For several hours, the soldiers search the Fahrman Valley for Negasi while Leenah and Torin talk alone. She tells him every detail of her journey with Negasi, and he listens solemnly, without interrupting even once. When she finishes, Torin says,
“I understand why you were so angry at this guy. But I’m sure he isn’t all bad. Look beneath the surface, and see what you couldn’t see before.”
“Wow. That’s really deep, Torin.”
“I know. Lycentia told me that. I wish I had looked deeper when I first heard about her. Then maybe I wouldn’t have said all those bad things about her long before I even met her.”
Leenah nods. Torin leads her into another room, where his foster parents, Mr. And Mrs. Fahrman, are resting. He introduces Leenah to his stepparents, and they welcome her warmly. Torin tells them about her journey to The Lands Above while Leenah strokes Boogle, who has finally assumed a friendly mood, and is delighted to see the princess again. The Farhmans tell Leenah how amazing her story is, and Leenah thanks the couple for their words, then she steps to the window of the chamber and looks out. There is a garden far below her, surrounded by the high walls of the castle. Torin comes to her side.
“You’re really worried about him, aren’t you?”
“I guess so. But I don’t see why! He’s just a rogue misfit from another world, an entirely different species, at that.”
“But you’re worried about Negasi, Leenah.”
“I wish I wasn’t.”
Boogle squawks something that sounds like a question. He seems curious about this other creature.
“Don’t worry,” says Torin. “The soldiers are thorough. They’ll find him, Leenah. Now, let’s go to our room. It’s getting late.”
“Yes. It was the room my real parents slept in before they were killed. There’s a bed made for two people there. I hope you don’t mind sleeping in with me in the same bed, Leenah…”
“I don’t mind.”
Torin leads Leenah through the long hallway. They are only on the second story of the castle, but they can see most of the city from their vantage point. Once, Leenah stops walking for a moment, then springs to the nearest window, as if she had glimpsed something outside it. She repeats this action again further down the hallway, and when she does it yet a third time, Torin asks her what she is doing.
“I keep thinking I hear Negasi’s claws on the walls outside. When I first approached the city, I saw some claw marks below a window. Now I know they have to be his. I think he might even be inside the city.”
“But you said that when you left him, he walked the other way, up the river. How could he reach Crystal City walking away from it?”
“I don’t know, Torin. I don’t know.”
“Try to stop worrying. He’ll turn up sooner or later.”
They finally reach the room Torin spoke of. Boogle leaps off Leenah’s shoulder and looks around the room. It is rather empty of furnishings, showing signs of long abandonment. An elaborate bed with rose-colored sheets sits against the wall, its back studded with crystals. Standing on a small table, covered with cobwebs, is a little cradle, also decorated with little green crystals. Leenah approaches it and looks inside. Even through the cobwebs and the years, she can see the little infant lying inside, crying and wailing for comfort.
“This was yours, Torin, wasn’t it?”
“If Lycentia hadn’t taken you outside…on that balcony,” Leenah says, pointing to the balcony in question, “You would’ve died.”
“I know. I wish there was a way I could repay her.”
“I think realizing the truth about her past is enough, Torin.”
“Maybe…but there’s so much more I could do for her…and still not repay her entirely…”
“I think that’s the way some things are. You just can’t give back all that you’ve been given form some people.”
“You mean like all that Negasi did to bring you here?”
Leenah looks at Torin in surprise, then relaxes.
“I suppose so.”
She walks out to the balcony and looks out at the rising moons. “I’m just afraid that he might’ve gone back to his own world. He got here easily enough.”
“I can’t say that he didn’t do something like that,” says Torin, walking out beside her and putting his arm on her shoulders. “I can only hope he didn’t.”
“I hope so too,” says Leenah, looking into his eyes. “Torin?”
“If I become your wife…not now, of course, maybe a few years later when it isn’t so awkward…”
“Who will become the heir to my homeland’s throne? I don’t have any brothers or sisters to become king or queen…”
“Geez, that’s a real problem, Leenah. I don’t know how to solve it now.”
“Do you think someone else is supposed to become wife of the Reuniter of the Layers?”
“I sure hope not, Leenah. But it’s getting too late to think about problems like that. Are you ready to go to bed?” asks Torin, just as Boogle hops onto the bed, curling up like a cat on the thick sheets.
“Yes. Are you?”
“Yeah. Do you prefer the right side or the left?”
“Do you mind if I ask why, Leenah?”
“I don’t know, it just…” she hesitates, looking at the balcony, which is the closest to the side she has just chosen. “It just seems right.”
Leenah has a restless, nervous sleep, partly because of the newness of the bed, partly because of her thoughts of Negasi crowding her mind. Thoughts of the soldiers returning with reports of not finding him, or even worse, reports of finding him dead. Perhaps that water stain on the wall outside the city was that of one of those monsters leaping up and grabbing him, then pulling him back down. Perhaps someone else had tried to help him and thrown whatever that little projectile was at the beast, and that was the movement that she had seen.
She strains to keep her eyes closed, willing herself to go rest, but finally, she opens her eyes, finding herself staring at the ceiling. But as she looks down, at the dark bedspread, she sees a shadow falling across it, a shadow that isn’t hers. Her eyes follow it towards its source, towards the left, towards the balcony.
Finally, she sees it. It stands so still that at first it looks like a pillar, but a small twitch of its tail reveals it to be who she thinks it is. Leenah slowly gets out of the bed and approaches the figure, her bare feet delicately moving across the cold floor. She steps out the door and onto the balcony, looking closely at the silent figure. His fur is slightly more ragged than before. His long pants are shredded into nothingness halfway down. There even seems to be a good half of hair missing from his tail. His ears move quietly, rotating back and forth to allow him to hear whatever it is that’s behind him and in front of him at the same time.
Leenah finally reaches a point directly behind him and places a hand on his right shoulder, the same shoulder that once bore the mysterious mark that had convinced Leenah to follow him through Strata in the first place. He turns his head slowly and looks into Leenah’s eyes with his own glowing brown ones.
“Did you miss me, Lee?”
“Yes, I did, Neg. What happened to you? How did you get up here?”
“Well, you asked, I’ll tell you: Back on the river, after you were out of sight, I turned and walked the other way, then I took a right and ran for all I was worth, approaching Crystal City from behind, then circling it and approaching it from the front. I leaped the moat and just barely dug my claws into the stone below the guard’s window. One of those nasty croctopus leapt up after me and got a good chunk out of my tail, as well as shredding my pants a good deal.”
“So that’s what that splash came from.”
“Right. Anyway, I climbed into the small, confined space beyond the window and found the controls that operated the bridge and lowered it.”
“Why wasn’t it down in the first place?”
“The guard that should’ve been there was on his lunch break, I guess. Anyway, after I lowered the bridge, I lay low and waited for you. After a few minutes, you came up the bridge. I stayed in the shadows, trying to keep out of sight. When I heard a splash and saw the croctopus looming out of the water, I chucked one of those roast rodents leftover from breakfast into its mouth. I still didn’t want you to see me, so I ducked back into the shadows again, hoping that that chunk of meat was enough to stop the croctopus. It was, and as soon as the ruckus died down, I found the door that led out of the guardroom and followed you as discreetly as I could, climbing across roofs and through alleys. I would’ve come here firstoff, but I thought it was just too risky.”
“But how did you know it was safe to come here at all?”
“Leenah, I know Torin. He knows how crazy young adventurers can get, since he was (and, for all I know, still is) one. I hypothesized he would clear my name with you and convince you that I wasn’t all bad.”
“You have uncanny ability to predict things, Negasi.”
“I know. That’s one of the advantages to being half human and half feline.”
Leenah and Negasi look out at the stars in silence. Then, after a few minutes, Leenah remembers her last words to Torin before they retired to bed. Who will become the heir to my homeland’s throne?
“When we were in Pergola, you told me that your name meant ‘he will become a king…’”
“If I become Torin’s wife, Escarpa will be without an heir…”
“I’ve been thinking about what Torin told me about you being important in some way…I guess you were destined to lead me to him, so you must be destined for something else…”
“You think so?”
“Did you come here to become King of Escarpa?”
A long pause follows her words. Negasi turns from her and stares at the stars wistfully.
“Huh?” Negasi asks, as if Leenah had just appeared beside him. “You’re asking if I’m destined to become King of Escarpa?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“Me? No way!” he exclaims. “What gave you that idea?”
“Well, I figured you had an answer to who was going to take over the throne, and when you told me that your name meant ‘he will become a king,’ and when Torin told me that you had to be of some importance to have made your way here…”
“I didn’t tell you why I’m called Negasi, did I?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Well, back on Earth, my parents are King Stuart and Queen Elfleda. Both lion felinoids, and it’s common knowledge back there that all lions are kings. Technically, I’m also a prince, and when I was born, my mother decided that ‘he will become a king’ was the best-fitting name for me.”
“So you aren’t just a wandering rogue,” says Leenah. “If I only knew that you were a king’s son…I would never have…”
“I spent a long time figuring out the right time to tell you about my lineage. Telling you somewhere back in one of those worlds wouldn’t have been the right time.”
“It spoils the element of surprise too much.”
“And what about that Xandra character that you mentioned in Pergola?”
“She and her brother are the children of a king too. Rinden, lord of the cheetahs.”
“Wow. It’s a small universe we live in.”
“I guess so.”
“So,” says another voice, “Who is going to be the heir of Escarpa’s throne?”
“Bwark!” squawks another.
Negasi and Leenah turn around to see Torin and Boogle standing close behind them.
“How long were you listening there?” Leenah asks.
“Long enough, Leenah. Are either of you going to answer my question?”
“Leenah,” says Negasi, “Don’t you remember the people that told you about the mark in the first place?”
“You mean Neel and Jalini?” asks Leenah. “They’re the heirs to Escarpa?”
“They’d be better than me. At least they’re human.”
“But how are we going to tell them? We can’t go all the way back to Asthenia now!”
“Torin,” asks Negasi, “Does Lycentia still have a VidCryst?”
“Yeah, she keeps it in her chamber in the dungeons. Why?”
“Neel and his wife have that communication-teleportation gadget I gave them. We can tell them about our problem through ours, then they can travel to our land through the teleportation module. We can tell them what the place looks like so that they can visualize it correctly.”
“Negasi, you’re a genius!” says Torin. “When can we start this project of yours?”
“Tomorrow,” says Negasi.
“Why not now?” asks Leenah. Before Negasi can answer, he drops to the floor, sound asleep. Leenah gives him a nudge with her foot, but he doesn’t move. She looks up at Torin, who shrugs.
“I guess because he’s really tired now,” he says.
“So that’s our problem, Jalini,” says Lycentia. “And you two are the only people that Negasi thinks are worthy of ruling Escarpa after Rupert and Di are gone.”
“Why?” asks Jalini, her face flickering in the VidCryst. “We are just a couple of dark-skinned natives living in a barren country that is dying even with our efforts to save it, if it hasn’t died already.”
Negasi looks over Lycentia’s shoulder into the VidCryst. “It’s because you’ve endured so much and are still alive. You know the history of your land and of the many others above and below you. And I’m sure Rupert and Di would feel secure about having two dependable heirs to follow in their footsteps.”
“Even though we’re from another land and we barely know this land of Escarpa that you’re talking about?”
“Cat’s honor. And after you take over the throne, any children you have can either stay in Escarpa or return to Asthenia. That might just be the first step to reuniting the worlds, something your people have wished for all these years.”
“Well, all right. I trust you, Negasi. And Neel seems to agree with me. Should we go to Escarpa through this contraption first?”
“No, Escarpa is too difficult to describe without actually being there. You should come here first. To The Lands Above. But one at a time, please. First you, then Neel.”
“All right. What does your land look like?”
“You describe this room to them, Lycentia,” says Negasi, stepping back from the screen. “You know it better than I ever will.”
Lycentia nods and begins describing the room to Jalini. Negasi walks over to where Torin and Leenah are standing, watching in interest.
“It’s going okay so far,” says the cat. “After those two people arrive and we get acquainted, we should contact Rupert and Di and tell them about you two and our proposal.”
After a few minutes, the two Asthenians arrive, trying to adjust to the dim light of the dungeon. Leenah introduces them to Lycentia and Torin, and explains that the next step is to contact the rulers of Escarpa.
“How?” asks Neel. “They don’t have a VidCryst, do they?”
“No,” says Lycentia. “But when I contact them, I think my image will simply appear in the space in front of them.”
“That should be interesting,” says Negasi. “Do you know what Rupert and Di look like?”
“Yes, Torin told me some time ago. Now be quiet, all of you. I need to concentrate.”
Lycentia is silent for a few moments as she focuses her mind, trying to visualize the king and queen of Escarpa. Finally, an image of the two people begins to appear in the oblong crystal sheet. The image of Rupert looks at Lycentia and blinks in surprise.
“Good lord! What are you, some type of specter?”
“I am Lycentia of The Lands Above, your highness. I am a friend of Torin, and your daughter, Leenah, has just arrived in this world.”
“Better above than down under,” mutters Di.
“What was that, Di?” asks Rupert.
“I said, ‘With friends like her, it’s no wonder.’”
“Oh, that’s nice, I guess.”
“We have something to tell you, King Rupert,” says Lycentia.
“Well, what is it, my lady?”
“According to an ancient prophecy, Leenah is destined to become Torin’s wife, and the two of them are destined to become rulers of the entire planet.”
“Well, at least my daughter has finally met someone she truly loves,” says Rupert.
“Like I thought I felt towards you, you devious no-gooder,” says Di.
“What was that, dear?”
“I said, ‘The thought brings hope anew, thank goodness!’”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? But Lycentia, tell me this: who is to carry on after we can no longer rule Escarpa?”
“I’ll tell you, father,” says Leenah, stepping up to the VidCryst.
“Oh Leenah,” says Rupert, “What a relief to see you again!”
“You too, father. Anyway, that creature who called himself Negasi led me through the worlds of Strata to find Torin. When we passed through Asthenia, we met a couple living on one of the islands. They’ve both been through a lot, and they know more about Strata than you’ve ever told me. Do you think it would be safe to make them the heirs to your positions?”
“Of all the unorthodox, ghastly…” begins Di.
“Excuse me, mother?”
“I said, ‘That would be good to consider lastly.’”
“Yes. I agree, Di,” says Rupert. “And Leenah, if you think letting these two individuals become heirs to this kingdom is right, I want nothing more than for you to get your wish.”
“Thank you, father,” says Leenah.
“Can we meet these two ingrates?” asks Di.
“What was that, my queen?”
“I said, ‘Can we meet these two? It would be great.’”
“Ah, yes. Well, Leenah, can we meet these two people of Asthenia that you speak of?”
“Yes, father,” says Leenah, stepping aside and gesturing for Neel and Jalini to approach the screen. The two come timidly, but finally assume a position before the king.
“Good day, sir,” says Jalini.
“Good day, madam,” says Rupert. “So you and your spouse are willing to become heirs to a land you’ve never been before? Why?”
“Our people have always been looking for a chance to med the severed ties we’ve had with the other worlds for a long time. And with the coming of Torin, the Retuniter of the Layers, I can see no better time for such an act.”
“Well, I never would’ve thought that that young man was such a person. But are you two sure that you want to leave your land and come here, just to fulfill this prophecy?”
“It would give us no better comfort to know we were doing such a thing, King Rupert,” says Neel.
“All right. You two then get here as soon as you can.”
With that, Rupert and Di’s images fade out, leaving the six individuals standing alone.
“Well, Leenah,” says Torin, “Are you up for a short visit to your home? I’ll have to go with Neel and Jalini to guide them to Rupert’s palace.”
“I’ll go with you,” says Leenah. “I want to see my parents before I return here to live the rest of my life.”
“You won’t be bound here forever,” says Torin. “I’m sure we’ll be able to visit each other often, with the way the phenocrysts are behaving.”
“Well, I’m coming with you too,” says Lycentia. Boogle, who has been sitting on Torin’s shoulder all this time, nods eagerly. There’s an awkward silence for a moment, then the five humans turn to the only felinoid in the room.
“Negasi?” asks Leenah. “Are you coming with us?”
“Eh…” says Negasi, hesitating for a moment. “No.”
“No?” yells Leenah. “After willingly stomping through all those worlds, you don’t even want to go one Layer down to Escarpa?”
“Just kidding, princess,” says Negasi. “I’m coming with you…as always.”
The six people make their way to the abandoned guard’s house, which is connected to an old phenocryst chamber, Torin in the lead with Boogle on his shoulder. Torin mentions his ruse to get rid of the former guard, and admits that another one would eventually have to be employed.
“Even so, I don’t think a guard would really be necessary,” says Leenah. “The only reason this place was set up was to keep so-called ‘evil entities’ from entering The Lands Above. But there were never any real evil people. Those were just superstitions. This phenocryst chamber should be kept open to all people from all the worlds.”
“You’re right, Leenah,” says Torin.
After filling Negasi’s bag (the one he got from Neel in Asthenia) with erresdy powder from the raised podium, the six individuals travel down, through the crystal shaft, one by one. Negasi is the last. When they arrive in Escarpa, Torin and Negasi are surprised at the way they arrive. When Torin first arrived in Escarpa, he fell through a tree and landed on a ledge some distance below. But now there is a stone ledge built just a few feet below the phenocryst, with steps leading down to another ledge below them. By the time Negasi arrives, the five people have walked down the steps to the aforementioned second ledge.
“That ledge wasn’t here before,” says Torin. “I wonder if I’m responsible for it too.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Negasi, descending the stairs. “Are you going to lead the way to Rupert’s palace, Torin?”
“Sure I will. Me and Boogle.”
“Okay. You and Leenah walk ahead. I’ll bring up the rear.”
“No, Negasi,” says Leenah.
“Walk with me. I want to talk with you.”
So Torin, Leenah and Negasi lead the procession, followed by Lycentia and a nervous Neel and Jalini. As they walk down the winding stairways and through the many caves of Escarpa, Leenah says to Negasi:
“I just wanted to thank you for all you did just to reunite me and Torin.”
“Ah, it was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing, Neg. You risked your life to get me to The Lands Above.”
“Yours too, Leenah.”
“You left your own world just to resolve a conflict in ours.”
“Anyone would’ve done it.”
“And you actually had a sense of humor about it.”
“Hey, Leenah,” says Torin. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you and Neg here were in love.”
Boogle makes a snickering sound as he peers over Torin’s shoulder, back at a very shocked Leenah.
“What?” says Leenah. “Me and a creature from another world in love?”
“Torin’s a creature from another world,” says Negasi. “And your relationship isn’t exactly a casual friendship.”
“I know, but you’re not…” begins Leenah.
“You’re right,” says Negasi. “And I agree with you. We’re not in love. We’re just friends.”
“Right. Just friends.”
“Even thought I dragged you to Tenebrous and back?”
“If we are friends…do you think you and Torin could do something for me? Just a friendly favor?”
“Sure, Neg. What do you want?”
“Well, all the worlds have their own beautiful name that has its own meaning in my language, Pergola, Escarpa, Asthenia…”
“But The Lands Above doesn’t. It’s just ‘The Lands Above.’ How bland a name is that?”
“It is a little dull…”
“When you and Torin become king and queen, could you…could you rename The Lands Above?”
“Pulchritude? What does that mean?”
“It just means ‘beautiful.’”
“Well, I think we can do that. Right, Torin?”
“Of course we can,” says Torin. “I’m sure my parents would have appreciated such a name.”
“Yeah…” says Negasi. “I’m sure Al would too.”
Well, that’s the end. At least for now. I hope you enjoyed the story. Be sure to tell me what you think by writing to me at Akril15@aol.com.
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