Chapter Three of ELADRIA: “The Long Night”

Hi folks, following on from chapter one and chapter two of my novel Eladria, here is chapter three. Things are about to take a twist and the action is well and truly underway. You can download all three chapters in PDF format by clicking here.

Eladria is officially published tomorrow, and you can buy/preorder it from multiple places in both paperback and ebook format. Click here to visit my website and order. Incidentally, this chapter also features a music video with music from the Eladria soundtrack which will be available to download as a FREE GIFT for all readers. I have posted it below. Enjoy!

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Chapter Three

THE LONG NIGHT

 It was ironic that what was to be the last night of Eladria’s life was also the longest.

She lay upon the cold metal bench and, although physically and emotionally exhausted, her frenzied mind kept her awake the entire night as the hours slowly ticked by.

Again and again her mind replayed the murder of her father, the massacre in the control room and the destruction of the royal city, which now lay in smoldering ruins.

This shouldn’t have happened…

Her thoughts turned to the Ha’shon, the perpetrators of these atrocities, and she felt a searing hatred rising in the pit of her belly, filling every cell of her being with rage. That they considered themselves to be acting upon some kind of Divine decree made the Ha’shon all the more despicable to her.

By now her tears had dried and she felt numb and hollow.

This is it, she thought to herself as she gazed vacantly at the wall. There won’t be an official coronation, but I suppose I’m now Queen of Tahnadra. As sole heir to the throne, Tahnadra was now her world and those upon it were her subjects. Such a thought seemed strangely amusing to her. The shortest, saddest reign in Tahnadran history: a single night spent in a prison cell…

And, as with her father before her, it would end in her murder at the hands of Ha’shon terrorists. Perhaps that was just the way it was meant to be.

Her main regret was that there was nothing she could do to help her people. They were about to be subjected to tyranny under the Ha’shon. The Ha’shon Liberation Army would no doubt ravage the planet and kill countless people in their crusade to supremacy.

She shed a tear for her people, for the millions of innocent men, women and children that would die at the hands of the Ha’shon. She wished there was something she could do for them, that she could somehow save her world. If only she could stop the Ha’shon and make her father’s death at least count for something.

But it was hopeless. She knew that. With a sigh, she lay back and endeavored to accept her fate. Perhaps one day someone would rise up and defeat the Ha’shon and overcome the ignorance and hatred that had destroyed her world.

She vividly recalled her father recounting the ancient legends of Tahnadra. She would be tucked up in bed at night, perhaps only seven or eight years old. Her father would sit by her side and tell her all kinds of incredible stories.

“There was a time when Tahnadra was a paradise, a land fit for gods,” he had once told her. “There was peace, unity and a shared sense of purpose among its people. All worked together for the common good. These were gifts bestowed upon our world by the Lasan, travelers from beyond the stars. They had come to Tahnadra in the beginning times and brought civilization, culture and a rich sense of community and spiritual unity.”

“What happened to them?” she had asked.

“For a time the Lasan ruled with great benevolence from the land of Atukaare. They later left this land to their children as they returned to the stars.”

But over the generations, without the guiding hand of the Lasan, the wisdom of the Old Way was corrupted and two new religions were born: the Ha’shon and the True Way, two opposing ideologies that sought complete dominance, paving the way for millennia of war.

Atukaare was destroyed and the royal family, who were descendants of the Lasan, fled to the third moon. There they could rule the planet in safety and provide neutral ground for the two religious factions to attempt to reach some kind of peace.

Even from a young age Eladria had been cynical about such an endeavor. It seemed to her a wasted effort. Neither side wanted peace; they only wanted to win, to crush their adversaries. And why? Just so they could be right. It was pathetic and childish, yet the suffering that had been wrought by these self-proclaimed holy men was beyond imagining.

Centuries of unrelenting war had all but destroyed Tahnadra. It was an empty husk of a world, stripped of its beauty, freshness and life. The people were jaded, bitter and filled with hatred for the opposing side. All they wanted was victory and vengeance for the losses they had incurred.

The more she thought about the state of her world, the more she realized that she didn’t want to be its queen, because no matter what she tried to do, she knew there was nothing she could do to save it.

Perhaps the Ha’shon were right: maybe these were the ‘end times’. Maybe there simply was no hope and the whole planet was spiraling to its annihilation. And maybe that was the fate it deserved. All that her father, grandparents and forebears had strived for had died along with them.

Eladria lay in a state of defeat, resigned to her fate. If she was to die, then there was nothing she could do about that. There was no way out of this cell. Not without help.

It was at that moment that something caught her eye.

A creature scurried across the hallway. It was a yunpa, a small furry rodent, scuttling along the corridor that bridged the holding cells. It stopped in front of Eladria’s cell and peered in. It was staring directly at her, its whiskers twitching wildly.

Eladria had the sense that this was no ordinary yunpa—and she was right, for it promptly began to change shape! The little creature grew larger and larger, its fur-covered body expanding and dissolving into an amorphous, shimmering mist.

Eladria leapt up from the bench. She stared in astonishment as the mist coalesced into solid form, with two arms, two legs, an abdomen, chest and head rapidly taking shape before her eyes. As the mist-like substance dissolved and the human form became clear, Eladria cried in amazement as she realized that she recognized this person.

Zinn! That little yunpa had just transformed into Zinn!

Eladria ran to the bars and cried out in delight. “Zinn! I don’t believe it. Is that really you?”

Zinn stepped forward and smiled enigmatically as she smoothed down her tunic. “Yes, it’s me, my dear,” she said.

“But…how?” Eladria gasped, so utterly amazed she had to struggle to force the words out of her mouth.

“You’ve just learned something that I’ve kept secret for many, many years,” Zinn said. “I’m what your people call a metamorph.”

“A metamorph?” Eladria echoed, pressing her hands against the bars as she leaned forward. “But I thought they were extinct?”

“Nearly, but not quite.”

“I can’t believe it…”

“The only person who knew my true identity was your father.”

“But why conceal it?” Eladria asked, eyes still wide in amazement.

“There are very few of my kind,” Zinn explained. “Because of our ability to change shape, we’ve always faced distrust, suspicion and persecution. Six hundred years ago, during the Last Reclamation, a law was passed outlawing my kind. Countless numbers were hunted and slaughtered. We learned to survive by carefully concealing our true nature, by endeavoring to pass ourselves off as ‘normal’.”

“But my father knew?”

“That’s a story for another time, my dear. For now, time is of the essence. I was imprisoned in an adjoining cell. Emotional distress hampers my ability to change form. It’s taken me all this time to muster the power to change shape. But once I did, I easily slipped through the bars, and now I must get you out.”

Eladria’s mind was galloping like a crazed rhastopod as she sought to reconcile this unexpected revelation. Having spent her entire life in Zinn’s care, Eladria had assumed that she’d known everything there was to know about the kindly old maid. Yet it appeared she knew nothing about her at all.

Zinn began studying the control pad that operated the lock mechanism. “We need the code,” she sighed. “I don’t suppose you happen to know what it is?”

“No,” Eladria shook her head. “But I do know the general override code for all palace systems. Unless, of course, it’s been changed.”

“Well, at your convenience,” Zinn said, her body rigid with urgency.

“I think it’s…nine seven eight four three…six?”

Zinn input the code but nothing happened. The console simply bleeped in error. Zinn shook her head.

“Four three…seven?” Eladria suggested.

Zinn input the code, but again it was to no avail.

Eladria sighed in exasperation and leaned against the cell wall, bringing her hand to her chin as she struggled to recall the correct code. As princess and heir to the throne, it was her responsibility to know the security override code in case of emergency. Every few months she was required to undergo a security briefing, during which she was expected to memorize a new override sequence.

Oh…what was it? It wasn’t six…or seven…

“Nine!” Eladria exclaimed. “Try nine! Nine seven eight four three nine.”

Zinn input the code and the lock clicked open.

Eladria pushed the door open and stepped out of her cell, relishing the sweet taste of freedom.

“We have to get you out of the palace and off this moon, your Highness,” Zinn said gravely. “The palace is under control of the enemy. I don’t believe there’s anything we can do from here. We have to get you to safety.”

“Then we have to get to the hangars,” Eladria nodded. “If we can get to a fighter, I can take us down to the planet.” Eladria was a trained pilot. She had been obsessed with flying since she was a small child and her father had reluctantly consented to flying lessons upon her fourteenth birthday. It was hardly customary for a princess to be piloting fighter craft, but then Eladria was anything but customary.

Eladria strode to the weapons locker and surveyed the firearms. She appropriated two electro-pulse pistols and quickly checked to ensure they were operational. “We can assume there are guards standing watch outside,” she said as she strapped a holster around her waist.

“It would stand to reason.”

“Your ability to change shape can be used to our advantage.”

Zinn nodded.

“I want you to do what you did before,” Eladria continued. “Change shape into something small; I’ll open the door, you go through it and distract the guards. That’ll give me the chance to catch them from behind.”

“Just be careful, my dear,” Zinn warned.

Without hesitation, they put their plan into action. With a look of concentration upon her face, Zinn began her transformation. Her form dissolved into a diffuse mist-like substance, which sparkled and glistened like sunlight upon dewdrops. Eladria marveled that even Zinn’s clothes dissolved into the mist, suggesting they were merely a facsimile that could likely be altered with a single thought.

The mist swirled and coalesced in mid-air, decreasing in mass and gradually taking the form of a glitter-bee, a brightly colored insect with tapering wings that sparkled red and gold as they flapped. The insect circled Eladria’s head with a melodic hum.

Eladria approached the door and stood with her back hard against the wall. Reaching up to the door control, she gestured for Zinn to ready herself as she mouthed a countdown. Three….two….one….

Eladria activated the door control and kept still as the door slid open.

Although she couldn’t see them from where she was standing, she was nevertheless aware of two guards standing outside.

“What was that?” whispered one of the guards.

“There’s no one there,” responded the other.

Eladria held her breath and stood rigidly still. She had a pistol in each hand and she clutched them tightly, her fingers wrapped around the cold metal triggers.

She was aware of the insect form of Zinn, buzzing through the open doorway and circling the two guards.

“It’s just an insect,” grunted the first guard.

“Insects can’t open doors,” said the second suspiciously.

Eladria could tell that the guard was about to enter the security station, but that was when Zinn intensified her diversionary tactics. The glitter-bee buzzed around the guards, diving at their heads. The guards tried to swipe the insect away but Zinn wasn’t going to let it end there. She began to transform herself in mid-air, the insect form dissolving into the sparkling mist as she initiated her metamorphosis. She had succeeded in getting the guards’ full attention.

“What is that?” cried one of the guards in confusion.

Eladria realized that now was the time to act.

Her hands tensed as she gripped the guns and sprung into action, spinning round to face the Ha’shon guards. They had their backs to her as they gaped at the bewildering sight.

She had them in a clear line of fire. Their weapons were aimed at Zinn’s coalescing form, and they made a motion to fire. Eladria pre-empted them. She pulled both triggers and felt her body lurch as the pistols discharged blasts of energy that slammed into the backs of the Ha’shon guards. The two men fell into the ground.

Eladria felt a wave of nausea as she looked down at their smoldering bodies. On one hand, she was repulsed at herself for having taken two lives, even if they were Ha’shon. But another part of her was simply relieved. There would be time for recrimination later.

Zinn had now resumed her usual form and Eladria stepped over the bodies and handed her one of pistols. Zinn reluctantly took the weapon. She was a gentle woman with an innate distaste of violence, but she knew the desperation of their situation overrode all other concerns.

“We have to get out of the open,” Eladria said as she marched down the corridor, her blue dress swishing behind her. “The palace must be swarming with Ha’shon. Our advantage is that we know its layout, and they don’t. If we take the next corridor to the right, we can access the maintenance crawl-ways and follow them down to the hangar level.”

Zinn nodded as Eladria led the way. They cautiously crept along the corridor and managed to reach the maintenance hatch without incident. Once inside, they clambered through the innards of the palace, crawling down air vents and edging their way past power distribution stations, careful not to touch any of the buzzing wires. It was hot, the air was thin and the conditions cramped, but they kept on going regardless. Arriving at an intersection bridged by vertical ladders, they stopped briefly to rest, before continuing downward.

It was a long and exhausting climb down eight entire levels, but they eventually reached the hangar level. Breathless but relieved, Eladria and Zinn took a left turn, edging along the claustrophobic maintenance shaft in the direction of the aircraft hangars. The hangars comprised a vast network encircling the lower region of the palace and housed a variety of aircraft, from diplomatic transports to the trans-atmospheric fighters used by the Tahnadran Royal Military.

They came to an air vent above one of the hangars. Peering through the metal grates, Eladria was relieved to see two D-12 fighters sitting stationary in the middle of the hangar. In another stroke of luck, the hangar itself was deserted.

“What do we do now?” whispered Zinn.

“We get down there, take one of the fighters and leave for the planet.”

They climbed down a thick metal pipe to ground level. Eladria knew her way around these crawl-ways and ventilation shafts better than most, for it was here she had escaped to when she was a child and was fed up with having to ‘act’ like a princess, when all she had wanted was to do her own thing. Here she would sit for hours, watching the military craft as they came and went from the palace, dreaming that one day she too would pilot them. In more recent times, she had sometimes met Narat here. It wasn’t the most romantic location imaginable, but it was a place they could be together, away from prying eyes.

Eladria ran her hand along the inside of the wall, fumbling for the hatch that would open the access point. It was dark and there was barely room to move, but she persisted and eventually found it. With a heave, she cranked it open and climbed out of the ventilation shaft.

She stepped onto the concrete hangar floor, as Zinn followed behind her, and surveyed their new surroundings. She’d never seen the place this empty before. Normally it would be filled with engineers and maintenance personnel. Something wasn’t right.

Regardless, she proceeded with haste to the main control booth. Her hands flicked across the control panel as she initiated the mechanized launch program and input the instructions. She set a four dessick countdown: that should be more than enough time to get the fighter ready to depart. Ordinarily there was a list of checks that had to be done prior to take-off, but there was no time for that. She marched over to the nearest fighter, which, to her great relief, was already prepared for take-off.

Just as she was about to climb into it, the sudden sound of the hangar door opening stopped her in her tracks. Her heart skipped a beat as she turned to the door and reached for her gun.

It was Narat. He was alone and unarmed. He approached her slowly, hands raised in a gesture of surrender.

The very sight of him elicited a potent reaction in the young princess. She felt a wave of hatred pulsing through her blood. He was the cause of all this; he was the reason her father was murdered. She raised her weapon and tightened the trigger. She had loved him so much, but her passion had turned to an inextinguishable rage. Her eyes narrowed and she felt her face tighten as he came to a stop before her, hands held aloft.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you now,” she said darkly.

“Please just listen to me, Eladria,” Narat said evenly.

“What are you doing here? How did you know I’d be here?”

“Because you were under surveillance the entire time. We knew you’d escaped the moment it happened.”

“You were tracking us?”

Narat nodded. “We were ahead of you every step of the way. When I realized you were on your way here, I had the place cleared. I convinced Estaran that I would deal with you.”

“How kind of you,” she growled, raising the weapon.

“Eladria, listen to me,” Narat pleaded. “I came here to talk. I have to explain what I’ve done. I have to make you understand.”

“I understand that you betrayed my father and everything he believed in,” Eladria shouted at him, her body shaking in fury. “You betrayed the monarchy and government. You betrayed me. You’re responsible for my father’s death and all the other deaths.”

“No,” Narat shook his head. “That wasn’t part of the deal. Estaran said nothing about killing the king or destroying the city. You have to believe me. I didn’t know it would come to this.”

“Then you’re a fool. If you make a deal with the Ha’shon, you’re guaranteed of bloodshed. They speak about their religion, their beliefs, their Divinely-inspired ideals, but they’re nothing but insane killers—and you’re one of them now. I can’t believe it, Narat. Why? Why would you ally yourself with those fanatics?”

“I may not agree with everything they’ve done, but I agree with their philosophy. They promise a new and better era for our world. I mean no disrespect to you, Eladria, but the royal family have done nothing for Tahnadra. They’ve sat up here in their little bubble, isolated and protected from the chaos down there. You’ve never lived on Tahnadra, but I have. I grew up on the streets and I experienced the violence, brutality and poverty—and the war. You’ve never tasted war, Eladria, you’ve never had to endure it. But I was there. The things I saw, the things I had to experience, the people I saw slaughtered, the towns and cities I saw laid to waste…”

“It wasn’t us that waged that war, Narat,” Eladria countered. “We’ve done all we can to bring peace to our world, to get the leaders to sit down and reach some kind of resolution. That’s what my father worked for his entire life: peace and an end to the violence.”

“Yes, and his father before him and his father before that,” Narat responded. “And where has it got us? There can be no peace between the Ha’shon and the True Way. The only way for the war to end is for the victor to emerge triumphant. That victor is the Ha’shon. It has to be! They promise to transform our world from one of suffering, violence and struggle to one of peace and prosperity.”

“You mean to say you actually believe their lies and propaganda?”

“You never asked me about my past. Well, I’ll tell you why I had to side with the Ha’shon and why I’ve spent most my life a secret follower of their teachings. As you know I’m from the neutral land of Tamaru between the Ha’shon and True Way territories. When I was a child, my family lived in the northern province of Rakata, where we experienced such poverty that it was a daily struggle just to put food on the table. There were constant raids by both Ha’shon and True Way soldiers, both determined to claim the province for themselves.”

“That’s why my father stationed a TRM garrison there,” Eladria intervened. “To secure those disputed territories and prevent incursions by either side.”

“The garrison was a joke, Eladria,” Narat objected. “The military sent only a minimal detachment of troops, just enough to secure the borders. But they turned a blind eye to the suffering of our people and did little to stop the abductions.”

“If you have a point to make, I suggest you make it,” Eladria growled, taking a step back and keeping her fingers coiled around the pistol trigger.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later learned that the Ha’shon care about liberating people,” Narat began. “One night, during a raid, they rounded up fifty of us and took us back to Ha’shon territory, where we were offered a choice: the choice to embrace the Divine Father, or to die. Most of us repented and accepted the Ha’shon path. Some resisted and in so doing, accepted death. I pitied them. Having spent my entire life suffering, I could see that the Ha’shon offered us redemption and lives of purpose. My family and I were initiated into the Ha’shon and pledged to serve the Divine Father in all endeavors. They offered me something no one else had ever given me: belonging, purpose and the opportunity to help create this glorious new dawn.”

“Then you actually believe the poison they spout?” Eladria asked in disbelief.

“Our world is dying, Eladria,” he said. “What I did, I had to do. I served in the Ha’shon Liberation Army from the moment I was old enough to pick up a weapon. I fought the True Way and the Royal Military knowing that this was a holy crusade, that they had to be defeated, for only then could we save our world. I passed through the ranks and became noticed by the Ha’shon military hierarchy. Because I was a skilled fighter and wasn’t of Ha’shon ethnicity, I was chosen to infiltrate the royal moon and serve as an operative here. This day has been planned for many years and I willingly laid the groundwork and brought as many Ha’shon sympathizers as I could into the palace where they could fight by my side.”

“So this was all part of some plan,” Eladria said, shifting on the spot. “What about me—about us? Was that part of your plan? Was I just some kind of pawn, an instrument to help you betray my father?”

“No, of course not,” Narat said. “I couldn’t have planned that, Eladria, I couldn’t have planned falling in love with you. In many ways I wish I hadn’t, because it’s made all of this so much harder.”

“You never loved me,” Eladria stated. “If you’d loved me you could never have done this.”

Narat moved closer, and Eladria raised her pistol to his head.

“You won’t kill me,” Narat whispered.

“Don’t be so sure.”

Narat stopped.

“Why did you come down here, Narat? What do you want from me?” Eladria asked.

“You’re not going to escape, Eladria,” Narat said. “Estaran won’t let you. He wants you to join us. If the last of the House of Chaldeen joins the Ha’shon, it will hasten our march to victory. Instead of opposing us, those loyal to the monarchy will join us. It’ll save thousands of lives, Eladria; lives that would otherwise be lost. Whatever happens, the Ha’shon are now in control of Tahnadra. If you join us, you can save so many lives and prevent untold suffering.”

“Then what?”

“Then we can be together, as we’ve always wanted. Nothing will stand in our way and no one will oppose us. Just think of it, Eladria. You won’t have to worry about those royal duties you so dreaded. We can live simple lives, doing whatever we want. We can be together.”

Narat stepped closer. Eladria remained motionless, still pointing the pistol at him. Undeterred, he reached out, placed his hand upon the weapon and pushed it down. He stood directly in front of her. “You have to get over your anger, Eladria. You have to move beyond your grief,” he said, looking into her eyes. “You know that I love you…and I know that in spite of all that’s happened, you still love me too.”

Eladria said nothing. She was letting him make the next move. All the time she was aware of Zinn in her peripheral vision, looking on in concern. Oblivious to Zinn’s presence, Narat moved closer to Eladria and put his hand on her shoulder, angling his head toward hers. He closed his eyes and kissed her gently on the lips. Eladria let him. After a moment, he pulled back and looked into her eyes, seeking some kind of response from her.

Eladria dropped her gun and it landed on the ground with a clatter. She took Narat’s hand and, without a word, gently led him a few steps back, until they were both standing alongside the hangar wall. Her face softened as she put one hand on Narat’s shoulder and the other on the back of his neck. She leaned over and returned his kiss.

As her lips locked with his, she could feel him let down his guard. With great suddenness, and mustering all the strength she had, she smashed his head hard against the metal-plated wall. His head collided with the wall with such force that he immediately lost consciousness. His body drooped in her arms. She withdrew her arms and he fell to the ground.

“I’m glad you came to your senses,” Zinn remarked.

“Part of me wanted to kill him, Zinn,” Eladria admitted, horrified by the admission as the words left her mouth, her eyes stinging with held-back tears.

“But you didn’t. The fact you felt that way simply means you’ve been hurt; hurt more than anyone ever deserves to be.”

Eladria looked down at the man she’d once loved, the man who had so cruelly betrayed her, who had helped destroy almost everything she’d ever cared about. Realizing that she had little time to lament her losses, she gathered herself together and made for the nearest fighter, motioning for Zinn to follow.

“It’s likely they’ve been monitoring all of this from Central Control,” Eladria warned. “In which case, they’ll have a security force here in moments. We have to leave now, Zinn.”

They climbed up the landing steps and boarded the stationary craft with haste. Zinn took the passenger seat, while Eladria sat in the pilot’s seat on the right side of the cockpit. As they strapped themselves in, adjusting the seat belts in preparation for launch, Eladria activated the vehicle using voice control.

She readied the craft to leave and manually initiated the departure sequence. She fired up the engines and activated the launch pad, feeling the cylinders clicking into position as the launch pad beneath them rotated and ascended to the ceiling.

The ceiling hatch slid open and once they were on level with the exit shaft, Eladria disengaged the safety lock and took to flight. The vehicle lifted off the launch pad and shot toward the exit. With a flick of her console, she opened the exit door and the fighter sped out of the palace. She set course for the perimeter of the bio-dome, beyond which was open space. From there, she would take the craft into the atmosphere and down to the planet surface.

But this wasn’t going to be easy. The moment they exited the palace they were surrounded by Ha’shon raiders. Ignoring them, she navigated toward the bio-dome exit and initiated full throttle. The fighter screamed ahead at full speed, piercing through the veil of black smoke rising from the dead city.

The Ha’shon raiders gave immediate chase. Although trained as a pilot, she had never been in a combat situation. Any analysis of the situation would have concluded it hopeless, but Eladria wasn’t going to give up. She knew there was only one possible outcome now: she would escape, or she would die trying.

Music video for this chapter!

ELADRIA is published May 31 by Cosmic Egg Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing. Available to buy in paperback and ebook format. Click here for more information and to order.

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