Taranee's problems are just beginning.
WHAT GOD DID I PISS OFF?
See chapter one for disclaimers.
Taranee blinked until the large purple spots had faded from her vision and looked around. "I could really get to hate that color," she muttered taking in her surroundings. Everything, it seemed, was one shade of purple or another on Zamballa.
"Where are we?"
The voice startled her, and she spun to face its owner. Nigel was looking around him wide-eyed with wonder and no little fear. She remembered the hand on her shoulder just before the Heart had folded her away. "Nigel? You shouldn't be here!"
"Here? Where is here? What happened?"
"Um, well..." The sound of something crashing through the forest cut her off. "Uh-oh." She didn't know what to expect, or how the Zamballans would react to her possession of the Heart. It might not even be one of the Zamballans. "Come on, let's get to cover." Taking him by the arm, she pulled him behind a clump of trees and under a large bush. They watched as a large ambulatory tree came into view through the jungle. Taranee couldn't be sure, but she thought it might be Ironwood. She glanced at Nigel and found him wide-eyed and hyperventilating. She put a hand on his shoulder and motioned him to silence. Then she stood up.
"Ironwood? That you?"
The tree stopped and turned with a speed that its bulk made hard to credit. "Who is there?"
"Taranee. I was here a few days ago."
"The Guardians. I remember. Where are the others? The defilers have returned and our queen has disappeared."
"I know. I'm sorry Ironwood. I-I don't know how to break this easy, but... Kadma is dead. She was wounded by one of Nerissa's knights and barely reached me." Taranee held up the Heart. "She asked me to bring this home, and stop the defilers."
Ironwood was silent for a moment, too stunned to speak. "No! That's not possible. She cannot have fallen to the likes of them. What have you done with her?!"
Taken by surprise, Taranee backed away. "Hey! I didn't do anything to her."
"You lie! You are covered in her blood!" Taranee glanced down and discovered it was true. She grimaced, but chose to focus on the large angry tree instead.
"She was wounded! I tried to help, but there was nothing Icould do." She held up the Heart. "Look. This is what Nerissa wants. If Iwas working for her why would I be offering it to you?" The Heart began to pulse and Ironwood pulled back, staring raptly at the jewel.
The huge creature seemed to sag for a moment before pulling herself straight as Taranee presented the Heart to her again. "You speak the truth. You have the Heart, but Queen Kadma could not have asked you to return it to the land. It cannot be done without the proper rituals."
"I know," Taranee sighed as Ironwood drew away from the scepter.
"The queen must have had great regard for you to trust you with the Heart and her place in our world. Help us now, your majesty. Rid Zamballa of the defilers before more lives are lost."
"I'll do everything I can. Where are they now?"
"A few miles from here. I was sent to get reinforcements."
"We still need them, and I need afavor."
"Anything, my queen."
"First. Stop calling me that. Second. The Heart didn't give me a lot of time to prepare. It brought me here as soon as it was able. Like it...acted on its own."
"It did," Ironwood sounded surprised by her ignorance. "The Heart is a living thing. It is aware."
"Uh..." she glanced at the jewel warily and held it a little farther from her. "That actually explains a few things. Um... I need to get word to the other guardians."
"I can arrange that."
"And the Heart didn't bring me here alone." She turned back to the bushes she'd been hiding behind. "It's okay, Nigel. You can come out." He slowly rose from his cover and stared at Ironwood. "This is Ironwood. I need you to stick close to her, while Iget to work."
"Long story. I promise I'll tell you everything later." She raised the Heart. "Hope this works." She concentrated on her transformation, but nothing happened. The Heart is aware/, she remembered Ironwood saying. Maybe if I try communicating with it? She focused on the Heart and felt, after a moment, a gentle response. There were emotions there and she reached for them. Grief was foremost. There was also determination and lastly, curiosity. She felt a subtle probing from the Heart. /We have to hurry/, she thought at it. /I need to change. Confusion was her only answer as she projected an image of herself in Guardian form. How did Kadma do this?
The Heart seemed to consider her question and its presence in her mind became more intrusive. It was a frightening experience, but she tried to remain calm, but closely monitor what it was doing. After a moment, a startled cry from below caught her attention.
"Huh?" Opening her eyes, Taranee saw Nigel and Ironwood looking up at her. She seemed to be floating on acushion of air. Well, hot air rises. I guess it can carry a person. "Okay, that works. Don't worry," she called down to them. "I'll go after Nerissa. Ironwood, please keep Nigel safe." She looked around. "Now which way...oh, never mind." The column of smoke in the near distance was a fair indication of the knights' current location. She found herself moving in that direction, although she wasn't sure how.
"Does she look a little...unsteady to you?" Nigel asked hesitantly of the walking tree, as his girlfriend flew away.
"Perhaps she has never flown without wings before," the tree replied.
Taranee grew more confident as she flew, still not sure how she was managing to direct her flight, but deciding to figure it out later, and settled for learning what she could do. Changing course at random, with increasing speed, testing her maneuverability, she was nevertheless careful to stay mostly on course in order to reach her goal as quickly as possible. The Heart thrummed with anticipation and righteous anger over what Nerissa and her knights were doing. It was strange beyond anything she'd experienced before, and though it wierded her out, she couldn't help getting caught up in those feelings and carried along. The defilers had to pay for what they'd done, and soon, they would.
A part of her, a part she was able to keep separate, found the fact that a telepathic rock was influencing her, alarming. The Heart's goal, though, was simple and understandable. It wanted...she wanted... to drive the invaders out, to protect the jungle.
The first of the knights she encountered was Ember, who was laughing hysterically while throwing fireballs at a group of smaller Zamballans, children, Taranee realized. Ember was too preoccupied to notice Taranee's approach, and only stared in confusion when her missiles dissipated harmlessly before reaching their targets.
Zamballa's new queen was still formulating a plan, but Ember's actions made it hard to concentrate. Taranee just wanted to reach out and crush the fire creature. It would have been hard to tell which of them was more startled when a giant hand formed of fire appeared in the air and clenched into a fist around Ember.
Taranee glanced down at her own clenched fist. "Okaaaay. Kinda cool, actually." She drew back her arm and made a throwing gesture. The fireball mimicked her movements and Ember was sent tumbling through the air and into Tridart. Both crashed to the ground, unconscious. Whoa! My powers are way stronger than they were. Guess that's the Heart's doing.
She quickly located Nerissa and her remaining knights. The Heart's power soon began to worry her. It took only a random thought to cause something to happen. A pillar of fire erupted from the ground at the sorceress' feet that she barely avoided. The hand appeared again, swatting Shagon from the sky. In each case, there was fall out as burning embers rained down on the jungle below. She tried to contain the effect but quickly grew frustrated and angry.
She lost track of Khor for amoment until he wrapped powerful arms around her from behind. He was forced to let go a second later as her body heated up, and flames erupted from her. His pain filled shriek and the smell of smoldering fur trailed him all the way to the ground where he made a very bad landing. Taranee winced. Didn't mean to do that either, but if it works, who's complaining? He's definitely not getting up any time soon.
Khor vanished and she turned her attention to Nerissa and the rest, only to discover that they had, likewise, disappeared. With a sigh of resignation she came in for a landing in the scorched area and tried something she'd been thinking about since her last conflict with Ember.
A moment's concentration put out the fires in the immediate area and she moved on to the next section of burning jungle. When her work was done she landed near the first group of Zamballans she saw.
"Is everyone okay?" Silence greeted her as the locals took in her appearance and her possession of the Heart. "It's okay. I think they're gone for now."
"If we are fortunate," a familiar voice answered, "they will not return soon." Taranee turned to face Ironwood.
"Seems like I can handle them if they do," Taranee shrugged.
"I think that's what they're afraid of," Nigel answered.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Taranee? You're tossing around giant fireballs in aplace where the people are made out of wood. I knew you were trying to help and I wanted to run for the hills."
She opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it. After a moment, she sighed and nodded. "Okay. I get it. I'll be more careful in the future. I'm not used to having my powers so amped up."
"In time," Ironwood allowed, "you will grow used to the increased power."
"In time. Uh, right." Taranee looked around at her 'subjects' and took in the fearful way they looked at her. Yeah, I'm off to agreat start. Queen Taranee? What god did I piss off? "Hey, weren't you going to send for back up?"
"You did not seem to require it, Majesty." Ironwood answered.
"I can't replenish the jungle, the way Cornelia can. I can't bring rain the way Irma can, or awaken anyone from hibernation. I need the others here."
"Yes, my queen. A messenger has been dispatched to Kandrakhar."
"Good. In the meantime, I should get a better idea of how much damage was done."