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The Crystal

April 22, 2017

This was the third story to  The Eros Chronicles.

“I thought we would lose you, Princess,” Mary said, sitting at a table in the Inn.

“Thank goodness we weren’t in full court dress. Those skirts and trains are a mile long.”

“Imagine hiking them up to use the privy.”

The queen choked on her herbal mint tea trying not to laugh, dribbling on her lavender blouse.

“Glass of water for Her Grace,” the server said.

“Sorry, Mother. Are you all right?”

“Yes. It’s warm in here.” Dabbing her blouse, She wiped her forehead.

Everything went smoothly, but Cassandra couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that something bad would spoil it. Mother’s word was law, so not showing up because of a vision of a glass of black water was not an option. They were only psychic snatches anyway.

“Your eyes are glassy, Your Grace,” Mary said, as her hand passed over the glass the queen drank from.

Her hand glowed as it passed over the top of the glass.

“Black Poison.”

*****

Wiping her eyes, she stumbled over an encyclopedia on the hearth. Looking at the label, she placed the cube in the viewer. Rubbing the soreness from her neck, Cassandra threw another log on the fire. Not one cube had a cure for the Black Poison coursing through her mother’s veins.

“The Forbidden Forest. I’ve never seen this cube before.”

*****

Cassandra held the cube in her hand as she raised it to her father’s side. “Father, I found a cure for the Black Poison, but it’s deep in The Forbidden Forest. May I have your permission to retrieve the Crystal?”

There was a ten-minute pause before he spoke, which felt like an eternity. “I wish I could go with you, but I doubt whether I could handle a second round with the Silver Mirror. I almost went insane the first time. Besides, I can’t leave the castle unprotected from the Cleaners. They’d jump at the chance that I’d be lax in security with your mother gravely ill. I’ve cancelled the six appointments we were to attend for the next two weeks.”

Cassandra suppressed a yawn. “I’ve spent the last few hours writing letters of regret for Mother’s 20 charities in between viewing cubes. She’ll need the time to recover.”

Her father yawned too, standing to stoke the dying fire. “I’ll send a message for the Five Masters to accompany you. They’ll be on the next shuttle. This is from your mother.”

She took the brown leather book. “How is she?”

“Still unconscious. She’s in The Quartz Chamber until we can treat the Black Poison.”

Cassandra sat beside her father near the fire in his oak paneled study, watching the flames. This morning, she dreaded touring the northern provinces on Eros. The weather was as

unpredictable as North Texas and colder too for early fall. She didn’t want adventure like this. She longed to be back on Earth. At least at her grandmother’s nothing happened that often, not to this extent anyway. If only she were able to interpret what that vision she had earlier that morning meant about the three people in it, one with eyes staring at the sky, and two tangled in vines, Mother wouldn’t be fighting for her life now.

“Get some rest. You’ll need strength for your journey tomorrow,” her father said.

“I’ll try, Father.” Kissing him good night, she rose, curtsied, and returned to her room, ordering Mary to pack her camping gear. Sighing, she slipped into her dorm shirt.

*****

  “Your Highness, Wake up! The King has requested I bring you to the throne room at once.”

She sat up, eyes wide, throwing back the off white satin comforter. “Is something wrong with Mother?”

“Her condition hasn’t changed. Put this on.” Mary said, standing at the foot of the oak four-poster bed with her pink robe. Cassandra slowly took it from her slipping it over her head and tying the sash. She stood, putting her feet in the matching silk slippers. Cassandra knew how to potty, wash her face, and brush her teeth in five minutes if she were in a hurry or running late. Her hair, which Mary had tightly French braided in one long braid last night, only needed the ends brushed back She did this in three-and-a-half minutes. Mary stood at the door, tapping her foot waiting to open it.

Cassandra’s puffy eyes burned from lack of sleep. The only reason she would be up before the second sun rose is if the Five Masters were waiting.

“Ahh, There you are, Cassandra. I present The Five Masters,” her father said, with his regal voice. There they were: Shawn, The Shadow Master, Charles, the Wise, Annie the Archer, Sarah, the Seer, and Shayla the Scout. The women curtsied and the men bowed as they were introduced. Cassandra nodded, smiling. She knew them by their pictures on the cubes. Her stomach lurched. Could the three people she saw in her vision be in this room? She sighed, praying that wasn’t the case. Cassandra’s visions weren’t always accurate.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we know the difficult task that lies before us. I’m sure the journey from the outer planets was a tiring one, so while I put on more appropriate attire, please accept our hospitality. The King has breakfast prepared in the Formal Dining Room. We will meet at the library in thirty minutes.”

“Thank you, Princess,” they all said, bowing.

“See that they are kept comfortable, Mary,” Cassandra said, turning toward her apartments.

*****

Cassandra sighed as she laced her brown hiking boots. She had plenty of time before meeting The Five Masters in the library. Even though she had butterflies in her stomach, she forced herself to drink the orange juice and eat the fried egg, sausage, and cheese on toast one of the chambermaids left on the oak table in her sitting room. A rarity in the royal diet, it was forbidden because her father had high cholesterol. The animals were raised on organically grown fat free food, so meat and vegetables were pesticide free and had no cholesterol. Her success in The Forbidden Forest depended on how well she studied those cubes. She didn’t need the gut busters she ate back on Earth weighing her down during this mission. Every royal she read about had a destiny to fulfill that started as a ripple in a pond or a gentle breeze, finding the Crystal was her ripple. Wiping sweaty palms on her jeans and tugging on her tunic top, she prayed to St. Jude before heading to the library through a secret passage.

*****

“Princess, you’re early. Forgive me for nodding off,” blushed Charles the Wise. The others appeared, taking their places on the burgundy sofa. Charles, being smart, had a large head and brown owl-shaped eyes. He stood about six feet and was the tallest of the quintet.

“Your Highness, We must get started. The first of Eros’s twin suns set at noon. If we take horses, we should reach the edge of the Forbidden Forest by nightfall.”

Cassandra nodded. “ Excellent idea. Anne, you lead. I haven’t done this before, so don’t hesitate to advise.”

“Agreed,” they all said, at once.

*****

“Perhaps you would like to rest?” asked Shawn, the Shadow Master.

“I thank you for your concern. Don’t worry. Traveling at full gallop is the one thing the Queen allowed. I won’t rest till I see the edge of the Forbidden Forest.”

Shawn chuckled.

“It’s wise to enter that place during daylight. No one can see the traps at night,” Sarah,

the Seer said.

“What can you tell me about The Hall of Echoes and The Silver Mirror, Sarah?”

“One must enter that place with a clear head. The Silver Mirror thrives on fear and self-doubt. Screaming from the trapped inhabitants in The Hall of Echoes will drive you mad.”

Cassandra wanted her to say more but recognized the far away look in those hazel eyes and didn’t press. They galloped without speaking for two hours. Shawn rode alongside her on his chestnut horse. She jumped when he spoke. His voice almost hypnotic, eyes nearly glowing.

“You’re wondering how the King got his dark powers, right?”

“Yes. I didn’t have time to ask him before we left.”

“The histories of Eros don’t say it, but your father was the only member from the House of Lancaster to survive The Hall of Echoes and the Silver Mirror, but just barely. His dark powers and madness came from the anger he held against his father, Prince Edmund.”

“Could the madness I read about be treated another way?”

“By using flowers called Forget Me Nots ground in a tea. The Cleaners burned our fields.”

Sarah galloped alongside Cassandra. “Forgive the intrusion, Princess. Shayla, our scout, pathed. She awaits at the edge of The Forbidden Forest.”

“Good.” Cassandra’s voice quivered, but she tried sounding upbeat. She was hungry, tired, and sore from riding so long with no scenery. What frightened her most awaited her in the Hall of Echoes. She must master her emotions if she were to survive this mission and save Mother.

“I ‘ll enter the forest after dinner.”

Shayla had red hair, glowing red eyes, and a cat like instinct to land on her feet.

“Sarah said it was better to enter during the day. The traps are easier to spot.”

“I do my best tracking at night.”

Cassandra dismounted and prepared the protection spell. She felt uneasy, but didn’t know why. “I leave you to it.”

*****

“You need to eat, my friend. You can’t win if you don’t keep up your strength,” Charles said, as he placed his hand on Cassandra’s shoulder.

She toyed with the dry beef and vegetables on her plate. “I’ll try, but my stomach has butterflies.”

“Use the relaxation technique I taught you,” he said, kneeling at eye level.

“Retreating to my quiet place? I used that when Mother tested me on spells and

incantations every summer.” Closing her eyes, Cassandra took a deep breath. She conjured a lagoon with clear blue water and a waterfall. The scene calmed her stomach, enabling her to eat her dinner without feeling queasy. As the last rays of Eros’s second sun dipped below the horizon, Cassandra felt uneasy.

“I’ve checked the horses in the cave, Cassandra. I’ll leave you now,” said Shayla.

Cassandra waved, and said, “Safe journey.”

“Safe journey,” Shayla bowed, heading toward the woods.

“It wasn’t your fault what happened to your mother, Cassandra, Sarah said, “Stop

blaming yourself.”

“I only saw a glass of water in my vision yesterday morning. Can you tell me how you

learned to interpret your visions?”

“It’s different for everyone with second sight. You’re under a lot of strain, so that limits

what you see and how much.”

“Oh, Ok.” She had this creepy feeling that some of the team would not survive, but

whom? What did vines have to do with her vision of death?

“You’re right to keep what you see to yourself. Revealing everything is as dangerous as

knowing ahead of time.”

Protection spells weren’t animal proof, so Cassandra slept between Sarah and Annie.

Charles and Shawn slept on either side of them. Cassandra remained awake as the light from

the fire faded.

*****

Cassandra rose, needing to use the bathroom, before heading to the bushes behind the cave. She covered Sarah, who slept soundly on her side.

“Cassandra, I can’t wake Sarah!” Annie shouted.

“I can’t get a heart beat or pulse. Charles, what do you think?”

Charles touched Sarah’s wrist, frowning when it felt like ice. “She’s

dead.”

Annie inspected the ground, turning pale, voice quivering. “She d-died in her sleep.”

Cassandra saw a lot of dead animals at the shelter where she worked during the school year, but she never saw a dead body before. Her face turned red and her voice shook as she spoke.

“I k-knew there was a possibility that a few of us w-wouldn’t survive, but I n-never expected someone to die so soon.”

Shawn covered Sarah’s corpse with her burgundy cape. “I’ll bury her in the cave after everyone eats their breakfast.”

“We can’t take the horses into the forest. They’ll slow us down getting spooked from the shadows,” Charles said stoking the fire.

“T-There’s plenty of grass for them to g-graze while we’re g-getting the Crystal. I-I’ll extend the p-protection spell there,” Cassandra said, putting dried eggs and sausage on the plates. Her voice still uneven.

Everyone stared at his or her breakfast, watching as it returned to its dry state. They returned it all to the rations bag.

“Uh, Perhaps you would like to say good-bye before we leave?’ Shawn asked.

Cassandra nodded. “Every time I see that cave, I’ll remember her.”

*****

The forest was as quiet as the grave. The silence made Cassandra uneasy.

“The trail stops here, but where is Shayla?” asked Annie, firing her arrow into a tree.

She heard a rustling of leaves in one of the black oak trees and fired another arrow. Everyone

jumped back when a large mass of wiggling vines fell to the ground with a human arm pointing right.

“I’m afraid we found Shayla,” wailed Cassandra. She recognized Shayla’s long, muscular arm.

“Don’t touch those vines!” yelled Charles. “They’ll strangle the life from you!” But it was too late. The vines grew around Annie’s muscular, tanned body, cutting off her air. Her bow and arrows lay beside her. Her blue eyes open.

“Shayla must’ve thought it’d be safer to sleep above ground,” Shawn said.

Cassandra picked up the weapons through a veil of tears. “We’ve got to move on. We’re burning daylight. There’s the bridge. It looks dangerous.”

“We’ll use the rope I bought. Cassandra, You take the middle. Charles and I will be on either end.” She nodded. They headed across the bridge. Cassandra had to use her relaxation technique to walk across. When they were just outside The Hall of Echoes, she spoke again.

“I must enter alone. I don’t want to loose anyone else. If I don’t return by nightfall, go back the way we came.”

“Take my cape, Cassandra. It’ll protect your reflection from being captured by the mirror,” Shawn said, handing it to her. Even in daylight, the castle still looked imposing.

“Remember to clear your mind of emotions, or the shouting will drive you mad,”

Charles said, as he patted her shoulder.

*****

Cassandra cleared her mind, entering the dank Hall. The red line twisted around a well worn off white pole. She followed, even though she felt ridiculous. No one told her the walls were covered with mirrors. It wasn’t hard to avoid looking at them or to ignore the screaming from their captors. The floor needed a good sweeping. It lay covered in dirt and dust, but the red line showed through like a beacon from a lighthouse on the checkerboard linoleum. Taking a deep breath, she continued her journey to the center of the castle.

“I made it,” she said, putting Charles’s black cape around her shoulders. “Now to get that crystal.” Placing her hand on the tarnished latch, she opened the creaky, weather beaten oak door, pushing the thick cobwebs to the left. Seeing the long shadows from the window on the East wall, she moved quickly to the center of the room focusing on the floor. She did not want to be in the castle or the forest after dark.

The mirror glistened in the fading sunlight. Its ebony frame had silver vines and leaves. Cassandra stood in awe of its beauty, but her heart banged against her rib cage. She smiled when she saw her lagoon with its clear blue lake and steep waterfall in its reflection. She frowned as the image faded to the Forbidden Forest at night, the thing that she feared most. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the vines come to life. In another minute, she’d be trapped. Yanking the hood over her eyes, she sighed when she saw the vines shrivel and cease moving toward her.

“That was close,” she said out loud, as she kept her gaze on the floor. Stepping over the

dead vines, she entered the mirror. The gleam from the crystal was so bright, it blinded her. It was warm to the touch, so she used black leather gloves to remove it from its stand and place it in her hip pocket.

Cassandra heard voices shout in the castle and the mirror. “Freedom! At last, we are free!” The ground shook. Large cracks formed on the walls and floor inside the mirror.

“Time to go,” she said, jumping through the mirror as the glass cracked. She kept going in spite of the sting in her right ankle. The red line in the floor began to fade, becoming a crack. She had to jump over the broken pole and dodge the falling glass from the walls. She limped outside the castle where Shawn and Charles took her by the arms. They walked sideways across the bridge with her weight supported by their shoulders. They watched the castle fall in a cloud of black smoke. Shawn and Charles surrounded Cassandra to protect her from the billowing black dust.

As she sat on the ground to remove her frayed boot, the grass turned from black to green.

“I bet the crystal had something to do with this,” Cassandra said, wincing as Charles tended her wound.

The gash across her ankle throbbed, oozing black liquid from the wound. Removing the crystal from her pocket and taking the dagger from her belt, she scraped the side of the glowing jewel, sprinkling the dust on the black ooze. Her foot healed. Placing her boot back on her foot, she stood, holding the crystal over her head. The forest turned green. The well-worn path was easy to follow as the sun set.

“I-I think we should bury A-Annie and S-Shayla in the cave with S-Sarah,” Shawn said,

picking up Annie’s body. Charles cut Shayla’s body out of the oak tree.

“Th-They’d like that,” Cassandra nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks.

She picked so many wild flowers, she had to carry them in the hood of Charles’s cape.

After they ate, all three visited the cave where the three women’s graves were and cried. Cassandra said a rosary and laid the flowers on the graves. They slept under the stars, shielded by the protection spell. They broke camp at daybreak, arriving at the castle before noon.

*****

“Beth, I told you not to put that there!” yelled the Queen as her favorite hat fell from the

top shelf in her wardrobe.

Cassandra suppressed a giggle, hugging her mother. “You’re sounding better, Mother.”

The Queen, still pale and weakened from the effects of the black poison, sipped her herbal mint tea, then said, “I heard you had quite an adventure,

Cassandra.”

Cassandra finished chewing her hamburger, then spoke. “That I did, Mother.”

“Won’t you stay, at least till Friday?”

“I can’t. I have to tell the families of Sarah, Shayla, and Annie of their deaths right away.”

“When will you return?”

“I was going straight from the memorials back to Earth. College starts September 20.”

I apologize for hovering so much. I only did it to protect you.”

“I know. I’ll be back for Christmas. Grandma’s going on a cruise.”

“What about your birthday?”

“Oh, Uncle Jacob sent you this,” Cassandra said, handing her an engraved off-white envelope. Uncle Jacob, Grandpa Philip’s manservant, was in his eighties, but he was a sharp man. She never could beat him at chess. When he got too old to manage the upkeep of Manning Estates, he retired, building himself a cottage similar to those found in Thomas Kincade’s paintings and calendars on the grounds and turning the mansion into a museum, giving tours.

The queen smiled as she read the letter, and then frowned. “Did you try to scan this?”

“My visions aren’t that good, yet. It isn’t polite anyway.”

“Don’t forget to say good-bye before leaving.”

Cassandra hugged her mother. “ I won’t. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

*****

“Another day, and your mother will be her old self again. The crystal worked,” her father said, smiling into his teacup. It pleased her to have her father take tea with her in her sitting room in jeans and a t-shirt..

“I wondered how long it’d be before Mother snapped at Beth, her maid,” giggled Cassandra, as she placed a stack of clothes in the American Tourister suitcase.

“When will you leave on your tour of the outer planets?”

“Tomorrow. I have to tell the relatives of the three masters that didn’t return.”

“You’ve earned your freedom. Don’t forget your mother. She missed you.”

“We said our good-byes at lunch. I need to finish packing if I want to catch the shuttle,” she said, putting down her empty cup and rising.

Her father stood, walked over, and patted her shoulder. “Safe journey.”

Cassandra gazed in the mirror on Queen Anne legs. Her eyes glowed red.

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