“Open your eyes.”
Tabby struggled against her stiff muscles, coaxing her eyelids open.
She was in a circular room. Its black walls were carved with a multitude of figures and ocean waves. The cloak she stole from Philip was gone, and she was left in her hooded sweatshirt and jeans. The air was cold and dank, giving her a horrible chill.
“Now, look up.”
Tabby rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked around. She was at the bottom of what looked like a dry well, its black marble walls covered in etchings of Remanora figures. There were no windows or doors. About ten feet above her was the only exit – a hole covered by a thick pane of glass. A domed ceiling acted as a roof beyond, held up by painstakingly decorated pillars. She could see a patch of night sky, deep and starry blue. The moist air was illuminated by a bright moon and the glow of Nonak, making it easy to see despite the twilight hour.
Kneeling over the glass ceiling was someone that made the hair on the back of her neck stand. It was Priestess Hiida, her pallid face unreadable and austere.
“Tell me your name, young one,” she said.
“You...” Tabby gasped.
She pressed herself against the far wall, putting as much distance between herself and Hiida as possible. Pacing behind her was the stout captain of the temple guard, Joyen. His weatherworn face was drawn in a grim, tight-lipped frown. His teal hair fell in a long braid, draping around his shoulders like a snake.
“Tell. Me. Your. Name.” The priestess was stone still, but the threat in her voice was clear enough.
“Tabby,” she nodded judiciously. She spoke slowly, calmly. If she wasn’t trapped inside a hole, Tabby would’ve found her voice to be almost soothing. “Tell me where you’re from, Tabby.”
“I... I’m from a small town outside of Faast.”
A silky smile spread across Hiida’s powder-white face. She turned her head so she could look down at Tabby from the very corners of her eyes, posture poised and perfect. “Faast. I see. Curious.”
Tabby apprehensively glanced at her Earthling clothes and said nothing.
The priestess picked something up from the floor beside her. It was Tabby’s journal. She leafed through the pages delicately, as if it was a museum piece. “What an interesting diary you keep,” she said. “Drawings of plants, animals, and other people your age.... dressed much like yourself. If you are from Faast, then it stands to reason that all of this is in Faast, too. Am I correct?”
“N-no, I made it up,” Tabby lied. “For fun. It’s nothing important.”
“Ah,” Hiida nodded, closing the book gently. “How creative of you. If it’s nothing important, you wouldn’t mind if I got rid of it, would you?”
Holding the book in one hand, Hiida gracefully removed a silver rod hanging from her belt. Without a hint of care, she pressed one of its gems and a blue flame lit from one end in a bright flash. The book was incinerated in the blink of an eye. Tabby was stunned to silence.
“Ah. That’s better. You have to admit, it was getting a little worn from wear, don’t you agree?”
Hiida replaced the silver rod to a notch at her belt and delicately dusted off her hands as if she were brushing off filth.
Tabby gaped at what was left of her precious journal, having travelled with her all those light-years. There was nothing left but a cloud of ash scattering in an ocean breeze. All of her memories, all of her explorations and her observations of things she and her father loved, her drawings of home, of her mother, of Philip... gone. Completely gone.
Captain Joyen handed Hiida a small, glass card. She held it up so that it gleamed in the light.
“Did you have this for fun, too?” Her pious gaze slowly fell onto Tabby.
The Earth Key... Tabby stared at the cold woman, frozen. If she did anything to that key, if Tabby couldn’t get it back, what would she do? What could she do?
“Do you know where this key leads?” the priestess asked softly.
Tabby shook her head, her eyes locked on the crystal card. “Nowhere,” she whispered, hopeless.
Hiida inspected it past her hooded eyelids, nodding with a disappointed pout. “Mm... nowhere. I suppose, then, if it leads nowhere...”
With supernatural strength, the priestess crushed the fragile Earth key into shards between her elegant hands. She let the crumbles fall onto the glass roof of the cell, sparkling like stardust. Her eyes narrowed to snake-like slits.
“...it is of no use to us. You are an Earthling,” Hiida noted plainly. “Your lies cannot hide this fact. If you told us the truth to begin with, you would still have your book, and your key. Have you learned, then, never to lie to a priestess?”
Her cold gaze was upon Tabby, daring her to react, but Tabby felt as if the ground beneath her had slipped away, and words failed her. The only reaction she could offer was numb astonishment.
Her journal was gone. The last portal key was gone. There was nothing left of Earth but the clothes on her back and the memories she carried with her. Captured by the temples, held against her will by Priestess Hiida with no one knowing her whereabouts, the chances of her going home were now smaller than ever before. It was over.
Hiida squinted and tapped her chin with a lithe finger. “Earth is known as an isolated, neutral planet. They don’t have ciphrony there, do they, Captain?”
“No, priestess,” answered Captain Joyen.
Hiida frowned and looked at Tabby with pity. “That makes our Earthling rather useless. Honestly, a world without ciphrony would die in a matter of years. Just as Nonak soon will.”
Tabby stared blankly at the carved figures in front of her, unresponsive.
“Well,” she sighed listlessly. “What to do with you now? Report you to the council as an alien intruder, or get rid of you for the useless waste of space that you are and save them the time? Without any ciphrony, I don’t think you can even be flooded.” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “Or can you?”
Joyen cleared his throat loudly. “Priestess,” he said. “The sermon.”
Her brow furrowed into a disgruntled frown. “Ah, yes. Thank you, Joyen.” She glanced down at Tabby, her nose wrinkled with disgust. “I suppose I’ll have to decide her fate later.”
Tabby watched as Hiida gracefully floated away, far from her limited field of view. Once gone, Captain Joyen approached the edge of her cell. He knelt down and peered at her curiously as if she was a strange zoo animal.
Tabby stared back defiantly. “What?”
The captain’s expression softened. He glanced behind to Hiida, then back at her, hesitating. If Tabby didn’t know any better, she would’ve thought he was trying to tell her something.
Almost as soon as she thought it, he stood up and turned away, walking far from view.
When they were gone, Tabby inspected the perimeter of the small cell, searching for any cracks or secondary entrances. There was nothing, of course, nothing but twisting figures carved into inescapable walls. It was a prison, and there was only one way out, a way that would be guarded. And, as it happened, a way that was impossible for her to reach.
“Tabby?” said a kind voice from above. “Is that you?”
She snapped her head up and there stood Lina, kneeling over the glass. She was peering inside, distressed. Tabby couldn’t recall ever feeling more relieved to see anyone in her entire life.
“Lina!” she hopped to her feet, gazing up at her with a hopeful smile. “Is it really you?”
“Of course it is!”
Tabby laughed, her eyes stinging with tears of relief. “Thank goodness!”
“What are you doing in there? Captain Joyen derailed me from an elixir exchange and told me to keep an eye on this cell. He said there was an intruder inside, but here I find you!”
“I am the intruder!”
Lina contemplated this, her delicate face creasing with doubt. “But… you’re Philip’s cousin. He probably made a mistake. I’ll go tell him—”
“NO!” cried Tabby.
She raised her eyebrows at her, surprised by the panic in her tone.
“No,” Tabby sighed, biting her lip. “Lina, I’m not really Philip’s cousin.”
The kindly healer smiled. “Very funny, Tabby.”
“I’m not even Reman!” she insisted, desperation rising in her voice. “I’m an Earthling! I’m from Earth!”
Lina’s face went slack and she stared at her, her deep purple eyes weighing her words. Her gaze swept over Tabby’s scuffed jeans and sweatshirt, and the truth began to sink in. “Does Philip know?”
“Yes, he’s been trying to get me home. I followed him through the portal without him knowing, and I’ve been stuck here since.”
Lina’s usually cheerful face became grim. “I’ll go get General Raed. He’ll know what to do.”
She flew off. Tabby slumped against the wall, and waited. There was a low rumbling beneath her cell no more than ten minutes later. The glass partition above began to slide into the wall. A blast of cold air wafted down the shaft and Tabby could smell the briny scent of the ocean and hear the howl of wind.
General Raed hovered above her, his wide green eyes shining in the moonlight. His large red cape was gone, but it didn’t make him any less intimidating. His scowl couldn’t have been more outraged. She thought he might throw a punch at her, but instead he flew down head first, arm outstretched.
“Let’s go,” he commanded.
She quickly reached up and grasped Raed’s hand. He channeled ciphrony through her the same way Philip did, only he did it so forcefully he knocked the wind out of her. He yanked her up and tossed her to level ground, causing her to stumble. Once Tabby found her bearings she looked around, and finally realized how isolated they were.
They were standing on a platform about two miles from shore and a hundred feet above sea. It was surrounded by fifty-foot pillars and covered with a dome of metal. Scattered over the damp, lichen covered floor were several other circles of glass, each one a prison cell.
General Raed suddenly looked up and squinted suspiciously into the distance. In a blur of speed, he spun around, pulled out a knife buckled to his calf, and deflected a dagger aimed for his neck. The dagger scraped across the floor and slid off the edge into the water below.
He faced his attacker, knife gripped in his fist. A scowl like the sneer of a stalking lion held itself on his young face.
Priestess Hiida floated just off the floor’s edge, another dagger in her hand. Her mouth was pressed into an unforgiving frown as they stared at each other with electric animosity. Tabby inched her way behind Raed.
“General Raed.” An amused smile crept onto Hiida’s thin lips. “I didn’t know it was you.”
She floated towards them ever so slowly, her ghastly robes trailing behind her like thick kelp. “I’m glad you’re here, to be honest,” she said. “I was going to contact you about this after my sermon. That girl behind you is an alien. From the neutral planet, Earth.”
Raed’s eyes darted to Tabby briefly, then back to Hiida.
“I don’t know how she got here,” she continued smoothly, “or what she’s planning, but I can assure you—”
“You had no authority to arrest this girl,” Raed stated, his evergreen stare bristling.
“With respect, General, I am the Grand Merofian Priestess of Cerey. I can arrest whomever I deem a threat, under the guidance of Merofi herself.”
Raed darted to her, hovering so that he could glare down, his round nose mere inches from hers.
“With respect, Hiida,” he seethed, “when a priestess starts to recklessly use her power for selfish reasons, then she’s no longer working under Merofi’s guidance. From now on, your actions will be watched by Keeper eyes under command of Helvir Law!”
With a cold, serpentine gaze, Hiida’s half smile spread into a devilish grin. “Helvir Law?” she chuckled. “Didn’t you know that King Helvir has been dead for more than six years, Little One?”
Raed’s face turned an embarrassing shade of red. “His laws are still enforced by the council,” he snarled. “One of them was to keep a close eye on his sister, a rule he entrusted to me! So if you do anything more to threaten this girl, I’m going to be the one you’ll have to deal with! Do you understand?”
Hiida accepted his threat with amused silence.
When she didn’t respond, Raed turned to Tabby and grabbed her hand, causing her to jump in surprise. “Earthling!” he barked. “Let’s go!”
Together they flew off the platform and back towards the sparkling city. The priestess waved as they left, blessing them graciously. “May Merofi watch over the both of you.”