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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Coming Home
A Tale of Destruction, Redemption and Penguins

by Jeff Hersh (Shilree)

Chapter 4: Dreams and Journey’s Origin

While preparing for her quest,
Shilree is reunited with a long lost
friend and meets a surprising guest
of the Emperor.

Signature Divider

Shilree stood on a flat rock, floating in a space of ever-shifting patterns. All around her, asteroid sized stones covered in alien foliage floated about. Scintillating lights flashed in random patterns, causing everything to cast multicolored shadows. Looking around, Shilree could see she was not alone.

To her left, backlit by alternating red and green lights, stood a shapely woman. Off to Shilree’s right, again backlit by the random lights of this place, floated a semi-opaque female form.

“So, our jailer deigns to visit us.”

“Let’s just kill her and get it over with.”

“Tiall, where are your manners? After all, because of her, look what we have to look forward to.”

“You mean an eternity of imprisonment?”

“Well, for you at least. I am sure our captor hopes to find a different fate for me.”

Shilree refused to believe this. She was trapped someplace with both the Ti’ar’na and Trillarillia.

“I see, dear Shilree,” said Trill with obvious disdain, “that you do not accept the reality of this place. Well, let me demonstrate.”

With eerie speed, Trill rushed forward, and pain exploded from Shilree’s chest. She felt something rip from her torso as crystal shards of shock filled her body. Just before she passed out, Shilree saw Trill and the Ti’ar’na standing side by side. Both of them were laughing evilly as Shilree’s still beating heart was crushed in Trill’s claw-like hand.

Shilree awoke naked, screaming and in a pool of her own sweat. Confused, she threw off the silken blankets that covered her and scrambled for her headband, which lay on a small nightstand with the rest of her clothes. Once she tied the strip of protective fabric around her head, she started to calm down and regain her bearings.

Things looked strange, as if she was peering through thick glass. Shilree wondered if the blindness she had suffered in the Temple of the Weird Sisters was returning. Then, as the dream panic left her mind, she remembered. It had been close to a week since she had entered the palace with the Emperor. Over the last few days, the Emperor had changed her so that she would be able to survive under the ocean. Her eyes now had a nictitating membrane to protect them. She willed the membrane to retract and the world came into focus.

“I have got to do something about these nightmares,” she said as she gave her pouch a dirty look. “The sooner I get rid of both of you, the happier I will be.”

Shilree still was trying to get used to the changes the Emperor had performed on her over the last few days. Her hands and feet supported retractable webbing to help her swim better. Her vocal chords were modified, and her neck was now augmented with two fine gill slits and so that she could speak and breathe underwater. The Emperor also changed her internal body structure so that she could withstand the extreme water pressure of the undersea world. Last night the Emperor performed the final augmentations to her. Shilree now had the same echolocation abilities of a dolphin. Additionally, over the last few nights, Shilree had absorbed the knowledge of how to use all of her new undersea abilities by means of Pysyri crystals the Emperor had given her. She was now equally at home above and below the waves. Now she was something that wasn’t quite Diari, nor Diaryn. She was something between the two.

Two quick knocks came from the door.

“Ummm, one second,” Shilree said as she quickly recovered herself in the bed covers.

“Excuse me, honored lady,” said the hushed voice of Virla from behind the door, “but are you all right? I heard you screaming.”

“Yes, I’m okay, Virla,” she said to the servant. “Just a bad dream. Please come in.”

The door opened, and Virla and another girl servant entered the room, carrying a plush robe and some towels.

“The Emperor said that you would be wanting to spend time in the baths when you woke up.”

“Mmmm,” Shilree grunted sleepily. “What time is it, anyway?”

“Just after seven in the morning, honored lady.”

“Mmmm.” Shilree grunted again as she got up from under the covers.

Virla quickly covered Shilree with the robe and walked with her to the bath chambers.

Book Divider

Calling the palace baths a bath was like calling the Vadril Ocean a puddle. The pool was easily forty feet long and, at its deepest end, just as deep. Every morning since her augmentations started, Shilree had spent hours in the pool, swimming underwater. At first, she kept coming up for air, but as she grew accustomed to her gills she hardly surfaced anymore. Shilree was amazed at the freedom and quiet the underwater world offered.

“This must be like how Zzenith feels in space,” she pondered, while doing a complex figure eight.

In the next few days, Shilree was supposed to be immersed in the real thing. The Emperor was going to send her hundreds of fathoms below the surface to the Diaryn capitol, Shastri. There, Shilree would find a clue to where the Diaryn had gone. At least, that was the theory.

Shilree was trying out her new echolocation abilities when someone threw a stone into the pool. She heard it hit the water above her and watched it float down to the bottom. Soon a second stone followed the first.

“Looks like someone is trying to gain my attention. Time to have some fun,” Shilree mischievously mused.

She dove down to the very bottom of the pool. Once reaching the bottom, Shilree swam in circles, gaining momentum. Then, when she thought she had enough speed, she rocketed upwards, broke through the surface, did a flip and landed on the lip of the pool.

Zharn illini!” yelled a robed woman. “Shilree, you scared the vireni out of me!”

“Anjra? Anjra! What the hell are you doing here!?!” Shilree yelled, hugging her friend.

“I am stationed at the main temple in Ekyarn. I heard rumors that you were here, so I came to see you.”

Anjra was Shilree’s best friend from their Academy days. The two of them would often sneak out of campus after curfew and explore the more perilous areas of Diaromyn. The amount of mischief the two of them used to get into drove the headmaster of the Academy crazy. Shilree last saw Anjra a few years ago, when she was searching for an item to contain or destroy Trill’s spirit. At that time, she was just a minister in Pysyri’s church. Now, by the cut of her robes, Shilree could see Anjra was a high priestess.

“You duck!” Shilree said mockingly. “How did you get in here?”

“Being a high priestess has some advantages. And I am not a duck, you ferret! But let’s not talk about that. Why are you here? Has the Emperor granted you a reprieve?”

Shilree walked over to a set of chairs near the pool. Her robe and some towels were folded neatly on top of one of them. She put on her robe and started to vigorously rub the towel through her hair.

“Not quite, he has a job for me. I am afraid I cannot talk about it.”

Anjra arched one of her eyebrows.

“Oh, don’t give me that! You know how the Emperor is. I can’t talk about it.”

“I see. But let me guess, it has to do something with swimming, doesn’t it?”

Now it was Shilree’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Don’t be surprised. I have been watching you swim for a hour or so. I never knew you could swim like that.”

Shilree smiled. “Well, it is amazing what a little body manipulation can do,” she said, extending and retracting the membranes between her fingers. “But enough of that,” she said as she sat down on one of the chairs. “How are you? It has been too long.”

Anjra sat next to her friend and grasped her hands. “Yes, it has. Times have been better.”

Shilree nodded. “The Emperor told me about the Shattering. Are you okay?”

Anjra smiled a bitter smile. “Yes, I am okay. Believe it or not, I came through the Shattering fairly well. I was lucky. Much luckier than others.”

Anjra’s voice dropped to a soft whisper with her last words. Something was eating at Anjra, Shilree was sure of it. However, Shilree knew Anjra. If she wanted to talk about what was bothering her, she would volunteer the information.

“I heard,” said Shilree, matter-of-factly. “You and the other clerics must be keeping really busy lately.”

“That is an understatement. The Emperor has charged the surviving members of Pysyri’s church to go out among the populace and heal them. I have performed more psychic surgeries in the last few weeks than I ever thought I would have to do in my lifetime.”

Anjra Squezed Shilree’s hands. This was obviously painful for her. Shilree decided to change the topic.

“So,” she said, standing up and stretching. “Do you have any gossip from the home front?”

Anjra laughed. “Only you would want to hear gossip at a time like this. Well, there is really not much to tell. Sarjina got married a few years ago and promptly had two kids.”

“Well, she always said she wanted a big family. Who is her husband?”

“Remember Larin?”

“The psi-tech major?”

“Yep.”

Shilree shook her head. Larin always used to follow her around campus like a puppy dog. Her friends always used to tease her about her “pet.”

“Who would have thought... What about Harn? What ever happened to him?”

Anjra grew quiet. “I am afraid he was in Irla during the Shattering. No one has heard from him since.”

Shilree sat down next to Anjra, not knowing what to say. Anjra started to cry.

“You don’t know what has been like,” Anjra said between sobs. “The mental pain our people have suffered. I have had to relive that every time I heal someone. I am surprised I haven’t gone insane before now.”

Shilree didn’t know what to say. Anjra was talking about an experience beyond her imagining. All she could do was hold her friend.

“Diar’s blood, I can’t believe this,” Anjra said. “Here I come all this way to see you and to find out how you are doing, to comfort you if you wanted it and look what happens... I end up crying on your shoulder!”

Shilree smirked. “Such is the nature of life. Tell you what. I am not supposed to meet again with the Emperor until late tonight. Why don’t you come with me back to my room. There we can have the servants bring us tons of food that is bad for us and we can gossip to our heart’s content.”

Anjra wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Deal.”

The two friends got up from the pool chairs and walked down the hall arm in arm. The air of nostalgia followed them.

Book Divider

It was well after dark when Shilree woke up. Half awake, she checked the area of the bed next to her. Anjra was gone. Shilree sat up in bed, clutching the blankets to her chest, remembering the last few hours with a sad smile. She didn’t mean for what had happened between her and Anjra to have happened, but she was glad it did. She had forgotten how nice it was to be close to someone. A soft knock from the door interrupted her thoughts.

“Honored lady?”

“Yes, Virla. What is it?”

“It is close to midnight. The Emperor instructed me to get you.”

“Umm, just an minute.” Shilree said, as she stumbled out of bed and grabbed the silken Diari robes the palace servants had left for her. As she was hurriedly draping the robes around her, something small fell out and hit the ground with a plink. Shilree bent down and grasped it, looking at it curiously. It was a Pysyri crystal.

“Must be from Anjra,” Shilree thought, as she tried to access the information stored in it.

“What the... Anjra, why did you put a lock on this?” Shilree thought, as Virla knocked on the door again.

Shilree gave the door a dirty look and put the crystal in her pouch. She would try to access the crystal later.

After she was fully dressed in the flowing garments, Shilree opened the door. Virla was standing there, looking worried and a bit sheepish.

“Please come with me, honored lady. The Emperor likes his appointments to be punctual.”

Shilree nodded and followed the servant girl through the halls.

Book Divider

Virla lead Shilree to the massive interior gardens of the palace. They turned a corner past some sweet smelling tropical flowers and were greeted by the Emperor, sitting cross-legged on the ground.

-Thank you Virla- the Emperor thought. -You may go now.-

“Yes, my lord” said Virla, as she backed away.

-Come, Shilree Vestrin, sit beside me.-

Shilree obeyed and sat next to the Emperor.

-Have you adapted to your new gifts?-

-As best as that can be expected, my Emperor. I am still not fully used to the echolocation yet, but that will come in time.-

The Emperor grunted in agreement.

-Time, Shilree Vestrin,- the Emperor thought, -is something that is growing short. I am afraid you are to leave tomorrow.-

-Tomorrow?!? But, but...-

-Yes, I know, Shilree Vestrin. You would like more time to prepare. However, there are things going on that you know nothing about. I sense a storm coming from the east. If you are to be successful in your task you must leave at dawn.-

Shilree nodded. It seems she didn’t have much choice.

Suddenly the Emperor clapped his hands. A moment later, two male servants came into view, guiding a blindfolded and gagged man. The man was dark skinned but unmistakably elven. The cut of his clothes suggested he was from the Montas Archipelago. More than likely he was a pirate.

“I wonder why he is still alive?” Shilree thought to herself.

-Now here is an interesting case,- thought the Emperor at Shilree as he stood up. - This fellow was caught just outside one of the eastern ports. Normally, his ship would have been sunk on sight and all aboard would have been killed, but I instructed the fleet to do otherwise. Can you guess why?-

Shilree shook her head.

-The three whirlpools have made our eastern ports mostly inaccessible. Nevertheless, this foolhardy person managed to cross Diarmn Bay. For where you have to go such a person will be.-

The Emperor looked away from Shilree and at the dark skinned elf. The blindfold and gag were quickly torn away by the Emperor’s will.

“Ouch! Watch that! You nearly tore off my head,” said the elf with a thick Caribbean accent.

The Emperor stood up. “Alderon Torikin, do you know where you are?” said the Emperor in Dalen with a strong Diari accent.

The elf looked around and swallowed hard. “Some place, I take it, that I do not want to be.”

“Correct.”

“Do you have any idea why you are not dead right now?”

“No, but I can guess you are about to tell me.”

The Emperor glared at the elf. Shilree could feel the anger pour forth from the Emperor and into the pirate. Alderon’s knees buckled from the onslaught.

“Ok! OK! I get the point,” said Alderon who then bowed and kept his head lowered.

“That is better, Alderon Torikin. Know that you live by my wishes alone. I can rip your mind from your body with just a thought.”

The elf was silent.

“Enough threats, I have a job for you. If you survive you will be paid very well.”

The elf’s ears perked up with the mention of money.

“Somehow, you managed to cross Diarmn Bay without the aid of a Diari charter. I honestly do not care how or why you made the trip. Let me be blunt, I do not approve of pirates. However, by your own thoughts I see you have managed to survive many adventures. These are skills you are going to need for what I have in store for you. This is the only reason why you and your crew are still alive.”

The Emperor paused and turned his back to the pirate. Alderon sneaked a glance up while the Emperor’s back was turned.

“You might as well raise your head if you insist on looking at me, Alderon Torikin,” the Emperor said nonchalantly.

Shilree stifled a laugh, seeing the elf’s face at being caught. The Emperor turned around and faced the elf eye to eye.

“This is what you are going to do, Alderon Torikin. You see this woman beside me? You are going to take her through Diarmn Bay to a certain spot just off our waters. Where this place is, she will instruct you. Once there, you will let her off in a small boat you will be carrying. After that, you will leave Diarian waters, never to return. You will then immediately return to the island of Pirate’s Horn. Once there, you will be given instructions on where to find your payment. Do you understand?”

The elf nodded.

“You may speak, Alderon Torikin.”

“Let me get this straight. You want me to take her through that hellish bay you have on your borders and dump her at a place she requests. After that, I return home and get paid?”

“Correct. And do not even consider what you are thinking. This woman is under my personal protection. If you or your crew does any harm to her, I will personally see all of you live a long and very painful life in the biological research labs.”

The elf grimaced.

“Now, Alderon Torikin, go prepare your ship. You will sail at dawn.”

With that, there was an inrush of air, and the elf disappeared.

-I don’t trust him,- thought Shilree.

-No reason you should, Shilree Vestrin. Watch your back with him. This is why I chose you. You have experience in dealing with kiljhac.-

Shilree nodded.

-Here are your instructions,- thought the Emperor as he gave her three crystals, two purple and one black, and a scroll case with a vellum map. -The map plots the safest course around the whirlpools for the next two days. However, your trip will take you dangerously close to Diar. Make sure the ship does not stop there. I will not be able to help you if you land there.-

-I understand.-

-Your drop off point is just over one hundred miles southeast of the Diarotp Jungle. Once you are dropped off, you must swim back north about fifty miles. This is unfortunately necessary. After all, we do not want our pirate friend to know where exactly you are going.-

Shilree nodded in agreement.

-The entrance to Shastri is well hidden. I have explicitly noted its position in the first crystal I gave you. The second crystal is a message only for the Diaryn leader. Make sure that, whoever the current Diaryn leader is, they are the only person to see it.-

-And the black crystal?-

-That, Shilree Vestrin, you will be instructed in using, if you successfully convince the Diaryn to return. That is all I can say on that.-

Shilree grimaced. She didn’t like unknowns. This trip was going to be dangerous enough without her carrying around a wild card.

-Now, I take it you have absorbed all the information I sent you on the Diaryn world?-

-Yes, my Emperor. Everything from their rules of etiquette to magic and combat techniques.-

-Good. You are going to need them. When you return to your room, you will find it fully stocked with all the equipment you will need. You might want to know that I personally raided the Library for some of those items. I will be disappointed if they aren’t returned.-

-I understand, my Emperor.-

-Good then. You had better get back to your room. You have a long journey ahead of you and I am sure you need the rest.-

The Emperor then turned and floated away into the garden. Once he disappeared from view, Shilree walked back to the garden entrance. Virla was standing there waiting for her.

“Back to your quarters, honored lady?”

Shilree nodded. “Yes, but first I need a swim. I think it is going to be a long time before I will be enjoying the water again.”

History

On to Chapter 5

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