What was remaining of the walls unexpectedly broke down, and out of the foggy shadows came dozens of creatures. Through the dust, Jack saw pairs of gleaming light – blue, red, and gold. A tall figure appeared from the dust, walking behind the creatures. In the hands of the figure, Jack could dimly make out two tiny glints of green.
Jack backed up just as the many creatures, cat-like in appearance, suddenly pounced into a circle around the center of the Vantranack. The tall elf, who held a smaller one of these creatures, walked into the center of the circle. The thing in his arms jumped down and put its tiny nose to the middle of the glassy stone. With a little coaxing from the rest, a deep, low purr resounded from its tiny throat.
The other creatures joined in the low-frequency purr. All their eyes grew in light as they purred, but especially the small one in the center – for it’s eyes glowed so green that the body seemed to glow itself, making translucent the skin.
Jack shut his ears, for the purr was so low it was almost painful to listen to. It reverberated with such deep, astonishing resonance. He watched the longhaired elf pick up the wooden instrument that still lay on the Vantranack and begin to play it. He played it both like an ocarina and a drum, both simultaneously and separately, strumming its crescent-like shape as it rang out in deep, hollow wood tones. It seemed perfectly in tune with the purr. Jack couldn’t tell who the elf was; he didn’t seem to know or remember him, and it was too far to see clearly anyhow.
A yell suddenly echoed, deafening and painful, from the Vantranack. Underneath Jack could see it squirming and heaving, but the topmost portion of the stone was held calm by the odd sphinx creatures as they purred. Shrill metallic sounds rang though the air next as seven objects ripped painfully out of the Vantranack, slicing through the stone with a further yell by Cathrandar.
They were keys.
All seven landed at the feet of the tall elf, forming a circle around him. They twitched and quivered with each note of the elf’s instrument. Then the purring, if possible, increased in volume. The crumbled rock around the Vantranack shivered with the bass of it as something began to come up through the Vantranack. Jack feared Cathrandar was plotting something as the black shaped grew rapidly toward the surface. The elf in the middle abruptly walked to the outer of the circle, the odd creatures backing up and widening their circle as a deep rumbling was heard through their purring. Then, the Vantranack broke open.
Something large and twisted pushed its way up through the stone, growing at an incredible rate as the purring around it intensified. The small green creature in the middle was lifted off the ground, riding atop the twisted chestnut… wood! It was wood –
A tree was growing up the center of the Vantranack.
It grew so rapidly that it was a shock to see. Leafy green shoots sprung out here and there as the bark grew twisted, spiraling upwards. Jack scrambled backwards over the broken stump of what had once been a wall, avoiding the tendril-like roots as they crawled eerily outwards. Dust covered Jack’s eyes as the crown of the tree hit the seemingly limitless height that was the ceiling and pushed through it. Then the groaning stopped.
The dust began to clear and Jack saw with amazement the giant, exquisite tree that had grown hundreds of feet in mere seconds. Taking up the entire space, right up to the fallen walls around the Vantranack, it towered – the most beautiful tree Jack had ever seen, counting the ones in Lothlorien. It was bigger than a mallorn tree, its great trunk spanning a width of the entire Vantranack. It was thick, but it was also hollow. The great roots, some ten feet in width, propped up the tree like those that settle in swampy water. They curved out, arching the entire tree up so that one could walk beneath the great tree. Its branches were like that of a willow, swaying down beautifully and ominously as the sun filtered through the hole in the roof, reflecting off the rising dust.
The elf walked up to the grandest of the root-arches. There, under the arch, the elf inserted the seven keys in an odd pattern straight into the rock. They seeped out some sort of dye that began to run underneath the stone. When finished, it looked like the symbol of the Seerganash, a dragon wing, with the keys at seven points. The keys glowed for a moment, twisting with the sound of a key turning a heavy door, then were enveloped completely into the Vantranack. The elf then strummed his odd little instrument once more in a pattern. Seven clicks were heard under the stone, followed by another ear-splitting yell from Cathrandar.
The stone suddenly surged in front of the tree, rising up in a great heap. It could not take form, but two green eyes glinted furiously, swiftly turning red like Jack’s had once done. The angry mass of stone bellowed out reaching small surges of clear stone as if reaching to grab something. Jumbled words slurred from the Vantranack. “My blood lives on if not in me,” was all it said before the tree roots twisted and tore up, wrapping around the mass and constricting and pulling Cathrandar downwards. The last, piercing yell grew softer and softer and finally dissipated to nothing. The tree bark glowed green for a moment, then settled.
Cathrandar was gone.
Jack ran forward to the elf, just as the tiny little creature, about a foot long, hopped down from the tree. It’s eyes were now solid black instead of green, no white showing. Its hair and lips were green though. It was a lot smaller than the others of its kind, and was not wearing the gold bangles the others bore. Also, its hair was ragged and long, as opposed to the shiny, short cut hair of its kin.
“Who are you?” Jack asked the elf as his face came into view. The elf had long black pants and thick boots like other Seerganash; green eyes too. But he did not have a shirt on – instead, from right under his chest to halfway down his stomach was wrapped in a thick rope of bandage. It was stained slightly red at his back. Jack did not know this elf, though he seemed to know the features as if he had met a relative of this Seerganash before.
“You are Jack; I know you. I do not think you would know me though. My name is Larenteth.”
Larenteth, Larenteth… Jack had heard that name! He heard guards speak of him and how he was… dead. Beyond doubt. Shot in the back by a skilled archer. But the body disappeared… well, looks like here was the “body”.
“Didn’t you… I heard you… weren’t you dead?”
“Thought I was. Rowen thought I was too. After I got shot, she put me in a cold stream in the side of the tunnel. Looks like the arrow missed my heart, though it was a close call. The stream was cold enough to keep me from bleeding to death and it slowed my heart a little, until the water carried me into the caves of the Natarinturnan – these sphinxes. I guess Larentor must have been a friend to them, because they took care of me.”
“Larentor! That’s how I remember your face! I knew Larentor when I was little, before I left here.”
“Those creatures fixed me up, just wait you haven’t seen her yet. Beautiful thing, white eyes and everything, she’s the one who healed me the most -“
“Jack.” Came a beautiful, liquid voice from inside the dome-like tree base. Jack looked up and ran to the tree, passing under the giant arches of the roots. Inside, the inner parts of the tree glowed with phosphorescents, lighting the structure. Cradled in a root that arched out of the stone in the very center was Rowen. Nintura’s stone glowed a bright white around her neck
“Roe!” Jack exclaimed happily, running towards her, but the beautiful voice chided him.
“Let her sleep; she has been through enough.” Jack looked up. On a protruding root to the side sat perched the most stunning creature Jack had ever seen. It was one of the Natarinturnan, but it was larger with long, thick locks of squarely cut hair that draped and cascaded down over its shoulders with amazing beauty, reaching the ground. Its eyes glowed a pure white, and its hair was a dazzling white. She looked so young and exquisite, yet at the same time one had the feeling that she was in fact very old. In truth, she was the oldest of all the Natarinturnan; she was one of the oldest beings on Middle Earth. Her glittering snow-white hair was lined with gold that shone even without direct light.
“Who are you? What is going on? Where is this tree from? Most importantly, where is Cathrandar?” Jack spun out, reeling the questions rapidly. The sphinx sat calmly, waiting for him to finish. Her magnificent hair swished dazzlingly from a nonexistent breeze.
“You need much to be explained to you, and right now in here we have the time to do it. I brought Rowen up from the Vantranack so that Cathrandar could not take her with him. Dragon fire is no match for my ice, and Cathrandar now knows that.
As for me, I am the oldest of the Natarinturnan. We do not have names, except my daughter Nintura, who was given a name by Larentor. He was the only elf to know of us, and told no one. His genius architecture plans all secretly evaded our tunnels, until he died. I lay within the Ice Caverns of Illusion with the Mistress of these mountains – the only alliance ever forged between a dragon and a sphinx. When she was awoken, I was awoken. Nintura brought me to Larenteth, who had come by stream into the tunnels. I helped heal him the rest of the way so that he might live. I knew he must; he is the bearer of the Master Keys. His instrument was made by me, given as a present to his great grandfather. It is in tune with the pitches off our purr. When Castamir fell into the abyss – one that goes farther down than even our caves, even the Vantranack I presume, we had reason to the happy. Children of the Natarinturnan are not born as most; we do not need a consort – thus there are no males of our race. They are born out of happiness. One had not been born for many years. Nintura has purple eyes because she was due to create a child when we were forced into sadness by the Seerganash. Now she is a mother, and will bear those eyes until the child is grown. The kit was created from stone, lava, water, and Nintura, but they were all amazed to find it born with jade eyes. Such creatures only existed when I was young. You see Jack, each eye color specifies what we can manipulate. Green is for living plants and life itself – something that has been long gone. I knew this would transpire. I scratched a prophesy for Rowen in a tunnel while I was still in the Caverns of Illusion. It was revealed to her when she touched the letters with that ice flask.” The sphinx turned to Larenteth.
“The birth of a new Jade will flower, and lead at last to the Destroyers’ demise.” Sound familiar?
This tree was created by our littlest one here. She is exhausted now and will be given her gold bangles when she awakens. As for Cathrandar – when Larenteth put the keys in the Vantranack, they proved Larentor’s last secret. If all seven are turned in the Vantranack when something living grows in it, great change will come about. These roots originate from the very bottom of this, past the glassy stone. You know, you have been here.
The tree is living off of Cathrandar – he can never come back.“
Jack breathed a sigh of relief. Cathrandar was gone! But then another worry crossed into his mind. “Is Rowen going to be alright?”
“Not until you give her back what she gave to you.“
“What?” Jack replied, squinting at the gorgeous sphinx. She narrowed her eyes at his chest. Abruptly he was once again aware of the weight of the dragon stone resting there, hanging on its fine gold chain.
“Do I just give the stone back to her?”
“No. Castamir did that; he did not give her back the power he took. He only restored her.” Jack looked confusedly at the sphinx – he did not yet know what had transpired in the cave of the Master Dragon. “You must give it back to her. It is rather… painful, however. Not for her, for you.“
Jack looked back up at the placidly aloof Natarinturnan. “I’ll do it.”
He walked over to Rowen’s form on the curved root. Her skin was burning hot and her heart was beating much too fast. Her chest rose and fell rapidly with heated breaths. The gold bands on her arms were cutting into her skin, making thin lines of boiling blood at their edges. Jack took the dragon stone off of his neck and then held the chain in one of his hands. He picked up Rowen’s burning-hot hands and placed his own palms against hers. As soon as his hands matched in the curve of hers, a jolt of red flashed painfully before his eyes. The firepower ripped out of him and into Rowen. To those around them, both the elf and the Raugrím were enveloped in an orange light for a second as it flashed. In that second, Rowen’s eyes opened as her heart slowed back to normal. Time slowed down and she smiled at Jack in gratitude. He looked nervously at her.
“You heard what Cathrandar said….”
“Jack, I’ve given a whole lot of people forgiveness in the last few hours, and you aren’t any exception,” Rowen replied to his unfinished apology. She leaned up and hugged him. Jack felt a strange jolt and Rowen whispered in his ear, “Keep some of it.” He felt the warm tingle of fire back in his bloodstream. And time returned to normal.
Rowen looked up around her in amazement at the tree she was in, and then her gaze settled on Larenteth.
“LARENTETH!” She jumped up and ran up to him, tackling him in a hug. “I thought you were dead! You’re alive you’re alive you’re alive!!!!!” She cried happily, rocking side to side with glee
“Guess so, huh?” He said back in a slightly strangled voice, giving her a hug in return. After prying herself off of him, Rowen listened to Larenteth’s account of what had happened after he was shot. Then Rowen in turn relayed what had happened with the Master Dragon and Castamir. She got to Réllika and had troubled finding words to describe it. When she brought out the sword, the silvery voice called from behind them.
“Describe to me the previous owner of that sword,” the white Natarinturnan said hesitatingly. When Rowen did, the sphinx lowered her beautiful head. “Réllika? They named her Réllika? A…a killer? Grievous it is for me to hear this; I must now be the only one who knows what her name used to be. The name her mother had given Réllika just before the mother was murdered. Alas that something so beautiful was turned to what she was. ” The sphinx raised her head, her glowing white eyes filled with sadness.
“Her name was Aurora.“
The group sat in silence for a moment. The silence was broken when Leeriel came running in. “I just saw that tree growing and I climbed down what happened here I almost -” Lee stopped speaking at the look one everyone’s faces. Then her eyes fell on Larenteth. The girl breathed in so sharply that she coughed, blinking at Larenteth. “You- but you’re… dead!”
“Apparently not,” Larenteth replied with a nervous, lopsided grin. Lee shook her head, blinked furiously, and then turned to Rowen for an explanation. After all, she was convinced he was a traitor.
“He’s alright, Lee,” Rowen said to the elf’s unasked question. “Now these are the Natarinturnan -” Rowen began to introduce, but she staggered and fell into silent confusion. They were all gone. “Er… never mind. …oh!” She exclaimed, suddenly remembering Réllika’s last request. “I need to find the warden of the maidens! It’s urgent!”
“Why?” Larenteth, Jack, and Lee asked in unison. Rowen bit her lip, suddenly anxious to fulfill the quest.
“Réllika… Réllika told me she … she has a daughter. Only the warden of the maidens knows where to find her.” Rowen replied uneasily. Everyone stared at her.
“Réllika… has a d-daughter?” Larenteth said, disbelieving. Jack did not know Réllika, and Lee was too low of a rank to be too familiar with her. Rowen nodded to Larenteth. “Who’s the father, then?”
“I, I don’t know. She didn’t really have… time, to say.” Rowen faltered, the crimson images of Réllika’s death fresh in her mind. “Larenteth, you have the Master Keys – you know where the warden is, right?”
“Uh… no, in fact. With the Seerganash, the women are raised by the other women and no one else knows where these places are. You may have realized the way they are raised by knowing Réllika,” Larenteth answered awkwardly.
“I know where the warden of the maidens is,” Lee piped up. “I am, after all, one of the Seerganash women. I can take you if we run.”
Rowen, Jack, and Larenteth followed the she-elf through the winding halls, running as quickly as possible. They stopped only when a brigade of hoof beats was heard pounding after them, at which point they turned around to ward off attack. The black horses, however, had no riders, and as soon as they were close enough the company realized who the horses were. Tom, Dragon, and Kaytar came galloping up, Tom in the lead despite his slightly stouter stature.
“Tom!” Larenteth cried, happy to see his horse one more. “You must have led the others here, good boy!” The horse in turn nuzzled him.
“So his name really is Tom?” Rowen inquired.
“Well, TOM stands for Traverser Of Mountains, but I just call him Tom.” Larenteth mounted and pulled Lee up in front of him. Jack mounted Dragon, and Rowen was left eyeing Kaytar. The horse stared back at her.
“What’s wrong, Rowen? Can’t you ride?”
“Yes I can… its just….” Rowen ran her hand over the bridle, feeling the name Gáladmor engraved into it. The horse looked her in the eye and turned its body so she could mount. He knew Castamir was gone, but he wasn’t holding a grudge against Rowen. She smiled a little and jumped on. “Let’s go.”