The Gem Guardian: Chapter 1

Jun 01, 2021

32 mins read

Author's Note: This is Chapter 1 of 25/26(?) of The Gem Guardian, that I'm about halfway through writing. I've made major updates to the draft, previously called Unlocking the Universes, and will be posting it for members only as the chapters are ready.  

This is a fantasy novel about a girl whose biggest worry used to be her pre-calc final before she realized she accidentally becomes destined to bring peace to the universe.


Chapter 1

“Anissa, I need you to focus on something other than yourself for just one, teeny tiny second, can you at least give me that?”

When Ani’s cell phone vibrated, she startled slightly, and pulled it out of her hoodie pocket. It was Derek Jones. Jones wasn’t just the most popular boy at King High, he was also the most sought after - someone Ani’d been working on since freshman year. As her phone continued to vibrate with a barrage of incoming texts, it seemed like her hard work paid off – recently single, Derek seemed to be interested in her now. 

 “I don’t see why you need my help anyway, Mother. You’re the agent in charge. Plus, it feels a little sleazy to plunder some guy’s house just days after he dies, don’t you think?” she asked, texting out a reply to meet up with Derek later that night. Her mother was a harpy, but it wasn’t going to stop her from sealing the deal with Derek. 

“It’s an estate sale, darling, if it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.” Her high pitch voice hit just that nerve in Ani’s head. Her mother hadn’t always had that effect on her, but lately, Ani couldn’t do anything well enough to meet her mother’s demanding standards. Everything Ani ever did was wrong. Not only that, but there was this edge there, something Ani couldn’t explain. Ani didn’t like what she saw when she looked at the woman who raised her. 

“And don’t you think your uncle would be happy to know that his friend’s estate is being dealt with by family instead of a stranger?” 

While her mother droned on, Ani’s focus fell back to her phone, where she texted out another response to Derek, telling him she’d join up with him later that evening. 

“Anissa, are you even listening to me? I need you there.”

Ani got up from the kitchen table and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’m going over to the house now to help Uncle Jack, you know, to pack up the important things before people like you get their hands on them.” 

Over the last month, the eye rolls, the things left unsaid had gotten even worse. Everything Ani’s mother said to her grated on her nerves in a way that she couldn’t just contribute to being a teenager. Something was off. Mrs. Means had always been a driven woman. It was something Ani used to admire about her. As a single parent, she killed it as a business woman and a full time mom. When Ani was little, her mother had been her idol. But now, she was just ruthless. She stepped on others to get what she wanted and didn’t even flinch. This tactic was something Ani never noticed, not until Uncle Jack’s boyfriend Rick died. She jumped on the estate sale proceedings so quickly. It made Ani begin to think about her differently. Then she realized that her mother had always been that way, Ani’d just been too young to understand it before. 

         On her way out, she could hear her mother mumbling about how ungrateful she was, but she needed to get out of the house, so she didn’t turn back to argue. Uncle Jack always made her feel better. Uncle Jack had always been like a father to her. When she was younger, she used to ask about her real father, but Jack never gave her a concrete answer. He’d always just said that his brother had been a good man, one who would be so proud of the girl she’d become. It wasn’t enough for her. Her mother never talked about him, and the little her uncle said about his brother never sustained her curiosity. When she was old enough, she’d realized that his memory was a painful one for both her mother and her uncle, so she stopped prying. 

Ani was as close to Uncle Rick as she was to Uncle Jack, and his death had been difficult for her, but not half as difficult as it was for Uncle Jack. Ani was so heartbroken that he’d been dealing with his death all alone. Rick had been a good man, and she wanted to be there for Uncle Jack while he was mourning the loss of his partner. There was no one else to mourn Rick aside from them, at least that was what Jack kept telling her mother when she asked about the house and estate. Rick didn’t have a will or anything like that, so hags like her mother just jumped right on in as soon as the obituary was posted. 

The house in question was beautiful. It had been passed down in Rick’s family for generations. It was well taken care of too. The two-story house was just the kind of house a real estate agent like her mother dreamed over. It was in a sought-after neighborhood, close to the best schools in the county.  It was far enough away from the city to be a suburban family’s wet dream. The curb appeal was a 10/10; a freshly manicured lawn with beautiful, low maintenance perennials in the window boxes. A shady tree offset all that heat beaming in from the sun. The windows were large and inviting, and once inside, the natural light was “something to dream about” according to her mother. The hardwood floors and tile had recently been redone and each of the upstairs rooms had a bay window with a built in seat. With an attic and a basement, the house had the potential of being sold for top market price. All Ani saw when she looked at it now though, was her uncle’s despair.  

That look of despair was doubled when the people who fed off the dead were around. The lawyer was there -- she could tell by the suit – and a priest too, talking to Uncle Jack about the arrangements for the procession. Instead of interrupting, she just made her way up to the second floor to finish boxing up the rooms. The lawyer and priest left just as she finished cleaning out the Guardian bathroom. Uncle Jack came up with a cup of tea a few minutes later. She could tell he’d been crying. She didn’t mention it.

         “This sucks,” he sighed, handing her the cup. Ani just nodded. It really did, but there wasn’t anything she could say to make his hurt go away, so she didn’t try to mince words.

*

         The funeral had sucked too, and in the back of her mind, Ani was sure that her mother had been at the house while they were lowering Uncle Rick into the ground, hammering down the Estate Sale sign in the front yard. She really was heartless, but this sale had her sinking to new depths of callousness in Ani’s mind. The fact that her mother didn’t even offer her own brother-in-law condolences made Ani sick. While her mother and uncle had never had the best relationship, they’d always been around, to raise Ani together. Anyone could tell that Uncle Jack was a wreck. He tried to hold it together for the funeral, but when the entire processional was just you, your niece, and the priest at your boyfriend’s funeral proceedings… 

It was like Rick had no one in this world who would miss him besides Uncle Jack. Rick had been in her life for as long as Ani could remember, but she couldn’t remember him ever having someone else in his. He’d been a strong presence, always at her birthday parties, always giving her books on the stars and the planets. He’d encouraged her to pursue art and music, to persevere in math, even though she hated it. He’d even tutored her in biology two years ago. That’s the kind of guy he was. He never talked about any family – a brother or sister or any other nephews or nieces, but aside from her and her uncle, he was alone. When she asked, Jack had always told her to leave it be, and the older she got, the more she started to think that Rick had lost his family in some tragic way. It left her feeling sad and lonely when she thought about it, but also like she’d added something meaningful to his life until he died. 

         The house was empty when she arrived, the Estate Sale sign glaring at her as she walked in. It was just another reminder of her mother’s blind ambition. She knew her mother would be there in short order and sure enough, Ani heard her in the living room not too long after she got herself settled upstairs. She called out a quick, “I’m in the attic boxing the rest of Uncle Rick’s stuff,” but to Ani’s surprise, her mother didn’t try to stop her or ask her to help her do anything else. It sounded like the woman was on a mission, because she’d barely walked in the doors before she started rifling through drawers in the built ins. Ani had emptied those out days prior, but she didn’t bother to tell her that. Let her waste her time being greedy, Ani decided. 

Ani told Uncle Jack she’d handle the rest of the boxes so that he could grieve in peace. The attic was a lot cleaner than she originally expected it to be, considering most people’s attics were dusty and full of cobwebs. Rick’s was totally clean and organized, which made her job easier. Everything was boxed up before she’d even started, save for a desk and a small dresser. She’d started boxing the dresser up the day before, but she was anxious to get it finished.

There was a certain kind of monotony in the act of packing up someone else’s things, something purposeless in it. The routine of it all was peaceful, which was a rare feeling for her, especially lately. As she reached for items, wrapped them carefully in tissue or newspaper, she let everything else go and found an interesting kind of harmony within herself. School was really starting to pull at Ani’s attention lately. Finals weren’t far off, and as a senior, she didn’t want anything to get in the way of the most important rites of passage – prom, the senior trip, graduation. She put a lot of effort into her studies, and into Derek, and everything was really lining up in her favor, she didn’t need any distractions to get in her way.

After clearing the last unlocked desk compartment of the desk out, Ani pulled out her pocket knife to try to wedge open the final (and only) locked drawer. She was careful as she wedged the tiny blade into the tumbler of the lock, wiggling gently. She didn’t want to wreck the desk or anything, but her mother’s estate sale started the next day, so Ani didn’t want any of Rick’s personal stuff to be sold off to the bottom feeders who buy at estate sales. This desk was clearly an important space for Rick and she knew her uncle would want to go through Rick’s more personal stuff himself when he wasn’t so emotional.

Eventually, Ani jimmied the lock and got the compartment open. She impressed herself by not leaving much of a scratch on the lock either. Inside the compartment was an old rusted box. Compared to everything else in the attic, it stuck out. Everything there was old, but it was all in impeccable shape, except for this box. The desk itself was definitely an antique. It would sell for a lot of money, if Antique Roadshow was anything to go by. It had these ornate designs carved into the sides, and the panels and compartments were decorated with this beautiful gold and silver inlay. Ani wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been passed down by Rick’s family. That’s why the box inside was such a shock. It was rusted on all sides and had chipped paint everywhere. It didn’t fit into the rest of the attic’s decor at all. The sound of something rumbling around, like rocks being shaken up, happened when Ani shook the box gently. A tinge of curiosity bubbled up inside of her at the sound. The latch was rusted over, but her pocket knife, once more, did the trick.  When the latch finally gave way, it revealed a bunch of old gems. Ani shook the box a bit in her hands to see what else was in there.

An electric shock spread through her fingers and up her spine, forcing her to drop the box in order to reach for her temples. Taking a minute to collect herself, she blinked a few times and shook it off. 

“What the..?”

Picking the tarnished box up from the floor, Ani closed the lid, and slipped it back into the jimmied compartment in the desk. No box of junk was worth all that, so she put it right back where she found it. Even though she put it down, the room didn’t feel right anymore, her head throbbed, and the air around her felt heavy, like a storm was swirling around her.  

“I must be dehydrated,” she murmured, suddenly feeling like she needed to get out of the attic at that exact moment. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t waste another moment in the attic, so she looked around for a few packed boxes to take down to her car. Bending to pick up one of them, she noticed that one of the gems from the lock box had fallen out onto the floor, almost underneath the desk. As soon as the cool, light blue semi-circle stone met the skin of her hand, her head seemed to explode, and she gasped. Everything went hazy and her head started thumping its own heartbeat. Ears pounding, her throat constricted – the pain felt like her brain was swelling out of control, like her skull was too small, like everything was too tight. Her breathing became uneven and then everything went black.

*

         A blistering gust of wind blew wisps of her hair into her face when Ani finally sat up. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead, irritating her skin. She definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… The sun was bright, too bright, even for the Southern California day she’d left behind. The thrumming of her head tapped an incessant tempo at her temples. It was obvious that she wasn’t in the attic anymore either, but she couldn’t figure out what the heck just happened. Despite the bright white light, she squinted her eyes to look around and all she could see for miles was sand, lots and lots of sand. Forcing her eyes to stay open against the heat and blinding soon felt impossible. She pulled her knees tightly to her chest and let her head rest against them as she caught her breath.

         “Where the hell did I go?” She murmured to herself, counting slowly to five and then back down to calm her breathing. “Maybe I fell and hit my head when I reached for the gem and this is some kind of coma dream.”

“Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic,” she whispered. “Just breathe. You’ll figure this out. You figure everything out, just think.” If this wasn’t the result of a bad fall, she wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. 

The desert was sweltering, and the breeze on her face was hotter still. The silence made her weary. No birds, no traffic, no mother banging around downstairs. The palm tree a few feet away was twisted and mangled, like it had been growing against the wind for centuries, and not far from that, a small pond of some kind – was this an oasis? Of course her brain would create an oasis in the event of a fall. Travelers always thought they saw oases in the distance and went mad searching for them, right? 

Sighing, Ani ran her fingers through her hair, a nervous habit she picked up over the years that her mother despised, but she realized her hand was bunched into a fist. “Oh yeah, the gem,” she said, looking down at her closed fingers. 

When she opened her fist to drop it, she was suddenly right back in the attic.

Ani took a long, unsteady breath, finally able to breathe, and dragged the box into her shaking hands. 

Along with the box came the ringing in her ears again. “I definitely just teleported, right?” She said, looking at the box as if expecting an answer. “Like, I wasn’t here, and then I was here.” 

Shaking her head, she thought about the bedtime stories her Uncle Jack used to tell her. Magical adventures of a little princess who could jump so high she’d touch the stars. Was that what she was doing? Did the gem transport her to another galaxy? That light blue gem to the desert was only one of many though, and although Ani was curious, she felt a little like she almost died with just the one, she held off on grabbing another gem and instead, sat the box back down on the desk. It was then that Ani realized that the magic she’d watched in movies, the magic she’d read about in books, was real.

“Yo, what the heck was Rick into?” she asked herself, her hands still shaking as she backed away from the desk.

The seconds ticked by as she stared down at the box, almost as if she were waiting for it to move itself. Biting at her lip, she hesitated for the briefest moment before she took a step forward, immediately stopping herself again. “This is stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a box.” 

After a few deep breaths, suddenly there she was, picking at the latch, as if she couldn’t help herself. It felt like the gems were calling to her, an invisible energy, forcing her hand. The siren song was just too much, and once she got the box open, she picked up the first gem she could reach. Abruptly, the pounding in her head exploded, but this time, unlike in the desert, it immediately lessened as she opened her eyes in a vacant countryside. 

“See that wasn’t so bad,” she told herself, looking down at the gem in her hand. This one was light green, shiny, smooth to the touch, like the light blue, but oblong in shape. When she looked around, she felt utterly alone, a cool breeze on her face, sun high in the afternoon sky. After the feeling of isolation stopped, she realized she could hear the bustle of people nearby.

Instead of dropping this gem, as she did in the desert, Ani held onto this one tightly and walked around to explore. The sides of the roads were well managed hedges with small wildflowers in bright oranges, blues, and purples. The roads themselves were well used, dirt roads that led to what seemed to be personal driveways. The air was crisp and all at once she wished she had a jacket on. The cold didn’t really deter her from moving though, and after a few more minutes, she found a sign that had London, 6 km written on it. So, the light green gem led her to London, and the light blue gem led her to some random desert.  Just how many gems were there? Ani finally decided to drop the gem and as it slipped through her fingers it felt as though the wind was being knocked out of her.

Back in the attic, she slid the gem back into the box, shut the lid, and slipped it into her bag. She needed to go see Uncle Jack, show him what she found, and she needed to do it right now. The hair on the back of her neck seemed to raise, like everything in her was pulling her out of that attic. Something felt... wrong somehow, worse than it did before. Taking a quick glance in the mirror, her haggard face stared back at her. Beads of sweat on her brow, bloodshot eyes, and a nauseous complexion seem to shout at her to leave.

“Anissa.”

Gasping, Ani whirled around, finding her mother in the doorway. “I’ve been calling you for at least ten minutes.  What is so important that you can’t even answer your mother?”

Her mother looked around the attic, and then stepped inside. Ani’s head was pounding. The throbbing seemed to get worse with every step her mother took toward her. 

“You look awful dear, what’s wrong?” 

The words, once full of compassion and love, sounded dull and stiff as she looked around the room before she settled in front of her daughter. Ani realized that her mother didn’t actually care about how she was doing years ago, but it still didn’t lessen the blow. 

Taking another step closer to Ani, her mother looked around with her hand spread out in front of her, her fingers extended in a painful looking way. 

“Well, what did you find up here? Anything worth anything?” 

Her voice, usually an annoyingly high twittering sound was now low, almost sinister. Ani wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she’d never seen her mother move the way she was just then. She seemed almost calculating the way she was moving around the attic, shoulders hunched forward, eyes darting around the room. 

“No,” Ani shrugged. “I’ve just got a headache. The movers can come get the desk now,” she added. “I bet you’ll get a good price for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure I will. Anything in those drawers? Any other... antiques?”

The box in her bag seemed to press against her as she stood there awkwardly, rubbing the pads of her thumbs against her closed eyes. She’d been keeping secrets from her mother for years, but for some inexplicable reason, this seemed like the most important secret she’d ever keep.

“Nope,” she murmured, shouldering her bag as nonchalantly as she could muster. “Just some old writing stuff; some note paper, envelopes, an old fountain pen. Nothing special. You want to look through the boxes?”

“No.” Her mother’s response was rough, hardened. She ran her hand over one of the boxes as she walked toward Ani. Her hand looked different, wrinkled, red, like she’d irritated it while cleaning somehow. Almost like she’d spilled a cleaning solvent on her skin and neglected to flush it out with water. Actually, everything about her mother looked different. Her hair, which was always perfectly put together, was messy and falling out of the hairband. Her blouse was wrinkled too, like she’d been crawling around or something. Now, it was almost as if she’d been slinking through the space, her eyes never leaving Ani. “You look simply awful,” her mother repeated again, her voice lower still. “Almost as if you’d seen a ghost.” 

Ani blinked sharply. “I don’t know what you mean,” she answered, hiking the shoulder bag up again. “Anyway, I’m heading over to Uncle Jack’s to take over these boxes. I’ll be back to help the movers in an hour or so.”

She didn’t wait for her mother to respond before she started to move. She had to step around her mother, whose eyes seemed to bore into Ani’s very soul. After picking up one of the boxes, she looked back once more at the woman, but instead of seeing the mother who’d helped her paint her room to match the night sky when she was seven and thought she was a star princess, she just saw a stranger. 

“Now, now, Anissa dear, don’t run away,” her mother said, smiling creepily. “Tell mommy what you’ve found, what you’ve discovered.”

Ani whipped her head around and moved to back away, shaking her head. “I told you, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

“I can feel the power, Anissa. I know what you’ve found. I cannot let you leave with them. Give them to me,” she said, stepping closer. “Now, Anissa!”

Ani shook her head again and dropped the box of old junk, gripping the strap to her shoulder bag tightly. “Mom,” she tried, holding up her empty hand in caution. “Stop. Please, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh sweetie, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m your mother. I’d never hurt you.”

The hairs prickling up on Ani’s arms said otherwise, and suddenly, she knew she couldn’t stay here any longer. Her chest felt tight, too tight, like she couldn’t breathe, and her head, it pounded before, but now it felt as if there was someone chiseling behind her eyes. She could see dark spots in her periphery – it was now or never.

She turned and started to run, digging through her bag for her car keys. She could feel her mother following right behind, could hear her screeching, louder than she’d ever heard her mother sound before. “Anissa, stop!” she screamed.

As suddenly as she’d started to move she was pulled back, that red hand gripping her shoulder so violently she stumbled onto her back. The eyes that stared down at Ani were no longer the eyes of the woman who raised her, instead, a deep black, the very image of hatred stared at her. 

Pinned by her mother’s foot, Ani could feel the heel of her stiletto piercing the skin of her shoulder, pressing down harder and harder as she waited. “Give them to me and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, her voice dripping with disdain. “You weren’t meant to find those,” she scoffed. “You’re nothing. Couldn’t even keep the gems safe for thirty minutes,” she laughed, pressing down harder into Ani’s shoulder.

“Mom, please,” Ani cried, doing everything she could to push the foot away, tears pooling in her eyes. “Please, you’re hurting me.”

“Give me what I’ve asked for and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, pressing harder still. Ani could feel the instant when the heel finally began to tear at her flesh, ripping at it like tissue paper. “Give me what’s rightfully mine.” 

The panic that settled in her skin itched like fire in her veins. Everything inside of her told her that if she didn’t get away – right this minute – her mother, her mother, would kill her. The idea of giving this… thing holding her down…  the gems didn’t even cross Ani’s mind as she pressed her hands against her mother’s ankle bone and squeezed. A ripple of heat – and hurt – rushed through Ani’s body and exited out of her palms into her mother. In a flash, her mother fell to the ground and Ani made her escape. 

Looking at her palms, Ani spared a brief glance at her mother before bolting down the stairs, she could hear the screams of a woman in pain echo through the empty hallway but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop to question what just happened, what she’d just done. She couldn’t explain it anyway. As soon as she got out of the attic and away from her mother, it was like she could breathe again. She dashed out of the house as fast as she dared, the pain in her shoulder forgotten for the moment. The car key firmly planted in her hand, she didn’t even look back as she twisted it into the ignition and threw the car in drive.

“What the hell was that!” She screamed, finally looking into the rearview mirror as she drove the few blocks to her uncle’s house. Tears tracked down her face as she tried to categorize everything that went down. Those tears and her bloodied shoulder were easy reminders – her mother had tried to kill her.

“Uncle Jack!” Ani yelled when she finally ran into her uncle’s house. “Where are you?” she cried, panicked and hurting. She kept one hand pressed into her shoulder and the other wrapped around the box in her bag. “I need help!” she yelled. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I think I went into a mini-coma today. And my,” she sobbed, “My mother she…” 

        A hand over her mouth caught her off guard. “Keep your voice down, Ani,” Uncle Jack whispered. “You’re safe here.”

        Terrified and still on edge, she tried to pull away from him, one hand pushing him away, another gripping his hand at her mouth as she kicked and screamed. A pulse, like the one she felt ripple through her before began to bubble up inside of her again, almost coming up to the surface.

He held her steady and made a quiet shushing sound, “Ani, please. It’s me, it’s Uncle Jack. I’ve got you.”

        When Ani stopped fighting, she slumped against him, crying in earnest. The electric shock throbbing inside of her slowed and then quieted completely. The tears racked through her body so violently Uncle Jack had to hold her in place, his arms wrapped around her at the waist. “I’ve got you, princess, I’ve got you now, you’re okay.” 

“Okay?” she whispered. “I’ll never be okay!” The fight, back inside of her, clawing its way up her throat, pulsing to hurt as she’d been hurt. “She tried to kill me, Jack! She. I’m. I’m bleeding for Christ’s sake. She made me bleed.”

“I’ll take care of that, but Ani please, you must calm down. I won’t let her hurt you again, I swear it on my life, but I can’t protect you from yourself.” He pleaded, pressing a warm hand against her shoulder. “For centuries, an ancient order has been looking for Rick. For what Rick had. I looked for it after he died too, just to keep it safe, but it wouldn’t reveal itself to me.” 

Confused, Ani took a step back and pushed his hands away. “What are you even talking about?” she said, backing away slowly her hands protectively holding her bag to her chest. “No, please Uncle Jack, not you too,” she said softly, defeated. “I can’t fight you too.”

“No, Ani, I’m not her. I won’t hurt you,” he tried, stepping toward her.

“That’s what she said,” Ani screamed, pointing toward the door. “She was my mother, Jack, and she did this,” she groaned, seizing her wounded shoulder carefully.

“I don’t have the time to tell you everything, Ani. Just trust me, please, I need to keep you safe,” Jack whispered, his hands up defensively. “I’ll explain everything, but not here. We aren’t safe here. Will you come with me?” He asked quietly. “I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

After a pause, Ani nodded, crying, still clutching her bag tightly to her body.

        Afraid to even move, she held her breath and waited for Uncle Jack to move. In short order, he led her toward the basement. “In here,” he murmured quietly. Once inside, he locked the door, and they headed down the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he whispered something under his breath and waved his hand out. There was another door there, one that hadn’t been there before, and once they were through it, he closed and locked it too. Again, he said something silently, and then pointed to a couch and nodded for Ani to sit, which she did, still confused.

        “Alright, it’s safe here.”

The room felt safe. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but as she looked around the small space, the tension in her neck, shoulders, spine, hips, knees – it all just melted away.

        For the first time since entering the house, Ani took a deep breath. “Where did that door come from? Where are we? What was all that about anyway?” she asked, whispering, as she wiped the remnants of her tears away.

        “Just wait a moment, please,” Uncle Jack said softly, leaning his back against the wall. “I need a second.”

Ani looked at her uncle then, really looked at him. As he sagged against the closed door, he looked even worse than he had at the funeral. She saw the despair in him she’d seen before, but the fear in his eyes was really what made her worry.

“You’ve found the galaxy’s gemstones, haven’t you?” He asked. It really wasn’t a question; it was more of a statement.

“The gems to the what?” she replied incredulously after a quick beat of silence. “Did you say galaxy?”

        “Now’s not the time to ask questions, Ani. The long and short of it is, Rick has been the Gemstone Guardian for over three centuries, and years ago, it was foretold that another would take his place. Rick knew who his replacement was, but before he could find to him to train him, the cancer progressed.”

        “Gem Guardian? Where do I fit into this?”

“I don’t have all the answers, Ani, but I do know this – the gems no stranger to conflict – they did not come to you by accident. I don’t have time to explain, but let me show you,” Uncle Jack whispered, coming close and sitting down next to her. He smiled softly, a smile Ani recognized as one of both pity and affection. “I wish this wasn’t happening to us,” he told her quietly. “I have so much I want to show you, Ani, but we don’t have time.”

Before she could ask him what he meant, he pressed a comforting palm to the base of her neck and rested his forehead against her own. Without another thought, her eyes closed and she could feel herself falling.


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The Gem Guardian: Chapter 1

Jun 01, 2021

32 mins read

Author's Note: This is Chapter 1 of 25/26(?) of The Gem Guardian, that I'm about halfway through writing. I've made major updates to the draft, previously called Unlocking the Universes, and will be posting it for members only as the chapters are ready.  

This is a fantasy novel about a girl whose biggest worry used to be her pre-calc final before she realized she accidentally becomes destined to bring peace to the universe.


Chapter 1

“Anissa, I need you to focus on something other than yourself for just one, teeny tiny second, can you at least give me that?”

When Ani’s cell phone vibrated, she startled slightly, and pulled it out of her hoodie pocket. It was Derek Jones. Jones wasn’t just the most popular boy at King High, he was also the most sought after - someone Ani’d been working on since freshman year. As her phone continued to vibrate with a barrage of incoming texts, it seemed like her hard work paid off – recently single, Derek seemed to be interested in her now. 

 “I don’t see why you need my help anyway, Mother. You’re the agent in charge. Plus, it feels a little sleazy to plunder some guy’s house just days after he dies, don’t you think?” she asked, texting out a reply to meet up with Derek later that night. Her mother was a harpy, but it wasn’t going to stop her from sealing the deal with Derek. 

“It’s an estate sale, darling, if it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.” Her high pitch voice hit just that nerve in Ani’s head. Her mother hadn’t always had that effect on her, but lately, Ani couldn’t do anything well enough to meet her mother’s demanding standards. Everything Ani ever did was wrong. Not only that, but there was this edge there, something Ani couldn’t explain. Ani didn’t like what she saw when she looked at the woman who raised her. 

“And don’t you think your uncle would be happy to know that his friend’s estate is being dealt with by family instead of a stranger?” 

While her mother droned on, Ani’s focus fell back to her phone, where she texted out another response to Derek, telling him she’d join up with him later that evening. 

“Anissa, are you even listening to me? I need you there.”

Ani got up from the kitchen table and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’m going over to the house now to help Uncle Jack, you know, to pack up the important things before people like you get their hands on them.” 

Over the last month, the eye rolls, the things left unsaid had gotten even worse. Everything Ani’s mother said to her grated on her nerves in a way that she couldn’t just contribute to being a teenager. Something was off. Mrs. Means had always been a driven woman. It was something Ani used to admire about her. As a single parent, she killed it as a business woman and a full time mom. When Ani was little, her mother had been her idol. But now, she was just ruthless. She stepped on others to get what she wanted and didn’t even flinch. This tactic was something Ani never noticed, not until Uncle Jack’s boyfriend Rick died. She jumped on the estate sale proceedings so quickly. It made Ani begin to think about her differently. Then she realized that her mother had always been that way, Ani’d just been too young to understand it before. 

         On her way out, she could hear her mother mumbling about how ungrateful she was, but she needed to get out of the house, so she didn’t turn back to argue. Uncle Jack always made her feel better. Uncle Jack had always been like a father to her. When she was younger, she used to ask about her real father, but Jack never gave her a concrete answer. He’d always just said that his brother had been a good man, one who would be so proud of the girl she’d become. It wasn’t enough for her. Her mother never talked about him, and the little her uncle said about his brother never sustained her curiosity. When she was old enough, she’d realized that his memory was a painful one for both her mother and her uncle, so she stopped prying. 

Ani was as close to Uncle Rick as she was to Uncle Jack, and his death had been difficult for her, but not half as difficult as it was for Uncle Jack. Ani was so heartbroken that he’d been dealing with his death all alone. Rick had been a good man, and she wanted to be there for Uncle Jack while he was mourning the loss of his partner. There was no one else to mourn Rick aside from them, at least that was what Jack kept telling her mother when she asked about the house and estate. Rick didn’t have a will or anything like that, so hags like her mother just jumped right on in as soon as the obituary was posted. 

The house in question was beautiful. It had been passed down in Rick’s family for generations. It was well taken care of too. The two-story house was just the kind of house a real estate agent like her mother dreamed over. It was in a sought-after neighborhood, close to the best schools in the county.  It was far enough away from the city to be a suburban family’s wet dream. The curb appeal was a 10/10; a freshly manicured lawn with beautiful, low maintenance perennials in the window boxes. A shady tree offset all that heat beaming in from the sun. The windows were large and inviting, and once inside, the natural light was “something to dream about” according to her mother. The hardwood floors and tile had recently been redone and each of the upstairs rooms had a bay window with a built in seat. With an attic and a basement, the house had the potential of being sold for top market price. All Ani saw when she looked at it now though, was her uncle’s despair.  

That look of despair was doubled when the people who fed off the dead were around. The lawyer was there -- she could tell by the suit – and a priest too, talking to Uncle Jack about the arrangements for the procession. Instead of interrupting, she just made her way up to the second floor to finish boxing up the rooms. The lawyer and priest left just as she finished cleaning out the Guardian bathroom. Uncle Jack came up with a cup of tea a few minutes later. She could tell he’d been crying. She didn’t mention it.

         “This sucks,” he sighed, handing her the cup. Ani just nodded. It really did, but there wasn’t anything she could say to make his hurt go away, so she didn’t try to mince words.

*

         The funeral had sucked too, and in the back of her mind, Ani was sure that her mother had been at the house while they were lowering Uncle Rick into the ground, hammering down the Estate Sale sign in the front yard. She really was heartless, but this sale had her sinking to new depths of callousness in Ani’s mind. The fact that her mother didn’t even offer her own brother-in-law condolences made Ani sick. While her mother and uncle had never had the best relationship, they’d always been around, to raise Ani together. Anyone could tell that Uncle Jack was a wreck. He tried to hold it together for the funeral, but when the entire processional was just you, your niece, and the priest at your boyfriend’s funeral proceedings… 

It was like Rick had no one in this world who would miss him besides Uncle Jack. Rick had been in her life for as long as Ani could remember, but she couldn’t remember him ever having someone else in his. He’d been a strong presence, always at her birthday parties, always giving her books on the stars and the planets. He’d encouraged her to pursue art and music, to persevere in math, even though she hated it. He’d even tutored her in biology two years ago. That’s the kind of guy he was. He never talked about any family – a brother or sister or any other nephews or nieces, but aside from her and her uncle, he was alone. When she asked, Jack had always told her to leave it be, and the older she got, the more she started to think that Rick had lost his family in some tragic way. It left her feeling sad and lonely when she thought about it, but also like she’d added something meaningful to his life until he died. 

         The house was empty when she arrived, the Estate Sale sign glaring at her as she walked in. It was just another reminder of her mother’s blind ambition. She knew her mother would be there in short order and sure enough, Ani heard her in the living room not too long after she got herself settled upstairs. She called out a quick, “I’m in the attic boxing the rest of Uncle Rick’s stuff,” but to Ani’s surprise, her mother didn’t try to stop her or ask her to help her do anything else. It sounded like the woman was on a mission, because she’d barely walked in the doors before she started rifling through drawers in the built ins. Ani had emptied those out days prior, but she didn’t bother to tell her that. Let her waste her time being greedy, Ani decided. 

Ani told Uncle Jack she’d handle the rest of the boxes so that he could grieve in peace. The attic was a lot cleaner than she originally expected it to be, considering most people’s attics were dusty and full of cobwebs. Rick’s was totally clean and organized, which made her job easier. Everything was boxed up before she’d even started, save for a desk and a small dresser. She’d started boxing the dresser up the day before, but she was anxious to get it finished.

There was a certain kind of monotony in the act of packing up someone else’s things, something purposeless in it. The routine of it all was peaceful, which was a rare feeling for her, especially lately. As she reached for items, wrapped them carefully in tissue or newspaper, she let everything else go and found an interesting kind of harmony within herself. School was really starting to pull at Ani’s attention lately. Finals weren’t far off, and as a senior, she didn’t want anything to get in the way of the most important rites of passage – prom, the senior trip, graduation. She put a lot of effort into her studies, and into Derek, and everything was really lining up in her favor, she didn’t need any distractions to get in her way.

After clearing the last unlocked desk compartment of the desk out, Ani pulled out her pocket knife to try to wedge open the final (and only) locked drawer. She was careful as she wedged the tiny blade into the tumbler of the lock, wiggling gently. She didn’t want to wreck the desk or anything, but her mother’s estate sale started the next day, so Ani didn’t want any of Rick’s personal stuff to be sold off to the bottom feeders who buy at estate sales. This desk was clearly an important space for Rick and she knew her uncle would want to go through Rick’s more personal stuff himself when he wasn’t so emotional.

Eventually, Ani jimmied the lock and got the compartment open. She impressed herself by not leaving much of a scratch on the lock either. Inside the compartment was an old rusted box. Compared to everything else in the attic, it stuck out. Everything there was old, but it was all in impeccable shape, except for this box. The desk itself was definitely an antique. It would sell for a lot of money, if Antique Roadshow was anything to go by. It had these ornate designs carved into the sides, and the panels and compartments were decorated with this beautiful gold and silver inlay. Ani wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been passed down by Rick’s family. That’s why the box inside was such a shock. It was rusted on all sides and had chipped paint everywhere. It didn’t fit into the rest of the attic’s decor at all. The sound of something rumbling around, like rocks being shaken up, happened when Ani shook the box gently. A tinge of curiosity bubbled up inside of her at the sound. The latch was rusted over, but her pocket knife, once more, did the trick.  When the latch finally gave way, it revealed a bunch of old gems. Ani shook the box a bit in her hands to see what else was in there.

An electric shock spread through her fingers and up her spine, forcing her to drop the box in order to reach for her temples. Taking a minute to collect herself, she blinked a few times and shook it off. 

“What the..?”

Picking the tarnished box up from the floor, Ani closed the lid, and slipped it back into the jimmied compartment in the desk. No box of junk was worth all that, so she put it right back where she found it. Even though she put it down, the room didn’t feel right anymore, her head throbbed, and the air around her felt heavy, like a storm was swirling around her.  

“I must be dehydrated,” she murmured, suddenly feeling like she needed to get out of the attic at that exact moment. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t waste another moment in the attic, so she looked around for a few packed boxes to take down to her car. Bending to pick up one of them, she noticed that one of the gems from the lock box had fallen out onto the floor, almost underneath the desk. As soon as the cool, light blue semi-circle stone met the skin of her hand, her head seemed to explode, and she gasped. Everything went hazy and her head started thumping its own heartbeat. Ears pounding, her throat constricted – the pain felt like her brain was swelling out of control, like her skull was too small, like everything was too tight. Her breathing became uneven and then everything went black.

*

         A blistering gust of wind blew wisps of her hair into her face when Ani finally sat up. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead, irritating her skin. She definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… The sun was bright, too bright, even for the Southern California day she’d left behind. The thrumming of her head tapped an incessant tempo at her temples. It was obvious that she wasn’t in the attic anymore either, but she couldn’t figure out what the heck just happened. Despite the bright white light, she squinted her eyes to look around and all she could see for miles was sand, lots and lots of sand. Forcing her eyes to stay open against the heat and blinding soon felt impossible. She pulled her knees tightly to her chest and let her head rest against them as she caught her breath.

         “Where the hell did I go?” She murmured to herself, counting slowly to five and then back down to calm her breathing. “Maybe I fell and hit my head when I reached for the gem and this is some kind of coma dream.”

“Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic,” she whispered. “Just breathe. You’ll figure this out. You figure everything out, just think.” If this wasn’t the result of a bad fall, she wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. 

The desert was sweltering, and the breeze on her face was hotter still. The silence made her weary. No birds, no traffic, no mother banging around downstairs. The palm tree a few feet away was twisted and mangled, like it had been growing against the wind for centuries, and not far from that, a small pond of some kind – was this an oasis? Of course her brain would create an oasis in the event of a fall. Travelers always thought they saw oases in the distance and went mad searching for them, right? 

Sighing, Ani ran her fingers through her hair, a nervous habit she picked up over the years that her mother despised, but she realized her hand was bunched into a fist. “Oh yeah, the gem,” she said, looking down at her closed fingers. 

When she opened her fist to drop it, she was suddenly right back in the attic.

Ani took a long, unsteady breath, finally able to breathe, and dragged the box into her shaking hands. 

Along with the box came the ringing in her ears again. “I definitely just teleported, right?” She said, looking at the box as if expecting an answer. “Like, I wasn’t here, and then I was here.” 

Shaking her head, she thought about the bedtime stories her Uncle Jack used to tell her. Magical adventures of a little princess who could jump so high she’d touch the stars. Was that what she was doing? Did the gem transport her to another galaxy? That light blue gem to the desert was only one of many though, and although Ani was curious, she felt a little like she almost died with just the one, she held off on grabbing another gem and instead, sat the box back down on the desk. It was then that Ani realized that the magic she’d watched in movies, the magic she’d read about in books, was real.

“Yo, what the heck was Rick into?” she asked herself, her hands still shaking as she backed away from the desk.

The seconds ticked by as she stared down at the box, almost as if she were waiting for it to move itself. Biting at her lip, she hesitated for the briefest moment before she took a step forward, immediately stopping herself again. “This is stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a box.” 

After a few deep breaths, suddenly there she was, picking at the latch, as if she couldn’t help herself. It felt like the gems were calling to her, an invisible energy, forcing her hand. The siren song was just too much, and once she got the box open, she picked up the first gem she could reach. Abruptly, the pounding in her head exploded, but this time, unlike in the desert, it immediately lessened as she opened her eyes in a vacant countryside. 

“See that wasn’t so bad,” she told herself, looking down at the gem in her hand. This one was light green, shiny, smooth to the touch, like the light blue, but oblong in shape. When she looked around, she felt utterly alone, a cool breeze on her face, sun high in the afternoon sky. After the feeling of isolation stopped, she realized she could hear the bustle of people nearby.

Instead of dropping this gem, as she did in the desert, Ani held onto this one tightly and walked around to explore. The sides of the roads were well managed hedges with small wildflowers in bright oranges, blues, and purples. The roads themselves were well used, dirt roads that led to what seemed to be personal driveways. The air was crisp and all at once she wished she had a jacket on. The cold didn’t really deter her from moving though, and after a few more minutes, she found a sign that had London, 6 km written on it. So, the light green gem led her to London, and the light blue gem led her to some random desert.  Just how many gems were there? Ani finally decided to drop the gem and as it slipped through her fingers it felt as though the wind was being knocked out of her.

Back in the attic, she slid the gem back into the box, shut the lid, and slipped it into her bag. She needed to go see Uncle Jack, show him what she found, and she needed to do it right now. The hair on the back of her neck seemed to raise, like everything in her was pulling her out of that attic. Something felt... wrong somehow, worse than it did before. Taking a quick glance in the mirror, her haggard face stared back at her. Beads of sweat on her brow, bloodshot eyes, and a nauseous complexion seem to shout at her to leave.

“Anissa.”

Gasping, Ani whirled around, finding her mother in the doorway. “I’ve been calling you for at least ten minutes.  What is so important that you can’t even answer your mother?”

Her mother looked around the attic, and then stepped inside. Ani’s head was pounding. The throbbing seemed to get worse with every step her mother took toward her. 

“You look awful dear, what’s wrong?” 

The words, once full of compassion and love, sounded dull and stiff as she looked around the room before she settled in front of her daughter. Ani realized that her mother didn’t actually care about how she was doing years ago, but it still didn’t lessen the blow. 

Taking another step closer to Ani, her mother looked around with her hand spread out in front of her, her fingers extended in a painful looking way. 

“Well, what did you find up here? Anything worth anything?” 

Her voice, usually an annoyingly high twittering sound was now low, almost sinister. Ani wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she’d never seen her mother move the way she was just then. She seemed almost calculating the way she was moving around the attic, shoulders hunched forward, eyes darting around the room. 

“No,” Ani shrugged. “I’ve just got a headache. The movers can come get the desk now,” she added. “I bet you’ll get a good price for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure I will. Anything in those drawers? Any other... antiques?”

The box in her bag seemed to press against her as she stood there awkwardly, rubbing the pads of her thumbs against her closed eyes. She’d been keeping secrets from her mother for years, but for some inexplicable reason, this seemed like the most important secret she’d ever keep.

“Nope,” she murmured, shouldering her bag as nonchalantly as she could muster. “Just some old writing stuff; some note paper, envelopes, an old fountain pen. Nothing special. You want to look through the boxes?”

“No.” Her mother’s response was rough, hardened. She ran her hand over one of the boxes as she walked toward Ani. Her hand looked different, wrinkled, red, like she’d irritated it while cleaning somehow. Almost like she’d spilled a cleaning solvent on her skin and neglected to flush it out with water. Actually, everything about her mother looked different. Her hair, which was always perfectly put together, was messy and falling out of the hairband. Her blouse was wrinkled too, like she’d been crawling around or something. Now, it was almost as if she’d been slinking through the space, her eyes never leaving Ani. “You look simply awful,” her mother repeated again, her voice lower still. “Almost as if you’d seen a ghost.” 

Ani blinked sharply. “I don’t know what you mean,” she answered, hiking the shoulder bag up again. “Anyway, I’m heading over to Uncle Jack’s to take over these boxes. I’ll be back to help the movers in an hour or so.”

She didn’t wait for her mother to respond before she started to move. She had to step around her mother, whose eyes seemed to bore into Ani’s very soul. After picking up one of the boxes, she looked back once more at the woman, but instead of seeing the mother who’d helped her paint her room to match the night sky when she was seven and thought she was a star princess, she just saw a stranger. 

“Now, now, Anissa dear, don’t run away,” her mother said, smiling creepily. “Tell mommy what you’ve found, what you’ve discovered.”

Ani whipped her head around and moved to back away, shaking her head. “I told you, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

“I can feel the power, Anissa. I know what you’ve found. I cannot let you leave with them. Give them to me,” she said, stepping closer. “Now, Anissa!”

Ani shook her head again and dropped the box of old junk, gripping the strap to her shoulder bag tightly. “Mom,” she tried, holding up her empty hand in caution. “Stop. Please, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh sweetie, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m your mother. I’d never hurt you.”

The hairs prickling up on Ani’s arms said otherwise, and suddenly, she knew she couldn’t stay here any longer. Her chest felt tight, too tight, like she couldn’t breathe, and her head, it pounded before, but now it felt as if there was someone chiseling behind her eyes. She could see dark spots in her periphery – it was now or never.

She turned and started to run, digging through her bag for her car keys. She could feel her mother following right behind, could hear her screeching, louder than she’d ever heard her mother sound before. “Anissa, stop!” she screamed.

As suddenly as she’d started to move she was pulled back, that red hand gripping her shoulder so violently she stumbled onto her back. The eyes that stared down at Ani were no longer the eyes of the woman who raised her, instead, a deep black, the very image of hatred stared at her. 

Pinned by her mother’s foot, Ani could feel the heel of her stiletto piercing the skin of her shoulder, pressing down harder and harder as she waited. “Give them to me and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, her voice dripping with disdain. “You weren’t meant to find those,” she scoffed. “You’re nothing. Couldn’t even keep the gems safe for thirty minutes,” she laughed, pressing down harder into Ani’s shoulder.

“Mom, please,” Ani cried, doing everything she could to push the foot away, tears pooling in her eyes. “Please, you’re hurting me.”

“Give me what I’ve asked for and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, pressing harder still. Ani could feel the instant when the heel finally began to tear at her flesh, ripping at it like tissue paper. “Give me what’s rightfully mine.” 

The panic that settled in her skin itched like fire in her veins. Everything inside of her told her that if she didn’t get away – right this minute – her mother, her mother, would kill her. The idea of giving this… thing holding her down…  the gems didn’t even cross Ani’s mind as she pressed her hands against her mother’s ankle bone and squeezed. A ripple of heat – and hurt – rushed through Ani’s body and exited out of her palms into her mother. In a flash, her mother fell to the ground and Ani made her escape. 

Looking at her palms, Ani spared a brief glance at her mother before bolting down the stairs, she could hear the screams of a woman in pain echo through the empty hallway but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop to question what just happened, what she’d just done. She couldn’t explain it anyway. As soon as she got out of the attic and away from her mother, it was like she could breathe again. She dashed out of the house as fast as she dared, the pain in her shoulder forgotten for the moment. The car key firmly planted in her hand, she didn’t even look back as she twisted it into the ignition and threw the car in drive.

“What the hell was that!” She screamed, finally looking into the rearview mirror as she drove the few blocks to her uncle’s house. Tears tracked down her face as she tried to categorize everything that went down. Those tears and her bloodied shoulder were easy reminders – her mother had tried to kill her.

“Uncle Jack!” Ani yelled when she finally ran into her uncle’s house. “Where are you?” she cried, panicked and hurting. She kept one hand pressed into her shoulder and the other wrapped around the box in her bag. “I need help!” she yelled. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I think I went into a mini-coma today. And my,” she sobbed, “My mother she…” 

        A hand over her mouth caught her off guard. “Keep your voice down, Ani,” Uncle Jack whispered. “You’re safe here.”

        Terrified and still on edge, she tried to pull away from him, one hand pushing him away, another gripping his hand at her mouth as she kicked and screamed. A pulse, like the one she felt ripple through her before began to bubble up inside of her again, almost coming up to the surface.

He held her steady and made a quiet shushing sound, “Ani, please. It’s me, it’s Uncle Jack. I’ve got you.”

        When Ani stopped fighting, she slumped against him, crying in earnest. The electric shock throbbing inside of her slowed and then quieted completely. The tears racked through her body so violently Uncle Jack had to hold her in place, his arms wrapped around her at the waist. “I’ve got you, princess, I’ve got you now, you’re okay.” 

“Okay?” she whispered. “I’ll never be okay!” The fight, back inside of her, clawing its way up her throat, pulsing to hurt as she’d been hurt. “She tried to kill me, Jack! She. I’m. I’m bleeding for Christ’s sake. She made me bleed.”

“I’ll take care of that, but Ani please, you must calm down. I won’t let her hurt you again, I swear it on my life, but I can’t protect you from yourself.” He pleaded, pressing a warm hand against her shoulder. “For centuries, an ancient order has been looking for Rick. For what Rick had. I looked for it after he died too, just to keep it safe, but it wouldn’t reveal itself to me.” 

Confused, Ani took a step back and pushed his hands away. “What are you even talking about?” she said, backing away slowly her hands protectively holding her bag to her chest. “No, please Uncle Jack, not you too,” she said softly, defeated. “I can’t fight you too.”

“No, Ani, I’m not her. I won’t hurt you,” he tried, stepping toward her.

“That’s what she said,” Ani screamed, pointing toward the door. “She was my mother, Jack, and she did this,” she groaned, seizing her wounded shoulder carefully.

“I don’t have the time to tell you everything, Ani. Just trust me, please, I need to keep you safe,” Jack whispered, his hands up defensively. “I’ll explain everything, but not here. We aren’t safe here. Will you come with me?” He asked quietly. “I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

After a pause, Ani nodded, crying, still clutching her bag tightly to her body.

        Afraid to even move, she held her breath and waited for Uncle Jack to move. In short order, he led her toward the basement. “In here,” he murmured quietly. Once inside, he locked the door, and they headed down the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he whispered something under his breath and waved his hand out. There was another door there, one that hadn’t been there before, and once they were through it, he closed and locked it too. Again, he said something silently, and then pointed to a couch and nodded for Ani to sit, which she did, still confused.

        “Alright, it’s safe here.”

The room felt safe. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but as she looked around the small space, the tension in her neck, shoulders, spine, hips, knees – it all just melted away.

        For the first time since entering the house, Ani took a deep breath. “Where did that door come from? Where are we? What was all that about anyway?” she asked, whispering, as she wiped the remnants of her tears away.

        “Just wait a moment, please,” Uncle Jack said softly, leaning his back against the wall. “I need a second.”

Ani looked at her uncle then, really looked at him. As he sagged against the closed door, he looked even worse than he had at the funeral. She saw the despair in him she’d seen before, but the fear in his eyes was really what made her worry.

“You’ve found the galaxy’s gemstones, haven’t you?” He asked. It really wasn’t a question; it was more of a statement.

“The gems to the what?” she replied incredulously after a quick beat of silence. “Did you say galaxy?”

        “Now’s not the time to ask questions, Ani. The long and short of it is, Rick has been the Gemstone Guardian for over three centuries, and years ago, it was foretold that another would take his place. Rick knew who his replacement was, but before he could find to him to train him, the cancer progressed.”

        “Gem Guardian? Where do I fit into this?”

“I don’t have all the answers, Ani, but I do know this – the gems no stranger to conflict – they did not come to you by accident. I don’t have time to explain, but let me show you,” Uncle Jack whispered, coming close and sitting down next to her. He smiled softly, a smile Ani recognized as one of both pity and affection. “I wish this wasn’t happening to us,” he told her quietly. “I have so much I want to show you, Ani, but we don’t have time.”

Before she could ask him what he meant, he pressed a comforting palm to the base of her neck and rested his forehead against her own. Without another thought, her eyes closed and she could feel herself falling.


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The Gem Guardian: Chapter 1
The Gem Guardian: Chapter 2
The Gem Guardian: Chapter 1

Jun 01, 2021

32 mins read

Author's Note: This is Chapter 1 of 25/26(?) of The Gem Guardian, that I'm about halfway through writing. I've made major updates to the draft, previously called Unlocking the Universes, and will be posting it for members only as the chapters are ready.  

This is a fantasy novel about a girl whose biggest worry used to be her pre-calc final before she realized she accidentally becomes destined to bring peace to the universe.


Chapter 1

“Anissa, I need you to focus on something other than yourself for just one, teeny tiny second, can you at least give me that?”

When Ani’s cell phone vibrated, she startled slightly, and pulled it out of her hoodie pocket. It was Derek Jones. Jones wasn’t just the most popular boy at King High, he was also the most sought after - someone Ani’d been working on since freshman year. As her phone continued to vibrate with a barrage of incoming texts, it seemed like her hard work paid off – recently single, Derek seemed to be interested in her now. 

 “I don’t see why you need my help anyway, Mother. You’re the agent in charge. Plus, it feels a little sleazy to plunder some guy’s house just days after he dies, don’t you think?” she asked, texting out a reply to meet up with Derek later that night. Her mother was a harpy, but it wasn’t going to stop her from sealing the deal with Derek. 

“It’s an estate sale, darling, if it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.” Her high pitch voice hit just that nerve in Ani’s head. Her mother hadn’t always had that effect on her, but lately, Ani couldn’t do anything well enough to meet her mother’s demanding standards. Everything Ani ever did was wrong. Not only that, but there was this edge there, something Ani couldn’t explain. Ani didn’t like what she saw when she looked at the woman who raised her. 

“And don’t you think your uncle would be happy to know that his friend’s estate is being dealt with by family instead of a stranger?” 

While her mother droned on, Ani’s focus fell back to her phone, where she texted out another response to Derek, telling him she’d join up with him later that evening. 

“Anissa, are you even listening to me? I need you there.”

Ani got up from the kitchen table and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’m going over to the house now to help Uncle Jack, you know, to pack up the important things before people like you get their hands on them.” 

Over the last month, the eye rolls, the things left unsaid had gotten even worse. Everything Ani’s mother said to her grated on her nerves in a way that she couldn’t just contribute to being a teenager. Something was off. Mrs. Means had always been a driven woman. It was something Ani used to admire about her. As a single parent, she killed it as a business woman and a full time mom. When Ani was little, her mother had been her idol. But now, she was just ruthless. She stepped on others to get what she wanted and didn’t even flinch. This tactic was something Ani never noticed, not until Uncle Jack’s boyfriend Rick died. She jumped on the estate sale proceedings so quickly. It made Ani begin to think about her differently. Then she realized that her mother had always been that way, Ani’d just been too young to understand it before. 

         On her way out, she could hear her mother mumbling about how ungrateful she was, but she needed to get out of the house, so she didn’t turn back to argue. Uncle Jack always made her feel better. Uncle Jack had always been like a father to her. When she was younger, she used to ask about her real father, but Jack never gave her a concrete answer. He’d always just said that his brother had been a good man, one who would be so proud of the girl she’d become. It wasn’t enough for her. Her mother never talked about him, and the little her uncle said about his brother never sustained her curiosity. When she was old enough, she’d realized that his memory was a painful one for both her mother and her uncle, so she stopped prying. 

Ani was as close to Uncle Rick as she was to Uncle Jack, and his death had been difficult for her, but not half as difficult as it was for Uncle Jack. Ani was so heartbroken that he’d been dealing with his death all alone. Rick had been a good man, and she wanted to be there for Uncle Jack while he was mourning the loss of his partner. There was no one else to mourn Rick aside from them, at least that was what Jack kept telling her mother when she asked about the house and estate. Rick didn’t have a will or anything like that, so hags like her mother just jumped right on in as soon as the obituary was posted. 

The house in question was beautiful. It had been passed down in Rick’s family for generations. It was well taken care of too. The two-story house was just the kind of house a real estate agent like her mother dreamed over. It was in a sought-after neighborhood, close to the best schools in the county.  It was far enough away from the city to be a suburban family’s wet dream. The curb appeal was a 10/10; a freshly manicured lawn with beautiful, low maintenance perennials in the window boxes. A shady tree offset all that heat beaming in from the sun. The windows were large and inviting, and once inside, the natural light was “something to dream about” according to her mother. The hardwood floors and tile had recently been redone and each of the upstairs rooms had a bay window with a built in seat. With an attic and a basement, the house had the potential of being sold for top market price. All Ani saw when she looked at it now though, was her uncle’s despair.  

That look of despair was doubled when the people who fed off the dead were around. The lawyer was there -- she could tell by the suit – and a priest too, talking to Uncle Jack about the arrangements for the procession. Instead of interrupting, she just made her way up to the second floor to finish boxing up the rooms. The lawyer and priest left just as she finished cleaning out the Guardian bathroom. Uncle Jack came up with a cup of tea a few minutes later. She could tell he’d been crying. She didn’t mention it.

         “This sucks,” he sighed, handing her the cup. Ani just nodded. It really did, but there wasn’t anything she could say to make his hurt go away, so she didn’t try to mince words.

*

         The funeral had sucked too, and in the back of her mind, Ani was sure that her mother had been at the house while they were lowering Uncle Rick into the ground, hammering down the Estate Sale sign in the front yard. She really was heartless, but this sale had her sinking to new depths of callousness in Ani’s mind. The fact that her mother didn’t even offer her own brother-in-law condolences made Ani sick. While her mother and uncle had never had the best relationship, they’d always been around, to raise Ani together. Anyone could tell that Uncle Jack was a wreck. He tried to hold it together for the funeral, but when the entire processional was just you, your niece, and the priest at your boyfriend’s funeral proceedings… 

It was like Rick had no one in this world who would miss him besides Uncle Jack. Rick had been in her life for as long as Ani could remember, but she couldn’t remember him ever having someone else in his. He’d been a strong presence, always at her birthday parties, always giving her books on the stars and the planets. He’d encouraged her to pursue art and music, to persevere in math, even though she hated it. He’d even tutored her in biology two years ago. That’s the kind of guy he was. He never talked about any family – a brother or sister or any other nephews or nieces, but aside from her and her uncle, he was alone. When she asked, Jack had always told her to leave it be, and the older she got, the more she started to think that Rick had lost his family in some tragic way. It left her feeling sad and lonely when she thought about it, but also like she’d added something meaningful to his life until he died. 

         The house was empty when she arrived, the Estate Sale sign glaring at her as she walked in. It was just another reminder of her mother’s blind ambition. She knew her mother would be there in short order and sure enough, Ani heard her in the living room not too long after she got herself settled upstairs. She called out a quick, “I’m in the attic boxing the rest of Uncle Rick’s stuff,” but to Ani’s surprise, her mother didn’t try to stop her or ask her to help her do anything else. It sounded like the woman was on a mission, because she’d barely walked in the doors before she started rifling through drawers in the built ins. Ani had emptied those out days prior, but she didn’t bother to tell her that. Let her waste her time being greedy, Ani decided. 

Ani told Uncle Jack she’d handle the rest of the boxes so that he could grieve in peace. The attic was a lot cleaner than she originally expected it to be, considering most people’s attics were dusty and full of cobwebs. Rick’s was totally clean and organized, which made her job easier. Everything was boxed up before she’d even started, save for a desk and a small dresser. She’d started boxing the dresser up the day before, but she was anxious to get it finished.

There was a certain kind of monotony in the act of packing up someone else’s things, something purposeless in it. The routine of it all was peaceful, which was a rare feeling for her, especially lately. As she reached for items, wrapped them carefully in tissue or newspaper, she let everything else go and found an interesting kind of harmony within herself. School was really starting to pull at Ani’s attention lately. Finals weren’t far off, and as a senior, she didn’t want anything to get in the way of the most important rites of passage – prom, the senior trip, graduation. She put a lot of effort into her studies, and into Derek, and everything was really lining up in her favor, she didn’t need any distractions to get in her way.

After clearing the last unlocked desk compartment of the desk out, Ani pulled out her pocket knife to try to wedge open the final (and only) locked drawer. She was careful as she wedged the tiny blade into the tumbler of the lock, wiggling gently. She didn’t want to wreck the desk or anything, but her mother’s estate sale started the next day, so Ani didn’t want any of Rick’s personal stuff to be sold off to the bottom feeders who buy at estate sales. This desk was clearly an important space for Rick and she knew her uncle would want to go through Rick’s more personal stuff himself when he wasn’t so emotional.

Eventually, Ani jimmied the lock and got the compartment open. She impressed herself by not leaving much of a scratch on the lock either. Inside the compartment was an old rusted box. Compared to everything else in the attic, it stuck out. Everything there was old, but it was all in impeccable shape, except for this box. The desk itself was definitely an antique. It would sell for a lot of money, if Antique Roadshow was anything to go by. It had these ornate designs carved into the sides, and the panels and compartments were decorated with this beautiful gold and silver inlay. Ani wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been passed down by Rick’s family. That’s why the box inside was such a shock. It was rusted on all sides and had chipped paint everywhere. It didn’t fit into the rest of the attic’s decor at all. The sound of something rumbling around, like rocks being shaken up, happened when Ani shook the box gently. A tinge of curiosity bubbled up inside of her at the sound. The latch was rusted over, but her pocket knife, once more, did the trick.  When the latch finally gave way, it revealed a bunch of old gems. Ani shook the box a bit in her hands to see what else was in there.

An electric shock spread through her fingers and up her spine, forcing her to drop the box in order to reach for her temples. Taking a minute to collect herself, she blinked a few times and shook it off. 

“What the..?”

Picking the tarnished box up from the floor, Ani closed the lid, and slipped it back into the jimmied compartment in the desk. No box of junk was worth all that, so she put it right back where she found it. Even though she put it down, the room didn’t feel right anymore, her head throbbed, and the air around her felt heavy, like a storm was swirling around her.  

“I must be dehydrated,” she murmured, suddenly feeling like she needed to get out of the attic at that exact moment. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t waste another moment in the attic, so she looked around for a few packed boxes to take down to her car. Bending to pick up one of them, she noticed that one of the gems from the lock box had fallen out onto the floor, almost underneath the desk. As soon as the cool, light blue semi-circle stone met the skin of her hand, her head seemed to explode, and she gasped. Everything went hazy and her head started thumping its own heartbeat. Ears pounding, her throat constricted – the pain felt like her brain was swelling out of control, like her skull was too small, like everything was too tight. Her breathing became uneven and then everything went black.

*

         A blistering gust of wind blew wisps of her hair into her face when Ani finally sat up. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead, irritating her skin. She definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… The sun was bright, too bright, even for the Southern California day she’d left behind. The thrumming of her head tapped an incessant tempo at her temples. It was obvious that she wasn’t in the attic anymore either, but she couldn’t figure out what the heck just happened. Despite the bright white light, she squinted her eyes to look around and all she could see for miles was sand, lots and lots of sand. Forcing her eyes to stay open against the heat and blinding soon felt impossible. She pulled her knees tightly to her chest and let her head rest against them as she caught her breath.

         “Where the hell did I go?” She murmured to herself, counting slowly to five and then back down to calm her breathing. “Maybe I fell and hit my head when I reached for the gem and this is some kind of coma dream.”

“Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic,” she whispered. “Just breathe. You’ll figure this out. You figure everything out, just think.” If this wasn’t the result of a bad fall, she wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. 

The desert was sweltering, and the breeze on her face was hotter still. The silence made her weary. No birds, no traffic, no mother banging around downstairs. The palm tree a few feet away was twisted and mangled, like it had been growing against the wind for centuries, and not far from that, a small pond of some kind – was this an oasis? Of course her brain would create an oasis in the event of a fall. Travelers always thought they saw oases in the distance and went mad searching for them, right? 

Sighing, Ani ran her fingers through her hair, a nervous habit she picked up over the years that her mother despised, but she realized her hand was bunched into a fist. “Oh yeah, the gem,” she said, looking down at her closed fingers. 

When she opened her fist to drop it, she was suddenly right back in the attic.

Ani took a long, unsteady breath, finally able to breathe, and dragged the box into her shaking hands. 

Along with the box came the ringing in her ears again. “I definitely just teleported, right?” She said, looking at the box as if expecting an answer. “Like, I wasn’t here, and then I was here.” 

Shaking her head, she thought about the bedtime stories her Uncle Jack used to tell her. Magical adventures of a little princess who could jump so high she’d touch the stars. Was that what she was doing? Did the gem transport her to another galaxy? That light blue gem to the desert was only one of many though, and although Ani was curious, she felt a little like she almost died with just the one, she held off on grabbing another gem and instead, sat the box back down on the desk. It was then that Ani realized that the magic she’d watched in movies, the magic she’d read about in books, was real.

“Yo, what the heck was Rick into?” she asked herself, her hands still shaking as she backed away from the desk.

The seconds ticked by as she stared down at the box, almost as if she were waiting for it to move itself. Biting at her lip, she hesitated for the briefest moment before she took a step forward, immediately stopping herself again. “This is stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a box.” 

After a few deep breaths, suddenly there she was, picking at the latch, as if she couldn’t help herself. It felt like the gems were calling to her, an invisible energy, forcing her hand. The siren song was just too much, and once she got the box open, she picked up the first gem she could reach. Abruptly, the pounding in her head exploded, but this time, unlike in the desert, it immediately lessened as she opened her eyes in a vacant countryside. 

“See that wasn’t so bad,” she told herself, looking down at the gem in her hand. This one was light green, shiny, smooth to the touch, like the light blue, but oblong in shape. When she looked around, she felt utterly alone, a cool breeze on her face, sun high in the afternoon sky. After the feeling of isolation stopped, she realized she could hear the bustle of people nearby.

Instead of dropping this gem, as she did in the desert, Ani held onto this one tightly and walked around to explore. The sides of the roads were well managed hedges with small wildflowers in bright oranges, blues, and purples. The roads themselves were well used, dirt roads that led to what seemed to be personal driveways. The air was crisp and all at once she wished she had a jacket on. The cold didn’t really deter her from moving though, and after a few more minutes, she found a sign that had London, 6 km written on it. So, the light green gem led her to London, and the light blue gem led her to some random desert.  Just how many gems were there? Ani finally decided to drop the gem and as it slipped through her fingers it felt as though the wind was being knocked out of her.

Back in the attic, she slid the gem back into the box, shut the lid, and slipped it into her bag. She needed to go see Uncle Jack, show him what she found, and she needed to do it right now. The hair on the back of her neck seemed to raise, like everything in her was pulling her out of that attic. Something felt... wrong somehow, worse than it did before. Taking a quick glance in the mirror, her haggard face stared back at her. Beads of sweat on her brow, bloodshot eyes, and a nauseous complexion seem to shout at her to leave.

“Anissa.”

Gasping, Ani whirled around, finding her mother in the doorway. “I’ve been calling you for at least ten minutes.  What is so important that you can’t even answer your mother?”

Her mother looked around the attic, and then stepped inside. Ani’s head was pounding. The throbbing seemed to get worse with every step her mother took toward her. 

“You look awful dear, what’s wrong?” 

The words, once full of compassion and love, sounded dull and stiff as she looked around the room before she settled in front of her daughter. Ani realized that her mother didn’t actually care about how she was doing years ago, but it still didn’t lessen the blow. 

Taking another step closer to Ani, her mother looked around with her hand spread out in front of her, her fingers extended in a painful looking way. 

“Well, what did you find up here? Anything worth anything?” 

Her voice, usually an annoyingly high twittering sound was now low, almost sinister. Ani wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she’d never seen her mother move the way she was just then. She seemed almost calculating the way she was moving around the attic, shoulders hunched forward, eyes darting around the room. 

“No,” Ani shrugged. “I’ve just got a headache. The movers can come get the desk now,” she added. “I bet you’ll get a good price for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure I will. Anything in those drawers? Any other... antiques?”

The box in her bag seemed to press against her as she stood there awkwardly, rubbing the pads of her thumbs against her closed eyes. She’d been keeping secrets from her mother for years, but for some inexplicable reason, this seemed like the most important secret she’d ever keep.

“Nope,” she murmured, shouldering her bag as nonchalantly as she could muster. “Just some old writing stuff; some note paper, envelopes, an old fountain pen. Nothing special. You want to look through the boxes?”

“No.” Her mother’s response was rough, hardened. She ran her hand over one of the boxes as she walked toward Ani. Her hand looked different, wrinkled, red, like she’d irritated it while cleaning somehow. Almost like she’d spilled a cleaning solvent on her skin and neglected to flush it out with water. Actually, everything about her mother looked different. Her hair, which was always perfectly put together, was messy and falling out of the hairband. Her blouse was wrinkled too, like she’d been crawling around or something. Now, it was almost as if she’d been slinking through the space, her eyes never leaving Ani. “You look simply awful,” her mother repeated again, her voice lower still. “Almost as if you’d seen a ghost.” 

Ani blinked sharply. “I don’t know what you mean,” she answered, hiking the shoulder bag up again. “Anyway, I’m heading over to Uncle Jack’s to take over these boxes. I’ll be back to help the movers in an hour or so.”

She didn’t wait for her mother to respond before she started to move. She had to step around her mother, whose eyes seemed to bore into Ani’s very soul. After picking up one of the boxes, she looked back once more at the woman, but instead of seeing the mother who’d helped her paint her room to match the night sky when she was seven and thought she was a star princess, she just saw a stranger. 

“Now, now, Anissa dear, don’t run away,” her mother said, smiling creepily. “Tell mommy what you’ve found, what you’ve discovered.”

Ani whipped her head around and moved to back away, shaking her head. “I told you, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

“I can feel the power, Anissa. I know what you’ve found. I cannot let you leave with them. Give them to me,” she said, stepping closer. “Now, Anissa!”

Ani shook her head again and dropped the box of old junk, gripping the strap to her shoulder bag tightly. “Mom,” she tried, holding up her empty hand in caution. “Stop. Please, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh sweetie, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m your mother. I’d never hurt you.”

The hairs prickling up on Ani’s arms said otherwise, and suddenly, she knew she couldn’t stay here any longer. Her chest felt tight, too tight, like she couldn’t breathe, and her head, it pounded before, but now it felt as if there was someone chiseling behind her eyes. She could see dark spots in her periphery – it was now or never.

She turned and started to run, digging through her bag for her car keys. She could feel her mother following right behind, could hear her screeching, louder than she’d ever heard her mother sound before. “Anissa, stop!” she screamed.

As suddenly as she’d started to move she was pulled back, that red hand gripping her shoulder so violently she stumbled onto her back. The eyes that stared down at Ani were no longer the eyes of the woman who raised her, instead, a deep black, the very image of hatred stared at her. 

Pinned by her mother’s foot, Ani could feel the heel of her stiletto piercing the skin of her shoulder, pressing down harder and harder as she waited. “Give them to me and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, her voice dripping with disdain. “You weren’t meant to find those,” she scoffed. “You’re nothing. Couldn’t even keep the gems safe for thirty minutes,” she laughed, pressing down harder into Ani’s shoulder.

“Mom, please,” Ani cried, doing everything she could to push the foot away, tears pooling in her eyes. “Please, you’re hurting me.”

“Give me what I’ve asked for and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, pressing harder still. Ani could feel the instant when the heel finally began to tear at her flesh, ripping at it like tissue paper. “Give me what’s rightfully mine.” 

The panic that settled in her skin itched like fire in her veins. Everything inside of her told her that if she didn’t get away – right this minute – her mother, her mother, would kill her. The idea of giving this… thing holding her down…  the gems didn’t even cross Ani’s mind as she pressed her hands against her mother’s ankle bone and squeezed. A ripple of heat – and hurt – rushed through Ani’s body and exited out of her palms into her mother. In a flash, her mother fell to the ground and Ani made her escape. 

Looking at her palms, Ani spared a brief glance at her mother before bolting down the stairs, she could hear the screams of a woman in pain echo through the empty hallway but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop to question what just happened, what she’d just done. She couldn’t explain it anyway. As soon as she got out of the attic and away from her mother, it was like she could breathe again. She dashed out of the house as fast as she dared, the pain in her shoulder forgotten for the moment. The car key firmly planted in her hand, she didn’t even look back as she twisted it into the ignition and threw the car in drive.

“What the hell was that!” She screamed, finally looking into the rearview mirror as she drove the few blocks to her uncle’s house. Tears tracked down her face as she tried to categorize everything that went down. Those tears and her bloodied shoulder were easy reminders – her mother had tried to kill her.

“Uncle Jack!” Ani yelled when she finally ran into her uncle’s house. “Where are you?” she cried, panicked and hurting. She kept one hand pressed into her shoulder and the other wrapped around the box in her bag. “I need help!” she yelled. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I think I went into a mini-coma today. And my,” she sobbed, “My mother she…” 

        A hand over her mouth caught her off guard. “Keep your voice down, Ani,” Uncle Jack whispered. “You’re safe here.”

        Terrified and still on edge, she tried to pull away from him, one hand pushing him away, another gripping his hand at her mouth as she kicked and screamed. A pulse, like the one she felt ripple through her before began to bubble up inside of her again, almost coming up to the surface.

He held her steady and made a quiet shushing sound, “Ani, please. It’s me, it’s Uncle Jack. I’ve got you.”

        When Ani stopped fighting, she slumped against him, crying in earnest. The electric shock throbbing inside of her slowed and then quieted completely. The tears racked through her body so violently Uncle Jack had to hold her in place, his arms wrapped around her at the waist. “I’ve got you, princess, I’ve got you now, you’re okay.” 

“Okay?” she whispered. “I’ll never be okay!” The fight, back inside of her, clawing its way up her throat, pulsing to hurt as she’d been hurt. “She tried to kill me, Jack! She. I’m. I’m bleeding for Christ’s sake. She made me bleed.”

“I’ll take care of that, but Ani please, you must calm down. I won’t let her hurt you again, I swear it on my life, but I can’t protect you from yourself.” He pleaded, pressing a warm hand against her shoulder. “For centuries, an ancient order has been looking for Rick. For what Rick had. I looked for it after he died too, just to keep it safe, but it wouldn’t reveal itself to me.” 

Confused, Ani took a step back and pushed his hands away. “What are you even talking about?” she said, backing away slowly her hands protectively holding her bag to her chest. “No, please Uncle Jack, not you too,” she said softly, defeated. “I can’t fight you too.”

“No, Ani, I’m not her. I won’t hurt you,” he tried, stepping toward her.

“That’s what she said,” Ani screamed, pointing toward the door. “She was my mother, Jack, and she did this,” she groaned, seizing her wounded shoulder carefully.

“I don’t have the time to tell you everything, Ani. Just trust me, please, I need to keep you safe,” Jack whispered, his hands up defensively. “I’ll explain everything, but not here. We aren’t safe here. Will you come with me?” He asked quietly. “I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

After a pause, Ani nodded, crying, still clutching her bag tightly to her body.

        Afraid to even move, she held her breath and waited for Uncle Jack to move. In short order, he led her toward the basement. “In here,” he murmured quietly. Once inside, he locked the door, and they headed down the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he whispered something under his breath and waved his hand out. There was another door there, one that hadn’t been there before, and once they were through it, he closed and locked it too. Again, he said something silently, and then pointed to a couch and nodded for Ani to sit, which she did, still confused.

        “Alright, it’s safe here.”

The room felt safe. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but as she looked around the small space, the tension in her neck, shoulders, spine, hips, knees – it all just melted away.

        For the first time since entering the house, Ani took a deep breath. “Where did that door come from? Where are we? What was all that about anyway?” she asked, whispering, as she wiped the remnants of her tears away.

        “Just wait a moment, please,” Uncle Jack said softly, leaning his back against the wall. “I need a second.”

Ani looked at her uncle then, really looked at him. As he sagged against the closed door, he looked even worse than he had at the funeral. She saw the despair in him she’d seen before, but the fear in his eyes was really what made her worry.

“You’ve found the galaxy’s gemstones, haven’t you?” He asked. It really wasn’t a question; it was more of a statement.

“The gems to the what?” she replied incredulously after a quick beat of silence. “Did you say galaxy?”

        “Now’s not the time to ask questions, Ani. The long and short of it is, Rick has been the Gemstone Guardian for over three centuries, and years ago, it was foretold that another would take his place. Rick knew who his replacement was, but before he could find to him to train him, the cancer progressed.”

        “Gem Guardian? Where do I fit into this?”

“I don’t have all the answers, Ani, but I do know this – the gems no stranger to conflict – they did not come to you by accident. I don’t have time to explain, but let me show you,” Uncle Jack whispered, coming close and sitting down next to her. He smiled softly, a smile Ani recognized as one of both pity and affection. “I wish this wasn’t happening to us,” he told her quietly. “I have so much I want to show you, Ani, but we don’t have time.”

Before she could ask him what he meant, he pressed a comforting palm to the base of her neck and rested his forehead against her own. Without another thought, her eyes closed and she could feel herself falling.


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The Gem Guardian: Chapter 1

Jun 01, 2021

32 mins read

Author's Note: This is Chapter 1 of 25/26(?) of The Gem Guardian, that I'm about halfway through writing. I've made major updates to the draft, previously called Unlocking the Universes, and will be posting it for members only as the chapters are ready.  

This is a fantasy novel about a girl whose biggest worry used to be her pre-calc final before she realized she accidentally becomes destined to bring peace to the universe.


Chapter 1

“Anissa, I need you to focus on something other than yourself for just one, teeny tiny second, can you at least give me that?”

When Ani’s cell phone vibrated, she startled slightly, and pulled it out of her hoodie pocket. It was Derek Jones. Jones wasn’t just the most popular boy at King High, he was also the most sought after - someone Ani’d been working on since freshman year. As her phone continued to vibrate with a barrage of incoming texts, it seemed like her hard work paid off – recently single, Derek seemed to be interested in her now. 

 “I don’t see why you need my help anyway, Mother. You’re the agent in charge. Plus, it feels a little sleazy to plunder some guy’s house just days after he dies, don’t you think?” she asked, texting out a reply to meet up with Derek later that night. Her mother was a harpy, but it wasn’t going to stop her from sealing the deal with Derek. 

“It’s an estate sale, darling, if it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.” Her high pitch voice hit just that nerve in Ani’s head. Her mother hadn’t always had that effect on her, but lately, Ani couldn’t do anything well enough to meet her mother’s demanding standards. Everything Ani ever did was wrong. Not only that, but there was this edge there, something Ani couldn’t explain. Ani didn’t like what she saw when she looked at the woman who raised her. 

“And don’t you think your uncle would be happy to know that his friend’s estate is being dealt with by family instead of a stranger?” 

While her mother droned on, Ani’s focus fell back to her phone, where she texted out another response to Derek, telling him she’d join up with him later that evening. 

“Anissa, are you even listening to me? I need you there.”

Ani got up from the kitchen table and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’m going over to the house now to help Uncle Jack, you know, to pack up the important things before people like you get their hands on them.” 

Over the last month, the eye rolls, the things left unsaid had gotten even worse. Everything Ani’s mother said to her grated on her nerves in a way that she couldn’t just contribute to being a teenager. Something was off. Mrs. Means had always been a driven woman. It was something Ani used to admire about her. As a single parent, she killed it as a business woman and a full time mom. When Ani was little, her mother had been her idol. But now, she was just ruthless. She stepped on others to get what she wanted and didn’t even flinch. This tactic was something Ani never noticed, not until Uncle Jack’s boyfriend Rick died. She jumped on the estate sale proceedings so quickly. It made Ani begin to think about her differently. Then she realized that her mother had always been that way, Ani’d just been too young to understand it before. 

         On her way out, she could hear her mother mumbling about how ungrateful she was, but she needed to get out of the house, so she didn’t turn back to argue. Uncle Jack always made her feel better. Uncle Jack had always been like a father to her. When she was younger, she used to ask about her real father, but Jack never gave her a concrete answer. He’d always just said that his brother had been a good man, one who would be so proud of the girl she’d become. It wasn’t enough for her. Her mother never talked about him, and the little her uncle said about his brother never sustained her curiosity. When she was old enough, she’d realized that his memory was a painful one for both her mother and her uncle, so she stopped prying. 

Ani was as close to Uncle Rick as she was to Uncle Jack, and his death had been difficult for her, but not half as difficult as it was for Uncle Jack. Ani was so heartbroken that he’d been dealing with his death all alone. Rick had been a good man, and she wanted to be there for Uncle Jack while he was mourning the loss of his partner. There was no one else to mourn Rick aside from them, at least that was what Jack kept telling her mother when she asked about the house and estate. Rick didn’t have a will or anything like that, so hags like her mother just jumped right on in as soon as the obituary was posted. 

The house in question was beautiful. It had been passed down in Rick’s family for generations. It was well taken care of too. The two-story house was just the kind of house a real estate agent like her mother dreamed over. It was in a sought-after neighborhood, close to the best schools in the county.  It was far enough away from the city to be a suburban family’s wet dream. The curb appeal was a 10/10; a freshly manicured lawn with beautiful, low maintenance perennials in the window boxes. A shady tree offset all that heat beaming in from the sun. The windows were large and inviting, and once inside, the natural light was “something to dream about” according to her mother. The hardwood floors and tile had recently been redone and each of the upstairs rooms had a bay window with a built in seat. With an attic and a basement, the house had the potential of being sold for top market price. All Ani saw when she looked at it now though, was her uncle’s despair.  

That look of despair was doubled when the people who fed off the dead were around. The lawyer was there -- she could tell by the suit – and a priest too, talking to Uncle Jack about the arrangements for the procession. Instead of interrupting, she just made her way up to the second floor to finish boxing up the rooms. The lawyer and priest left just as she finished cleaning out the Guardian bathroom. Uncle Jack came up with a cup of tea a few minutes later. She could tell he’d been crying. She didn’t mention it.

         “This sucks,” he sighed, handing her the cup. Ani just nodded. It really did, but there wasn’t anything she could say to make his hurt go away, so she didn’t try to mince words.

*

         The funeral had sucked too, and in the back of her mind, Ani was sure that her mother had been at the house while they were lowering Uncle Rick into the ground, hammering down the Estate Sale sign in the front yard. She really was heartless, but this sale had her sinking to new depths of callousness in Ani’s mind. The fact that her mother didn’t even offer her own brother-in-law condolences made Ani sick. While her mother and uncle had never had the best relationship, they’d always been around, to raise Ani together. Anyone could tell that Uncle Jack was a wreck. He tried to hold it together for the funeral, but when the entire processional was just you, your niece, and the priest at your boyfriend’s funeral proceedings… 

It was like Rick had no one in this world who would miss him besides Uncle Jack. Rick had been in her life for as long as Ani could remember, but she couldn’t remember him ever having someone else in his. He’d been a strong presence, always at her birthday parties, always giving her books on the stars and the planets. He’d encouraged her to pursue art and music, to persevere in math, even though she hated it. He’d even tutored her in biology two years ago. That’s the kind of guy he was. He never talked about any family – a brother or sister or any other nephews or nieces, but aside from her and her uncle, he was alone. When she asked, Jack had always told her to leave it be, and the older she got, the more she started to think that Rick had lost his family in some tragic way. It left her feeling sad and lonely when she thought about it, but also like she’d added something meaningful to his life until he died. 

         The house was empty when she arrived, the Estate Sale sign glaring at her as she walked in. It was just another reminder of her mother’s blind ambition. She knew her mother would be there in short order and sure enough, Ani heard her in the living room not too long after she got herself settled upstairs. She called out a quick, “I’m in the attic boxing the rest of Uncle Rick’s stuff,” but to Ani’s surprise, her mother didn’t try to stop her or ask her to help her do anything else. It sounded like the woman was on a mission, because she’d barely walked in the doors before she started rifling through drawers in the built ins. Ani had emptied those out days prior, but she didn’t bother to tell her that. Let her waste her time being greedy, Ani decided. 

Ani told Uncle Jack she’d handle the rest of the boxes so that he could grieve in peace. The attic was a lot cleaner than she originally expected it to be, considering most people’s attics were dusty and full of cobwebs. Rick’s was totally clean and organized, which made her job easier. Everything was boxed up before she’d even started, save for a desk and a small dresser. She’d started boxing the dresser up the day before, but she was anxious to get it finished.

There was a certain kind of monotony in the act of packing up someone else’s things, something purposeless in it. The routine of it all was peaceful, which was a rare feeling for her, especially lately. As she reached for items, wrapped them carefully in tissue or newspaper, she let everything else go and found an interesting kind of harmony within herself. School was really starting to pull at Ani’s attention lately. Finals weren’t far off, and as a senior, she didn’t want anything to get in the way of the most important rites of passage – prom, the senior trip, graduation. She put a lot of effort into her studies, and into Derek, and everything was really lining up in her favor, she didn’t need any distractions to get in her way.

After clearing the last unlocked desk compartment of the desk out, Ani pulled out her pocket knife to try to wedge open the final (and only) locked drawer. She was careful as she wedged the tiny blade into the tumbler of the lock, wiggling gently. She didn’t want to wreck the desk or anything, but her mother’s estate sale started the next day, so Ani didn’t want any of Rick’s personal stuff to be sold off to the bottom feeders who buy at estate sales. This desk was clearly an important space for Rick and she knew her uncle would want to go through Rick’s more personal stuff himself when he wasn’t so emotional.

Eventually, Ani jimmied the lock and got the compartment open. She impressed herself by not leaving much of a scratch on the lock either. Inside the compartment was an old rusted box. Compared to everything else in the attic, it stuck out. Everything there was old, but it was all in impeccable shape, except for this box. The desk itself was definitely an antique. It would sell for a lot of money, if Antique Roadshow was anything to go by. It had these ornate designs carved into the sides, and the panels and compartments were decorated with this beautiful gold and silver inlay. Ani wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been passed down by Rick’s family. That’s why the box inside was such a shock. It was rusted on all sides and had chipped paint everywhere. It didn’t fit into the rest of the attic’s decor at all. The sound of something rumbling around, like rocks being shaken up, happened when Ani shook the box gently. A tinge of curiosity bubbled up inside of her at the sound. The latch was rusted over, but her pocket knife, once more, did the trick.  When the latch finally gave way, it revealed a bunch of old gems. Ani shook the box a bit in her hands to see what else was in there.

An electric shock spread through her fingers and up her spine, forcing her to drop the box in order to reach for her temples. Taking a minute to collect herself, she blinked a few times and shook it off. 

“What the..?”

Picking the tarnished box up from the floor, Ani closed the lid, and slipped it back into the jimmied compartment in the desk. No box of junk was worth all that, so she put it right back where she found it. Even though she put it down, the room didn’t feel right anymore, her head throbbed, and the air around her felt heavy, like a storm was swirling around her.  

“I must be dehydrated,” she murmured, suddenly feeling like she needed to get out of the attic at that exact moment. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t waste another moment in the attic, so she looked around for a few packed boxes to take down to her car. Bending to pick up one of them, she noticed that one of the gems from the lock box had fallen out onto the floor, almost underneath the desk. As soon as the cool, light blue semi-circle stone met the skin of her hand, her head seemed to explode, and she gasped. Everything went hazy and her head started thumping its own heartbeat. Ears pounding, her throat constricted – the pain felt like her brain was swelling out of control, like her skull was too small, like everything was too tight. Her breathing became uneven and then everything went black.

*

         A blistering gust of wind blew wisps of her hair into her face when Ani finally sat up. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead, irritating her skin. She definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… The sun was bright, too bright, even for the Southern California day she’d left behind. The thrumming of her head tapped an incessant tempo at her temples. It was obvious that she wasn’t in the attic anymore either, but she couldn’t figure out what the heck just happened. Despite the bright white light, she squinted her eyes to look around and all she could see for miles was sand, lots and lots of sand. Forcing her eyes to stay open against the heat and blinding soon felt impossible. She pulled her knees tightly to her chest and let her head rest against them as she caught her breath.

         “Where the hell did I go?” She murmured to herself, counting slowly to five and then back down to calm her breathing. “Maybe I fell and hit my head when I reached for the gem and this is some kind of coma dream.”

“Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic,” she whispered. “Just breathe. You’ll figure this out. You figure everything out, just think.” If this wasn’t the result of a bad fall, she wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. 

The desert was sweltering, and the breeze on her face was hotter still. The silence made her weary. No birds, no traffic, no mother banging around downstairs. The palm tree a few feet away was twisted and mangled, like it had been growing against the wind for centuries, and not far from that, a small pond of some kind – was this an oasis? Of course her brain would create an oasis in the event of a fall. Travelers always thought they saw oases in the distance and went mad searching for them, right? 

Sighing, Ani ran her fingers through her hair, a nervous habit she picked up over the years that her mother despised, but she realized her hand was bunched into a fist. “Oh yeah, the gem,” she said, looking down at her closed fingers. 

When she opened her fist to drop it, she was suddenly right back in the attic.

Ani took a long, unsteady breath, finally able to breathe, and dragged the box into her shaking hands. 

Along with the box came the ringing in her ears again. “I definitely just teleported, right?” She said, looking at the box as if expecting an answer. “Like, I wasn’t here, and then I was here.” 

Shaking her head, she thought about the bedtime stories her Uncle Jack used to tell her. Magical adventures of a little princess who could jump so high she’d touch the stars. Was that what she was doing? Did the gem transport her to another galaxy? That light blue gem to the desert was only one of many though, and although Ani was curious, she felt a little like she almost died with just the one, she held off on grabbing another gem and instead, sat the box back down on the desk. It was then that Ani realized that the magic she’d watched in movies, the magic she’d read about in books, was real.

“Yo, what the heck was Rick into?” she asked herself, her hands still shaking as she backed away from the desk.

The seconds ticked by as she stared down at the box, almost as if she were waiting for it to move itself. Biting at her lip, she hesitated for the briefest moment before she took a step forward, immediately stopping herself again. “This is stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a box.” 

After a few deep breaths, suddenly there she was, picking at the latch, as if she couldn’t help herself. It felt like the gems were calling to her, an invisible energy, forcing her hand. The siren song was just too much, and once she got the box open, she picked up the first gem she could reach. Abruptly, the pounding in her head exploded, but this time, unlike in the desert, it immediately lessened as she opened her eyes in a vacant countryside. 

“See that wasn’t so bad,” she told herself, looking down at the gem in her hand. This one was light green, shiny, smooth to the touch, like the light blue, but oblong in shape. When she looked around, she felt utterly alone, a cool breeze on her face, sun high in the afternoon sky. After the feeling of isolation stopped, she realized she could hear the bustle of people nearby.

Instead of dropping this gem, as she did in the desert, Ani held onto this one tightly and walked around to explore. The sides of the roads were well managed hedges with small wildflowers in bright oranges, blues, and purples. The roads themselves were well used, dirt roads that led to what seemed to be personal driveways. The air was crisp and all at once she wished she had a jacket on. The cold didn’t really deter her from moving though, and after a few more minutes, she found a sign that had London, 6 km written on it. So, the light green gem led her to London, and the light blue gem led her to some random desert.  Just how many gems were there? Ani finally decided to drop the gem and as it slipped through her fingers it felt as though the wind was being knocked out of her.

Back in the attic, she slid the gem back into the box, shut the lid, and slipped it into her bag. She needed to go see Uncle Jack, show him what she found, and she needed to do it right now. The hair on the back of her neck seemed to raise, like everything in her was pulling her out of that attic. Something felt... wrong somehow, worse than it did before. Taking a quick glance in the mirror, her haggard face stared back at her. Beads of sweat on her brow, bloodshot eyes, and a nauseous complexion seem to shout at her to leave.

“Anissa.”

Gasping, Ani whirled around, finding her mother in the doorway. “I’ve been calling you for at least ten minutes.  What is so important that you can’t even answer your mother?”

Her mother looked around the attic, and then stepped inside. Ani’s head was pounding. The throbbing seemed to get worse with every step her mother took toward her. 

“You look awful dear, what’s wrong?” 

The words, once full of compassion and love, sounded dull and stiff as she looked around the room before she settled in front of her daughter. Ani realized that her mother didn’t actually care about how she was doing years ago, but it still didn’t lessen the blow. 

Taking another step closer to Ani, her mother looked around with her hand spread out in front of her, her fingers extended in a painful looking way. 

“Well, what did you find up here? Anything worth anything?” 

Her voice, usually an annoyingly high twittering sound was now low, almost sinister. Ani wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she’d never seen her mother move the way she was just then. She seemed almost calculating the way she was moving around the attic, shoulders hunched forward, eyes darting around the room. 

“No,” Ani shrugged. “I’ve just got a headache. The movers can come get the desk now,” she added. “I bet you’ll get a good price for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure I will. Anything in those drawers? Any other... antiques?”

The box in her bag seemed to press against her as she stood there awkwardly, rubbing the pads of her thumbs against her closed eyes. She’d been keeping secrets from her mother for years, but for some inexplicable reason, this seemed like the most important secret she’d ever keep.

“Nope,” she murmured, shouldering her bag as nonchalantly as she could muster. “Just some old writing stuff; some note paper, envelopes, an old fountain pen. Nothing special. You want to look through the boxes?”

“No.” Her mother’s response was rough, hardened. She ran her hand over one of the boxes as she walked toward Ani. Her hand looked different, wrinkled, red, like she’d irritated it while cleaning somehow. Almost like she’d spilled a cleaning solvent on her skin and neglected to flush it out with water. Actually, everything about her mother looked different. Her hair, which was always perfectly put together, was messy and falling out of the hairband. Her blouse was wrinkled too, like she’d been crawling around or something. Now, it was almost as if she’d been slinking through the space, her eyes never leaving Ani. “You look simply awful,” her mother repeated again, her voice lower still. “Almost as if you’d seen a ghost.” 

Ani blinked sharply. “I don’t know what you mean,” she answered, hiking the shoulder bag up again. “Anyway, I’m heading over to Uncle Jack’s to take over these boxes. I’ll be back to help the movers in an hour or so.”

She didn’t wait for her mother to respond before she started to move. She had to step around her mother, whose eyes seemed to bore into Ani’s very soul. After picking up one of the boxes, she looked back once more at the woman, but instead of seeing the mother who’d helped her paint her room to match the night sky when she was seven and thought she was a star princess, she just saw a stranger. 

“Now, now, Anissa dear, don’t run away,” her mother said, smiling creepily. “Tell mommy what you’ve found, what you’ve discovered.”

Ani whipped her head around and moved to back away, shaking her head. “I told you, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

“I can feel the power, Anissa. I know what you’ve found. I cannot let you leave with them. Give them to me,” she said, stepping closer. “Now, Anissa!”

Ani shook her head again and dropped the box of old junk, gripping the strap to her shoulder bag tightly. “Mom,” she tried, holding up her empty hand in caution. “Stop. Please, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh sweetie, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m your mother. I’d never hurt you.”

The hairs prickling up on Ani’s arms said otherwise, and suddenly, she knew she couldn’t stay here any longer. Her chest felt tight, too tight, like she couldn’t breathe, and her head, it pounded before, but now it felt as if there was someone chiseling behind her eyes. She could see dark spots in her periphery – it was now or never.

She turned and started to run, digging through her bag for her car keys. She could feel her mother following right behind, could hear her screeching, louder than she’d ever heard her mother sound before. “Anissa, stop!” she screamed.

As suddenly as she’d started to move she was pulled back, that red hand gripping her shoulder so violently she stumbled onto her back. The eyes that stared down at Ani were no longer the eyes of the woman who raised her, instead, a deep black, the very image of hatred stared at her. 

Pinned by her mother’s foot, Ani could feel the heel of her stiletto piercing the skin of her shoulder, pressing down harder and harder as she waited. “Give them to me and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, her voice dripping with disdain. “You weren’t meant to find those,” she scoffed. “You’re nothing. Couldn’t even keep the gems safe for thirty minutes,” she laughed, pressing down harder into Ani’s shoulder.

“Mom, please,” Ani cried, doing everything she could to push the foot away, tears pooling in her eyes. “Please, you’re hurting me.”

“Give me what I’ve asked for and I’ll let you go,” her mother said, pressing harder still. Ani could feel the instant when the heel finally began to tear at her flesh, ripping at it like tissue paper. “Give me what’s rightfully mine.” 

The panic that settled in her skin itched like fire in her veins. Everything inside of her told her that if she didn’t get away – right this minute – her mother, her mother, would kill her. The idea of giving this… thing holding her down…  the gems didn’t even cross Ani’s mind as she pressed her hands against her mother’s ankle bone and squeezed. A ripple of heat – and hurt – rushed through Ani’s body and exited out of her palms into her mother. In a flash, her mother fell to the ground and Ani made her escape. 

Looking at her palms, Ani spared a brief glance at her mother before bolting down the stairs, she could hear the screams of a woman in pain echo through the empty hallway but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop to question what just happened, what she’d just done. She couldn’t explain it anyway. As soon as she got out of the attic and away from her mother, it was like she could breathe again. She dashed out of the house as fast as she dared, the pain in her shoulder forgotten for the moment. The car key firmly planted in her hand, she didn’t even look back as she twisted it into the ignition and threw the car in drive.

“What the hell was that!” She screamed, finally looking into the rearview mirror as she drove the few blocks to her uncle’s house. Tears tracked down her face as she tried to categorize everything that went down. Those tears and her bloodied shoulder were easy reminders – her mother had tried to kill her.

“Uncle Jack!” Ani yelled when she finally ran into her uncle’s house. “Where are you?” she cried, panicked and hurting. She kept one hand pressed into her shoulder and the other wrapped around the box in her bag. “I need help!” she yelled. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I think I went into a mini-coma today. And my,” she sobbed, “My mother she…” 

        A hand over her mouth caught her off guard. “Keep your voice down, Ani,” Uncle Jack whispered. “You’re safe here.”

        Terrified and still on edge, she tried to pull away from him, one hand pushing him away, another gripping his hand at her mouth as she kicked and screamed. A pulse, like the one she felt ripple through her before began to bubble up inside of her again, almost coming up to the surface.

He held her steady and made a quiet shushing sound, “Ani, please. It’s me, it’s Uncle Jack. I’ve got you.”

        When Ani stopped fighting, she slumped against him, crying in earnest. The electric shock throbbing inside of her slowed and then quieted completely. The tears racked through her body so violently Uncle Jack had to hold her in place, his arms wrapped around her at the waist. “I’ve got you, princess, I’ve got you now, you’re okay.” 

“Okay?” she whispered. “I’ll never be okay!” The fight, back inside of her, clawing its way up her throat, pulsing to hurt as she’d been hurt. “She tried to kill me, Jack! She. I’m. I’m bleeding for Christ’s sake. She made me bleed.”

“I’ll take care of that, but Ani please, you must calm down. I won’t let her hurt you again, I swear it on my life, but I can’t protect you from yourself.” He pleaded, pressing a warm hand against her shoulder. “For centuries, an ancient order has been looking for Rick. For what Rick had. I looked for it after he died too, just to keep it safe, but it wouldn’t reveal itself to me.” 

Confused, Ani took a step back and pushed his hands away. “What are you even talking about?” she said, backing away slowly her hands protectively holding her bag to her chest. “No, please Uncle Jack, not you too,” she said softly, defeated. “I can’t fight you too.”

“No, Ani, I’m not her. I won’t hurt you,” he tried, stepping toward her.

“That’s what she said,” Ani screamed, pointing toward the door. “She was my mother, Jack, and she did this,” she groaned, seizing her wounded shoulder carefully.

“I don’t have the time to tell you everything, Ani. Just trust me, please, I need to keep you safe,” Jack whispered, his hands up defensively. “I’ll explain everything, but not here. We aren’t safe here. Will you come with me?” He asked quietly. “I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

After a pause, Ani nodded, crying, still clutching her bag tightly to her body.

        Afraid to even move, she held her breath and waited for Uncle Jack to move. In short order, he led her toward the basement. “In here,” he murmured quietly. Once inside, he locked the door, and they headed down the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he whispered something under his breath and waved his hand out. There was another door there, one that hadn’t been there before, and once they were through it, he closed and locked it too. Again, he said something silently, and then pointed to a couch and nodded for Ani to sit, which she did, still confused.

        “Alright, it’s safe here.”

The room felt safe. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but as she looked around the small space, the tension in her neck, shoulders, spine, hips, knees – it all just melted away.

        For the first time since entering the house, Ani took a deep breath. “Where did that door come from? Where are we? What was all that about anyway?” she asked, whispering, as she wiped the remnants of her tears away.

        “Just wait a moment, please,” Uncle Jack said softly, leaning his back against the wall. “I need a second.”

Ani looked at her uncle then, really looked at him. As he sagged against the closed door, he looked even worse than he had at the funeral. She saw the despair in him she’d seen before, but the fear in his eyes was really what made her worry.

“You’ve found the galaxy’s gemstones, haven’t you?” He asked. It really wasn’t a question; it was more of a statement.

“The gems to the what?” she replied incredulously after a quick beat of silence. “Did you say galaxy?”

        “Now’s not the time to ask questions, Ani. The long and short of it is, Rick has been the Gemstone Guardian for over three centuries, and years ago, it was foretold that another would take his place. Rick knew who his replacement was, but before he could find to him to train him, the cancer progressed.”

        “Gem Guardian? Where do I fit into this?”

“I don’t have all the answers, Ani, but I do know this – the gems no stranger to conflict – they did not come to you by accident. I don’t have time to explain, but let me show you,” Uncle Jack whispered, coming close and sitting down next to her. He smiled softly, a smile Ani recognized as one of both pity and affection. “I wish this wasn’t happening to us,” he told her quietly. “I have so much I want to show you, Ani, but we don’t have time.”

Before she could ask him what he meant, he pressed a comforting palm to the base of her neck and rested his forehead against her own. Without another thought, her eyes closed and she could feel herself falling.


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