done.
Mentally connecting with each of his fellow guardians, he quickly relayed what had happened and what must happen next. Zane hoped to meet with one of them to transfer the diamond, so that he might lead the chase away from it.
None of the seven guardians could make it to him in time. He would have to make do with whatever fate handed to him.
Just before he reached the brass door that would lead him to the temporary safety of the corridors above, it opened. Layla was behind it, half-lying on the steps before him.
He skidded to a stop, and desperately gasped for a breath. Without thought, words flew from his mouth, and he shook her so violently he thought she might come apart. Then he gave her the diamond.
A loud noise behind him brought reality crashing back. The elves were coming, and approaching fast. The first elf he saw coming around the bend triggered his response. He instinctively jammed his sword into a gap in the stones on the ground. He fell to his knees as the orb was brought to life around Layla and himself. He already felt it draining his spirit, and knew he couldn’t hold it for long.
Hope surged through him as he sent Layla into the human realm. She just might have a chance.
As soon as she cleared the stairs in front of him, he prepared to defend himself. He used one last burst of power to launch the elves hard against the wall. Seconds later, he dropped the protective shield and raised his sword in battle as his ancestors had before him.
Time seemed to be holding its breath. Things had only just begun to unfold when seven other guardians joined his sides. All of them were crowded on the small landing and with an unspoken command; they advanced through the entrance in unison. The elves scarcely had enough time to regain their questionable wits when Ras appeared before them.
The dark prince stood ramrod straight with his willow staff at his side. Eyes narrowing slightly, Zane knew they had to retreat before his charges were harmed. He didn’t give a damn about himself, but these fairies relied on him, and he would not fail them.