Cheska gaped at the woman kneeling before her. Her eyes darted to Mohy. His confidence shattered, he looked at his sister in defeat.
With a deep sense of foreboding, she asked the guardian, “What did you do?”
“I exposed the doctor’s healing abilities and location to the enemy. I also led them to him through the tunnels,” Zafeera answered steadily.
“She’s lying!” Mohy exclaimed. He dropped on his knees beside his sister. “We didn’t have a choice. Zafeera cured the President-General’s sickness hoping he would free our father. But he didn’t, he blamed ab that his son became sick and had to be confined in stasis. He had us locked up and interrogated.
“They injected a truth serum to make Zafeera talk. She did tell them about Fred’s healing ability but she never broke the Guardian’s Code, even when they tortured her. I was the one who told them about the tunnels because – because they were going to kill her.” His hands clenched on his lap as he begged: “Please, don’t punish her. Everything she said and did afterward was to protect me.”
They had broken the Code when they lied to the guardians during the assembly. Zafeera should have come clean instead of covering for her brother. Deceiving the guardians only added to their transgressions. It was just as well Cheska asked Strago to leave, this way she could keep it a secret among themselves until things settled down. But, first, she would have to know more about the real situation. Second, she’ll have to test Mohy if he was indeed telling the truth.
“Why tell them about Fred’s healing ability?” Cheska directed the question to Zafeera.
“I couldn’t lie. They showed me a video of Fred. It was from the time he saved me from a soldier that came after us. Fred accidentally killed him. It turned out the man was no ordinary soldier; he was the eldest son of an officer. I was afraid they’d use Fred as a weapon or kill him for revenge. Knowing they were already hunting him, I told them about his gift to keep him alive.”
“And you,” Cheska turned to Mohy, “how much did you tell them about the tunnels?”
“I said that some tunnels are doorways that traveling to faraway places takes less than a day. They wanted to check if it was real, so they made me lead them to where Fred is.”
She was finally able to piece the events of that day with what she knew – Fred’s emergency call then at Tony’s. With the way Zafeera clutched her side, Cheska assumed she was the patient Fred had attended to. Mohy hadn’t lied but she sensed he hadn’t given her the whole story. Her eyes narrowed when she realized what they hadn’t yet explained. “How did you know where to find him?”
“I called his secretary. I convinced her it was urgent that I talk to Fred. She gave me his number and I tracked him down—”
“Was that before—”
“No.” Mohy looked up quickly. “The first contact was for Zafeera. Her old wound was giving her pain. The doctor’s medicine was the only effective pain reliever. An ampoule of the medicine could keep her going for six months. But we lost it in an ambush. That’s why I called him. I didn’t know it would come to this.”
Cheska pinched the bridge of her nose. She could imagine what went on afterward. Fred’s medicine had potential. Zafeera had probably tried to help a plague victim get through the pain and unexpectedly cured them. Cheska couldn’t blame her, though. If the plague was in another country, the doctor would have joined a team of volunteers to aid its people. It was just like Fred to drop everything when someone – or a lot of someones needed him. She’d been on the receiving end of it too. Fred had skipped classes when she became sick before. He’d stayed with her until her fever went down.
“You should have summoned one of your sentinels when you were captured,” she said to Zafeera. The summons would have been within reason, considering that the guardian and her successor’s lives were in danger.
“She was drugged and tortured,” Mohy defended. “She was unconscious before we even got to Fred. That’s the reason why I called the shots. I led them to the doctor thinking his lightning could save us all. Then a new guardian showed up and I thought he and the others would be able to fix it,” he rambled. “If only I knew the first Head Guardian was still alive…”
The last words were spoken so softly that, if the wind hadn’t carried his voice to her, Cheska wouldn’t have heard it. She stiffened and slowly advanced on Mohy. “What did you say?”
Fear flickered in Mohy’s expression and he dropped his gaze.
She crouched down to his level and brought his chin up to face her. Her voice low and commanding, she said: “Look at me.”
Their gazes locked and she could see her reflection in his eyes. Cheska’s over bright gold eyes was a sight to behold. Her skin glowed with a light which seemed to radiate from within her. She could somehow understand why Mohy was afraid of her. It wasn’t just because they’d violated the rules and her gift, he thought she was Lady Celestraena.
Taking sympathy on Zafeera’s apprentice, Cheska reined in her impatience. In a controlled voice, she asked, “What else have you told them?”
“I said that,” Mohy swallowed, “they needed the person in charge of the whole network to control the tunnels. I described what the first Head Guardian looks like because I thought she passed on.”
She closed her eyes. Of course, all guardians knew who established the guardianship of the tunnels. It was part of their training to know the history of their organization. They knew the founder was Lady Celestraena, the beloved queen of Uruimeth. She had abdicated the throne to oversee the tunnels and the guardians and protect the peoples of within and on the surface of the Earth. Her mother’s personal life had been kept private, however.
In the records, the first Head Guardian’s final and ultimate sacrifice was saving a Serran. The guardians would never know that she gave her remaining life span to her spouse, Mr. Alfred Roucan.
The assembly Louis attended would have given away the fact that Celestraena had a family with a Serran, though. He resembled their parents. It was only a matter of time before the guardians discovered the real identity of their new leader. Cheska thought she would simply be the “Lady” and “Head Guardian” for a while, but it seemed she would have to reveal herself.
She let the apprentice go. Rising to her feet, she caught Zafeera’s bewildered gaze flit between her and Mohy. “My mother was the first Head Guardian”, she said, not meeting any of their gazes. “Is there anything else I should know about?” she said sternly.
Mohy shook his head.
Cheska found the last piece of the puzzle. Mohy had inadvertently set the President-General after her. Being the spitting image of her mother had always been a burden to her; a reminder of her guilt and her father’s loss, her mother’s legacy and the guardians’ expectations. Now, it seems she was being pursued because of a mistaken identity.
She sighed and glanced at the pod. Would her life always be torn between duty and the things she really wanted to grasp? Her father had given her a taste of an ordinary Serran’s life – of freedom. Cheska had yet to decide if she should be grateful.
“Please stand up,” she motioned to them to rise. The siblings exchanged looks. Mohy wound his arm around Zafeera’ waist and helped her up. “As soon as this situation is diffused, you will stand trial for oath breaking. The jury will consist of your fellow guardians but the final judgment will come from me. I advise you to be honest to your peers; justify your actions as you’ve done with me.” The two sets of brown eyes were fixed on her, digesting her words. “But, until then, you can redeem yourself through your contributions as guardians.” She paused, hesitant to extend her trust to the Libyans. Zafeera’s expression earlier, however, made Cheska set aside her misgivings. “It’s time you knew what happened to Fred.”
“Did he say why?” the Libyan guardian said, after hearing the reason behind Fred’s continued sickness.
Guardians had rules. They believed in letting the natural order of things flow. Altering the fate of mankind was not one of them. They’d rather wash their hands off Fred for committing a taboo. The Libyans may be more understanding, though. They knew what kind of person Fred was. Still… “It’s not my secret to tell.”
“You asked about V-X2103,” Zafeera suddenly began. “It originated from my father. He was diagnosed with an unidentifiable disease when he contracted the plague. He became the new strain’s host.
“It was out of pure chance that the virus was discovered. The President-General met my father half an hour before to his annual physical exam. It was during the checkup that the new strain was identified. They apprehended everyone who came in contact with the President-General in the last twelve hours.
“Shadow sent me a message saying that father had been taken and we have to hide. But I was too stubborn; I thought the medicine was enough to heal all those infected.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I was wrong and,” her voice shook, “no cure can be found. There is only suffering and death.”
“There is a cure,” Cheska said. “Fred was able to make one. If he can do it, someone can. We just have to wait.”
“The doctor is dying. The medicine he made, he created it using his gift. How long would it take for an average man with limited resources to create a medicine on par with Fred’s?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I do,” Zafeera sounded resigned. “It’s my gift to see another person’s abilities. The only thing we can do for him is to end his pain.” She moved toward the pod.
Cheska stepped in her path. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.
“My sister is right,” Mohy said.
“Killing an innocent man is a serious crime! You will be stripped of your position, your gifts, and your memories as a guardian.”
“I would rather pay the price than let him suffer waiting for a cure that doesn’t exist,” Zafeera said.
“There’s still time,” Cheska insisted, but deep inside she was conflicted. They were probably right, except Fred had talked to her. He wanted to live, didn’t he?
“He had so many chances until he chose to go to Libya,” Mohy said, shifting to Cheska’s other side.
“Take one more step and I—” An all too familiar sound blared behind her.
Red lights illuminated the pod’s sides. The monitors showed an erratic heartbeat. Fred’s vitals were dropping, fast. Then, for the second time that day, his heart stopped beating.
Quickly, Cheska opened the hatch and swore. The pod was too high and narrow for what she intended to do.
“Please. Just let him go,” she heard Zafeera call out but paid it no heed. Cheska half-lifted and half-dragged Fred’s torso out of the contraption. When she got his head out, she hooked her arms under his armpits and heaved. She managed to drag most of his body out when she tripped. Her breath whooshed out of her lungs, twigs, stones and roots dug painfully at her back. Cheska couldn’t breathe with Fred’s deadweight on her. She rolled him off her and slowly got back up, ignoring her body’s protests and the voices pleading her to stop.
She lay him on his back and started pumping his heart. She continued the rhythm until her arms ached, her vision blurred and the world despaired, becoming quiet and dark – and cold and hot.
Enveloped in darkness, she forgot who she was.
Where was she? How did she get to this place? Hadn’t she been with someone?
Her hand felt something. Cheska looked down and saw the body in front of her. She tilted her head.
That golden hair…
She remembered those lips form a word.
“I kept my promise, Fred,” she murmured and bent down to kiss him.
Wandering the tunnels, Louis had stumbled upon the entrance to the enchanted forest. Nostalgia hit him as he entered his sister’s old cottage and his gaze swept over the living room. He could hear the voices of the past, the tales he told his sister and their joined laughter over a funny story.
His eyes landed on an egg-shaped container lying on the sofa. He picked the object and studied the design. The exterior was embellished with preservation inscriptions. Turning it over, he placed his finger over three obscure symbols to unlock it. A line appeared along the length of the container. Louis opened it and found photographs, shells, polished stones and a vial of green liquid inside. The substance was the medicine Fred had given her sister when she was ill. It had worked wonders.
Brows furrowed, he thought of Fred and the virus. Would the medicine work? Louis pocketed the vial. He raised the silver whistle on his lips and blew. A portal opened before him. A black blur leaped from it and took the shape of a huge black cat with green eyes.
Its appearance had fear slithering down his spine.
“Take me to my sister,” he commanded.
They arrived in the Forest Reserve in less than a minute, but Cheska was nowhere in sight. “Why didn’t you take me directly to her?” he asked between breaths, while the panther sprinted ahead.
I can’t. The way is closed, it spoke to him, frustrated. The danger is unnatural. The creature growled. I should never have left my Lady’s side. Faster, guardian! We need to hurry.
His vision was unfolding and he was powerless to prevent it. He tried to move faster but the uneven ground kept tripping him, the branches swiped at him, and thorns tore at his skin.
He knew they had reached the end of his vision; they had stopped at the blackened line of trees. Dried leaves drifted down, dissolving like a twisted version of snow flurries. The forest creaked and groaned. Dead branches snapped off and creatures fell from trees and the sky above.
We can’t go any further, the panther said. Any healthy living being will be sucked dry of its energy. She’s lost. She can’t hear me. I can’t bring her back. The panther’s mental voice was frantic in his mind. Guardian, you’re her brother. You must know of a way to bring her back.
Louis looked helplessly at Cheska’s back, a beacon amid the death surrounding her. How could he help her when he never knew the other side of her gift? He watched her shift and lean over him. “Cheska, don’t!”
The light moved from her to Fred. It continued to expand around them. Color and life returned to the plants and creatures that fell victim to Cheska’s gift.
Her body went limp and dropped sideways to the ground. Louis broke into a run toward her, shouting her name.
Thunder clapped overhead. A bolt of lightning streaked through the sky toward them. On instinct, Louis brought his arms up and a blinding light filled his vision.
Louis never made it to them.
Copyright © 2014-2017 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: Let’s just say I’m really bad at ending my chapters. Hihi. 😉
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