Leenah finds the old farmhouse and the barn that Torin described to her the first time they met in the moist Pergolan jungle. She knocks on the door but no one answers. She tries to open it. The door creaks open and she looks inside. The house is dark and quiet. The large stove near the rear is cold and looks like it hasn’t been in use in days. Puzzled, she closes the door and walks away from the farm, across the bridge and down the dirt path, towards Crystal City.
As she walks, she thinks about Negasi. How could such a young, immature animal be so scheming and shrewd? How could he fool her, Leenah of Escarpa, who could easily fool her parents into believing she was too ill to go to her lessons when she was only ten? A mind like Negasi’s was a good one used for bad purposes. Her father had told her that that was the worst kind of mind in the history of humankind. Whether this was the same on the planet he came from, she couldn’t say. She could only think about that mischievous creature and all that he had put her through. Having her climb up a hundred-foot tree in Pergola, merging with her body, singing that terrible “Lena is the Queen of Saratoga” song over and over again, treating her like a commoner and convincing her that he was connected with Torin. How could she have believed him, swallowing his words like a fish swallowing bait, allowing her to drag her through all those worlds against her will, towards what? She is so mad that she can't even remember what she is really seeking, but something tells her to keep on moving towards Crystal City, and whatever awaits her.
The city is surrounded by tall stone walls and a wide moat. A drawbridge is set in the wall. As she nears the city, she notices the bridge is down. That is nothing odd, all kingdoms usually lower their bridges during the day, but she could have sworn that it was up when she and Negasi first glimpsed it. Perhaps it was just the light playing tricks on her eyes, but she couldn’t tell for certain. As she crosses the wooden bridge, she sees some movement out of the corner of her eye, near a small window in the heavy stone wall. As she looks at the window, she sees what look almost like claw marks below it, and below that, near the level of the moat, on the wall as well is a wet stain, as if something large had either lunged up or fallen into the water.
As she is wondering what could have caused the marks and the stain, she fails to realize that she is walking dangerously close to the other side of the bridge. Suddenly, a huge rush of water makes her turn around and find herself face to face with a huge creature. It has enormous, green jaws wide open, revealing dozens of gleaming, sharp teeth. But strangely, there are no eyes in its small head. Extending out of the water on either side of it are thick, slimy tentacles reaching for Leenah, blocking both ways of escape.
Just as the jaws begin rushing in on Leenah, something small flies through the air, right into the creature’s mouth. It suddenly chokes and backs away from Leenah, trying to dislodge the object from its throat with its tentacles. The princess is still too frightened to move, but since the creature is quickly submerging itself in the murky water, she decides to look behind her to see where the small projectile came from. It seems to have come from the same window she was looking at a few seconds ago, and just like before, she glimpses a small movement beyond the window, then nothing. Shrugging, she continues to walk across the bridge, into Crystal City.
The streets of the city are quite active. There are people talking and selling their wares in their small shops. Some people look at her with curiosity, some wave, and some (naturally) pay no attention to her at all. Leenah asks one or two people where she can find a boy named Torin, and all she gets in response is a surprised look and a shake of the head. She continues down the cobbled streets, towards the center of the city. She knows that the castle is in the center, but how she will get inside it she doesn’t know yet.
When she finally reaches the castle, she sees a large, elaborately carved gate inlaid with crystals set in the great stone wall of the castle. A middle-aged man in a red uniform stands near the gate, bearing the pensive seriousness of a guard.
“Excuse me,” says Leenah. The guard raises his head and looks at her with a look of surprise, then, from what she can determine, amazement.
“Who are you, young lady?” asks the guard.
“My name is Leenah. Leenah of Escarpa. I came here seeking Torin of the Fahrman Valley. Could you please…”
“My lady,” says the guard, bowing before her. “My liege, Torin has spoke about you frequently. He has often wondered if you still remembered him and if he would ever see you again. But lately he has been too busy to contact you.”
“Your liege? You mean…”
“For nearly twenty years Torin has been kept away from this castle. We were afraid that the same assassin that murdered his parents was still trying to kill him as well, but finally, when he returned from The Lands Below…with that sorceress…”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“It’s a long story, and too long to tell outside, where anyone could be listening. Please come with me, Leenah of Escarpa.”
The guard opens the gate and ushers Leenah in. He follows her inside and closes the gate behind her. Leenah and the guard are now standing in a beautiful hallway. Green crystals are placed along it at intervals within oblong, circular nodes in the walls. A red carpet stretches down the length of the hall, vanishing in the distance. The guard gently takes Leenah’s hand and leads her down the hall.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” says Leenah.
“Oh yes. My name is Roland. Sir Roland. I was the guardian of Torin’s parents when they were still with us.”
“You say that Torin’s parents died? He was seeking them when I first met him in Pergola, but I didn’t know that they died…”
“The parents you are speaking of are not Torin’s true parents. The Farhmans are still alive, but his real parents were murdered many years ago by the queen’s own brother, Pecand.”
“How did Torin survive?”
“I was not told all the details, my lady,” says Roland. “But I’m sure he and Lycentia will tell you all you wish to know.”
“Lycentia? Wasn’t she that sorceress that Torin was seeking? She stole his parents – er, the Fahrmans – didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did. But as I said, I don’t know all the details. Just wait until we find the prince. He and Lycentia should be in the throne room…ah, yes,” says Roland, just as they come to the end of the hallway, before a large pair of double doors. Roland pushes them open, revealing a huge room with tall windows piercing either side. Two thrones, carved from crystal with crimson cushions placed on them stand near the end of the room. The long red carpet leads up to the thrones, which stand on an octagonal pedestal. Sitting on the edge of the low pedestal is a young man, wearing an elaborate, blue and green robe, talking with a somewhat elderly, red-haired woman. The boy raises his eyes and looks at Leenah. Even from such a great distance, even with his hair combed, dressed in such a different set of clothes, Leenah recognizes him.
“Torin!” she cries, running across the room towards him. Torin leaps to his feet and runs towards Leenah. They run into each other’s arms, laughing with joy at seeing each other again. Torin looks at Leenah’s hands, remembering the day they first met and how they had felt that day. Leenah gazes into Torin’s gentle brown eyes and almost cries with joy. Finally, she speaks.
“Torin…I’m so glad to see you again!”
“So am I,” says Torin, speaking for the first time.
“Where’s Boogle, Torin?”
“He’s here,” says Torin, pulling his friend’s head out of the collar of his robe. The creature makes a disgruntled noise and ducks back inside, as if it were just disturbed from a peaceful nap. Both Torin and Leenah laugh.
“But, Leenah, how did you get here?” asks Torin. “There’s no erresdy powder in Escarpa, is there?”
“I didn’t think there was, but this strange creature from another planet, he told me he knew how to get to you, and he helped me find you, and…”
“Who is this character, Leenah?”
“Oh, his name? His name was…”
Suddenly she is drawing a blank. She can’t remember the creature’s name. Her anger towards him had put a wall in her mind, and she can’t even remember what he looked like. But for some reason, it doesn’t seem to matter.
“I can’t recall it right now, Torin. But Sir Roland was telling me the true story of your life. Do you think you can tell me it?”
“Well, I can’t really remember much from my infancy,” says Torin.
“But I can,” says another voice behind Torin. The old woman who was sitting with him comes forward and bows towards Leenah. “So you are the beautiful Leenah that Torin has told me about. I’m glad to meet you at last. My name is Lycentia.”
“You…you were the one that Torin was seeking…after you…you…”
“Yes,” says Lycentia, lowering her head in guilt. “I imprisoned the Fahrmans, I admit it. But it’s a long story, Leenah.”
“I want to hear it,” says Leenah. “I’ve heard many long stories on the way here, and another one won’t harm me in any way.”
“Very well, child,” says Lycentia. “Let’s sit down, though. I am tired.”
“So am I,” admits Leenah as she and Torin sit down beside Lycentia, who clears her throat and begins her story.
“Long ago, when I was mush younger than I am now, I was employed by Torin’s parents to be his nanny. I watched over him as if he were my own, and his parents praised me for my loyalty many times. But one night, little Torin was crying and his parents were asleep. I took him from his cradle and stepped outside, beneath the stars. A few minutes later, a storm suddenly started, something I still feel wasn’t a natural phenomenon, and when I stepped back inside with Torin in my arms, there were several hideous green serpents encircling the cradle. They weren’t normal serpents at all, of course, but more like tongues of flame tinged green. Before I turned and ran for my life, I saw the queen’s hand dangling over the side of the bed, bone white, and I knew she and her husband were gone.
“I ran from Crystal City with Torin in my arms and hid in the nearby forest. I was discovered by the castle guards the next day and they took the child from me. From what I heard, they took Torin to an isolated cottage where his parents’ assassin would never find him. It was too risky to return the baby to the castle and risk another catastrophe. Then Kurtzwell, the judge of Crystal City at that time, banished me to The Lands Below. I was transported to the Null Void with barely enough supplies to last me a week. But as luck would have it, I remembered some small spells that I had learned when I was an apprentice to an old sorcerer before I was employed by the king and queen. I was able to create a small house for myself in the wall of the Void as well as all the supplies I needed to survive. I even manifested a large beast I dubbed Dreep to keep my house safe from any intruders that might come my way.
“And so I lived alone for many years, learning about the many forms of magic and trying to find a way to get my revenge on Kurtzwell. The only time I received a visit from someone was when someone from Tenebrous – a recording artist, I recall – intruded on my privacy with some fangled recording unit, asking if he could get a sample of my voice for his ‘collection.’ Naturally, I told this intrusive idiot to leave, so he did. This was before I created Dreep, you see, and it wasn’t until this artist came that I realized that I needed a creature to act as a watchdog for me.
“For nearly twenty years I lived alone, until I received a message in the VidCryst I had fabricated from some of the crystals forming the wall of the Null Void from Pecand. I knew that he was the queen’s brother but I didn’t know that he was the one that had killed Torin’s parents.”
“How did you find out?” asks Leenah.
“Later, Leenah. So he told me how he had heard of my exile and he said that he knew of a way to free me. So we made a bargain. If I imprisoned the Fahrmans and led their son (whose identity I did not know) into The Lands Below, he would somehow become Arch Authority and break the spell of the collar. I didn’t understand his reason for wanting these two people imprisoned, but I did as he wished, but he naturally did nothing until the boy had nearly reached my home. That’s when I sent Dreep out to get him. I couldn’t leave my home, of course, but I could send Dreep out. He returned with a small creature that I assumed belonged to the boy whose name I still didn’t know, and without thinking, I imprisoned it as well. I was thinking of nothing but my freedom, something that had been out of my reach for almost two decades.
“Finally, when the boy got inside my house, I was ready to destroy him, as Pecand said I should do if he managed to find his way to my abode, but when he broke the Ostracizing Collar around my neck and I saw the mark on his shoulder that I remembered from the child that I had raised so long ago, I knew he was Torin.
“Then Pecand appeared and knocked me unconscious. Fortunately I recovered in time to imprison him in the same way I had imprisoned the Fahrmans. Then, with the collar broken, I transported me, Torin, his stepparents and his pet back to The Lands Above. After telling the Fahrmans the truth about Torin’s past, then after Torin told me what Pecand had told him (that he was the one who had murdered the king and queen), we traveled to the castle of Crystal City, and when the elders of the court saw the birthmark on Torin’s shoulder, they knew that he was the crown prince. And since he had released me, they were convinced that I was innocent and allowed to be Torin’s companion for as long as I lived. I told them about Pecand’s scheme to kill Torin, and how he was now imprisoned in the Null Void, so now Torin’s assassin would no longer endanger him.”
“That’s an amazing story, Lycentia. I’m glad everything is right now.”
“So am I, Leenah.”
“But what happened to Dreep?”
“Oh,” says Torin, “After I lured that monster into the Null Void and we returned to The Lands Above, Lycentia insisted on bringing him up here. He’s in the dungeons now. He feels right at home down there. Lycentia’s refurnished that place to look just like her home. She’s grown a bit used to living in a place like that.”
“I see,” says Leenah. “Torin…could I see your right shoulder, please?” She hesitates. She has never seen Torin’s mark before. Is it really there? Is it really so similar to that other creature’s? She has to know now or never…Torin pulls back the right corner of his robe, and sure enough, there is the now familiar circular emblem. Leenah leans forward and touches it, and realizes that it is as real and genuine as Torin himself. She shudders slightly.
“Torin…do you know what that birthmark on your right shoulder means?”
“No. The elders looked at it several times when I returned and they couldn’t make any sense out of it.”
“Well, in my travels, I met a couple in Asthenia who told me that that mark is the sign of the Reuniter of the Layers.”
“‘Retuniter of the Layers?’”
“Yes. According to some old prophecy, a savior would be born in one of the worlds that would travel to every Layer within Strata and become king of the entire planet!”
“And you think…I’m that savior?”
“I know you are. It used to be that all the worlds were separated, right? Every land hated the ones above and below it. But, in every world I went through to get to you, the phenocrysts had pushed their way down and started popping up everywhere. There was even a source of erresdy powder in Escarpa that hadn’t been there before.”
“You think that I’m responsible for those happenings?”
“Of course I do. Isn’t it amazing, Torin?”
“Yeah. It sure is.”
“And not only that, but the same prophecy states that the Retuniter of the Layers would take a girl from another world for his own. And guess who fits that part?”
“You, Leenah? You’re destined to be the wife of the Reuniter?”
“It seems that way, Torin. Isn’t it great?”
“I guess so…So, are you going to stay here in The Lands Above?”
“I think so. I’ll need to tell my parents sometime, though.”
“Leenah,” intervenes Sir Roland, “You mentioned someone who helped you find your way to this land. Who is this person, and why is he not with you?”
Leenah’s spirits suddenly drop. She remembers Negasi and how he and she had bumbled their way through the worlds and how he had deceived her into believing he was connected to Torin. Still, she feels no real sorrow for abandoning him…just yet.
“Oh, he was a half human, half cat creature named Negasi. He came here from another planet and dragged me out of my home just to find you. He ended up leading me through all the worlds of Strata, eventually winding up here. I almost trusted him, but just a half hour ago I realized that everything he had told me was false.”
“How did you figure that out, Leenah?” asks Lycentia.
“Well, he had this mark on his right shoulder that looks just like yours, Torin. It was that mark that convinced me that he was someone important, so I followed him through the Layers until we got here. But when we did, I found out that he had just drawn the mark on and he told me that he was really no more important than a grain of sand.”
“But Leenah,” says Torin, “You said that he guided you through all the worlds?”
“And he came here just to help you reach me?”
“Then I think this Negasi is more than just an ordinary grain of sand, Leenah. Someone who learns about a princess from another planet, travels there and guides her through each and every world of the planet without perishing along the way and reaching his destination successfully is someone who deserves more than being left alone after she discovers he isn’t what he appears.”
“But he made up his whole past just to make me think he was someone important!”
“Leenah, heroes come into being in different ways. I became one without acting as if I was important, Negasi became one acting like he was. I admit he was awfully devious in cooking up such a story, but look at what he accomplished when you believed him!”
“So you aren’t angry with him?”
“No way. That is, not until I see him, Leenah. Do you know where he is?”
“I left him near the Fahrmans’ house, but he might’ve walked off somewhere else. I don’t know where he is now.”
“Well, let’s get some people looking for him! Roland?” Torin asks Sir Roland.
“Send a small squadron of soldiers into the Fahrman Valley to look for this Negasi. Ah…what does he look like, Leenah?”
“He has golden fur, orange hair, blue pants and a black belt,” says Leenah quickly. “He might be somewhere up the river, maybe in the foothills of the mountains. Please find him. I hope he’s still all right.”
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