Prologue - Two Years Ago

Her partner was late. Either he took a detour or someone captured him. Maria waited on top of the Perla Palace, lying flat on her belly, with the full moon on her back, and scanning the terrain for Jas’Riel and the royal guards making their rounds. But the watchmen were lazy tonight. Fifty feet below her, four young soldiers sat underneath a wall torch sharing jugs of ale and smoking Mardosian cigars. None of the guards were concealing their loud bantering as wispy smog circled their heads.

     Maria shook her head and clicked her tongue. No wonder they haven’t heard her climb earlier.

     One soldier turned his head, paused, and pointed towards the garden beyond the terrace. At first, only the faint sounds of night critters chirped in the air, but soon the tops of the trimmed shrubbery quivered, and the chirping faded. Something much larger prowled around the tall dark hedge doorways as the rustling of twigs and leaves grew louder.

The guard who had been laughing the loudest waved his hand and carried on drinking while two others shook their heads, chuckling. The fourth guard, the quieter one, stood up with his hand on his sword hilt and beckoned his comrades to follow him. Maria stretched her neck out, turned her head, and tucked a loose curl to expose her ear. Their voices were low muffles and grunts to Maria, but then the three guards howled and laughed as the fourth guard ventured into the gardens alone.

After mere seconds, Maria heard a muffled cry from the hedgerows. The quaking and rustling of the leaves became evident until it stilled. The laughter ceased among the three remaining soldiers. They got to their feet with their sabers unsheathed. Two guards approached the gardens with cautious steps while the last one stayed behind.

     Maria reached into her pouch for a crystal as small as a marble. The smooth and oval-shaped crystal fitted into the slots of her left gauntlet and secured itself with a faint clicking sound. A dim blue light glowed upon attachment, and a soothing course of energy channeled from the gauntlet and throughout her body. She felt light as a feather. She stood at her full length, hovering her foot over the edge of the rooftop before plunging fifty feet down towards the lone soldier.

     The crystal glowed once more, brighter, and its energy slowed her fall. She landed on the balls of her feet before falling on her knee. She suffered no broken bones, but she grimaced on the impact. Her shadow gave away her presence more than her wince, and the soldier whirled around before an armored fist came colliding to his chin. The guard did a semi-circle spin and collapsed unconscious next to his spilled ale. Maria searched his pockets until she found the key she needed. Maria glanced up at the sounds of scuffles and clashes of metal. A minute later the hedges became still, and her partner emerged from the shadows.

     He hunched over his tall frame and turned his large head left and right as he approached her. His long tufted ears twitched as if he was still alert and cautious, but his slender tail flickered back and forth upon seeing her.

“I am sorry you had to wait. I did not want any guards to pass by,” Jas’Riel uttered. He kept his voice low, and his long fawn-colored mane bristled like tiny needles.

     Maria huffed in amusement. “I am surprised to see a fearsome Winter Kul more nervous about stealing from royalty than he is facing a beast in a crystal mine.”

     “Beasts can be killed. Here, you can be imprisoned.”

     She led him up the terrace balcony where the queen’s room reside. “Yet here, the queen is a prisoner herself.”

     With the stolen key, Maria unlocked the queen’s suite. The crystal lights in the ceiling turned on when they walked in. Maria and Jas’Riel halted in their tracks, scanning the oversized room until it was safe to assume no one else was present. The two-part bedroom and study had tall windows facing the sea. The queen chose an arrangement of blues and pearl whites as the theme of her palace, as is the colors of the Mardios family. Chaise lounges and chairs were placed along the walls while the royal bed curtains were drawn open, inviting anyone to rest within its plush cushions.

Even with no one else in the room, Maria and Jas’Riel had limited time before someone returned. They abandoned the bedroom and began searching the private office. Her Majesty kept her workstation a disorganized mess. Stacks of draft papers and advice letters scattered everywhere from the desk, to the bookshelves, and around the floor. The queen’s handwriting was no tidier. Books were discarded and empty ink bottles and broken quills littered the office.

“The King’s Madness is taking a toll on her poor soul,” Maria sighed, her voice bleak and dejected. “If we succeed, her sickness will only fester even more.”

“If you regret your decision coming here, we can always turn back,” Jas’Riel challenged, keeping his eyes on the windows and his ears high and turning.

“And miss our only chance for a lead? No. The research pages from Eliazar Academy must be here.”

Maria searched through the documentations. Aside from the guards Maria and Jas’Riel knocked out, everyone in the palace was at the great hall celebrating the queen’s birthday. Maria had a good ten minutes before someone spotted the guards stationed at the private quarters were not sleeping on the job. Jas’Riel remained as a lookout, but Maria saw from the corner of her eye the nervous flick of his tail. She had to hurry.

The desk held nothing of importance, so she began searching through the tall bookshelves with deft fingers until the hunt felt tedious. Maria paused in her search, stood back from the desk, and took a good look around the room. She imagined herself as Queen Elvira, sick with madness and losing trust in everyone. In times when she could no longer trust her workers, keeping vital artifacts close to her workspace where even the handmaidens could gain access to would be too transparent.

Maria turned back to the bedroom and approached the dressing counter. A large box rested in the center of the countertop. Maria lifted the lid. The jewelry box was a handmade contraption that opened up into two separate branches. The left wing of the box held the queen’s royal rings and bracelets while the crystal necklaces and earrings were placed on the right wing. The center slot did not open; four crystal stones barred the way.

Maria had seen many crystal mechanics in similar fashion – being a crystal hunter meant regular visits to jewelry business owners along with the mines. By tapping the crystals in the correct order, and channeling enough energy to activate the stones, the final drawer will open. And of course, Maria saw this particular jewelry box many times and remembered the pattern sequence. After a few quick taps and focusing her inner energy, Maria got the center compartment to pop open.

Her eyes fell onto an open picture locket. It was the size of a walnut with white gold and blue jewels encrusted around of the locket. The picture drawing was yellow at the edges but still retained its image after many years. The artist had sketched a baby girl gracefully looking over her shoulder with a gleeful smile and delicate eyebrows.

Maria tilted her head, staring down at the faded image. The top left corner of the picture appeared to be protruding. Maria picked at the edges of the locket until she snapped open a secret niche underneath the picture. She pulled out a tiny square piece of paper that has been folded over a number of times to fit inside the locket. She unraveled the paper and read the passage, her eyes skimming back and forth.

The more she read, the more her frown deepened. “Jas, it appears we discovered something much more than we anticipated.”

Next Chapter: Sole Survivor