He wasn't on the next planet, or the next.
We continued to follow.
And then, I was a month past the due date. I was slower in overcoming tiredness. Fear grew in me. I knew that panic came from the stone for it did not vanish, not like all the other moments. For the first time since I had been given that jewel, the stone refused to heal. We could not use that way of earning money so John took a temporary job at the port and Gaeven spent time waiting tables at a local bar. We replenished our supplies and took off again. Time sped past.
And then the Space Wolves hit us. They were galaxy pirates. If they thought there was money in it, they would hit anyone and everyone. They didn't care. Our ship had very little artillery. We stood no chance. In no time, they boarded us, took the three of us into custody. The man who escorted us from our vessel onto theirs was a huge, giant of a man, burly, bald. He wore no shirt and there were tattoos all over the naked skin that I could see. He had a beard, a large, golden hoop in his right earlobe. Other ruffians stood around him, weapons pointed at us.
"Ah, women!" he said in that raspy voice of his. "My men will be glad to get new material for their beds." Gaeven began to weep. John tried to attack the pirate and was shot. He wasn't killed, just incapacitated. Gaeven knelt down to him, held him.
"I'm all right," he murmured to her, holding his side where blood flowed freely. As I bent to help him, he argued, "Don't! It's just a scrape, Sheraden."
So I stood, faced that giant with a cold expression. He motioned to his followers to take us deeper into the ship. I said quickly, sharply, "Wait." He indicated for them to halt and they did. I moved my cape and allowed him to see my Heart Stone.
"Are you for real?" he demanded, touching the stone.
"No, I glued it on," I snapped.
He looked at me, and then smiled, a low, calculating grin that turned my very bones cold. "You, come with me. Cap has need of you."
"He needs to be healed," I guessed. He gave one short nod. "If you hurt my friends, I won't help him."
"Sheraden, you can't!" Gaeven said in horror.
"You don't have a choice," the burly man said.
"How much do you know about these stones?" I could tell from his expression that he knew a lot. "You know that I do have a choice. Put my friends back in the ship and let them go."
"I won't go without you!" Gaeven said, weeping.
"I won't either," John vowed. He struggled to stand, helped by Gaeven.
"It seems you're held in high regard by your friends," the burly man said calmly. I shrugged. "All right, you have my word, if you heal the Cap, you and your friends will be let go, unharmed."
"It seems the Cap means a lot to you too," I said.
The giant nodded. "He's my brother and the captain of this ship."
"Then take me to him."
I'm surprised he didn't ask me why I didn't heal John, but I guess he only had one thing on his mind and that was the captain. Outside the Captain's room, the giant took my cape.
"You won't be needing this." He opened the door and pushed me inside. The man who stood inside the room only had one arm, his right one. His shirt was pinned near the left side, on the shoulder. He had a bad scar across his left cheek.
"Bud!" the captain yelled. "I swear. . ." He stopped, looked at me, looked at my Heart Stone. His eyes grew wide.
"Have fun, Cap." The burly man grinned, saluted saucily, and shut the door.
"Have you come to heal me?" he asked in awe. He rubbed the large scar on the side of his face.
I doubted it could be done, with the stone so weak, but I said, "Yes. Please lie down." He did. "He said he'd let my friends go, unharmed."
"He'll keep his word. I'll make sure though, strange as it seems, Bud is a man of his word." He went to his bunk and lay down. I sat down next to him. I had to battle with the stone to make it work. The light was weak at first, but grew in intensity. It bathed him in a eerie, red illumination. I closed my eyes, dizzy, nearly depleted but I forced it to continue. When it would do no more, I opened my eyes. The captain lay there. Not only was the scar gone but his arm was whole again though it was not as muscular or tanned as the other. Only time would solve that. I stood up and fainted.
I came to in my own bed with Gaeven weeping over me. She was bathing my face. The damp coolness of the cloth felt good against my warm cheeks. She saw my eyes open. "Oh, Sheraden, why?"
"Free you," I whispered. I wanted to sit up but I could not move.
"Our lives aren't worth yours!" she exclaimed.
"Yes . . ."
She battled for control. When she finally was able to control her emotions, she said, "The Space Wolves have taken us close to the next world. Their ship was faster than ours. The captain and that ugly man told me to tell you thank you. They let us go about an hour ago. We should get there an hour or two after Alphonse. Don't worry; John will get your heart and bring it to you." Though I doubted it would be in time, I nodded. "Are you thirsty?"
"Yes." She held a glass to my lips. I took a sip and then slipped back into sleep. I drifted in and out. I knew she bathed me, fed me. I could hear her and John talking softly in the distance each time I roused. I wasn't aware when we landed but I noticed the absence of vibration when I finally, fully re-woke. I looked at my hands. They were old, shriveled. Gaeven sat next to me. Tears slipped down her cheeks. "Mirror."
"Please don't," she begged.
She got the mirror and held it so I could see myself. I went from a nineteen year old to a woman of a hundred years and more. We heard a commotion in the outer rooms. "John's here! I think he has Alphonse." The men came in. Alphonse had been horribly beaten. He was bleeding from his mouth, his nose. One of his eyes was black and closed from the beating John had given him. He was tied up. John shoved him to the floor. He handed the heart to Gaeven who immediately came to me. She held my hand on the slow beating heart.
Alphonse staggered upwards, stared in horror at me. "I didn't know! I thought she had more time." John knocked him down. I heard him groan in pain.
"See what you did to her, you scum? You see?"
He muttered in anguish. "I never meant to hurt her!"
"She's dying because of you!" John kicked him. Alphonse groaned as he skidded across the floor.
"No," I told him. The feeling of strength was returning to me.
"Sheraden?" Gaeven asked in shock. "It's working! John! It's working!" I heard the joy in her voice.
I sat up. Though I was not yet at my real age, at least I was no longer a dying, ancient crone. I stood up, went slowly to Alphonse. I stared down at him. The rage continued to build. It was so strong, it overcame me. The gem allowed it to dwell in my mind, permitted it to grow. The hatred bubbled up. It too was strong. The stone did not remove it either. I noticed both but I was so obsessed with him, the truth did not strike me right then.
He stared at me, his face white and full of alarm at what he had done. "I didn't know! I swear! I never meant to hurt you!"
"I told you I couldn't be what you wanted, but you didn't believe me, did you?"
"Oh, Sheraden, I . . ."
"King Urlen lived two hundred fifty years. Will you? No, you won't, but I will. Even if the jewel allowed me to love, why should I love you? You'd turn old and die and I'd keep going."
He must have seen something on my face for he turned pale. "Please?"
My left hand touched the stone and the other shot forward. I forced that gem to terminate Alphonse and it did not take much struggle to do it either. I guess it being so near death weakened it enough that I could control it. Alphonse became a blackened, charred heap on the floor. "Take this garbage off the ship," I told John. When he was slow to respond, I turned to them.
"Sheraden, you killed him," Gaeven said in dread.
"Yes. Are you going to take this trash out of here, John?" I demanded, coldly.
"Yes," he muttered and began to do as I had asked.
"Sheraden?" Gaeven asked. John looked at me.
I faced reality then and that felt good. I was no longer the slave to the jewel; I was its master. Triumph surged through me and I did not try to stop it. "Listen and listen well. I control the gem now; it no longer controls me. What I do is what I do. If my actions no longer feel comfortable to either of you, you'll have to leave me. I'm not going back to what I was, understand?"
"Yes, Sheraden." But she seemed worried, subdued. Even John, though he nodded, looked concerned.
Did they understand? It didn't matter. In time, they would either drift away or accept the new me for I had meant I not going back to what I was. I controlled the gemstone now and I wasn't going to give command back to that rock.
I would have gone out on that world to seek and kill my father for what he had done to my mother and me, but John told me a thief in the night had already done that.
"If you're lying to me . . ." I warned.
I saw fear in his eyes. I believed him. I had no reason not to. What I had done to Alphonse should be a deterrent against his ever lying to me.
We went back to Gaeven's world where I destroyed that cave, the Sackets, the stones. I wasn't going to let them do to anyone else what they had done to me. And then I went in search of that old woman and her daughter.
- the end -