Episode #8: No Mercy At Crystal Castle
When last we saw Julie, she had arrived at Crystal Castle and discovered that the woman pretending to be her grandmother was no other than Merciless, the evil woman intent on stealing the throne...
Digel barked furiously. Nona's beautiful face shred and split, revealing that of a bat. Mercy's cackling filled darkened the gleam of the sparkling throne.
"You can't be crowned!" I shouted. "Only my grandma can!"
Mercy pointed one evil claw at me. "Seize her!"
I ran toward the stairs. Tears fell and turned to crystal and clattered to the castle floor. Digel cried out and I turned back. I needed to escape, but I wouldn't leave him.
Three crystal guards joined the other two. Digel wriggled under a massive clear boot.
"Let him go!"
Mercy laughed. "Come to me, girl, or his bones will be crushed."
Fists clenched, I took three steps. "What have you done with my grandma?"
Fine robes dragged behind her as she stepped around the altar. "I always planned to reunite all of you. Once the crown is mine, I'll erase your bloodline forever."
Two large doors opened slowly. Children, dressed in the jungle garments from Inti's village, cold and shivering, filed out in four lines. The last of the sun revealed knotty ropes they pulled over their thin shoulders. Attached to the end of those ropes, a huge iron cage on crystal wheels rolled from the shadows.
Nona lay curled in the center, curly hair draped across her face.
"Grandma!" I yelled. When I tried to go to her, two crystal guards grasped my arms. Through the warm coat, the iciness of their grip chilled me.
She rose, pushing her hair aside. "Julie?"
"I'm so sorry, Grandma. I wanted to help." I wished I could have been smart enough to save her.
"Listen to me, darling." She rose to her knees as the children halted. Her slim white fingers went round the iron bars. "You did everything right."
"Quiet!" Mercy shouted. "I gave no one permission to speak."
The bat-faced hag snapped her fingers and a guard brought her a velvet box. "It's time to begin the ceremony. The sun is gone."
From the box, Mercy lifted a silver dagger, the handle covered in rubies. A new guard lifted the crown gently on its velvet pillow. He stood to one side of the throne and returned to his statue self.
"Bring her to me," Mercy ordered those holding me.
I kicked and fought, but they didn't feel pain. I did though, and they held me so tight, I swore bones shifted. They forced me onto the altar and one held me at the shoulders, the other gripped my ankles.
I glared. "You won't get away with this. I know you won't. Inti won't let you."
"Such courage and bravery!" She mocked, laughing. "Child, you are no match for even the Monboys, or the Wiramen. Do you think you stand a chance against me?"
She lifted the dagger high and began muttering. Above her, the sky turned brilliant purple with night stars. A full moon sped overhead so fast, it freaked me out.
I worked my hand inside my messenger bag, praying to find a letter with a rhyme to end this, or at least allow me to get away and free Digel, who whined now and again, and Grandma who I couldn't see from my angle. I closed my eyes, terrified of the glowing dagger above my head.
"She belongs to me, Mercy." A woman called from the back of the room. A very familiar woman.
"Mom?" I croaked and tried to see past the guard.
Mercy grinned. "You're too late."
Mom said, "Crystal Castle Glass Guard protect…"
"NO!" Mercy shouted.
My fingers found the dagger in my bag and I gripped it tightly in my hands.
Grandma leant her voice to Mom's and together they finished, "Royal relations with love and respect!"
The guards released me. Mercy brought the dagger down in a desperate move to cut out my heart before I could get away. At the same moment I buried mine deep in her stomach. She staggered back with a strangled cry as I rolled off the altar.
She raced to me, dressed beautifully, her long blond hair curled and swaying around us as we hugged. Digel rubbed against my legs. Mercy fell, her clawed fingers grasping the knife in her belly. The children cheered.
"I'm so glad you're okay," Mom said, kissing the top of my head and holding me out so she could look me over. "You are okay, aren't you?"
"You brought the letters?"
I nodded again.
"Good," Grandma said from the cage. "Read the red one, sweetheart. Send Mercy back."
I didn't take time with the knotted ribbon and the paper crumpled as I yanked it off and turned to where Mercy had fallen. She wasn't there. I gasped. A huge weight landed on me and we slid across the floor.
Mom yelled, "No!"
The clatter of crystal boots was nearly drowned by Mercy's shriek as she clawed at my head. Before I could do much more than protect myself, she howled in outraged pain.
Inti stood, surrounded by his warriors and the guards, a crystal spear in his strong arms, and Mercy on the other end, skewered through her back.
"Now!" Grandma yelled. "Read it now!"
I stood quickly, trying to smooth the paper. The first line, blurred from getting wet, was unreadable and I scowled at the rest. I knew this poem! I remembered all the nights in Grandma's yard when she, Mom and I had recited this over and over again. They started it for me. I joined in and we sang the words in perfect harmony:
Down and down the witch shall go,
Round and round she will spin
Until only love and peace flow,
For evil and hatred can never win.
Her screams faded with every verse until only a few insects swirled where her body had been. Then they too flickered, sparked and went out. The children cheered again, hugging each other. Inti and his warriors embraced them.
Mom whispered something into the lock on the cage and it opened. She winked at me. "I've got a lot to teach you."
Two crystal guards held Grandma's hands and she stepped down to hug me She smelled like always, my grandma, my Nona.
"When you died, I though I'd never see you again," I sobbed.
"I know," Grandma whispered, catching a few of my tears. "I'm here. Stop crying now. I think you've enough diamonds here to pay for college."
Mom chuckled and held out three in the palm of her hand. "She's not the only one who missed you."
We stood together and I asked, "Why didn't you tell me about Grandma?"
"Oh sweetheart," she sighed. "I wanted to protect you from Mercy and I wanted you to have a normal life for as long as you could. It's part of our training, to understand grief. You don't know how badly I wanted to tell you. I knew how much pain you felt. I went through the same thing when my father died."
"Is Grandpa here?"
Grandma said sadly, "No honey, only we women continue on here. Our husbands are mortals. "
This was a lot to consider but a huge moonbeam lit the castle and we were surrounded by rainbows. Awe filled everyone's expression.
Mom said softly, "Time to finish the ceremony."
My smile fell. "Do you really have to cut my heart out?"
Grandma chuckled, "Of course not, silly. You love me. You could never have loved Merciless, therefore, she had to steal your heart."
"Come along, Julie." Mom held her hand out.
Grandma sat on the throne and Mom picked up the crown. She handed it to me and when my fingers touched the golden metal, the jewels pulsed with my heart. I glanced at Mom in surprise.
"The youngest must crown the next in line. Only your heart can decide whether or not Nona has learned and earned her rightful place as Queen."
Grandma smiled and bowed to let me place the crown on her head. When I did, the missing heart in the center pulled in the moonbeam rainbows and filled the gap. The colors hardened and became a ruby of the deepest red.
She straightened and grinned as all of use cheered.
Mom wrapped an arm around my shoulders. I said, "I want to stay here forever, Mom. I don't want to go back home."
Grandma said, "You have to return to train. Each year now, you'll take over mastering the directions and have a long and loving life with your family."
"It's our destiny," Mom said. "And you've already the strongest we've ever seen."
That made me wonder. "Where's Great-grandma, then?"
"When I passed," Grandma said, "My mother went on to the next dimension. Her time here prepared her to move on. And so it will be with your mother, and with you, and with your daughter."
Inti interrupted. "Thank you, all of you, for returning the children of my village to us. They have spoken of the Queen keeping them warm and safe."
Queen Nona said, "It was the least I could do for all your help, Inti. You are a fine warrior and I'll order your return swiftly to spare the children further hardship."
"Can we go with them, Mom?" I asked, eager to see those ladies hug their children again.
"No, I'm afraid your dad is likely terrified we've both disappeared for good. We need to go back, and quickly. Especially before he can sell the house."
"We're not selling grandmother's house?" I asked elated.
She shook her head. "No. Your father wanted to, but destiny strangely made it so we can live there forever."
I grinned. "Strangely."
She hugged me and I closed my eyes. A chill wind made me shiver and I felt the world slide sideways. Mom said, "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you."
When I opened my eyes, we were back at the graveyard beneath a full moon, standing beside Grandma's grave. Surprised, I regretted not giving Grandma one last hug and kiss goodbye, but I figured I'd see her soon anyway. Right now I wanted to know what Mom forgot to tell me. "What?"
"You're going to have a new baby sister."
While I smiled, something deep inside me turned icy. In the back of my mind, I heard Mercy's evil cackle.
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