The young man sat on the fine, nearly white sand of the small island. Stroking back his thick brown hair, which burned gold in the light of the rising sun, his eyes met the dark black pearls of a white swan’s. The feathers that wrapped around its body, the delicate fold of its wings was beyond perfection, but it was the eyes that the youth couldn’t turn away from. They reminded him too much of the gentle, blue eyes of the girl who had left him many days ago. To reunite with her family, the young man recalled. They needed her. I’d never know what that meant. I can see why…
His thoughts were drifting back to her eyes again. In a strange way, they reminded him of lightning…blue lightning, shrouded by clouds after a storm. And her name…Rosella. It was no wonder that he had given her the moist, fiery red-hued rose with the key to her freedom tied to it. Many roses climbed the walls of the crystal palace several yards behind him, yet every one seemed to remind him of her kindness…how she told him she liked him…Her bravery…how she had faced his mother…his mother, Lolotte, once the eternal enemy of the fairy whose beach he rested upon!…and her beauty…this was farther from his heart, but still, everything about her, within and outside seemed beautiful. The first beautiful human he had seen in his eighteen years…true, the fairy, Genesta, surpassed any mortal’s beauty, but in many ways, the human girl seemed even fairer.
His eyes traveled from the swan’s head to his own rumpled, but colorful tunic, trousers and boots, and even more importantly, his sun splashed flesh. Flesh. Why do they call it that, flesh is what’s inside, not outside. At least what’s inside me is still the same.
It was a body foreign to him, and yet, it felt strangely familiar. The green, hunchbacked body he had occupied for nearly all his life now seemed to be something he was glad to leave behind.
The short, light brown hair he had owned several months ago had now grown thicker and longer, creating a wild, silken mane reaching halfway down his back. Perhaps it was Rosella’s beautiful golden crowning glory that gave him the idea of letting it grow out while he lived here. Genesta’s attendant fairies often offered to trim his hair, but he always declined. He also declined to wear any of the silk robes the fairies offered him (even though he was amazed at their generosity), preferring only the ordinary clothes that made him resemble a peasant. Again, just like Rosella. Edgar sighed in depression.
Raising his head again, he saw the sun bursting into a blinding arabesque over the rim of a bluish cloud. He leaned back further and kneaded his toes in the soft Tamirian sand, thinking softly.
Suddenly the swan beside him raised its head and took off with an explosion of sand and feathers spraying into the youth’s eyes. He squinted in distaste and rose to his feet, his cape catching the dawn breezes. At first, it seemed to be a dragon on the horizon. A dragon, like the demons and monsters his mother, Lolotte, always told him about. Then he saw the neck, the long, tapering head, like that of a great sea serpent.
Then he realized, with surprise and embarrassment, that it was a bird just like the one who had just sprayed sand into his eyes. He was ready to force out a laugh, since laughter was something he had rarely experienced during his life, but then he realized that the swan had a wingspan comparable to the height of a castle tower, with a head larger than his own. The youth stepped back, then squinted and looked closer at the approaching beast. It wasn’t real. It seemed to be made of wood or canvas, yet it soared like a hawk of the Impossible Mountains. What was it?
The boy noticed a cavity in the swan’s back, one with a seat within it…a seat for people to ride safely on…like the two strange people that were sitting on it. The man had hair that seemed to be dyed with the tongues of flames, and his unmarked skin was like old leather, smooth as a lake’s surface. He was wrapped in a white toga rimmed with a lavender strip, a style of clothing unfamiliar to the young man, who still watched him as well as his companion.
The one beside him was a young woman, with sharp black hair bound atop her delicate head. She had a body like a praying mantis, fragile and tiny. In fact, even her skin color matched the insect’s, a light, glowing green like the first leaf of a new seedling pushing through the earth.
The swan with its two riders floated down and skimmed across the ocean, undisturbed by the rolling tides. The huge bird gently, almost coyly slid ashore onto the gentle, glistening sands. The woman peered out, around the swan’s large neck, and saw the person who had been watching them so intently. She looked ready to laugh or cry, he could not tell which. Then she practically sprang out of the boat, just like the insect she curiously resembled, and rushed up to the young man, trapping him in the grasp of her arms as she hugged him with the strength of an infant giant.
“Edgar! Son! You’re alive!”
It all came too suddenly for him to comprehend. It was a feeling not unlike having his head punched through a stone wall. Time seemed to slow as these new people who called him “son” poured out the history of his kidnapping, their seemingly eternal sorrow, and finally, his reunion with them, Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies! Of all people to experience miracles, Edgar felt that he was either a lucky one or someone worthy of having his dreams granted.
His eyes still wide from shock and amazement, Edgar gingerly stepped into the horse-less sky chariot, settling down between his new parents, and before he could say his first word, the swan had risen above the sea, above the towers of Genesta’s crystal castle, and finally, above the clouds he had always wished he could visit, on his way to his true home.
Questions. Questions were tossed back and forth and occasionally over the side of the chariot, dropping the subject. Edgar learned how he was the first Etherian child born in over a century, and how all the fairies had come to the main isle just to see his peaceful, sleeping face. How an uninvited guest had poisoned the great decanter of fresh nectar, which was tasted by nearly all of the unknowing guests. Many fairies fell gravely ill, some even died. Those that didn’t die fell into a long-lasting sleep, including Oberon and his bride. It was during this time that Edgar was taken from his home, taken to serve the wicked creature who left his parents crying over his empty cradle, Lolotte, who had been defeated by the same girl whom Edgar loved. He was close to tears himself by the time his parents had finished telling him everything they knew, and by this time, they had also reached the periphery of the floating isles of Etheria.
It was difficult to find anything to compare them to. Flowering, green paradises atop elliptical spires of deep lavender stone. Vines ran to and from some of the smaller ones, as if they had been closer together some time ago. The trees and shrubs curled, contorted and stretched into fantastic, exotic shapes that simply couldn’t be called twisted or gnarled. Trees with trunks the hue of lilacs, bushes that looked like blue bursting fountains frozen in place, and gentle, soft green moss that dotted the islands’ leeward sides and tops.
Shimmering, tiny clusters of pale magenta hued fruits grew beneath stone edges, and Edgar was fascinated with them as their swan drifted through the mists. Titania informed him that the fruits were ambrosia, the food of the gods (as Edgar already knew from the books on mythology Lolotte had allowed him to read).
Then, a swarm of tiny, bird-like creatures flashed past the chariot’s bow. Edgar, fearing that it might be a swarm of giant insects, was on his feet in an instant. In the same instant, the creatures spontaneously flew towards him as one, swirling around his body and darting near his face. There was an eerie, yet beautiful music circling him as well, and it seemed to be coming from the creatures.
“They’re dragonettes,” explained his mother, smiling gently. “I daresay they want to welcome you home.”
Now Edgar could see the creatures clearly: their bodies like a horse of the waters – the Hippocampus, he recalled – with a pair of delicate, transparent wings which beat too quickly for his eyes to make out, but Edgar already could see these creatures were not of the world he had left behind. And they were singing – like the tropical songbirds of Genesta’s isle – a sound Edgar had never heard before, even in his dreams.
Numbly, he slowly raised a hand, with the fingers extended. One of the dragonettes stopped its rapid flight, hovered before the hand for a moment, then curled its spiraling tail around Edgar’s forefinger and ceased its fluttering of its wings, gazing at him curiously, whistling its own melody, which stood out among that of the others.
Edgar wasn’t sure how to react. He had never seen such a beautiful little animal, probably because he was so deformed and ugly during most of his life, and now one came right to him, as if he were a brother, or even a parent.
Smiling broadly, Edgar gently wiggled his finger, and after a moment’s hesitation, the dragonette uncurled its tail and zipped away to join the others in its flock, ending its song with a brief transition into the others’ chorus. Slowly, Edgar re-seated himself between his parents. The dragonettes slowly dispersed and floated away, still as one unit.
“They’re beautiful,” Edgar said, with a voice like an amazed child.
“They are indeed,” replied Oberon. “Mortals rarely see the dragonettes, and more often or not, it’s in their dreams. They are the guardians of the sacred food and drink of the gods. We respect them and they bring us happiness.”
Edgar sighed in response. He turned his head to each side occasionally, trying to see as much as he could of this amazing Etheria. It wasn’t long before the main islands began appearing out of the clouds. Islands with castles almost growing from them, bridges running from island to island, from turret to tower. It was a kingdom just like the ones described in the books Edgar read so often as a boy, only better. This place was real. He had heard the dragonettes’ song, he had touched the breath of heaven. What more could happen on this day of days?
The answer came out of the largest of the clouds, looming like a dragon looking skyward: a glittering, intricate, widespread palace built upon an island so large, there probably had to be magic at work holding it up. As the swan drew closer, Edgar noticed many small things darted around the walls and buttresses, circled the towers or sat on the edges of roofs. They were fairies. Edgar didn’t need to ask his parents what they were. Some winged, some wingless, some human-like, others stooped, slit-eyed and bumpy, like goblins or demons. Yet they all seemed benevolent, here in this land in the sky, each doing what he or she was cut out to do, coloring the flowers, giving the birds traveling tips, or checking the islands’ drift patterns. It all seemed to tie together.
All except for Edgar.
The world seemed to spin around him as he was escorted out of the floating swan and into a crowded courtyard, filled with fairies, sprites and many other magical creatures. Dragonettes flitted about above the strange, high walls, which Edgar thought seemed warm to the touch, as if it were alive. Many living things grew within the walls, the exotic, mystical flora, the trees, shrubs and grasses. There were also many beautiful marble statues and ornaments throughout the widespread gardens.
Oberon raised his heavy staff into the air and the chaos gradually subsided. He raised his leathery hand and spoke:
“People of Etheria and Eldritch! What we were told was true! Edgar, our only son and the prince of this realm has finally been found! Lolotte has been defeated, and happiness has returned with our boy!”
The ecstatic crowds cheered and yelled with delight, even the knobby demons and boggles. Before the noise had died down, a young, wingless fairy with white hair and skin zigzagged through the crowds and stopped before Edgar and his parents. She examined Edgar, looking him over with an inquisitive manner. Raising her small head, she said to Titania:
“He is the one. I’d know those eyes anywhere. Glad I am that he is alive and here.”
Edgar suddenly realized that the fairy’s skin wasn’t white, but a very pale blue, covered for the most part by a small green skirt tied tightly around her waist with a thick vine. She looked older up close, but was still beautiful. She had small, pointed ears which flicked back and forth occasionally as she stared into Edgar’s eyes and at his parents’ as well.
“This is Elfreda,” explained Titania, “Our most trusted subject. She was the first one who discovered your disappearance and told us while we were still under the poison’s influence. She was to be your nanny before Lolotte took you. Elfreda is very trustworthy, and she has helped us greatly in our time without you.”
Elfreda grinned broadly, stepping back from Edgar on her tiptoes. “A celebration we must have! A celebration to honor the return of our prince!”
The crowd behind her whooped and cheered in agreement. Titania nodded slightly to Elfreda.
“You have our permission to have a celebration. I would think a ball would be appropriate for our young prince.”
“Yes, yes, a ball it shall be, my lady! I shall plan it myself! Will you have any requests, my lady?”
Titania put her hand on Edgar’s shoulder and gave him a brief side-glance. “I think Edgar would like to see more of his homeland before the festivities begin. Wouldn’t you, Edgar?”
“Yes, mother. I would like that a lot.”
“All right,” said Elfreda decisively. “Let the young prince see the wonders of Etheria and Eldritch! Take your time. I promise everything will be ready ere you return, your highnesses.”
“I trust you, Elfreda,” said Titania. “Thank you for making Edgar’s first day here a special one. Come, son. We’ll go through the gardens. This way.”
Elfreda waved one twig-like arm as many other fairies did the same. “Good-bye, good majesties! Make this celebration a big one, I will!”
As Oberon and Titania led their son out of the crowded courtyard, Edgar tried to get a closer look at the creatures they were passing. Some resembled humans with oddly toned skin, others small butterflies or bat-winged beings. Even the demons, though ugly and deformed, seemed handsome as they removed their small woolen caps at Edgar’s passing and bowing until their long noses nearly touched the ground. They were all amazing people, seldom seen by man or woman. Edgar had accepted the fact that he was a fairy, but still, the thought that he wasn’t human stirred something inside him. What happens when a fairy loves a human girl…?
Suddenly, something ripped through his thoughts. There was something standing behind one of the castle buttresses, looking at him. The shadows cloaking the figure did not seem natural; they seemed cast by some obscure, dark magic. But through the blackness, Edgar could barely make out two pale green eyes. They were not the grass-green eyes of the fairy Genesta. Their color made his mother’s skin look dark. The paleness…it was so sickening to look at that Edgar finally snapped his head away from the image just as his parents guided him through the courtyard gate.
The cheering behind them continued until the three fairies were out of earshot. Edgar was smiling in amazement at his mother and father as they walked on either side of him, along the mossy path that led through the gardens. In some places, the trees grew so thickly they resembled pieces of jungles. Delicious fruits hung from the branches, never more than five feet above the ground. The small bushes, though squat and stunted, also grew proudly within their marble-rimmed spaces.
There were also more of the beautiful statues and fountains in places that one would think they were growing out of the earth. Decorative nozzles that sprayed jets of water over the walkway into vases on the opposite side, statues of winged humans and lions, humans with heads and tails of wild cats, elaborate vases with detailed figures carved into their sides with designs and motifs from every culture Edgar had ever heard of, and then some.
Yet among all these unearthly wonders, only one caught Edgar’s eye. They were reaching the point where the path opened into a small, grassy meadow with a ring of trees that grew together, forming a small, organic gazebo. The terrain was rockier here than the inner gardens. That was probably because the edge of the island was only a few strides away, guarded only by a low rock barrier.
Near the barrier, rimmed with large green stones resembling jade, stood an old, stone fountain. There was no water shooting into the air and down again, and there was only one spire rising out of a deep basin. Edgar stepped closer, his parents staying near the path’s end. The closer he got to the odd fountain, the more he saw of it. There were strange, carved ropes winding their way up from the base and around the rim, as well as around the spire. Slowly, Edgar stepped closer and peered into the stone basin.
The water in the basin was clear and cold, running down from the spire’s tiny nozzle, spiraling down the carved ropes and finally reaching its destination in the quiet fountain water. For a minute, Edgar could only see his reflection in the water, but then it stuck him: there was something on the floor of the basin. He stepped around the basin so that his back was facing the midmorning sun that struck the shining surface, and peered into the fountain’s pool again.
What he saw sent a stream of emotions through him. Roses. Dozens of Roses, carved directly into the stone of the fountain. Not a single one alike. Some partially open, some fully in bloom. There was no algae growing anywhere, as if the roses had a power of their own. Now Edgar could see the fine details of this masterpiece: the nearly nonexistent pink tint that shrouded the petals of every rose, the thorns on the ropes, which were actually stems, stems of roses, of course, as well as the delicate, tear-shaped leaves, their veins and edges finely webbed. Not a single thorn was poking out, not one was in a position to be broken off. It was truly amazing, Edgar thought, that only a mere fountain could make a person feel this much.
No. It was not only the fountain. It was its symbolism. In the same way that the cross symbolized the Christian savior, the delicate roses reminded him of the girl whom he had asked to marry so many months ago. The roses looked just like the one he had slipped her under the door to his room, their redness was even more prominent as he gazed into their spreading centers. He almost felt like crying as he remembered her. What would beautiful, free Rosella think of him now, a fairy prince in a kingdom in the clouds? Edgar shook off the question, but the petals never left his memory.
“You like the fountain?” asked his father. “It was one of the first fountains constructed on this, the main island of Etheria.”
“It is beautiful,” said Edgar, slowly trudging alongside the stone barrier near the edge of the island. Several more of the violet-hued islands were hanging in the clouds, several miles from where he was. He could spot an occasional dragonette darting from one island to the next, sometimes to the main island, right past his location, almost nicking his long, tan cloak once. I guess they can be fierce little things, Edgar guessed. Even in paradise…
Then he remembered something, something he had heard his father mention and had wanted to ask him about. He turned left, away from the precipice, and walked towards his waiting parents.
“Father,” Edgar began, “I heard you speak of a realm besides this one when you spoke to your subjects. The Realm of…Eldritch, I think?”
“Yes,” replied Oberon. “That is the realm of the mortals, who live below us, though we occasionally visit their world. Still, this land of Etheria and Eldritch is different from the one you were living in. On our journey, we passed though a barrier that is only permeable by those of the fairy clan, as well as other magic beasties.”
“There is no way for mortals to enter this world?” Edgar questioned.
“Probably not,” Oberon said pensively, “There are ways to…open doors, or windows into this realm…but I have never gone into the art of opening such rifts. Our people could be harmed. Still, I have no objection of people from the outside making their own little rat-holes into here…”
“So I’ll never have a chance of meeting her again…” Edgar murmured to himself, so softly that it was barely audible.
“What did you say, Edgar?”
“Nothing, father. Nothing. It’s just that…” his eyes looked at a place behind and beside his parents and dug his toes into the soft earth at his feet. Looking back at them, he changed his mind about telling them about Rosella, and changed the subject. “…Can we visit the Realm of Eldritch today, father?”
“Today?” Titania asked. “With such a celebration planned for this evening?”
Oberon placed one of his large hands on his wife’s shoulder. “Titania, dear, we have not seen our boy in eighteen years. He deserves whatever he wishes today. Later we will make a few restrictions, but Edgar has already proven to be responsible. I will take him to Eldritch.”
Edgar smiled, his eyes radiant with excitement. “Thank you, father,” he said, almost bowing slightly in his gratefulness.
“And you promise to return before the sun begins to set?”
“Of course, maybe sooner,” promised Oberon. “It is barely midmorning. We should be home perhaps an hour or two past noon.”
“I promise too, mother,” Edgar added, looking at her sincerely.
“All right,” said Titania. “You can go.” Then she reached out and held one of Edgar’s hands in hers and looked into his deep mahogany eyes. “You are a good man, Edgar. I can’t tell you how happy I am knowing that my son has grown into such a kind, responsible person. One might think you were almost human, so much respect for others you have.”
Yeah, Edgar thought. Almost.
“And I pray that you will be happy as well, now that you are home…Well, I’ll return to the castle now to help Elfreda prepare for your celebration, Edgar. I hope you enjoy your visit to Eldritch.”
“As do I.” said Oberon. Titania released her son’s hand and delicately turned and walked back along the garden path, the thick trees soon blotting her out of Edgar’s and Oberon’s sight. Oberon turned to his son and said:
“Well, the sooner we start, the better. I call the Alabaster Swan! Come now to our side!”
Cupping his free hand to his mouth, Oberon whistled one long, loud note which seemed to last for about ten seconds, maybe more. Before the echo had died out, a pure white swan chariot, the same one Edgar had stepped out of an hour or so earlier, glided above the trees of the garden and slowly spiraled down, coming to a rest in the field before Edgar and his father.
“Incredible,” Edgar breathed in astonishment. “You know how to call this swan?”
“It’s fairly simple to master,” said Oberon. “This creature was actually fashioned out of wood and silk, then brought to life with a strange…I think it’s a magic powder your mother has been keeping out of sight ever since she received it a couple centuries ago…she even used it on the towers and walls of our castle so that broken parts mend themselves or create new ways of support. It’s an amazing thing, magic.”
“I would guess,” said Edgar. “Uhh…do we get in now?”
“Yes, Edgar. Come on, don’t be afraid.”
Edgar didn’t say anything back to his father, but silently prepared to get aboard the swan. Before he stepped over the wing and into the compartment, he noticed a small pile of smooth, indigo pebbles in the grass. They were fairly large and very beautiful. His sense of aesthetics being fairly good, Edgar bent over and scooped up a palmful of the stones. Placing them safely in a pocket, he stepped over the great white wing of the swan, sliding comfortably into the chariot’s seating recess.
“Very good; one would think you were a natural,” complemented Oberon, getting in on Edgar’s left side. After tapping a hand on the sleek shoulder of the swan, the enchanted chariot rose into the air, then forwards, into the seemingly infinite archipelagos of Etheria.
The smaller isles, now quite familiar to Edgar, seemed to skim past his eyes like a sparse flock of birds, until something very large flickered out of the corner of his left eye. Snapping his head around, Edgar peered off the port side of the chariot and glimpsed an island so huge that the top was hidden in a bank of mist and fog. Edgar slowly followed it up to the top with his eyes, mouth open in awe. Then, quickly closing his mouth as he realized he was probably being observed by his father, he asked him what the gargantuan monolith was.
“Ah, that is the Mountain of the Winds,” explained Oberon. “The Lord and Lady of the Winds, Levanter and Gharbi, hold court at its peak, along with their many subjects and servants.”
Edgar put a bent finger to his chin in thought. “Hmm. That’s quite a concept, I think. Are you sure it isn’t a myth, like some things in the mortal world?”
Oberon laughed loudly, cutting Edgar’s statement off. “A myth? Edgar, look at us! To some mortals, we are myths! And you ask if our closest neighbors are a mere legend! That is a laugh!”
Edgar smiled timidly, still a bit embarrassed. “Yeah. I guess it is funny. I’d better watch what I say here.”
Oberon put his arm across his son’s broad shoulders and looked into his face. “You’ll learn soon enough. You’re a bright boy, and I’m sure you’ll learn all you wish to know in time, Edgar.”
His bearded face grinned kindly at Edgar. He smiled again in return as Oberon withdrew his arm and continued scanning the skies for whatever he thought was worth watching. The swan was circling the Mountain of the Winds as it began its descent to Eldritch. Suddenly, something else caught Edgar’s ever-alert eyes, this time on the starboard side. Peering over the edge, he saw a lush, green meadow much like the gardens he had walked through earlier, surrounded by beautiful, flowery arches and topiaries, with more of the fantastic bushes and trees that were endemic to Etheria.
Yet in the main meadow, there was something Edgar hadn’t noticed before. On each rounded corner of that part of the island, a large, flat rainbow sprouted like a bridge from the rocky edge, then arched slightly before dropping straight down, through the clouds below.
“What’s that?” he asked his father. Oberon looked over Edgar’s shoulder and nodded as he spoke.
“We call it The Crossroads. It’s simply a junction with each rainbow leading down to a different part of Eldritch. It makes travel simpler for some, not so for others. I chose the Swan so we could stay together and not put you in any danger.”
“You’re still that concerned about me?” Edgar asked.
“I know, I’m too paranoid right now. Titania’s sister Malicia has been causing some minor…problems recently…I don’t know what it is, but we should have it resolved soon.”
“I hope,” Edgar sighed, looking at his father’s concerned face. Glancing down over the side again revealed that they were finally breaking through the blankets of clouds. There was a hot, dusty wind in the air, and through his suddenly watery vision, Edgar could just make out land beneath. It appeared to be…
“Nothing!” he said, coughing heavily. “It’s all…desert.”
“That it is,” replied Oberon, shielding his eyes with his hand. “The great desert of Eldritch, going on endlessly for as long as one can imagine in every direction except north.”
“What’s up there?” Edgar asked, his voice still ragged with the burning dust.
“An oasis. A most peculiar one, at that. An ancient people once inhabited that region, possibly our ancestors, for the stone statues and relics which still stand amid the spiny cacti and long dead trees still have strong magic pulsing through them.”
As Oberon spoke, the oasis appeared through the shimmering atmosphere, as if it heard him narrating and wished to be seen at the right time. There were many of the statues and stone temples that Edgar’s father spoke of, as well as a pool of water that reflected so much light from the sun that it could hardly be looked at.
“Is that pool a source of water?” Edgar asked, pointing downwards.
“It is not fresh water,” said Oberon. “There is so much salt contained in it that it is undrinkable.”
“Salt? How did these people survive, then?”
“I believe there is a ritual involved to purify the water, at least, that’s what I have heard.”
“I would hope so. Salt water in a desert. Like a rubber crutch…”
“Do you want me to tell you about what we are flying over now, or do you want to figure it out by observation?”
“Oh, you go on, father. I’m sorry if I said…”
“You didn’t,” assured Oberon. “I’m not offended. Anyway, there is a passage which goes through the mountains you see cutting off the desert, but we’ll take the high road – up and over.”
The swan swooped upwards and skimmed over the narrow strip of mountains, nearly grazing the top of one of the peaks.
“These things are so high, I’d think they’d almost stick up into Etheria,” said Edgar.
“Odd, I was going to tell you that, and yes, they do, some within mere feet of some of the smaller isles. This is an exception, this lower part we’re going through.”
The mountains were abruptly replaced by low, lush meadows, not like the turquoise mosses in Etheria at all. These were grasses of the mortal world, grasses that grew in the gardens on Genesta’s isle in Tamir, along with aged, towering oaks; younger, delicate saplings and flowers sprouting everywhere, all this with a crystalline, aquamarine river flowing through the meadow, under a white marble bridge, near which were two beautiful, gigantic statues that appeared Greek in origin, each a young maiden on either side of the river. In many ways, Edgar thought this part of the mortal world was every bit as beautiful as Etheria, perhaps even more so.
“This is the Bountiful Woods,” explained Oberon, as Edgar leaned over the side even more, his hair flopping into his eyes as he tried to keep it out. “Lord Attis, God of the Hunt, resides here, along with his bride, Ceres, she who keeps the woods alive.”
“Wait,” interrupted Edgar. “I don’t mean anything against it, but…why is the God of the Hunt married to the Goddess of Nature? Isn’t that a little…odd?”
“At first, one would think so,” replied Oberon. “One creates, one destroys. But think beyond that: the plants Ceres helps grow feed the many animals that roam the forest. There are so few predators in the Bountiful Woods that the animals start growing in number until there is no more left to eat. Even when many starve to death, there is still too little.
"To prevent this from happening, Attis sometimes slays an animal or two. It is a cruel thing to do, but the balance has to be maintained. One can’t exist without the other. Nature can’t live without the Hunter, and vice versa. So, you can see there is a reason why these two are married now, Edgar.”
Edgar looked thoughtful as he gazed through the trees and noticed a doe with two fawns grazing below. “Yes. I do think I see now, father.”
Oberon smiled and turned his head to look over the country along with Edgar. The swan was flying north, with a slight arc to the west. Several seconds passed before Oberon spoke again.
“I have heard rumors of a slumbering rock spirit who dwells in the woods,” he said. “I myself have seen a large dragon’s cave.”
Edgar spun around in his seat, nearly rocking the chariot off course in his excitement. “A dragon’s cave? Where does it lead?”
“As far as I could gather, straight down.”
“Oh,” Edgar said, wincing uneasily. “I’ll pass on that.”
No sooner had he spoken than a bright, colorful town appeared under them. Edgar again poked his head over the edge to get as best a view as he could. “What kind of town is that? I’ve never heard of such a…Hey – is that an upside-down tower, or do I still have some sand in my eyes?”
“More than likely, it is,” chuckled Oberon, glancing over the side at a much slighter lean than his son. “Falderal is one of the strangest places for anyone. The only inhabitants are animals, all of them just a little silly, but don’t let them know that.”
Edgar laughed in response to this, still glancing down at the ludicrous-looking town. There were occasional shouts and hollers from various places, either from out of shop windows or around the pool in the town square – though it seemed quite round to Edgar – and every once in a while one of the finely dressed inhabitants would strut across a street or down a boulevard.
Edgar was quite fascinated and very amused – an emotion which rarely found him – and was still leaning over, visually affixed to Falderal, when suddenly, a strange, winged creature shot up from somewhere in the town (it was difficult to judge where). Edgar had only a brief glimpse of it – a strange, golden bird with multicolored wings and a long, also colorful tail – before it skyrocketed upwards and smashed into his face, sending him sprawling into his father’s lap with a loud “Oww!” The bird, apparently as amused as Edgar was before, stopped its rapid ascent and began hovering in midair, laughing in a squawking, very irritating voice.
Edgar was still lying stunned, repeatedly muttering “ow” or other expletives of pain, with one hand over his nose, which the creature had impacted the most. Still seeing stars, Edgar stood up and looked to his right. His father also looked. The strange bird was still there, circling the chariot and hovering in place occasionally, still squawking in an incomprehensible tongue which almost seemed like catcalling to Edgar, and he was certain the bird was mocking him.
“What was that?” he said, his hand still clasped over his nose.
“Probably one of those infernal Flights of Fancy. They’re usually harmless, but sometimes…”
“Wait, wait,” said Edgar, “I meant the bird. What do you mean by flight of fancy?”
“That is what that creature is,” explained Oberon. “That is a Flight of Fancy, a typical denizen of Falderal, beautiful, sociable, but very vain, and…” here he looked at Edgar briefly, “…occasionally mischievous.”
Rolling his eyes and groaning sarcastically, Edgar cautiously drew his hand away from his face and tried to get a good look at his injured olfactory organ. There was no blood, only a large bruise. It still hurt, but Edgar considered himself lucky, considering the circumstances. Turning to the fiendish Flight of Fancy, Edgar reached into his pocket and drew out one of the indigo pebbles he had found in the garden on the main isle of Etheria and slung it at the bird with the accuracy of an arrow.
Though his aim was excellent, the creature ducked and shrieked at Edgar even more, this time it even proceeded to blow him a loud, long-winded raspberry. This made Edgar bristle with anger, and without considering that two wrongs don’t always make a right, he snatched another stone, drew back his arm and threw his missile with such force that he nearly spun in a complete circle. The rock smacked the Flight of Fancy in the chest. The bird squealed in pain and frustration, turned tail and sped off in another direction. It was out of sight within seconds.
Breathing heavily, still looking after the bird’s path, eyes still narrowed with aggression, Edgar slowly sunk back into his seat, crossed his arms and bowed his head, as if in guilt.
“That was quite a show you put on there, Edgar,” chuckled Oberon. “That bird deserved what you gave him, without a doubt. I didn’t know you were such a good thrower.”
“Well, I used to throw pebbles at bats in Lolotte’s castle when I was a boy.”
“Hmmph! I didn’t know you were that mischievous before,” said Oberon.
“And I didn’t know my father was Lord of the Fairies,” said Edgar, looking at his father out of the corner of his eye.
“We both have a lot to learn,” his father smiled. “I’m sure we will have…Oh, we’re already here.”
Edgar suddenly felt a chill flash through his nerves. The air around them had grown cold and stale, the sky was growing darker and the clouds above them were thickening as they continued.
Below the chariot was an eerie land, a sea of large, flat hills dotted with odd, often irregular stone markers. Upon looking closer, Edgar realized they were tombstones. He shuddered and drew away from the side of the swan, towards his father.
“This is the Land of Ooga Booga,” said Oberon, speaking as solemnly as before, only this time with a slight tremor in his voice. “At least, that’s what the people call it. I agree, it is a dark place, but one of our most trusted friends lives here.”
“Here?” Edgar asked through clenched teeth. “In this cemetery? I’ve seen cheerier places in Lolotte’s…”
The sight of a crudely built but stately abode caused him to cut himself off. The old, dilapidated house had an iron-rod fence constructed around it, with an open gate parallel to the front door.
“Is that where he lives?” Edgar asked.
“No, that house belongs to the coroner, Dr. Mort Cadaver. Can’t say I know him too well, but I hear he means well. Count Tsepish’s mansion is…there.”
Following his father’s pointing finger led Edgar’s eyes to a large, towering, white mansion – at least, it must have been white at one time – surrounded by a large stone wall on one side. A large, steel-black stallion stood outside the house, tied to a small, dead tree, fully bridled and saddled, reflecting the lighter tones of the mansion. Though also on the mediocre side, this house was definitely one of the most beautiful in the tenebrous, chilling land.
A young woman, probably seeing them from afar, opened the front door of the house and peered out. After scanning the land, then glancing up and seeing the great swan approaching, she ducked back inside, leaving the door part-way open.
“This…Count Tsepish is your friend, then?” Edgar asked.
“Yes, he is the protector and ruler of Ooga Booga. He has fought many battles, both major and minor. But I still think he is getting a little worked up about that nuisance of a sister-in-law of mine.”
“You mean…” Edgar shuddered as he spoke the word, “Malicia?”
“Yes. I always called her the green-eyed monster. She’s always been not only a jealous type, but overly proud, ambitious, irritable and absolutely nothing like her sister, my Titania…and probably the perfect opposite of you.”
Edgar shrugged and turned his eyes to the ground again, which was growing closer by the moment as the swan began to descend. When they were about five feet from landing, something huge, black and muscular sped out through the open door of the mansion, heading straight towards where the swan was going to settle. Edgar drew in a sharp breath of air in alarm, but relaxed when he saw it was only a large hound dog, barking and dancing in circles, as if to welcome the two visitors. Just as Edgar began to feel concerned about the swan crushing the dog by mistake, a tall, dark-haired, bearded man stepped outside the house, followed by the young woman who first noticed him and Oberon.
“Valiant! Black Valiant, come here!” called the man. The dog pricked up its ears at the sound of its master’s voice and raced to his side, nuzzling the underside of his hand affectionately.
The swan finally landed, and Oberon stepped out. Edgar slid over and got out on the same side, following his father to the front yard of the house, where stood the couple and the black hound.
“My liege,” said the man, bowing low in respect, followed by a small curtsey from the woman behind him. “What brings you to this region of the rigor mortis?”
Oberon placed a hand on Edgar’s shoulder. “I believe the correct term is who brings me here, Vladmir.”
In the space of about five minutes, Oberon had introduced Edgar to Count Vladmir Tsepish, Lord Protector of Ooga Booga; and his beautiful wife, Elspeth, a woman with large brown eyes and long golden hair that fell nearly to her legs. Images of Rosella briefly flashed across Edgar’s memory, and for a moment he didn’t hear what was going on.
“So, Edgar,” Vladmir was saying, “You are a magic worker by birth, yes?”
Edgar blinked his eyes and gathered his thoughts before speaking:
“I suppose I am. I just never knew I was until…well, about six hours ago.”
Vladmir smiled, stroking his goatee contemplatively. “Sometimes when that happens, a fairy’s power can lessen over time or even vanish entirely. But it can be revived under certain circumstances…”
“Oh, strong emotions, feelings never felt previously, love, fear, grief. Or the magic can just snap back without warning. It’s an odd thing.”
But Edgar didn’t hear what Vladmir was saying about magic being odd. What he kept hearing was “love.” How love can revive dormant powers. How feelings never felt before can affect…
Again, Edgar snapped back into his body and looked at Count Tsepish, who was still speaking to him. “You wish to meet my Valiant, Edgar?”
Edgar glanced down and suddenly realized that he had unknowingly been beckoning with his right hand to the large dog sitting beside the Count. Now the dog had arisen, walked over to Edgar and was now sniffing his palm. Unsure how to explain that he didn’t mean to distract the animal, Edgar replied, “Yes, I suppose. He is yours?”
“He has been for some time,” said Count Tsepish as the dog began licking Edgar’s hand gently. “One of the finest fighting dogs I have ever rode with. Black Valiant can kill if he needs to, but he never is short on kindness and affection.”
The dog, Black Valiant, had been licking Edgar’s hand while the Count was speaking, and now the hound proceeded to flip Edgar’s hand over with his muzzle and rub his head against it, indicating that he wanted to be scratched. Cautiously, Edgar scratched Black Valiant’s pate with his fingertips, gradually moving back to the ears and neck. Vladmir Tsepish and Oberon both smiled at the two with equal pride. Edgar finally stopped scratching the dog’s head, and the animal promptly sat back down and looked at his new friend with blue eyes, and seemed to almost grin as he whacked his tail against the ground.
“He likes you, Edgar,” said the Count. “Not many people are greeted as kindly as you were. You agree, Valiant?”
The dog barked and trotted back to his master’s side, nosing his way under Vladmir’s arm. While this was happening, Edgar had been slowly scanning the house and the yard, when he suddenly noticed the black horse. Up close, he was much more muscular and solemn than from the air. A well-worn leather bridle was around the horse’s head, the reins fastened to the old tree Edgar had also seen from the air. An ornate saddle with crimson pads underneath graced the animal’s high back. The stirrups seemed about Edgar’s length…he had seen horses before in Lolotte’s stables, but never like this…
“Say, your highness…Edgar, son, you shouldn’t stray so close to Necromancer! He does not…”
Again, the sounds of the world faded out as Edgar glanced down and suddenly realized that his feet had been moving him slowly towards the head of the dark stallion, again without his knowledge. One part of his mind knew that he shouldn’t be approaching this strange horse, a horse that didn’t even know him and was probably even magical. But the raw instincts of the lower levels of his mind were blocking off Vladmir’s shouted warnings, even when Elspeth made a grab for his arm, he instantly shook her off, at least, that part of his body did.
Now he was only two steps from the stallion’s broad head. The muzzle was like dark velvet, as was the rest of his face. The eyes like polished obsidian, the graceful sweep of the ears and the course yet beautiful glistening hairs of the horse’s mane. There didn’t seem to be anything threatening about this creature. Impossible.
Edgar slowly lifted his right hand before the horse’s face. One of the animal’s ears turned back and he snorted quietly, giving Edgar the impression that he was apprehensive about this person before him.
“No, Edgar! You mustn’t…”
Before the words of Count Tsepish had ceased, Edgar had moved his hand forward, so smoothly and slowly it appeared as if he were pushing something invisible through the air. The stallion snorted again and stamped one hoof in the dirt at his feet. Edgar paid no attention to the motions and several milliseconds later, his hand was touching the muzzle of the Count’s black steed.
For an instant, time seemed to stop, and Edgar could feel the blood suspended in his veins.
Far above the Realm of Eldritch, inside one of the many chambers within the living, growing castle on the main isle, Queen Titania was making preparations for her son’s welcoming celebration. Pouring a minute amount of the amber liquid into each of the carved jade goblets from a silver jug, she placed each of them upon a white tray and carried it down a short hallway. There were several windows which looked out upon the many lower stories of the palace as well as the widespread, well-tended gardens and fields, with the lavender skies and distant floating isles of Etheria in the distance.
Delicate vines crept over the windowsills and into the castle from the outside walls. Noticing a delicate blue flower with a flaming violet center, Titania plucked it gently from one of the vines and placed it on the tray along with the nectar-filled goblets, and smiled with satisfaction. She walked on down the hall until it opened into another room, with marble floors lined with gold and a high, domed ceiling with carved rose vines climbing up to its apex. Tall windows let in the midday sunlight and made the gold upon the floors glitter like water.
Against one of the rounded walls was a painted, rose-colored, round wooden table. Titania walked across the room to it and gently placed the tray in the center. Then she reached into a deep fold of her robe and extracted a fine, silk web similar to a spider’s, but stronger and different in several ways. Reaching out with her free hand, Titania formed a small arch from the edge of the table, over the goblets of nectar, then stopping at the adjacent wall. As she moved her hand, she spoke several words in the ancient fairy language, words that were magical, no matter what context they were used in. The air shimmered and a transparent half-dome appeared. It surrounded the drink-laden tray from the round edges of the table to the white wall beside it.
Satisfied with her work, Titania spoke another word and the hemisphere vanished. She reached out and lifted one of the goblets, to see if the hemisphere was truly gone. Placing the goblet back, she then lifted the delicate, web-like sheet over the region where the shield around the drinks was previously. Even though there was nothing there, the woven material lay suspended in the air, and as Titania let it fall from her hands, the webbing remained in a position exactly like it would be if it were resting upon the hemisphere – except it had vanished. It was invisible, yet permeable to anyone, human, fairy or otherwise. The cloth Titania had placed over it was magic as well, for although anyone could see through it, no insect, windblown leaf or mischievous dragonette could accidentally take a dunking in the precious nectar. It was a practical use of magic, and consequently, very safe. The young queen stepped back and admired her work.
“Titania, dear,” said a low yet almost raspy female voice Titania did not immediately recognize. Glancing back over her shoulder, she glimpsed a tall figure clothed in magenta and black robes. She turned around to face the person, whom she was surprised she did not recognize at first.
It was her sister. Wearing those dark dresses and capes she had always loved, even when they were children; pale, death-like skin which she always kept under layers of powder, as if she feared people seeing her true color; that long, black hair she always kept ridiculously high on her head, except in the mornings and evenings (and Titania hadn’t slept in the same room as her for ages), when it fell to her waist, maybe longer…and her eyes. Those snake-like, pale green eyes. The way they flashed at a person from between the heavy applications of mascara and eye-shadow could jounce a heart into beating nearly twice as fast.
But Titania was used to looking into her eyes, though she hadn’t seen her sister face to face for weeks now. She kept to herself, as if she were scheming or negotiating with other sides…Titania pushed these thoughts out of her mind. She could not accuse her sister of anything like that. Even with the “disturbances” (as Oberon called them) that kept occurring…
“Malicia, I wasn’t expecting you,” said Titania, realizing that the reason why was because there was another door on the opposite side from the one she entered through. Still, it was a slight surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting you would expect me,” answered Malicia, smiling with thin, blood-hued lips and stepping closer to Titania. “Sister, I need to discuss something of great importance with you.”
“Does it concern only you, or the whole kingdom?”
Malicia almost blurted out “both,” but she kept her mouth sealed. She couldn’t let it slip out that easily. “It primarily concerns me, Titania. No, mostly, I would think.”
“I see. What is it, though?”
“Sister…you remember that container of magic powder you got so many centuries ago?”
“And the way you cast it about the walls and towers of the castle and helped it stay stable and mighty throughout all these years?”
“You even used some of the stuff on the fleet of flying swan chariots that old Royal Carpenter of ours designed and built?”
“But I am aware that even after so much usage, there was still a small smidgen of the powder left. Is this true?”
“Yes. I have it locked away in one of the cabinets in the lower laboratories. But there’s so little left that it’s hardly worth keeping. I doubt what’s left could cover the back of one swan chariot…”
As Titania continued, Malicia smiled secretly to herself. Everything was going along smoothly. She was playing the innocent sister, and her all-trustworthy sibling was slowly revealing everything she needed. Keep acting as if this is new to you…look interested…
“…and I don’t know why anyone would want it, either. A gnome would find it inadequate in volume. Even if…”
“But there is still a measurable amount left?”
“Yes, but, as I said, not much.”
“Even if you say there isn’t enough left to do anything with, I still think I could make good use of that powder, Titania.”
“What do you mean? What would you do?” A nervous twitch of nerves interrupted Malicia’s self-assured thoughts. Her sister was trying to get deeper, to uncover what she was plotting. She had to keep her from getting too far in…
“I’m not quite certain yet, but I still believe…”
“Malicia, if you’re not sure what to do with it, why do you want it so much?”
Malicia began to grow uneasy as she replied: “Sometimes I figure out what to do with useful items if they are in my possession. What would you do with a group of inactive young dancers unless you found a fairy ring?”
“True, but still, you are my sister, and we can still share secrets with each other, can’t we?”
Titania’s naïve innocence seemed to be Malicia’s way out of the conversation. “Children do grow older, Titania. I’ve had a hard time these past few months. Everyone seems to distrust me. Sometimes, I think, even you – just a little. So I find it extremely – difficult to trust someone now. Very difficult.”
Malicia’s sister seemed softened by the short statement. “Oh, I am sorry, Malicia, dear. I never realized that you were so…”
“It’s quite all right, sister. I just have trouble being open to people these days. You understand…”
“Yes. I think I do. All right, I’ll go fetch the magic powder you want. Just wait here.”
“No, I believe I’ll come with you.” Titania frowned briefly, then shrugged slightly, in a ladylike manner.
She turned and led Malicia through the door opposite to the one she had entered through, walking briskly, her robes trailing behind her. Before she had gotten three feet beyond the threshold, she turned to her sister and asked:
“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me? I won’t say anything, I promise.”
Malicia looked at the floor with a forlorn, pouting expression. “I’m sure.”
After a short pause, Titania turned and continued walking down the corridor, her destination the top of the main staircase, which was a major junction point for the castle. From there, they could find the quickest shortcut to the laboratories.
Titania never looked behind her, but she probably should have, because if she did, she would have seen her dark-robed sister wearing a sinister, triumphant grin, silently laughing evilly to herself, her eyes narrow slits with pinpricks of green gleaming like a snake’s just before it strikes.
Everyone standing near Edgar was shocked, amazed, terrified, or perhaps all three at once. Here he stood, the long-lost, eighteen-year-old son of Oberon and Titania, once false son and slave to the wicked fairy Lolotte, shy and good-mannered as well as having a good appearance, not seeming to have any knowledge of the magic his parents and people delved in nearly every day of their long lives, standing with his hand pressed against the broad muzzle of the wildest, fiercest stallion to ever tread upon Eldritch soil, Count Tsepish’s black, ghostly horse, Necromancer.
Edgar’s mind was finally starting to reconnect to the rest of his body. He was ready to pull away and throw his arms up to defend himself from the fierce, unearthly creature, but the horse seemed gentle now that he was touching him. Edgar very gently stroked the front of Necromancer’s head, and the tall stallion blinked his eyes slowly, the lids drooping. The horse’s ears turned forward and he delicately smelled the strange hand that was touching him.
Edgar then moved his hand back along the side of the animal’s face to stroke the silky black mane and muscular, arching neck. Necromancer showed no resistance or resentment as this new person petted him. He only followed Edgar with one of his large, round eyes, turning his head as the boy moved further down his body.
Finally, a voice broke through the deathly silence:
“This is truly amazing,” said the Count in a low voice. “Necromancer has gravely injured or even killed individuals who dared to get within a yard of his face. You are not only very brave, but I think you still have some of the raw magic flowing inside you.”
Edgar slowly turned away from the dark horse, his hand still on the broad neck. “Really? I didn’t think I had anything.”
“The power of mind control – the power to tame and subdue wild beasts. Few fairies are fortunate to have such an ability, let alone one as strong as you seem to possess. But the way you do this is different. Magically subdued animals are usually cloudy-eyed and stiff as stones, as if they were in a trance. But look at the way Necromancer acts. He is still alert, yet doesn’t attack you, even though you are a stranger to him. He not only allowed himself to be tamed by you, but I think he also likes you.”
The right corner of Edgar’s mouth turned up, and he shrugged modestly.
“You are more than I thought, highness,” Count Tsepish continued. “I am sorry I so foolishly doubted you when I first saw you. I truly am.”
Oberon arched his bushy, blond eyebrows, then narrowed his eyes at this brief speech. “Vladmir! What do you mean, you doubted my boy? First you doubt he will show up after eighteen years, now when he shows up, you doubt him again!” He roared with laughter, and the Count eventually had to join him, with the realization that he was only jesting. Oberon gave his friend a heavy pat on the back and smiled at him.
“I knew he would be a good boy,” he continued. “I knew it from the day I saw him in the cradle. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier, Vladmir.”
The three people stood in silence for a few more minutes as Edgar continued stroking Necromancer’s neck and shoulders. His glance fell upon the beautiful leather saddle, and rested there as his stroking continued for a few more minutes until it eventually slowed down, then stopped, his hand still on the horse’s skin. It was such an amazing work of art, like nothing he had ever seen before. It was some time before he stopped admiring the fine stitching and vivid colors of the saddle and began contemplating the actual purpose of the device.
“You want to try to mount him?” came Count Tsepish’s voice from behind him, as if he could read Edgar’s thoughts. Edgar turned his head and gave a slight nod. Vladmir Tsepish walked over to his horse’s side, his cape floating behind him. Necromancer pricked up his ears and nuzzled his master under the arm.
“You have done this before?” asked the Count.
“No – but I’ve seen it done many times before in books and in Lolotte’s stables. I think I can do it.”
“It isn’t as easy as it appears. I will hold the horn in place for you.” Count Tsepish clutched the base of the saddle horn with his left hand as Edgar prepared to put his foot in the stirrup.
“It’s the…left foot, correct?”
“Yes. It seems awkward, but that’s just the way it is.” Edgar lifted his left leg and hopped unsteadily on his right for a few moments until he got the toe of his boot firmly wedged in the metal semicircle.
“Just grasp the horn and swing your right leg over,” said the Count. “Don’t worry if you don’t make it. Just try again.”
After testing the stability of the saddle, Edgar attempted to do as he was instructed, but his maneuver proved to be much harder than it appeared before in books. After briefly planning his move again, he pressed his left foot firmly into the stirrup and swung his right leg over, landing directly in the center of the leather saddle.
The height was greater than he’d imagined. He could see so much from here, the gravestones, the coroner’s house, a distant tangle of dead bushes and trees…then again, he couldn’t see that much…not that much interesting stuff…but still, look where he was! Sitting astride Vladmir Tsepish’s black stallion! And to think that touching the horse was amazing enough! Hah! Edgar was ready to give the steed a kick with his heels and go riding across Eldritch, through the Bountiful Woods, across the endless desert, riding the great, wild horse as if he were riding a dragon through Etheria, through the cloud-layered islands, dodging in and out, across the mists…
Suddenly, something pulled Edgar out of his daydream. This horse was something else. True, he was wild and fierce, and strong as a centaur, but still there was something else that made him feel different as he sat in the saddle. The stallion’s body felt light under him. On the ground, Necromancer felt muscular and thick, indicating that he should be a very heavy animal, but he wasn’t.
Edgar felt like he was mounted on something with invisible wings, with a span even wider than that of the swan chariot, which was grounded a few yards from him. He trembled at the thought and realized that although he had befriended and mounted the great horse, he was not ready to ride him. Not yet. The look in the Count’s eyes seemed to speak the same message.
“He is not quite fit to be ridden,” Count Tsepish said. “I just thought that you would like to feel what it is like to sit on such a steed. I sometimes question if he is truly mine, or that I am truly his. But you will know when he is ready to be ridden, Edgar. I always do.”
Edgar nodded and lifted his right leg out of its stirrup, swinging off the saddle and landing on Necromancer’s left side. Oberon, who had been watching his son with absolute astonishment all this time, suddenly glanced at his shadow, then back at Edgar and exclaimed:
“Goodness, son, it’s almost two hours past midday! We’d better be off before your mother grows concerned!”
Edgar turned his head to his father and remembered what they had both promised Titania. “Oh yes. I see. Well…thank you for your great kindness and hospitality, Count Tsepish,” he said, bowing before the tall man now clutching the stallion’s reins.
“It is I who should be thanking you,” replied the Count. “I have never seen such a remarkable young person as you. You will surely bring honor to your family, Edgar.”
At this point, Elspeth, who had said little during their conversation, stepped forward and clasped Edgar’s hands in hers. “I have this much to say to you, Prince Edgar: even without your incredible abilities, you are still a good person underneath. If we ever have a son, I pray it will be like you.”
Edgar smiled modestly as Elspeth walked back to her husband’s side. As Oberon turned to leave and Edgar started to, the black dog that Edgar had petted earlier during the visit bounded forward and nuzzled Edgar’s side affectionately. Surprised, Edgar stopped briefly to give the hound a final scratch behind the ears before starting after his father.
“I told you Valiant liked you,” called Count Tsepish. “Good-bye, majesties! And be careful not to step in any open graves! You never know what’s down there!”
Edgar made a small noise of disgust and squeamishly continued walking towards the swan chariot. To the right of the great mansion was an open field of graves and eroded tombstones that continued southward, disappearing into the darkness. Edgar could just make out what looked like a large forest looming out of the gloom.
“What’s that?” he asked quietly, pointing at the distant trees.
“Oh, that’s the swamp which connects Ooga Booga to the forest between it and the Bountiful Woods. It is called the Wood of the Were-folk. A very unnerving place, and the swamp isn’t that much better. Very few pass through that region.”
As he spoke, Edgar’s gaze was traveling back to the field of graves. He had seen something before that seemed peculiar. Now he saw it again: a high, domed structure looming over a large, dark hole in the earth. As he looked closer, he could see a pair of chains hanging from the underside of the dome.
“And that? What’s that over there?”
“Oh, yes. I intended on telling you about that earlier. That’s the elevator which descends into the Vulcanix Underground. A very strange place, possibly the strangest in Eldritch.”
“Did you say ‘Vulcanix?’ That doesn’t infer that this underground is…well…volcanic?”
“Regrettably yes. There is a huge volcano several miles from here, but it has been extinct for eons. Not only that, but the dwellers of Vulcanix also help to maintain the volcano.”
“Who are these ‘dwellers,’ father?”
“Trolls! Really, father?”
“Yes, really. As I said, Eldritch is different from the mortal world. There are many people and creatures here that don’t exist in the other world. But I still understand this is your first day here, Edgar.”
“Are we going to visit Vulcanix, father?”
“Not today, son. The trolls are usually undisturbed by creatures from outside their world, human or fairy. Someday, perhaps. I’m sure that their leader, King Otar, has heard of your coming. Word travels quickly in this land.”
Edgar was still staring at the gaping hole with great curiosity and uneasiness. There could be so much to see down there, and yet, perhaps so much danger…after being a slave to an evil entity for so many years, he decided it would be best not to risk his skin. At least not this time.
Suddenly Edgar became aware that his skin was prickling with some sense of fear. He felt he was being watched. Slowly turning his head until he could see over his shoulder revealed nothing at first, nothing but a small clearing fringed with a high stubble of scratchy briars and long dead trees.
Then he saw the eyes. They were peering out at him from within the tangle of branches. They weren’t a sickly green color like the eyes he had glimpsed in the courtyard of Etheria, in fact, these eyes were very different, indeed. They were small, round and yellow. The pupils were small black slits that were fixed upon Edgar not with an expression of evil, but rather an interested, almost curious expression. Even though the eyes were clearly animal, they seemed almost human…
“Edgar! Come on, your mother won’t like us late!”
Turning his head, Edgar nodded and continued walking toward the chariot. Then a thought resurfaced in his mind. “Uh…father?”
“I think Count Tsepish said that a fairy’s powers can be dormant for a time, but eventually be revived. Besides strong emotions, are there other ways to revive magic powers?”
“Why yes – an individual can be trained to focus his powers or even teach himself his own way. There are several methods.”
“Well…do you think you could teach me to use magic?”
Oberon looked surprised. “Already? On your first day here? You should enjoy yourself, Edgar. There’s no reason to begin such a complex…”
“I didn’t mean the whole entire thing,” explained Edgar. “I meant…perhaps you could show me just some minor tricks…what I did with Necromancer I did without knowing. I’d like to learn to be in control of my powers.”
Smiling, Oberon patted his boy on the shoulder. “I’m sure a few simple exercises wouldn’t be too much for you. If you want to learn, son, I will teach you. When we get home I’ll start to – as the humans say – ‘Show you the ropes.’”
Oberon then climbed into the swan. Smiling with excitement, Edgar followed, and the great bird rose off the ground and soared up and away from the dreary, dismal land of Ooga Booga. Count Tsepish and his wife waved after them, and shortly after the swan had vanished, the two people and the large black dog went back into the large mansion, closing the door behind them. The dark stallion stayed outside, nibbling the dry grass at his feet.
The black cat emerged from her hiding place in the brush, peered up at the sky for a moment, then blinked her small, yellow eyes and began to walk down the path that led to the south border of the land.
The garden Edgar and Oberon had left only a few hours ago was one entirely different from what met their eyes now. The field from which the swan had taken off was congested with fairies and other creatures, dancing, talking and drinking from goblets filled with sweet nectar. The air was buzzing with dragonettes and occasional birds and there was absolutely no way Edgar could see to land the swan.
“I think we have a problem here,” he muttered.
“I would think so. Those revelers aren’t going to get out of our way that quickly either. I believe there is an alternative to landing and getting out of this chariot than on the ground.”
“Ah…what do you mean by that?”
“I’ll show you.”
The swan drifted closer to the island, above the trees and bushes that framed the small meadow. Then it slowly began to descend.
“Hey!” cried Edgar. “I thought you said we couldn’t land there!”
“We aren’t going to land.”
“Then how…” Edgar stopped talking and decided to just figure the mystery out on his own. As the swan sank lower and lower, several of the fairies noticed it and darted out of the way or stepped aside. Still, when the swan stopped descending at about ten feet above the ground, there was a patch of land only five feet across.
Edgar was trying to figure out what was happening when his father suddenly stood up in his seat, walked to the right side of the chariot, and leapt over the side.
“NO!” Edgar screamed. He nearly choked on his own voice at the same time, because instead of falling, his father was drifting – falling so slowly that his robes were hardly stirred. He landed lightly on the grass below, then turned around and looked up at the chariot, beckoning to Edgar.
“It’s all right!” he called. “It’s so basic, it’s nearly instinctual! Just try to visualize yourself falling so slowly that you can hardly feel any movement! It’s all right! I can stop you from falling if you do!”
Edgar was shaking with fear as he approached the right side of the chariot and looked over the side at his father and several other fairies that were watching him. His feet felt frozen to the floor.
“Don’t worry! Strong emotions induce magic precipitations, Edgar! Remember? Just step over the side! I promise, you won’t fall!”
Unable to ignore the desire to prove himself to his mighty father, but still rigid with anxiety, Edgar slowly put one foot up on the edge of the chariot, then, with a move very similar to the one he had mounted Necromancer with, he swung his leg over the side, and both his feet were touching nothing. Nothing but air. His heart was pounding against his ribs, his breath had nearly stopped…
…And he was floating. Floating gently down, towards the ground where his father awaited. His body felt weightless and free, it was a feeling he had never felt before, like so many of the other feelings he had felt during this day. But this was made by magic. His magic. His powers had not been drained. He was just like the rest of the fairies here, with fire in his body and potentials to do things that would amaze a mortal. He was above humans, above…
Then he remembered the one human whom he still could not forget. The golden-haired girl who came to Tamir from another place. The one who had practically restored him to his true form…Edgar’s heart filled with shame. Where does a fairy who loves a human belong? How can he be a normal person?
Then his feet touched solid ground, and the heaviness returned to his limbs. His father was congratulating him on successfully making a dismount from the air, then turning and commanding the swan to go back to where it came from. Then he asked the large group of fairies to relocate to another location so that he and Edgar could be in the field alone. Slowly the mob filtered out, leaving Oberon and his son together. Edgar looked out across the field and saw the beautiful fountain with the climbing vines, filled with pale red roses. His spirit ached with the memory of Rosella, and he silently prayed that he would see her again. Someday.
Oberon called his son to his side.
“Edgar,” he said, “This is an ideal place to practice. There is no one else here who could be at risk, should you make a mistake.”
“Ah…what would a ‘mistake’ be described as, father?”
“Well…” said Oberon, stroking his beard, “I would guess the most common one would be…”
“Forgetting to let the student’s mother watch him?” asked a voice from behind them. The two men turned around and saw Titania standing at the end of the garden path, leaning against a tree.
“Titania, dear…I’m sorry. I thought you were busy preparing for Edgar’s celebration…”
“I was – until the other fairies told me you were back. I was going to welcome you back until I overheard you two talking about practicing magic.”
“Yes. I was going to teach Edgar some basic skills in this meadow. It’s safe enough, no?”
“All right, Oberon. But no turning trees into stone or anything like that.”
Oberon smiled at his wife. “Never in my life, Titania.” Then he suddenly noticed the lines of worry in her face.
“Titania – dear, what’s wrong?”
Titania sighed and replied, “It’s just Malicia. She’s been becoming more withdrawn every day. I took her to get something from the laboratories and when I reached the top of the stairs, she had vanished. I think she’s mastered magical teleportation.”
“Well, this does sound a little ominous – but let’s not talk about it right now, Titania. I promised to teach Edgar some basic magic, and we’d best get started.”
“Later, then, Oberon? Please talk with me about it soon.”
“I will. After Edgar and I finish practicing.”
He turned back to Edgar and gestured for him to walk to the periphery of the island, where the border of purple rocks lay.
“You see, son, one of the most basic abilities of magic users is that which enables the individual to levitate small objects. It generally requires little practice and is easy to master.” Kneeling down, Oberon placed the palm of his right hand over one of the rocks. Edgar also knelt and carefully observed what his father was doing.
“It is not all that different from the magical force which allowed you to float down from the chariot. You just need to visualize the rock being light enough to float. This takes time, as you may guess. More experienced workers of this magic can levitate objects from great distances using only their thoughts, but for beginners, direct touch is much better.”
In the silence that followed, Edgar watched his father intently, observing his brow furrowed in deep concentration, eyes locked on the stone which his hand still rested on. Several moments passed, and the quiet was so thick Edgar could almost hear his father’s heartbeat.
Then Oberon raised his hand, so slowly it barely seemed to move – and the rock rose beneath it. Withdrawing his hand, Oberon silently kept his eyes fixed on the suspended stone as he spoke to Edgar, who was watching the stone as if it was an eye of a dragon.
“Once you feel the lightness come, you have to lift it from its heavy moorings. It will follow your hand until you stop raising it. Now you can control the stone this way.”
Oberon extended his hand towards the stone, which gave a sudden jerk and raised itself to the same level his hand was at. He moved his hand to the right, and the stone moved to the right. He moved it left, and again, the stone followed. He moved his hand backwards and the stone floated towards him. Oberon then stopped the movement of his hand, and the stone did the same.
“You see how simple it is?” he asked Edgar. “Well, like many things, it isn’t as easy as it looks, but it isn’t that hard either. It just goes wherever you want it too. And when you want it to return to the earth, simply touch the ground with your hand and it will become heavy once more.
“Well…are you ready to try it?”
Edgar was silent as his father lowered the stone and set it back among its brothers.
“You can do it, Edgar,” Oberon said. “Here, try this one. It’s small, but well formed. Try to raise it. I know you can do it.”
“Come on, Edgar,” called Titania from behind them. “I truly want to see you try, at the very least!”
“She’s right, Edgar,” said Oberon. “At least try, son.”
Edgar looked at the stone his father was pointing at apprehensively. He knew this predicament was his own fault; it was he who had requested to learn the basic skills. Would he have to go through all this nervousness and anxiety with every lesson, though?
It’s just raising a rock into the air, he told himself. No big deal. Just a simple, magic…oh boy…
Reluctantly, Edgar placed his palm on the stone and fixed his eyes on the purple textured surface. He tried to visualize the stone feather-light and hovering in midair like his father’s. At first, he felt nothing, but then, a sensation of warmth and light reached his fingers. It felt as if his energy and thoughts were flowing from him to the stone. Edgar felt almost as if he had become part of the rock. His thoughts felt different, almost uncomfortable.
He was seized with an instinct to let go and throw them back out, but he realized this was probably just one of the challenges magic working posed. He still held his trembling hand over the stone, the feeling in his hand becoming stronger and hotter, until it had reached a peak so hot he felt like collapsing, but then suddenly, the sensation vanished. His hand felt normal -- or more normal than it was – but the stone beneath his fingers definitely did not feel normal.
It did not feel normal because it was pushing against the underside of Edgar’s hand. Slowly he lifted his hand, and the rock, as if were attached to it by a thread, followed. He stopped raising his arm, and the rock also stopped, suspended beneath. He moved his arm back and the rock remained airborne. It was floating. He had done it.
“Edgar, you did it!” cried his mother, clapping her hands.
“Don’t let it fall,” warned his father, as the rock started to wobble. Edgar turned his attention back to it, and the wobbling ceased.
“Now try moving it,” said his father. “You’ve done very well so far. I’m proud of you.”
Edgar experimented with moving the rock left and right, backwards and forwards, and even in wide circles. He tried moving his hand faster, and the rock still kept aligned with it, except it covered several more inches before coming to a complete stop.
Feeling the he had mastered the movement basics while sitting down, Edgar decided to try controlling the rock standing up. He carefully rose to his feet, holding his arm straight out in front of him. The rock still stayed afloat. Oberon rose to his feet and stood back to give his son more room to experiment.
With slow, graceful, sweeping movements, Edgar propelled the violet-colored stone through the air, moving it in wide, gentle arcs, zigzagging turns and even figure eights. All the time, even though he was playing, Edgar quietly reminded himself that he was lucky. He was lucky to still have the magic he was born with, lucky that he could learn to use it so quickly. But still he had to be careful. Magic could be very strong, and potentially dangerous. Anything could happen.
Then it happened. As he was halfway through another horizontal sweep, a rogue dragonette swooped so close to his face that it nearly grazed his eyelashes. Edgar sprang back in surprise and at the same time, swung his right arm sharply to the left in an attempt to drive the creature away.
Then it dawned on him that the rock he was controlling was out of control. He spun around in the direction where his arm had swung. What he saw almost made his heart stop. The stone, which before seemed so small and harmless, was now hurtling like a cannonball towards the very thing he prayed wouldn’t be in the rock’s way.
The fountain. The fountain with the pool of roses. The only physical thing that reminded him of Rosella. It was going to be destroyed. As Edgar watched this imminent catastrophe, time seemed to slow down to crawl, just as it had when he first met his parents and they were telling him how he was the Prince of Etheria. He also seemed part of this stretched phase of time; his feet reacted sluggishly as he tried to move them.
The rock was slowly spinning over and over as it careened through the air, only a few yards away from the fountain. Not even aware of what he was doing, Edgar flung out his right arm, his hand pointing at the rock as if to call it back. All this happened so slowly it seemed like a dream. The stone kept on going, but then…
There was no explosion. No flash of light or boom of thunder. Not even a tremor in the ground…but the rock had vanished. It seemed to have disappeared into a puff of smoke, leaving no trace that could be seen. Finally, time started to get back up to speed. Breathing slowly and heavily, Edgar heard his father’s voice cutting through the silence:
“That was truly remarkable, Edgar. That was a disintegration spell that came to you, I believe. Your raw instincts seem very strong within you, son. That is a trait that not many fairies possess.”
Still standing with his arm outstretched, Edgar lowered his hand, turned, and walked over to his father.
“You mean that happened spontaneously? It wasn’t part of the spell that made the stone levitate?”
“No, it wasn’t part of the levitation spell. It was a different spell entirely. As I told you before, when strong enough emotions enter the mind, magic can be worked instantaneously. It is never as reliable as magic learned through practice and patience, but it can do many things.”
“That spell could have been very dangerous, too, Edgar. It could have blown out a side of another island, or even backfired and come back at us. That was a rash move on your part, son.”
Edgar humbly looked at his father, his face resembling a guilty dog’s, and it even appeared that if his ears were capable of flattening against his head, they would be that way now.
“But you didn’t do any of those things. It was a mistake, and you can’t blame those dragonettes for being mischievous. You did well, Edgar, and I congratulate you on that.”
“Thank you, father.”
“And there are many other basic spells which can do amazing things without the caster even knowing it.”
“Well, there is another spell induced by strong emotions that can make a person disappear from one location and reappear in another.”
“You mean teleportation?”
“Yes, Edgar,” replied Oberon.
“But just where will the person reappear?”
“It depends. If the individual’s mind is focused enough, he can envision a place he’s been before, a place he would much rather be. But if the mind is too snared in raging emotions to focus, the thought of anywhere but the current location of the person is enough to trigger the spell.”
“That sounds like a risky venture,” muttered Edgar.
“True, but some people can get themselves in such scrapes…especially humans.”
“They can’t do these spontaneous ‘emotional spells,’ can they, father?”
“With practice, yes. But to fairies it comes naturally, and it can be done irregardless of the individual’s awareness of it or not. Some people will do anything to get to a place other than the one they are in.”
“I don’t think I’d ever want to leave here,” Edgar remarked.
He looked over his shoulder at the fountain. It was unscathed and unaffected by the disintegration spell he had inadvertently cast, still flawless and as beautiful as ever. Edgar felt relieved that it still stood, as the memory of Rosella remained in his mind. He turned back to his father and smiled.
“I think we should be heading back to the courtyard, Edgar,” said Titania. “Elfreda has been working as hard as she can to make this celebration perfect, but she still needs some advice from you. And you should be present at this great solemnization, son. It is in your honor, after all.”
Turning her back to them, she began to casually amble her way along the long path which led back to the castle courtyard. Oberon continued on after her, with Edgar trailing behind.
The dark-haired woman ran her pale, translucent fingers over the grotesque stone figure. It wasn’t all that menacing, but it definitely gave the observer no feeling of joy whatsoever. It was hard to tell what beast the carver of the creature had been inspired by. The statue was a combination of features from many different animals.
The deeply lined face was almost human, except for the bull-like horns protruding from its bald skull, the slit eyes of a serpent and the large tusks which jutted from its thick-lipped maw.
Its body was like a demon of the Underworld, spindly yet muscular, posing in an alert sitting position. The four, clawed fingers on each of its hands were interlocked around its knobby knees. Sticking out of its sharp shoulder blades were two webbed, sinewy wings, so sickening in appearance that a bat’s looked beautiful in comparison. The protrusions also had clawed “thumbs” at the wings’ apexes, contemplating the rest of the creature’s ghoulish appearance.
The woman pushed her long, black hair away from her pale face and gazed at the demonic stone statue with an almost motherly smile. She had envisioned its form for months now, and finally she had channeled her thoughts into a physical object. Through all the days it had squatted silently in this cavernous room beneath the Castle of Etheria, she had never forgotten to dare the perilous, winding stairs that spun down into the dark chamber to visit her own creation, to admire it, pick spiders out of its ears and peel stray cobwebs off its wings.
For many days, it had remained stone, inanimate and frozen, despite the visions she had of its potential powers. And now she possessed what she needed to awaken the beast. She held it in her left hand, within the leather pouch her sister had so foolishly shown and given to her, out of one of the dustiest, most rotten cabinet in the least used laboratory of the castle.
The woman smirked in delight. How clever she had been to wait until her sister was nearly to the top of the stairs, then vanish with her prize clutched in her fist! And reappeared here, right where she could begin. Her reign in the shadows of others would soon be over.
But first things first…she needed allies…others that would help her take revenge those who had scorned her and admonished her. And now she had allies – they were waiting, unseen on the outer isles and in the densest of the clouds. Unless…
”Yes, O high and mighty wingless fairy of Etheria…”
“Do not call me that! I warned you, Celadon…”
The verdant, scaly imp-like creature sticking its large-eared head out of a large crevice in the adjacent wall nodded vigorously, its ears flapping like large leaves.
“Many times, yes.”
“Listen, you little ividjur: are the Creatures of the Underground in their positions on the periphery?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“The flying ones in the cloud banks?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“They will be able to attack the main island several seconds after I give the signal?”
“Oh yes, swifter than bats they are! They will be on the main island as quickly as…”
“Never mind! Just tell them to ready themselves for this evening. Much will be going on tonight, Celadon.”
“Yes, Lady Malicia, ma’am.”
The creature pulled its head back into the narrow crevice and vanished. Malicia examined the beautiful, stone beast composed of her own thoughts once again. It seemed to remind her of the stone demons placed on the rooftops of castles, guarding their domains from evil spirits. Gargoyles, they were called. And this creation of hers looked very much like one.
Smiling slightly, Malicia reached into the leather pouch she held in her left hand and withdrew some of the glistening, fine white grains from within it. Carefully moving her hand over the inanimate statue, she tilted her palm ever so slightly, allowing several thimblefuls of the grains to rain down on the statue’s stone skin. The granules exploded into minute puffs of powder when they hit, briefly enshrouding the figure in a cloud of dust. Then the cloud cleared, leaving the gargoyle looking no different than before.
Then, a small pebble fell from the creature’s ear, as if it had moved on its own. Then there came a grinding of stone on stone, making the earth vibrate beneath Malicia’s feet. She closely examined the beast and was nearly ecstatic with delight to see the thin inner eyelid of the creature’s left eye move across its blank, stone cornea and retract. Then the outer eyelid closed and reopened, staring into Malicia’s own eyes.
“Well, my little pet,” crooned Malicia, “You’ve awakened at last. Perhaps you would like more life to come to you? You will need a lot of strength, for tonight is going to be a big one…”
Edgar leaned against the parapet of the highest tower, looking out across Etheria, now golden in the late afternoon sun. He felt a little drained from all the magic he had experienced that day, and even more drained when he realized the day wasn’t yet over. A precession of footsteps made him turn his head.
A young woman, nearly as tall as he was, stood under the archway. Her skin was a delicate green and her hair was black as a moon-less night. She had large eyes and small, tapering fingers and hands. She wore a white silk robe, Grecian in appearance, and a light silk scarf was draped over her pointed shoulders. It was Titania. Queen of the Fairies. Wife of Oberon. Edgar’s mother.
“Edgar, son! You haven’t changed your clothes yet!”
“This is your celebration, but that doesn’t mean you should dress like a human! Elfreda and several other fairy seamstresses have made many lovely robes and cloaks for you, and are open to your own ideas.”
Edgar glanced down at his outfit. He had a beige cape fastened around his neck with a gold buckle, a peach-colored tunic with matching boots, and a pair of beige pants to match his cape. It was what people of Tamir, royal or otherwise wore. That was what Genesta had told him.
He looked up at his mother again. The clothes she wore made her look like a Greek goddess. It was the same for his father. Edgar didn’t think of himself as a god. He was still attached to the human world, and to one person in particular, who probably wouldn’t want to see him wearing a toga.
“I’m sorry, mother. I don’t think I’m ready to move into this new style yet. These clothes I have on I grew up with – well, not really, just this style – and I’m still trying to adjust to this new life I suddenly have to live. So if you don’t find it too embarrassing, I’m going to wear what I have on now during the festivities.”
Titania looked ready to say something, but she pressed her lips together and remained silent, her eyes looking behind Edgar, into the distant skies.
“All right, Edgar. I think I understand. Just make sure to clean your face before coming down to the ballroom.”
“Yes, mother. Thanks.”
Smiling at him one last time, Titania turned and walked down the hallway, her robe flowing behind her. Edgar gazed after her for a while, leaning casually against the side of the tall archway. A small swarm of dragonettes appeared, hovering before him, singing their strange, yet soothing melodies. Just as Edgar was breathing in the sweet song, the tiny creatures scattered at the sound of a loud racket coming from down the hall. A small, wild-haired elfin creature scampered past Edgar’s boot, followed closely by another even smaller one with huge ears and feet, both squealing in excitement and both wearing clothes made of dried leaves and moss.
After the two pixies were out of sight, Edgar straightened up and started to walk down the hall after them. He still didn’t know his way around the castle, a giant anthill-like place webbed with passages and doorways everywhere, but he figured that if one kept on walking, eventually he would arrive at the great ballroom, the largest room in the castle which connected to the courtyard.
Yeah, Edgar thought. I’ll get there soon enough.
Just after the words had formed in his mind, he arrived at a large pair of double doors, made of oak with elaborate hinges of gold and silver, crafted to resemble stylized oak leaves. These were the doors that opened to the top of the main stairway junction, with one major staircase leading down to the ballroom. The very place he had been seeking. Edgar placed his palms on the hard wood surface, swung the doors open, and stepped through.
The ballroom was swarming with fairies, literally in some cases, as some winged ones occasionally darted around the room in small numbers. Some of the more human fairies who were probably favored subjects of Oberon and Titania stood on the steps of the main staircase, conversing and laughing with each other. As Edgar silently descended the marble stairs, they turned from their conversations and bowed to him, greeting him by his formal title. “Prince Edgar.” It still was new to him and made him almost embarrassed to be called by it.
As he was placing his foot on the last step of the main stairway, the pale aquamarine fairy named Elfreda moved her way through the crowd of fairies and stopped before him.
“Prince Edgar, you have come! I am honored to greet you, good boy!”
“Thank you, Elfreda. It does look very beautiful in here. You’ve done an amazing job.”
Elfreda smiled bashfully, her long, pointed ears flattened back against her head. “It was mostly your mother’s doing, young sir. Do you want me to lead you to them?”
“If that’s the safest way through this mob, yes.”
With a light laugh, Elfleda reached out her hand and Edgar took it. It did feel like the texture of a leaf, yet alive with much energy, probably not much, since Elfleda appeared quite old, but still pulsing with young life.
The fairy guided Edgar through the maze of people, often being greeted or saluted by a single person or a couple. It was some consolation that they also greeted Elfreda, but only as “Elfreda.” Even though she seemed so close to his parents, Edgar decided she either must not have much need for a title or didn’t play a large role in serving them.
Finally, after exceedingly endless minutes, Elfreda stopped before Oberon and Titania, who were standing near one of the rounded walls. Bowing to each of them, Elfreda stepped back a couple steps but still stayed near them.
“Edgar, how nice to see you, son!”
“Yes,” seconded Oberon, lowering his goblet of nectar. “How nice to see you in your…” he looked over Edgar for a moment, “…new clothes.”
“Now, Oberon, I told him it would be all right to wear the clothes he had on, since they aren’t atrociously dirty. And this is his first day back with us.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Edgar,” said Oberon, patting his son on the shoulder.
“That’s all right, father. I just felt more comfortable in these.”
“Quite all right – Oh. You may leave, Elfreda.”
As the pale blue fairy was turning to leave, Edgar said, “If it isn’t too much trouble, I would like it if she stayed with us.”
Elfreda turned around and faced him. “You like my company, Prince?”
“Yes. You have been very friendly to me, Elfreda.”
“As well she should be,” said Titania. “I told you she was to be your nanny when you were a child, and later your tutor. She has a broad knowledge of this world of Etheria.”
“But what about the human world?” Edgar questioned.
“I am unfamiliar with that domain, young Edgar, sir. I have never been there, let alone lived upon it. You are…disappointed?”
“No – actually yes. I am…a little.”
“Glad I am you are honest,” purred Elfreda. “I henceforth shall try to learn all I can about the human world to teach Prince Edgar.”
Edgar almost laughed aloud. “You don’t need to, Elfreda…”
“I will anyway.”
“I’m sure we can discuss scholarly matters later,” said Oberon. “We had best introduce Edgar so the whole assembly is aware of his presence.”
“Do we have to?” Edgar asked.
”It is customary for royalty,” said Titania, taking his arm in hers. “Including human royalty. It will be all right. We just want to let them know you are here.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Edgar allowed himself to be led through the crowds of fairies again, being greeted by the fairies they passed, this time all four of them. They finally reached the staircase and climbed it until they had reached a spot halfway to the top, then turned to face the assembly.
“Fairies of Etheria and elsewhere,” announced Oberon in his deep voice, at which all the fairies fell silent and looked his way. “Titania and I are honored to introduce to you the one thing we have been longing for all this time, that which was taken from us eighteen years ago, and who now stands with us once more. Ladies and gentleman, our son, Prince of Etheria, Edgar!”
There was a resounding applause from the audience, many fairies waved in greeting and several of the goblins threw their woolen caps in the air, sometimes missing them on the way down and scrabbling to retrieve them. Edgar smiled and waved back in return, standing stoically until the applause died down.
“Can I go down there now?” he asked his mother.
“You can go down there or stay here, it is your choice, Edgar,” she replied. “There are several goblets of nectar along the walls and plenty of food from the surrounding islands. Let us know if you need anything, son.”
“Thank you, mother.”
“See you soon, Prince Edgar,” said Elfreda.
“And you too, Elfreda.”
Edgar walked down the stairs and once again braved the tumultuous mob, this time without Elfreda. It took a considerably longer time to reach the opposite wall, where he discovered many tables of goblets filled with amber colored nectar. The covers which shrouded the tables confused him momentarily before he noticed a squat little goblin lift up one of the webbed covers and snatch a glass from underneath.
Still feeling as if his eyes were deceiving him, Edgar pulled up the corner of one of the covers, reached in with his other hand and drew out a goblet carved out of what he assumed was some kind of crystal. Gently letting the cover fall back, he examined the magical shrouds for a moment longer before taking a drink from his goblet. It didn’t taste like the honey he had occasionally sampled in Lolotte’s kitchen when the cook was out, rather it tasted like perfumed water, with a hint of something very much like sugar. The taste refreshed him and made him realize why so many of the fairies were holding goblets in their hands.
As he was turning around, he nearly overlooked a small fairy child standing at his feet. The child fit the general description of a fairy; a small, flat nose, tiny yet prominent pointed ears and eyes which looked like those of a horse, and nearly the same size, resembling large black marbles in the small, pale face.
“Oh Prince Edgar,” it said in a small, piping voice, “I have heard all about you! Though young I look, I was there when you were stolen from us. Now everyone tells me you were kept a prisoner by the evil fairy Lolotte! Can you tell me about it, please, Prince Edgar?”
Impressed by the young fairy’s politeness and sincerity, Edgar took another drink from his goblet before beginning to tell his story:
“Well, I was under her control for as long as I can remember. I didn’t look as I do now. She had contorted my body and made me appear as a green, deformed –well – hunchback, I guess.”
“She did that to you?” asked the fairy child, ears turned forward in interest. “What did this Lolotte monster look like, then?”
“Now that I think about it, just that. A monster. A green-skinned, red-eyed monster.”
“Like a dragon, Prince Edgar?”
“No, she was like me…except for the other things.”
“Was she very cruel to you, Prince?” asked another, feminine voice. Edgar noticed a young girl fairy dressed like a human princess with thick, blue hair plaited in braids that hung down to her waist. Apparently she had heard the conversation and wanted to join in.
“I guess so. She never beat me, if you mean that. Mostly it was just ordering me around and calling me ‘boy’ or ‘son’ most of the time. But she let me have a decent room. That was something.”
“Did you ever think you didn’t belong there, Edgar?”
“Actually yes. She often tried to twist my mind so I wouldn’t remember my past, but I never could truly accept myself as her child. I just knew I wasn’t.”
“Smart person you are, Edgar,” said the girl, brushing back her long hair. “How then did you escape?”
Suddenly another child, this time a goblin-like species came waddling over to Edgar’s side and began pulling his pant leg.
“Yes! How did you escape?” he croaked in excitement. “Did you teleport out of the castle or signal your parents? And how did you get your…”
“I’ll tell you everything if you’ll let go of my pants,” said Edgar.
“Oh,” said the goblin, dropping his clawed hand. “Sorry.” He shuffled backwards a few feet and sat forlornly scratching the side of his nose.
“It was a human girl who rescued me,” Edgar announced.
“A human!” shrieked the girl fairy. “No! A mere human couldn’t rescue the great Prince Edgar!”
“Well actually, it wasn’t – but , you see, my mother – excuse me – Lolotte captured her and locked her in my room, and I helped her escape. But it was she who defeated Lolotte.”
“Even more impossible!” snarled the pouting goblin. “How can a human do such incredible deeds?”
“I’d say very easily,” replied Edgar thoughtfully.
Edgar stayed in the great ballroom for most of the afternoon, talking with other fairies, answering any questions they had, and trying to get his own questions in edgewise. Occasionally he would take something from one of the many trays of food upon the tables placed against the walls. The food was mostly what he decided was local Etherian fruit, probably from an orchard, if there was such a thing in this land. Some of them resembled pink, oversized figs, others were clusters of turquoise berries or oblong, emerald green apples.
As Edgar was cautiously sampling one of the clusters of pale magenta berries and eventually sampling larger and larger bunches, Elfreda walked over to the large table and snatched a handful of marble-shaped fruits, watching Edgar thoughtfully as she did.
“I believe that is ambrosia,” she said unexpectedly. Edgar nearly choked on the mouthful he had, and swallowed quickly and looked at her in surprise.
“Ambrosia? Elfreda, do you…mean…”
“This is the food of the gods and goddesses, yes.”
“Wow. I didn’t realize…”
“It’s quite all right, Edgar,” reassured Elfreda, casually inserting one of the fruits between her teeth. “Inhabitants of the sky are granted permission to eat what the gods eat.”
“I assume the fairies don’t all live on ambrosia alone.”
“No. There is also the nectar.”
Edgar blinked in surprise. He had drank two goblets of nectar prior to this moment, probably because the amounts of liquid were so small. The thought that he had been indulging in the drink of the gods made him uneasy.
“You are sure it is safe to…”
“Have as much of it as you want, Edgar. There is always more. In fact, the goblins that come here for celebrations usually get drunk on the fresh nectar and cause general chaos, but no one holds any hard feelings against them, since any damage inflicted on the castle is almost instantly repaired.”
“You mean because of the magic powder my mother dusted it with?”
“Yes, that. It is almost like a gigantic tree, that castle. It has always been my home. I doubt I would ever leave it.” Munching another mouthful of the round fruits in her palm, she sighed softly, seemingly recollecting memories of the past.
Then her ears suddenly flicked backwards and she turned toward the large, open doorway that connected the ballroom to the courtyard.
“Well, Edgar, now that we have both eaten and talked, I think it is time to do what one would normally do at a celebration like this!”
“Dance, Edgar! Come, follow me, noble sir!”
Elfreda gently took Edgar’s hand and led him through the crowds and outside into the lush courtyard. The air was warm and moist on Edgar’s skin. The grass felt soft beneath his thick boots. It was twilight, the sun probably sinking far below the lowest islands of Etheria.
Many of the flowers blooming in the courtyard were closed for the night, but some remained open, mostly strange, white blossoms that sprouted from wall-climbing vines and seemed to radiate a strange, white light as well as a soft, subtle aroma. The lighted flowers attracted many large moths, some white, some cyan, some turquoise. They danced in the air around the flowers and their shadows darted about on the illuminated ground.
Even through the large shadows of the trees and the shrubs, Edgar noticed something very different about the enormous courtyard. There were rings – large rings formed by strange, bulbous objects in the grass. He stepped closer to one and saw that the things were mushrooms, fiery crimson splattered with white, all of them growing in near perfect circles. They were fairy rings.
“Elfreda? These weren’t here when I left. Were they…”
“Grown by magic? Yes, in a way, of course! You learn quickly, Prince Edgar. Well? Shall we?”
“Shall we what?”
“Dance, of course!”
“Not in the ring…”
“Of course, in the ring! Why else would I have brought you out here?”
“Umm…I…I would like to learn how to dance, Elfreda, but…these rings…I’ve heard stories about people who hear music and are lured to dance in these rings and…”
“Never return? That is true, Edgar, but aren’t you forgetting something about your lineage?”
“Well, I…oh. I forgot…” said Edgar sheepishly.
“Yes, a fairy isn’t affected by dancing in a fairy ring, Edgar. But mortals are not used to hearing such entrancing melodies, I fear. But, leaving the details behind, shall we begin?”
“All right. Who is going to be my partner?”
“Oh, me, of course. Unless you want to dance on your own…”
“Oh no, that’s all right,” said Edgar, still skittish about entering a fairy ring on his own, even though he was a fairy.
“All right, then,” piped Elfreda, stepping into one of the largest rings. “This one is good enough. Step in!”
Edgar put his right foot over the barrier of the ring. His ears picked up strains of music that seemed to be coming from inside his own mind. There seemed to be others in the ring, asking him to join them, to dance with them, to step all the way in. There were colorful shapes floating through the air, almost moving to the beat of the ever-intensifying music.
Finally, Edgar drew in one last breath and stepped inside the circle. The music almost doubled in volume, making Edgar slap his hands over his ears. But momentarily it seemed to soften, and he could listen to it without covering his ears. There were other fairies, frolicking about the ring, leaping into the air, their feet moving like a spider’s legs move, shouting and cheering to the sound of the music. There were no walls to the ring, but there still seemed to be some kind of “barrier,” perhaps an invisible one. Across the garden ( which still was there, thank goodness ), Edgar could see other fairy rings, also packed with dancers much like the ones in his ring. They must have been invisible from the outside, he thought. Even for a fairy, these things are probably pretty easy to stumble into.
Elfreda was standing near the circumference of the large mushroom circle, delicately tapping her feet and alternately putting one of her legs forward and withdrawing it again. Her dance was slower than the others, probably because of her great age, but she still possessed the agility of a swan. Her thick white hair seemed to glisten with light as it floated around her delicate, aqua-hued face, her large eyes watching the ground as she slowly pranced in place, the movements of her small body outlined by her green skirt with its vine “belt” around her waist. She looked beautiful…but not as beautiful as someone he knew…
“Edgar, you have come!” she suddenly burst out. “It is such a joy to dance among others! Please, won’t you join me?”
“I think I told you,” said Edgar, his feet starting to tap to the beat of the music, “That I don’t know how.”
“You’ll learn soon enough,” said Elfreda, smiling with thin, colorless lips. “It’s almost instinct, like most forms of magic.”
Instinct. Hah, Edgar was thinking as he watched Elfreda continue dancing. He did not realize that his feet were starting to move without his knowing. When he finally looked down and noticed this, he realized that once again this magic body of his had decided to do things on its own, and he wasn’t going to let it do that again. He was going to dance the way his mind wanted, not the way magic wanted.
He started by doing the simple, tapping dance that Elfreda was doing and found that it did come to him easily. He started increasing the speed of his dance as he began to grow familiar with the steps, even starting to add some of his own.
Eventually, his nervousness began to fall away. He realized that this was perfectly normal. He was a fairy, and he was doing what fairies do. Dancing and having a good time for the sake of happiness. Of course.
He began to dance away from Elfreda, making his way through the mob of fairies. He heard some of the dancers greet him, calling him by his own name, not by the fancy titles his royal lineage had tagged him with. He felt hands patting him on the back and shaking his hands, but could hardly see them through all the noise and light and music. He suddenly found himself dancing in the middle of a ring of people, who were rooting and cheering him on. Since he had already come this far, Edgar made up his mind to make the best of this endeavor. He leapt and spun into the air, his feet never missing a beat. His arms moving like the wings of a hawk, graceful yet wild.
The yells of the crowd were growing louder, and shouts of his name were still distinguishable among the cacophony. The colors and music seemed to surround his mind and hold it in its grip. His vision began blurring, and he felt as if he were in a dream. A living dream that he would not forget when he woke up, because he was awake. This was happiness…In fact…it was almost like…
The music suddenly slowed to a snail’s pace and Edgar slowed his fiery dancing until he was standing still. A small, blue-tinted, white hand came to rest on his shoulder.
“Your strength is dwindling,” said Elfreda’s soft, motherly voice. “Inexperienced dancers sometimes get too caught up in the spirit of the dance. We had best retire from this circle, young prince.”
She guided Edgar to the edge of the circle. From there, they both stepped out, one by one. As Edgar stepped outside the fairy ring, he experienced a sensation that felt as if his body was finally catching up with his spirit. His legs and arms were sore, and his spine burned with pain. He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck.
“You were dancing for quite some time,” reminded Elfreda, “Even though it did not seem like it. But you dance quite well for a newcomer to Etheria, Edgar.”
“Yes,” said another voice. “Remarkably well.”
Edgar turned his aching head to face his parents, who were standing several yards away, beneath a tree that resembled a large willow.
“You saw me?” he asked. “But how…”
“These flowers,” said his mother, taking a white blossom out of her robe and holding the glowing plant before her. “Their light not only illuminates what we see, but also what we can’t see. Having one of these flowers with you opens any gates that block your eyes’ path.”
“And again, yes,” said Oberon, “We did see you dancing. Amazing work, Edgar. You aren’t very tired, are you?”
“Just a little – stiff.”
“Lucky you are,” said Elfreda. “Some first-time dancers pass out as they exit the circle. They do awaken within several hours, but it is still an inconvenience.”
“Great,” muttered Edgar sarcastically. “Still, I think I need to walk around a little to give my muscles a shock treatment or something.”
“Do you wish to go through the gardens?” asked Elfreda.
“Yeah. That’s just what I was thinking."
“Well, I will let your parents accompany you on your walk. I must stay here and attend to the cleaning of the goblets and the tables.”
“Are you sure, Elfreda?”
“Yes, yes,” she sighed. “Sorry, Edgar, sir. I’ll talk with you later, when things are not so busy. Farewell.”
With that, Elfreda turned and quickly ran through the trees and bushes, ducking low branches and leaping high roots before skipping across the threshold of the perpetually open doors and vanishing into the crowds within.
“She really is amazing,” Edgar said.
“I know she is,” said Titania. “That is why we asked her to be your guardian in the first place. Well – shall we start walking, Edgar?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
…love. It was almost like feeling love…
There were no dragonettes among the shadowed trees of the gardens. They were undoubtedly sleeping – wherever that was, Edgar thought to himself. His quandary was abruptly answered when Oberon silently pointed to a delicate, fern-like plant growing near the path. One of the stems was growing in an odd, drooping posture, and on closer inspection, Edgar found the reason for the strange characteristic:
Three tiny dragonettes, tails tightly wrapped around the slender stem, were sleeping together, tightly pressing against one another. Every now and then a wing batted, and the other two who received its brunt fidgeted and then resettled. Looking around at the surrounding flora, Edgar now noticed the minuscule bunches of dragonettes, clinging to twigs on trees, plant stems, vines that wound their ways up trees and several even were sleeping with their tails wrapped around the thin, marble spear of a statuette which resembled a hunter, frozen in mid-throw.
Edgar was fascinated by seeing these wild, lightning-fast creatures in the arms (or, considering their small size, the hands) of Morpheus, sleeping in this fertile paradise nestled in the clouds. A feeling of peace filled his heart.
Smiling and sighing quietly, Edgar straightened himself up (at the same time remembering about his sore back) and continued walking down the path, his parents behind him. He turned his face up towards the night sky. The stars were faint, many obscured by the soaring clouds. The moon, now half waxen, hung, pale and opaque, in the sky, resembling a half of a wheel of cheese even more in this phase.
“Quarter moon,” Edgar remarked. “Why do they call it a quarter when it is half full?”
Titania looked puzzled at Edgar’s question. She put her hand to her chin and pondered it for a moment more, then confessed:
“I’m sorry, Edgar. There are some things even the rulers of the fairies never thought of even contemplating, let alone answering.”
“And why don’t they call a new moon an ‘empty moon?’ A full moon is called a ‘full moon…’”
“Again, I never knew why not either. In fact, I never thought of why they don’t call new moons empty at all. You are full of questions when you are young, Edgar. Just don’t expect us to know all the answers at once.”
Edgar sighed in disappointment. “That’s all right. I can get by without knowing why the half-waxen moon is called a quarter…”
Titania could tell he was joking with her, but still she didn’t laugh. She simply kept walking with Oberon at a distance several feet behind Edgar. After they had gone nearly three-quarters down the path, Edgar stopped and turned around to face his mother and father.
“Why did you want to come with me? Are you worried that something could happen?”
“Well – in truth, yes, Edgar. Your Aunt Malicia seems to have vanished from her quarters, and she has been acting rather peculiar lately. We just want to make sure you are safe. Just this night, Edgar. Is that all right with you?”
“That’s perfectly all right, father. I won’t go stepping off the edge or anything either.”
Oberon snickered as Edgar continued to trudge along until he reached the end of the path, where the now dew-speckled meadow spread out under the moon and the stars. Edgar strode out through the grass, trying to stretch his legs back into shape. He raised his arms and breathed in the sweet air of the night. He lowered his arms when he noticed the fountain.
The strange, overturned dome and the tapering spire seemed even more lovely by night. The dripping of the water reminded him of a mountain stream, like the small river he had so often glimpsed from the highest tower of Lolotte’s castle. He slowly walked over to it, as if there were invisible doves drinking from the fountain’s waters that he didn’t want to scare away.
When he had gotten close enough to look into the fountain’s basin, he looked with an enthusiasm that made him look like one hypnotized. The moon reflecting on the water created an illusion of black and white ripples spreading from the center. He could barely see the roses he knew were hiding at the base of the pool, so true to their shy appearance. He scooped up a handful of the water which momentarily appeared clear in his palm, but then also fell into the rhythm of black and white, one cracking against the other and back again.
He examined the small pool in his hand a moment more, then let it fall back into the pool from which it was born with a quiet explosion of what looked like beads of liquid crystal on an ocean of glass. Then the constant rippling took over once again, the roses still concealed from his eyes. He glanced at his own distorted reflection and briefly recalled Rosella’s own, perfect face, with the blonde hair cascading down her back. She couldn’t live in the kingdom of the fairies. She couldn’t dance with him in the entrancing fairy rings. She couldn’t even taste the nectar of the gods. It was because of what he was. He was a fairy. She was a human. Oil and water. Hawk and fawn. Day and night. There was no way they could be together again.
Edgar sighed deeply and tried not to feel the tears stinging his eyes. He turned from the fountain that reminded him of so much and began a slow, plodding walk around the inner perimeter of the meadow, sometimes stopping to look out at the other islands that sometimes appeared out of the mists. He noticed one island that rose above all the rest, a mountain among hills. The Mountain of the Winds, he recalled from his morning flight. And the Crossroads. The rainbows leading down into Eldritch…
He noticed that he had arrived back at his parents’ location. He looked up at them for a moment, then started walking across the meadow’s nonexistent dividing line, towards the rose fountain again, but this time so slowly he was barely moving.
Then Oberon spoke. “Edgar? The word we’ve been hearing from many of the fairies is that you didn’t come to Genesta’s Isle by yourself.”
True, too true, Edgar answered in his head.
“The whole story seems a little odd, but all the fairies who told us say they heard it either directly from you or from another person who had.”
Yep, I talked my mouth dry back there, Edgar thought, still going his slow-and-steady way across the meadow.
“They’ve told us that you helped a human girl escape from the clutches of Lolotte. Why did you do this?”
“She was…” Edgar paused, grappling for the perfect explanation, “She was very beautiful. And brave. Lolotte demanded three near-impossible tasks for her and she accomplished each one. Then after I freed her she killed Lolotte single-handedly.”
“Remarkable,” said Oberon. “I can see why you would admire her bravery. But you also mentioned that she was beautiful in appearance. Do you suppose you possibly felt some love for this human girl?”
Before the words could form in Edgar’s throat, a deafening crash came from the direction of the castle, followed almost immediately by a piercing scream of pain. This was followed by an overpowering rush of cries, shouts and incomprehensible conversation. Then one voice shrieked out at a volume above all the others:
“Elfreda!! She’s dead!!!”
Edgar’s breath stopped, and he whirled around in place to face his parents. Titania’s face had become a glaucous, pale shade of gray-green, and she turned and took off down the path to the castle.
“Titania! Wait!” yelled Oberon, turning and raising a hand in an attempt to call her back.
But in spite of all the things that seemed wrong now, something was even more wrong. There was an icy wind at Edgar’s back, the air had suddenly grown colder as well, the grass starting blowing against his ankles – and time was starting to slow down again.
Just as it had done twice before, like it always seemed to do when something emotionally overpowering was happening, Edgar had spun around in a slow, animated semicircle, watched his terrified mother turn on her heel like a ballet dancer and take off sprinting at a rate that seemed to defy the law of gravity, but it didn’t start happening until after his father had turned his eyes away from him.
“It” was something in the wind that wrapped around his waist that seemed intent on forcing the little air that was left in his lungs out, but it also seemed to be entwining around his mind, trying to squeeze it out as well. Something was trying to take over his body and his mind.
His brain seemed to swim in a swamp of unawareness, not unlike the magic that overtook him in the fairy ring. But this was not benevolent, harmless magic. This was dark magic. He had seen it coming from his false mother Lolotte, and now it was coming from whatever was behind him. Edgar refused to be swept away by whatever this blackness was.
He twisted his body around sharply, even though time was still moving agonizingly slowly, and ripped his mind from the invisible cords that bound it, trying to gather enough strength to call to his father, who was still turned the other way. It may have been only a few seconds, but the way time was moving now, it seemed like hours.
Then he heard it. A shattering crash which broke lazily upon his alert ears, almost echoing in its wake. He didn’t turn his head to look, but he knew what had happened. The fountain was knocked over. He could see it vividly in his mind’s eye, the basin shattered, water flowing out, over the dark stones that lined the boundary of the island, the spire snapped like a twig, the pedestal which once bore it all barely standing from the way it was leaning. And the roses. Even though they were only carved, marble roses, he could almost see them withering, dying as the water dripped off their fragile pink petals, seeping into the unforgiving ground.
As these visions scraped across his mind, he sensed that the dark force that had tried to snare him before was attempting to get him again. Edgar’s now weakened mind was less resistant to the groping cords that began wrapping around his mind. Then he snapped out of his emotional trance and began fighting against the ropes, trying to rip them out by sealing off his mind and thoughts, and yanking his body away from the place the magic seemed to be coming from.
But it seemed to be everywhere, coming from every direction, determined to capture him. But Edgar still wouldn’t give up. He clawed at the wild wind with his hands, regardless of how slow his actions were. He tried to scream, but his voice seemed to have left him along with his strength. With what little remained, he struggled to free himself from the traps that kept snapping all around his body, clamping onto his skin.
Then he realized his feet weren’t touching the ground. He was being drawn back into some kind of dark void behind him which he didn’t dare try to see. His vision began to blur, then fade to blackness. Before his sight was gone entirely, though, he thought he glimpsed his father turning his head from the path Titania had run down to the meadow Edgar had been standing on mere seconds ago, at least in normal time. Nothing seemed to happen at first, but in the long gap between the turning of Oberon’s head and his terrified, distorted cry, Edgar could feel something happening to his body.
He couldn’t see anything and couldn’t hear anything, except for the shrieking winds that swirled around him, but his sense of touch was being prodded and pricked all over him. He left his skin stretch and ripple, as if it were being molded by giant hands. His body warped in shape, being pulled and pushed in different directions. Edgar gritted his teeth in pain, clenching his fists. The skin of his hands felt coarse, rough and unfamiliar to him. He half wished, half dreaded that he could see what was happening.
The pain that wracked his body probably brought his guard down, as the dark magic that was strangling his form began seeping into his mind and kneading it like soft dough. In spite of everything else, Edgar still tried to force it out, but in the next instant, a mournful, drawn-out scream that belonged to his father reached his throbbing ears and the darkness swallowed his mind.
His own form was now gone, and what remained of his stricken soul cowered in one of the darkest recesses of his head, crouched in a fetal position, trembling with fear and trying to remember what had happened. And there was also, from the faintest memories of his past, a recollection and a realization of what was going on at the moment, which provoked the unspoken utterance:
Oh no. Not again…
Titania pushed her way through the crowd of fairies and what she saw shattered something inside her, the jagged edges piercing her eyes, releasing the tears that were welling within them. Elfreda was lying on the ballroom floor, her head in one of the human-like fairy’s arms. There was a deep wound in her chest, and the floor around her was damp with fresh blood. Her pale, now almost transparent skin had faded to a pearly ivory, making her resemble a white statue carved from marble that had never lived or breathed.
Titania touched Elfreda’s slender throat with a trembling hand and withdrew abruptly, kneeling, her head in her hands, sobbing in grief-stricken agony. Her closest friend in Etheria; the one person she could truly trust, save her husband; the fairy who had first broken the news of Edgar’s disappearance as an infant was lying before her, a gash in her chest. Titania felt another gash cutting into her.
Oberon suddenly flew through the ballroom doors knelt by his wife’s side and clapped her on the shoulder, nearly knocking her down. He was shocked to see his poor companion Elfreda gone, but the news he had on the tip of his tongue couldn’t be held back.
“Titania! Edgar is gone! I was in the garden – I turned away for one second and – he was…gone…”
Titania looked at her husband with pain filling her eyes and screamed in a broken, screeching moan of sorrow and loss, laying her head on Oberon’s shoulder. With tears slowly flowing from his own eyes, Oberon held his bride tightly and then turned to the fairy holding Elfreda’s head, still staying in his kneeling posture.
“Who did this? Who slew Elfreda?”
“It…it was a ferocious beast, highness,” spluttered the young fairy, trying to restrain her emotions. “It was like a living stone statue – a demon or some kind of hideous dark creature! It circled the castle, stirring up this terrible wind, and…”
Here a younger winged male broke in: “It charged in through the doors! Elfreda was the first one before it, refusing to let it through. We were behind her and we were trying to have the same…attitude. But the stone devil still tried to break through, but Elfreda refused to back down. She just…wouldn’t let it past her!”
An old goblin jumped in just then: “When the demon realized there was no way to force its way through, it broke a wooden spear from one of the hunter statuettes in the courtyard and…killed her thus.”
Titania gripped the cloth of Oberon’s cloak like it was the stone demon’s throat. Then she turned and spoke in a shaking, weak voice:
“Where did it go?”
“I don’t know, majesty,” said the first female fairy. “But it’s coming back. With more. I’m sure of it.”
“And my Edgar is gone!” Titania suddenly screamed, hiding her face once again. “Gone! Only one day and he’s gone!!”
Oberon tried to console her, despite his own grief. “Titania, love, we will find him. He’s a young man now, and whatever force took him can’t have gone far. We will find him. Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”
“I am regretful that we cannot help you with your sorrow, now, Lady Titania,” said the young winged male. “But there’s a war coming. Something huge is behind it. We’d better get ready. Fast.”
“Yes. Torrwith, direct the able-bodied fairies to the weapon storage rooms, the larger ones to the upper, the smaller ones to the lower. Tell the mothers to escort their children to one of the interior rooms.”
The fairy named Torrwith nodded and flitted to the top of the stairs, shouting out orders. Within moments, the courtroom was cleared, except for the Lord and Lady of the fairies and the young female fairy, who still held the head of their closest friend in her hands.
The fairy shifted Elfreda’s head to her left hand, then moved her right hand in a sweeping gesture, indicating that she was going to make an effort to lift Elfreda’s body. Her eyes met those of Oberon and Titania, who both seemed to understand and nodded in reply. The young fairy slid her right hand under the limp body and cradled the delicate head in the crook of her arm, at the same time supporting the shoulders and upper back. Then, with the unwavering, perfect carefulness like that of a glassblower’s, lifted Elfreda’s corpse in her arms and walked towards the doorway.
As she was crossing the threshold, she looked over her shoulder, her face wet and salty in the moonlight. Her voice was choked with sadness as she spoke.
“I can manifest good Elfreda a simple marble casket, Lord and Lady. Until a better one can be made at a more convenient time…I am glad I can be of service to you, great rulers.”
Breathing in once with a trembling throat, the fairy continued out into the courtyard, her crying growing softer until she was gone.
Titania tried to stop crying, but her heart would not let her. She still knelt, looking out the doorway through which the nameless fairy had carried Elfreda’s body. Memories kept stabbing at her mind: how she had first met Elfreda as a child, how she always kept the activities of the castle in order, and how she had been so close to Edgar, eighteen years ago when he was a baby, and today, when he had talked with her.
And then there was the deepest cutting memory: how Elfreda had somehow awakened from her poisoned, somnolent state, as if some secret sense was telling her that something was wrong, ran to Edgar’s cradle and discovered it empty, then back to the table in the great ballroom, shaking Titania and her husband awake, telling them that their son had vanished.
Before, the pain inflicted by the strong poison was nearly unbearable, even in sleep. But the pain that coursed through the royal couple’s bodies at hearing Elfreda’s words was so great that they felt that they were going to perish, but they couldn’t die. Such is the curse of immortality.
Titania suddenly realized something and spoke to Oberon in a low voice.
“She told us twice. She told us Edgar had been kidnapped at that festival so many years back. And now we hear her scream and Edgar – Edgar is gone…again…”
She was near hysteria with the grief that tortured her. Still, Oberon held her close to his body, reassuring her that they would find Edgar and everything would be fine. It was a stupid thing to do, he told himself later.
It was something he always did when someone close to him was in pain, saying everything would get better. Inside, of course, he knew that they had probably lost their only son again, and it would probably be much longer than eighteen years before they ever saw him again. That was, if they did, which was now nearly impossible…
A hum of a pair of wings made Oberon raise his head. Torrwith was hovering before his face, managing a small bow in midair.
“Royal majesty,” he said. “The archers are in position and the spearmen are stationed around the walls of the castle. What must we do next?”
“Wait until the enemy shows its evil face. If it is hostile, then defend yourselves as much as possible. Only kill when your own death seems to be a possibility in the next moment. Be sure to place guards around the windows and the inner walls. After that, we just need to wait until…Torrwith, what is it?”
Torrwith was hovering shakily in the air, his eyes looking behind Oberon, at the open doors, his face so pale and his wings so unbalanced that he looked ready to drop to the floor.
“They’re here,” he squeaked.
Titania screamed and threw her hands up before her face to protect herself. Oberon rose to his feet and stared out through the doorway, his heart racing as he did.
An unorganized, fierce, battle-ready and bloodthirsty demons was rushing in one, tumultuous wave towards the castle. Some of them carried axes, some carried dull, rusted swords or even just the scabbards; several brandished metal spears and some even held what looked like scimitars. Their blemished faces with their black, cold eyes peering out, like a thousand pairs of dark holes; their scarred, warty lips parted in devilish grins of excitement at the soon-to-be battle; their pointed, saffron-tinted teeth cutting through the darkness.
For a moment, Oberon stood looking out in complete shock, then he leapt to the wall to the left of the great doorway. “Close the doors! Torrwith, help!!”
Torrwith was to the right door in a heartbeat, his tiny hands pushing against it with his feet braced against the wall, wings beating until they became a blur.
Seeing that the demons were nearly upon them and Torrwith wasn’t helping much, Oberon leveled his heavy oak staff which he always kept by his side, and pointed it at the hinges of the right door. A bolt of light flew out of the tip of the staff and struck the middle hinge, upon which the door jerked into motion with a creak and a shriek of metal on metal, and swung shut with a hollow echo that shook the ballroom.
At the same time, Oberon heaved the second door shut, and shoved his staff through the brass slots on each of the doors. There was a loud crash on the outside of the castle, but the doors remained closed.
“They won’t get through a pair of doors barred by magic,” explained Oberon. “Not only that, but none of Etheria’s trees are large enough to use as battering rams. Still, we’d better get moving.”
Oberon sprinted up the main flight of stairs and turned right, sprinting up the next flight. In the shock of all these terrifying events coming at once, Titania still could not bring herself to rising, in spite of the deafening pounding coming from the other side of the doors.
Torrwith, who was still spellbound with Oberon’s maneuver with the staff, alighted on the ground and walked over to Titania’s side. She glanced up at him, her black hair hanging in her face, most of it sticking because of her tears.
“My dear lady, please let us remove ourselves from this place of danger. I pray that I may be of a humble service to you by escorting you to your chambers or wherever you wish to go, my lady.”
Titania nodded mutely and slowly rose to her feet.
“Very good, my lady,” said Torrwith, rising into the air with a flurry of wings. “Do you want me to hold a hand for you?”
Secretly feeling happy for the little fellow and his chivalrous manner, Titania managed a weak smile and raised a hand before Torrwith, who accepted it graciously, even though her hand was larger than the size of his head.
The small fairy gently guided Titania up the long main stairway and turned right in order to take the shortest route to her quarters. Though Torrwith was oblivious to all that was happening except his guiding her, Titania herself shuddered as she glanced through the darkened windows of the ballroom. The windows were not only darkened by light, but by dozens of deformed demon faces pressing against the windows, gnashing their teeth and peering in with their stony eyes. In their clawed hands were blunt, obsidian spears flashing in the moonlight, trying to break through the glass.
The hoards of demons climbed up the walls of the castle like spiders, then leaping over the edges of the towers and parapets in a similar fashion. The dozens of fairies who were standing guard where Oberon had bade them attacked without hesitation.
The spears the misshapen beings had toted up the walls were pointed in all directions like the quills of a hedgehog, some occasionally being thrust forward in an attempt to skewer the wing of a fairy who strayed too close, or even the fairy itself.
By whirling small sand-filled bags tied together by thin cords around the ubiquitous spears, the larger, human-like fairies were able to disarm several of the demons, giving the smaller fairies an opportunity to get to the others.
The winged pixies took to the air, carrying in their hands large, woven webs, sometimes several individuals to a web. Circling the bands of demons until the optimal location was found, a signal from one of the carriers would trigger an instantaneous release of the web, letting it fall down among the maundering creatures. When the strongly, expertly crafted nets met the heads of the demons, they instantly tightened around the round craniums and large ears like actual spiders’ webs.
The ensnared beings snarled and howled with anger, the escaping ones being prodded back in by the stout sticks of nearby fairy sentinels. Even though it seemed the noise would go on indefinitely, it was abruptly halted as another swarm of demons clambered over the walls, unknowingly tromping over the heads, ears and noses of their fellow soldiers. Those that weren’t shoved back down by the nearby fairies were attacked in the same way: bags of sand on strings, infiltration, pixies with nets, drop, disable.
Many of the demons weren’t so easy to outsmart, however. Once every few minutes, a spear would go flying and strike an airborne net-carrier, or even one of the strong, able-bodied human-like fairies. For some, the injuries were bearable, but for others, they were the last wounds they would ever feel.
As the creatures became more hostile, the fairies did so as well, the archers aiming from nearby tower windows to shoot down the demons as they tried to ascend the walls and buttresses. Many times a shooter was lucky, not only hitting one but several, as the first target knocked down some of his comrades who were unfortunately beneath him.
What made the fairy fighters even more fearful was the presence of the gargoyle, the one that had killed Elfreda and was now swooping unseen from one part of the castle to the other, silent as an owl. Occasionally, it would soar low over the swarms of demons, pluck a spear from a claw, then charge the opposing fairies, making that terrifying screech that only unearthly demons like it could.
The fairies that couldn’t escape from its warpath were killed instantly. Even if the gargoyle wasn’t armed, its sharp claws and teeth put a quick end to those who dared to face him. His stony hide was impenetrable, and it wasn’t long before the archers stopped trying to shoot him down and ran for cover instead. Everything had fallen into chaos. Every fairy was on the move, the castle walls were constantly being defended and the sky was frequently being glanced at for any sign of the great gargoyle.
The often unneeded blacksmiths were forced into action, beating spears and swords into shape with their voluminous hammers, then thrusting the white-hot metal into buckets of icy water, creating a harsh hiss and a huge plume of steam. Different sized swords were needed, large, small and some specially designed for the goblins, who had only four fingers per hand. For the diminutive fairies too tiny to wield swords, needle-like daggers were forged, so that they could fight with the strength of a swarm of bees.
Few trees in Etheria yielded decent wood for carving spears, so the smiths were required to make spears out of solid iron instead of only spearheads. Because of the awful rush, many of the spears were uneven, or lumpy rather than straight, but these factors didn’t matter as long as the point was sharp. Bundles of weapons were rushed from the forging chambers to the battle spots, not only atop the walls, but also on the ground.
Oberon was there, a stout, wooden rod in one hand, a thick sword in the other, trying to see if he could pinpoint the leader behind this obviously planned siege of the castle. Yet there seemed to be nothing but masses of demons, winged and otherwise, with no one shouting out orders or surveying their progress. This isn’t normal. Different forces must be at work here, Oberon pondered.
His thoughts were interrupted by the scream of a bat-winged creature that swooped down from the sky and gripped the end of his pole with a bone-crunching grip and with strength that seemed enough to draw Oberon into the air. Angrily, he jammed his sword into his belt, grasped the rod with both hands and smashed the flying devil to the ground. Not bothering to check it to see if it was dead or not, Oberon shook his rod free from the talons and continued to push his way through the raging mass.
His left hand was on the hilt of his sword in an instant when a large, fat demon suddenly leveled a long, sharp sword and drew it back, preparing to run Oberon through the chest. Oberon immediately struck the tip of the weapon to the ground with his rod and swung his own sword around to meet the side of the demon’s helmeted head with a resonating clang that echoed in his ears. The ugly imp covered its ears and fell over sideways, too stupefied to get back up.
Oberon stepped over the bulbous body and continued on, keeping to what little cover there was, occasionally darting behind a tree or crouching by a thick shrub. He had covered several yards without any major conflicts before something very curious caught his eye.
It was Torrwith, the fairy who had carried out all his orders prior to the battle. The fairy’s small body was clothed in a delicate, finely interlocked suit of mail. Over that was a pair of armored plates across his shoulders and a leather belt with two scabbards around his waist. In one was a dagger, probably selected on the spur of the moment, since it barely fit its sheath. The other was empty, and the weapon that probably belonged in it was in Torrwith’s right hand.
The reason for this was standing only two inches from the tip of Torrwith’s sword. It was a demon, another of the gruesome, warty species that was plaguing the castle. Its beady eyes were fixed on the young fairy’s less-than-fearless face, and it was slowly moving a jagged, corroded saber back and forth in front of Torrwith’s eyes, as if to hypnotize him.
The young fairy occasionally slashed at the demon with his sword, but the impish beast was quick, always leaping back about a foot, stopping near the roots of a large, lavender tree that was at his back, then waddling back to his unnerving position a dagger’s length from Torrwith.
Oberon could foresee the imminent catastrophe, and he knew his intervention might not subdue the creature. Then an idea came to him. Dropping to his knees and resting his sword on the ground, Oberon held his wooden rod in his hands, feeling the energy from his body flow into the still-living stick. Then he gently raised his right hand, and moved it to the tip. Then he clenched his fist and slowly released his forefinger and middle finger from the position, pointing them straight ahead. Then Oberon separated the two fingers, creating a v-shape. As he did, the tip of the rod forked into two points, like a two-pronged pitchfork. The gap between the two points was about as wide as the width of his hand.
Satisfied with his work but nervous about the time he had left, Oberon snatched up his sword and rose to his feet. Holding his forked rod with the points downward, he carefully pulled a loose fold of his robe around it, his left fist still grasping the other end as well as the top of the folded cloth. This concealed the rod almost entirely, and to a nearsighted, ignorant demon, it would be virtually invisible.
Then a loud thud and a strangled cry alerted Oberon that his and Torrwith’s time was short. Clutching his rod with his left hand and his sword with his right, he stepped out from behind his tree and glanced in the direction of the one where Torrwith was.
But Torrwith wasn’t by the tree. He was sprawled on the ground, the claw of his demon nemesis clutching his throat. The fairy was struggling to get his throat and perhaps one of his pinned-down hands free, but this only brought about raspy, hissing laughter from the demon, as it grinned down at Torrwith with its crooked-toothed sneer.
Oberon strode across the field rapidly until he was about two feet from the ill-suited pair. The demon was slowly raising its jagged dagger above its head, simultaneously spreading two of the four fingers that pressed against Torrwith’s neck, creating a small target that he was determined not to miss.
“Hey!” bellowed Oberon. “You deranged monster! Look up before you kill a servant of the King!”
The demon looked up, and in one, swift move, Oberon swung his forked rod out from under his robes and jammed it straight at the demon’s spindly neck. The creature dropped its dagger, and Oberon grasped his rod tightly, the two prongs pinning the demon’s body to the trunk of the tree, rendering it incapable of anything but squirming and cursing in frustration.
Torrwith breathed a sigh of thanksgiving before rising unsteadily to his feet.
“Praise be, Oberon, sire, I cannot repay you for such kindness, never in a…”
“I think you can, Torrwith,” said Oberon, with a hint of a smile on his bearded face. “We’re not letting this rascal go without getting some information out of his mouth. We need some clever strategies to get him to talk, though.”
“Yes…your highness,” said Torrwith, his wings chafing against each other in anxiety.
“First,” instructed Oberon, “Come here by the tree and take that sword our friend dropped.”
Torrwith edgily pussyfooted around Oberon and retrieved the crudely-shaped sword.
“Now, come over to my left side and hold this demon’s feet, so that he doesn’t try to give me a kick as I’m holding him against this trunk.”
Torrwith even more anxiously walked back around the tree, placed the huge sword against the lavender-shaded side of the tree and knelt beside the round, flattened, booted feet of the demon. As was expected, the demon aimed several ill-fated kicks at Torrwith and continued kicking until his legs grew tired. Torrwith cautiously reached out and grabbed the two dangling feet with his hands.
Once again, the demon began hissing and spitting like a serpent, and Oberon could barely make out what it spoke amidst the racket:
“Letesst me go now, thou slithereenie, pinkish-skinnnned faery ssscum!!”
“Not so fast,” said Oberon, pressing the prongs of his rod tighter into the tree’s trunk. “Answer my questions and I will release you.”
“Anssswer no quessstion of a faery will I, sssslime!”
“We’ll see about that. First, answer me this: Why have you attacked Etheria?”
“Never will I resssspond to sssuch utteringsss, sssscurvy creaturrrre!”
“I will not release you without an answer. Answer now or hang here forever.”
“Youuuu with wither and perrrrissssh long before I diiiie, skyyy-sliiiime!” hissed the demon, taking a snap at Oberon’s beard but missing by several inches.
Oberon sighed and rolled his eyes in exasperation, seeing that words would not move this demon’s tongue. He turned to the young fairy who still grasped the demon’s feet. “Torrwith?”
“Remove the boots of our tongue-tied tyrant, if you please.”
“But sire…what good would that do to…”
“You will see,” said Oberon, lowering his voice. “But we don’t want to spoil the surprise for our friend, do we?”
Confused but obediently, Torrwith grabbed one of the demon’s boots with both hands. While at the same time avoiding kicks from the other foot, the young fairy strained and yanked on the boot, finally loosening it and eventually pulling it from the creature’s large foot, which was covered with something that looked vaguely like a sock, but there were so many holes, stains, wiry threads and hairs in it that it was hard to tell. And the odor was definitely not worth mentioning.
Taking a deep breath of air into his lungs, Torrwith grasped the other boot and began struggling to pull it off as well. Before he got very far, his breath he had to stop and turn his face away to get another lung-full of fresh air before continuing. This boot turned out to be easier to remove than the first, as many things often are after previous attempts. With a final heave on the boot, Torrwith sprawled back, gasping for air, trying not to admire his accomplishment for fear of smelling it.
“Very good. Excellent, Torrwith,” said Oberon. Turning back to the demon, he continued: “I’m giving you one last chance, you tiny fiend: Answer or suffer the alternative. Your last chance…”
“Alterrrnative meansss nothingggg to me, foooool. Nothinggg youuu can conccccieeeve can move meeee.”
Sighing in disappointment, Oberon turned back to Torrwith.
“Torrwith, go over to those ferns over by that large boulder and pluck a few fronds. It doesn’t matter how many. Come back here when you’re through.”
Torrwith quickly nodded, ran over to the ferns Oberon indicated, picked three fronds and promptly returned to Oberon’s side.
“All right. Now position that first fern under the unprotected feet of our prisoner. That’s it…”
“Whaaaat are youuu doooing?” snarled the demon, straining its neck to see what was going on. “Whaaaat are youu – “
Its words were promptly cut off as Torrwith raised the bristly fern to the underside of the demon’s foot and started to tickle it at such a high rate of speed that his hand was hardly perceivable. The demon erupted into a convulsing cacophony of laughter, which, by demon standards was a series of high-pitched, repeated shrieks, ear-splitting howls, and raven-like guffaws, with ominous, hissing snickers in-between. This deafening, maniacal giggling went on for several agonizing seconds before Oberon raised a hand, signaling Torrwith to stop.
“Are you ready to tell us now, demon? Tell us why you and your disgusting comrades invaded Etheria. Now.”
Although still out of breath and quivering, the demon snapped back: “NEVERRR! Neverrr I tell faery why weee commmme herrrre! Nooo one everrr tell youuuu! Neverrrr!”
“Torrwith!” commanded Oberon.
Torrwith briskly dusted the underside of the demon’s dirt-encrusted toes. Again, the piercing laughter echoed across the once peaceful paradise. Several birds and dragonettes took flight and many other nearby creatures fell silent. The demon was in such hysterics that Oberon was concerned that it might faint from lack of breath, eliminating any chance of getting answers from it. But the laughter eventually ended in the usual manner, the demon’s chest heaving like a bellows, its gray tongue hanging out one side of its mouth, its whole body limp and sagging.
“Are you sure you want to endure this?” asked Oberon. “I am only asking you to answer our questions. Is your impudence worth this?”
“I…neverrr…tell…” croaked the demon between heavy gasps.
Torrwith raised the fern to the demon’s foot again, but Oberon held up his hand before he began tickling. With Torrwith still holding the fern directly beneath the foot, Oberon said: “Are you quite sure?”
“Unlesss…” the demon continued, “Enemyyy make bad enough torrrturrre. Meee have nooo choiccce in cassse like thissss. I ssssay anythinggg if enemyyy sssstop the flutteringgg feather from torrrmenting me thussss.”
“All right. Now answer me this: Why did you come here?”
“Twassss orrrdersss, faery enemyyy. Orrrdersss is orrderss.”
“Whose orders, demon?”
“Ourrr missstresss and longggg-tiiiime allyyy, faery perrrsssonnn.”
“You invaded our land because she commanded you to?”
“Who is she?”
“Sssheee isss…the Lady…Maliciaaa.”
It had been hours, probably days since anything…but then, if there had been anything, he could not remember.
“Wake up, you.”
Something encased his mind tightly, pressing out all memories of what had happened, but there were gaps between the bars. Part of him still remained, and that part was in hiding, afraid to emerge…
The voice kept talking to him, as if in a waking dream. It sounded familiar, but whether he had heard it before he could not tell. But physically, he did not feel familiar.
“Otar Fenris III! Up, I said!”
Light cut through the veil across his closed eyes. Edgar could see little, and what little there was cloaked in shadows. It resembled a cavern, not crystalline spiked or rocky granite; it looked like the inside of an oft-used cooking bowl left unwashed for several months. Strange, blobby rocks protruded from the ceiling, dripping down, though they weren’t even moving, to the flat, stone floor, forming large, sloppy stalagmites that resembled melting columns.
And the floor really was a floor. This was a cavern that seemed to be a huge room. Edgar noticed a red carpet a few feet in front of him, and a chair and table beyond that. But right in front of his face was something totally different.
“Finally. I thought you’d gone comatose, you somnolent weakling!”
The face seemed to be talking to him, though he couldn’t tell what “he” was. It was pale, with brilliant, red lips and sharp green eyes – a green which disturbed him deep within his mind – and which also seemed familiar.
“You will get up, Fenris?” the face asked. It must have been talking to him, since there was no one else in the room. As Edgar was glancing to his right, something caught his attention. He was aware he had been sitting, but he wasn’t aware of what he had been sitting on. Now he saw that it was an oddly shaped, tall-backed, gold throne. The cushions appeared to be red silk or maybe velvet; he couldn’t remember which was which, except that they were very good fabrics, and to have furniture and clothing crafted out of them was to be wealthy.
His eyes were slowly moving down the sweeping arm of the throne when something very alarming caught his attention. Resting on the right arm of the chair was a huge, muscular, hairy, green arm. A living arm, made of real flesh. The green was like the color of the eyes of the face staring at him, and the arm appeared vaguely human, but definitely not that. There was a violet metal ring enclosed around the wrist with small rubies embedded at intervals in the ring.
All in all, the arm resembled something savage, yet at the same time, something civilized. It must belong to a strange creature, but whatever this creature was, it must be able to forge metal and cut stones, Edgar assumed. What kind of creature could that be?
That was when Edgar realized there was no one sitting at his right. No one to claim ownership of this arm. As he was starting to dread that this arm had been detached from its rightful body and laid here to terrify him out of his already baffled mind, Edgar suddenly became aware of the fact that the arm was attached to his shoulder. Even though he couldn’t remember what his own body had been, this one he was in didn’t seem right, even doable….
A quick glance down at his waist revealed that he was clothed in an odd sort of vaguely royal tunic, with something reminiscent of a cape attached around his shoulders. The shape of his body appeared strangely deformed, round yet muscular. He wasn’t wearing any shoes, and his large, bare feet were covered on the tops with coarse, brown hair.
Still trying to comprehend what had happened and what was happening, Edgar attempted to raise his right arm, which he accomplished with success, although, he could not tell if this was an appropriate measurement of accomplishment. Moving his large, knobby fingers to his face, he delicately felt along from his right temple to his cheek, then to his chin. He had a short beard, more of a goatee, if that was an appropriate term for it. His skin felt rough and bumpy, not exactly in his concept of normality, no matter how vague it had become. And tusks – tusks like a wild boar’s – growing out from his lower jaw. He definitely did not remember ever having them before, yet he did not dare try to question what was going on, mostly because he was too confused and frightened to say anything.
“What?” Edgar asked in a voice that wasn’t his own, but then, he still could not remember what his voice actually was, and his struggle to comprehend all this confused his senses even more.
“I am Malicia,” said the face again. “Malicia of Etheria.”
Etheria. Yes, that sounded familiar. The mind within his mind suddenly stirred at the familiar name, yet subsequently shuddered at the name “Malicia.” That did not sound like a good name. But the way she spoke to Edgar seemed to indicate that he should be respectful to her in return.
“What is it you want, Lady Malicia?”
“Listen to me,” the face said. “You are the ruler of this, the Vulcanix Underground, King Otar Fenris III. Do you understand?”
This woman Malicia was the only person he had met so far in this strange, dreamy reality, so since he wanted to gain her respect, Edgar decided that he should agree with what she said.
“Yes, I am the Ruler of Vulcanix, Lady Malicia.”
“Good,” she purred with a thin smile, leaning forwards and reaching for his right hand with her left. “Now come with me, your – “
A sharp, high-pitched yelping cut her words short. Something that had previously resembled a muffler tucked under the woman’s right arm had suddenly sprung to life. It was a dog, an atrociously small dog with a rat-like body with matching pink bows in a topknot atop its head and in its tail.
The face was also horrific in its own right, with blazing red eyes, a very sharp rodent’s nose and much sharper teeth, which continued flashing like needles is it continued barking for several seconds, and as Malicia was about to say something to restrain it, the animal’s head shot out and snapped something thick and leathery between its jaws.
It took only a split second for Edgar to discover that what the dog had bitten into was part of his own body as he felt sharp twinge of pain in his left ear. Instinctively he made a grab for it and discovered that it was much larger than he had anticipated. It was nearly half the length of his arm, and what he could see of it reminded him of a large bat wing attached to his head. Timidly he prodded the ferocious, tiny dog, with his large fingers, trying to convince it to let go. The animal still retained an iron grip on his ear, growling tenaciously, while its mistress still held the rest of his body with a look of irritation on her pale face. The dog then made a snap at Edgar’s fingers, but he managed to jerk his hand out of the way just in time. In that same instant, the dog quickly changed gears and again bit into the thick skin of Edgar’s ear again, but this time, Malicia seemed fed up with her pet’s shenanigans.
“Cuddles, precious,” she crooned with a sweetness that seemed impossible for a person like her to possess, “Dis is no time to play awound, sweety-boy. We can do dis later, but not now.”
She placed her left thumb and forefinger on either side of the dog’s jaw and extracted him from his lock on the ear, pulling his head back into her arms with the rest of his wiry body, stroking him gently with her tapering fingers.
“Come, King Otar,” she said to Edgar. “We have many things to do, and I need your help. Follow me, and do not stray.”
Malicia turned and began walking away from the throne. After briefly massaging his ear, Edgar tentatively rose to his feet and began to walk after her, in a diagonal to the left, towards the other side of the great cave. As he was passing by the great coats of arms and shields upon the stone wall, he saw another image walking past. It was his own image reflected in a large, gold-rimmed mirror which stood just left of the throne. Edgar stopped and stared at the reflection in the glass.
His was a strange, short, stunted body, pale green in appearance, clothed in a royal style of clothing and a cape, as he had acknowledged earlier. His ears were long and pointed, with several notches and holes in them. The face was unlike anything he could remember, so different than the face of the woman who called herself Malicia. His eyes were an emerald green, large in proportion to the rest of his head, with large, furrowed brows and large bags beneath. The rest of his face was spattered with blemishes and wart-like bumps, which were just as rough as they appeared, if not rougher. His hairless pate was adorned with a simple gold crown, plain, yet beautiful in its own right. He was the King of the Vulcanix Underground, and yet…
Edgar tried to remember if he had ever had a different appearance than the one he had now, but no recollections resurfaced. He looked closely into his green eyes reflected in the glass, trying to see himself in them. Then he tried looking at his body as it was, making no comparisons to anything he had already seen. He appeared timid, confused, and humble. Yet this woman told him he was the King of Vulcanix. Was this a dream he had just awakened from? Was he still attached to his fading dreams? Maybe this mirror had the answers. Edgar reached out a hand to touch the cold glass.
“Stop!! King Otar, I would advise against touching that mirror at any time, no matter what the reason! You know that it has the potential to work incomprehensible levels of magic at horrific intensities! You trolls shouldn’t fool with magic, you’ll most likely get your ears singed.”
Edgar’s hand stopped and dropped at his side. He shouldn’t offend this woman. She seemed to know who he was, and what purpose he was supposed to serve in this strange world. She had called him a troll. Was that what he was? From what he recalled, trolls were malevolent creatures that didn’t even exist in some worlds. He did not feel like anything malevolent, so how could he be what she called him?
“Come on, Otar!” bellowed Malicia. “We have to hurry! NOW!”
Edgar whirled around and scampered to Malicia’s side as fast as his skimpy legs could take him. He looked at her angered white face and he cowered in shame. The tiny dog also showed extreme disapproval, growling and showing its tiny, needle-sharp teeth.
“You must keep up with me if we are to get anything done. Now come.”
Malicia led the bewildered, transfigured Edgar through a short tunnel that led them out of the huge chamber and into another. This one was far more natural than the one they had left. Huge, jagged stones stuck up out of the crusty earth and similar ones hung from the ceiling, looking ready to fall at any moment. It also seemed much warmer in the room, and the reason seemed to be flowing through a narrow, twisting channel near the other side of the cavern.
“It’s a subterranean lava stream,” said Malicia, before Edgar could even ask. “It flows from a lava tube that branches off from the volcano.”
Volcano? Edgar recalled hearing a volcano mentioned before…”There is a huge volcano several miles from here, but it has been extinct for eons.” Who said that? Edgar could not remember. It seemed to have come from that dream which he was still trying to come out of. It seemed so familiar, though…
“And I would advise you to stay away from that rickety lift and advise your subjects to do the same. The land above is very antisocial, and the inhabitants do not appreciate visitors.”
The elevator. Again a familiar voice replayed within the part of his mind that still remembered: “That’s the elevator which descends into the Vulcanix Underground. A very strange place, possibly the strangest in Eldritch.” Eldritch. The name of the land he was in…Yes, he could remember the Bountiful Woods, which connected to Falderal and the desert…and then there was Ooga Booga, the land directly above them…but how did he know? What had made him remember?
Returning to his alert state for a minute, Edgar regarded the unstable elevator and glanced up at the rickety chains ascending up not into light, but blackness. He didn’t want to know what was up there, and he didn’t want anyone else to know either. Someone could get killed if they fell from that great height. Then he remembered that Malicia was standing beside him, waiting for him to finish his observations, patiently stroking her tiny dog. Edgar snapped to attention and looked up at her humbly.
“Where to now, Lady Malicia?” he asked.
“This way, Fenris,” said Malicia indifferently. Shrugging his shoulders, Edgar followed the tall woman to the left, up a steep hill which seemed to come to a dead end near the peak, but after a brief moment of prodding and feeling the solid rock wall they were facing, Malicia’s hand pushed a small stone inward several inches and a large stone door moved inward in the wall, then slid to the side, revealing a long, dimly lit passage. Malicia strode through the doorway immediately, and Edgar followed closely behind.
This was not a naturally formed cavern. The walls were rounded and smooth, the shape of the tunnel was elliptical, resembling a giant tube they were walking through.
Suddenly, Edgar thought he saw a hole in the ceiling above. He glanced up to get a better look, but they had already passed it. Perhaps it was an illusion – like so many things he had already seen…or thought he’d seen.
Malicia stopped at the end of the tunnel. There was a window carved into the nearby rock wall, looking out into the outside world. It was too bright for Edgar to make anything out, though.
The tunnel ended before a huge, metal door, with gauges and levers festooned all over it, the three main switches resembling the eyes and nose of a face – a human face, that is. Malicia examined it for a moment, then turned to Edgar.
“Your highness, please knock upon this door. I do not wish to harm my own hands doing such an action.”
Eager to be of service to the woman, Edgar pounded on the door with his fist several times until Malicia hissed “Quiet!” and leaned closer to the hard metal door, trying to hear what was going on within.
The door suddenly slid open down the middle, and an odd face peered out from the other side. It was a troll, Edgar concluded, wearing a metalworker’s shield over his eyes, a thick leather shirt and trousers and an equally durable tool belt. His saffron-hued face flushed white when he saw Malicia and Edgar. He was just about to yell something when Malicia lifted her hand and struck him down without even touching him. A lightning bolt had flashed from her fingers, knocking the troll across the length of the room, totally unconscious.
The room on the other side of the door was crammed from floor to ceiling with consoles, mechanical whatnot, panels, levers, switches, wheels and everything an advanced civilization would take pride in. There was one particularly interesting device which appeared to be a small-scale model of a volcano, with the hollow shaft in the center visible. It appeared to be some sort of gauge for measuring the amount of lava in the volcano…but did this volcano ever erupt?
There was also a large pile of spare parts and strange devices near one corner of the room. One object, constructed of polished brass and dotted with many odd colored protrusions and lenses, seemed to capture Malicia’s interest. Bending down, she selected the device from the pile and tucked it into a pocket, just as an impromptu crash sounded from behind a large metal console near the adjacent wall, which had a large window cut into it that looked out over another tributary of the lava stream Malicia had mentioned earlier.
“Bluntt?” asked a rough voice from the origin of the crash. “Was someone at the door or did you go out? Could you come – wait a minute, I’ll come out myself.”
Malicia moved over towards the direction of the voice, with Edgar in tow. There was a large open space under the console, and protruding out of it were two large, hairy feet. The occupant of the feet was slowly edging his way out from beneath the console, finally standing up, facing away from Malicia and Edgar. Edgar was surprised, since this stranger looked remarkably like him, in both clothing and body. It even wore a crown similar to his own.
The stranger suddenly whirled around, eyes wide with astonishment, then cold fury. “Malicia!” he growled, his violet eyes gleaming with ferocity. “What do you want down here? You’ve done us enough trouble, what more could you want?”
“Much more, Fenris,” said Malicia. With a quick snap of her fingers, she had the creature limply hanging from her clenched fist by the front of his tunic.
“I cannot have you interfering with my plans, Fenris,” she said, calmly but icily. “I will have to relocate you to another place. If your behavior is acceptable, then may let you return here unharmed. You know the alternative and its consequences, I’m sure.”
“Let me go, Malicia,” snarled the troll, trying to grip her wrist with his hands. “You’ll never rule my kingdom, and any other grotesque scheme you’re planning can’t be done either, I’ll bet my crown. News travels too fast in this country for you to even carry your plans out, let alone…”
Malicia twisted his collar tighter around his neck, cutting off his breath. “I will win, Fenris. I’m not betting on that. Everything will be taken care of. Including you. But before we leave – what is this?”
She tucked her dog under her arm and withdrew the spherical brass object she had taken from the pile of scrap metal. Her captive’s eyes widened as he stared silently at the device.
“Well, Otar, what is it?” Malicia asked impatiently. Edgar, in the meantime, was growing very confused. Why was she calling this creature by his name? Sure, he looked a lot like him, but still…
“It’s…not…important…” the troll gasped.
“I saw the way you looked at it,” snapped Malicia. “And I know you’re lying. Tell me what it is, what it does!”
“You wouldn’t need it…so wealthy already…” choked the troll.
“What do you mean, Otar? Tell me now or never live to tell!”
“It is…a device…”
“I know that. What does it do?”
“It is used…to…”
“Used to turn lead…to…”
“Gold? Are you sure, Fenris?”
“I swear…I tell you…”
“Good.” Malicia said quietly. Still keeping a firm grip on her captive, whom she also called “Otar” and “Fenris,” Malicia slipped the exotic device back into her pocket with an air of satisfaction.
“Now we will go,” she announced.
“But…Lady Malicia…” asked Edgar from behind her.
“Stay out of this, you!” Malicia snapped. Otar glanced behind her and saw a stooped-over, timid figure that was a near-exact reflection of himself. Slowly he began to see what was afoot.
“Malicia…you couldn’t…you fiend, you couldn’t possibly…”
“I will, Fenris, and if you are lucky, you will live to see it happen!” Malicia snarled. With a chilling laugh, she and Otar vanished in a flash of light which forked like lightning for a split second, then vanished.
For the few minutes that she was gone, Edgar tried to understand what he had seen. Was that Otar tying to impersonate him? To dethrone him? What if that was a former king? His father?
His questions weren’t answered with the blinding flash that appeared a few moments later. Malicia had returned, but Otar had not.
“Where is he? What happened?” asked Edgar.
“He is alive,” Malicia replied. “And my little Cuddles is safe at home. Everything is all right. But now you and I need to get down to business.”
The plague of demons that continued to invade Etheria seemed endless as the fairies continued to defend the walls of the castle. Queen Titania had not moved from her room. She had been kept awake all night and most of the next day with the snarls and screeches from the invading creatures. She was forced to close and fasten the stained glass shutters of her one large window to keep the demons from invading her room and consequently, the whole castle.
Confusion and despair clawed at her mind. Why had Elfreda been murdered? Why had Edgar disappeared so suddenly? Who had done it? And why did these invading hoards come now, at the worst possible time, when the whole kingdom was in emotional peril?
A knock on the door of her chamber made her raise her tear-stained face and brush her black hair out of her eyes. “Enter,” she said.
An exhausted, flustered Torrwith pushed open the door and hovered for a few seconds before colliding with the floor. “Lady Titania,” he gasped, rising to his feet and managing a small bow, “The demons have not penetrated the walls yet, but still they come. There seems to be no end to them. And that hell-raising gargoyle is killing off fairies by the dozens.”
“Where is Oberon?” Titania asked.
“His lordship is still helping to defend the edges of the island from further invasions,” explained Torrwith, “But still the demons come! If that smelly was telling the truth, I wouldn’t…”
“What do you mean, Torrwith?”
“Your husband saved me from a gruesome death at the claws of one of the demons and we managed to squeeze some information out of him.”
“What information?” asked Titania, her curiosity mounting.
“Well…” said Torrwith, staring at the floor as his wings shuddered nervously, “The scaly beastie said that the hoards were ordered to attack this land…by your…sister.”
Titania was not as surprised as she expected. Still, she was thunderstruck at the news. “Malicia!” she cried. “No! How could she? What did we ever do to her?”
“I think this might be a case of what we didn’t do to her,” began Torrwith, his words being cut off by a loud scuttling and a sound of something made of china breaking that made both fairies cringe. A short, skimpy sprite sprinted past the open doorway, then screeched to a stop, turned and ran back to the threshold of Titania’s room.
“Your majesty, your ladyship, madam,” it rasped in a high-pitched, frog-like voice, “A break in enemy lines there be. But still more come from all around, they do. Oberon still fareth well, he does.”
“We need help, don’t we?” asked Torrwith, sensing the tension in the sprite’s demeanor.
“Yes, maybe we need it later, maybe soon,” the creature replied, pulling repeatedly on one of its pointed ears. “Everyone seems to be hearing news of what happens here. The beasts and bird-folk of the Bountiful Woods be going into hiding, even the folk of the Were-Woods be seeking shelter. King Levanter and his family still remain undisturbed on their home atop the Mountain of the Winds, but how much longer they will remain safe one cannot say.”
“As is expected,” said Torrwith in the calmest voice he could manage. “Tell me, comrade, what has his excellency, King Otar said about this? The way word travels in Eldritch, I’d imagine he’d have heard news of our trouble hours ago. And that rough, rotund monarch always has something to say about the goings-on in Etheria, even if it’s something as minor as an island that’s unbalanced on one side!”
“I nearly forget in midst of the wild flappings of thine tongue,” said the sprite sarcastically. “But…” he continued, his voice suddenly slowing and lowering by one octave: “I have received news from only one source from a being somewhere near but not from within Vulcanix, and he said that…” here he paused again and continued in an even lower voice:
Edgar watched in silence as Malicia impatiently pointed out what his tasks were. They were in the Volcano Control Room in the Vulcanix Underground. The room itself had been here for many generations, Malicia said, but the complex, enormous machines were added slowly over the years, solely for maintaining the integrity of the volcano.
But now she wanted Edgar to build a new addition to the complex: a simple switch that toggled the actual detonation of the volcano. Edgar argued that such a thing would take weeks to create and would be next to impossible, but Malicia pointed out that everything he needed was in the very room they stood in. Diagrams were depicted on the walls and inner panels of the machines, and dozens of random parts were scattered around the room. “If the trolls of Vulcanix could build all this,” she explained, “Then you can surely create a single switch mechanism, Otar!”
She still insisted on calling him by that name, and Edgar still had difficulty accepting it. But still he tried. “I suppose it can be done, my lady,” he said respectively, “But what is the point in enabling the volcano’s eruption to be controlled with a single switch?”
“The manual procedure consists of a lot of time, trouble, and trial and error, Otar. You must create a shortcut to the eruption.”
“But why, Malicia?”
He had been asking that ever since she had started her speech about the Control Room. Finally, she decided to give him the full story. “All right, I’ll tell you,” she grumbled. “Wait for just one minute.”
Malicia turned and began rummaging through the largest pile of scrap metal, casually pushing aside the still-unconscious body of Bluntt, the troll mechanic who was previously working with King Otar. Edgar sighed and turned to the pile of scrap he had been looking through, finding little that interested him except for a heavy metal stake, possibly forged from iron. He kept this clutched in his hand as he continued probing through his heap of metal.
“All right, King Otar!” yelled Malicia. “Come here.”
Edgar turned and noticed that Malicia had uncovered a crumbled parchment map of the Realm of Eldritch, with a side view near the top depicting the main isles of Etheria, as well as the jutting cone of the volcano that was nearly as high as the Mountain of the Winds. Edgar walked closer to examine the map, still fingering his stake.
“You see,” said Malicia, moving her finger along the top picture, “The inhabitants of Etheria have been quite intolerant of my presence in their realm. They have not banished me – not yet – but I feel they are planning to. I have to show them how powerful I truly am.”
“But you do not intend to actually activate the volcano?”
“Not yet. For now, it will be just a warning for them not to cross my path. The most I will give them may be a couple clouds of ash in their pristine paradise. And if any try to irritate me again, I show them the works.”
“But word travels awfully fast in this realm,” objected Edgar. “Won’t some of the people try to stop you?”
“Of course, you two-tusked buffoon! I am going to Etheria soon to finish my work, but first, there are a few things I need to take care of.”
Before Edgar could even say “What,” Malicia had gripped his right fist and both of them were briefly enveloped in a cloud of lightning and smoke. Then they were gone.
In the reddish shadows of the Volcano Control Room deep within the bowels of the Underground, the yellow-skinned, lank troll known as Bluntt began to regain consciousness. He glanced around the room, waiting for his eyes to focus. The piles of metal that were once piled against the walls were scattered around the room, some pieces of metal or old tools were resting on consoles or control panels. Someone had been here. It had to be someone other than King Otar, all this disorder couldn’t have been done by one individual in such a short length of time…he hadn’t been out that long…
Wait a minute…why had he passed out? Bluntt blinked his eyes in confusion and put a hand to his wrinkled forehead. Memories slowly began coming back to him. Working on the main outlet controls with the king. The knock on the door and his opening it. The tall woman in the dark cape and the troll directly behind her…the one that looked just like Otar…
Otar? Otar was gone. He wasn’t in the control room anymore, and no one else was. Something had happened to him. Something connected to the dark woman…who was she?
Then Bluntt remembered: the fairy who had been stirring up so much trouble for the past few years! Titania’s own sister, Malicia! It had to be. Rumors had been spreading through Vulcanix like the smell of rotten eggs. Rumors that Malicia was going to try something drastic to gain control. They were true! They were all true!
Bluntt realized he had to do something. Leaping to his feet, he picked up the nearest weapon he could find: a long, iron rod, and ran to the doors. After the few agonizing seconds that ticked by as the doors ground open, he bolted down the dark corridor, groped for the button disguised as a rock and pressed it, then began another painfully long period as he waited for the stone slab to slide back.
He had to get to Etheria. He did not know how, but somehow he had to. But first, he had to get to the surface, and the only way to get there was by the elevator. By the time the opening between the slab and the rock wall was large enough for Bluntt to squeeze through, he didn’t waste a second. Ramming his way through the narrow gap and tumbling over himself several times, he ran down the steep hill, coming to a stop at the rickety, neglected, seldom-used elevator.
Giving the rope a sharp yank before he had even landed in the bucket, Bluntt silently prayed that the obsolete elevator would support his weight and go much faster than those who used it said. However, the ride turned out to be yet another agonizingly slow process, and upon reaching the top, Bluntt sprang out of the rusty seat and took off running, not even taking time to look at where he was.
The dark trees and tombstones cast long shadows over the perpetually moonlit land of Ooga Booga as the small, yellow-complexioned troll scurried over hills and knolls, trying to find someone who could tell him how to get to Etheria, or at least give him a lead. He knew something bad was happening, and something had to be done before it was too late.
Finally, Bluntt’s exhaustion halted his frantic sprint. Panting heavily, he glanced around, trying to locate a house or a hut, but he saw nothing but dead trees and brambles before him and to each side.
A quiet rustling jolted his heart and made him whirl around, his iron rod held aloft. A pair of brilliant yellow eyes peered out of the blackness within the bushes, and a body soon appeared. It was difficult to see since it was black as well, but the form was definite. A small, black cat slipped out into the open.
“Dweller of Vulcanix,” she said in a light, female voice, “What are you doing up here on the surface?”
“Malicia…caused…trouble,” Bluntt gasped. “Must get…to…Etheria…”
“Your first words are half true,” said the cat. “She has caused trouble but she’s still causing it. She has imprisoned your ruler somewhere in this land, but I haven’t been able to find out where.”
“I have to find him!” hollered Bluntt. “If I don’t…”
“Not so loud!” hissed the cat, crouching low to the ground and speaking in a loud whisper. “Malicia has also allied with the Boogeyman, who has always been a nuisance but is now wrecking havoc on this land. She seems to be turning everyone in Ooga Booga against the trolls of Vulcanix. You’d best hide below ground, where you and your people are safe. Go, now. Hurry.”
Even as she spoke, a loud burst of wicked laughter came from over a hill to the north. The cat crouched even lower and backed away, towards the brambles. “Hurry,” she whispered. “He’ll kill you. Hurry!”
Bluntt was glancing wildly about, trying to locate the sound when suddenly he heard it again, this time it sounded like it came from the other side of the hedge. He broke into an uneven sprint, a pain still cutting into his side. The laughter, sounding more like a low roar now, seemed to be alternately flying after him and bounding after him like an enormous grasshopper.
Then it resounded one last time, this time right behind him. Bluntt looked back over his shoulder and saw, for only a brief moment, a hollow, bony face, two beady black eyes which didn’t seem any less hollow, a large, hooked nose and a demonic, grinning mouth filled with sharp, uneven teeth. Bluntt had just enough time to scream…then there was nothing.
The cat peered out of her hiding place in the brush, looked at the crouched form of the Boogeyman in the distance and sadly closed her eyes. Then she opened them, carefully scanned the skies for any signs of danger, then turned and crept back into the tangled jumble of trees.
The first thing Edgar saw was what looked like a huge map. Then he realized it was not a map, but an actual land. He and Malicia were looking down on the Bountiful Woods. Where they were looking from, Edgar decided not to ponder. They seemed very high off the ground.
Edgar could barely see Malicia through the thick haze that surrounded the two of them, but he could hear her quietly muttering to herself and looking down on the woods.
“Now, surely the life stems from the trees…no, no, the trees grow from the earth, can’t do anything to that…Rain could be eliminated…no, that takes too long…yes. The river…It has to be the river.”
“What do you mean, Lady Malicia?”
Malicia pointed at the sapphire ribbon snaking through the meadows below them. “I always thought that the name of that river was one to be taken metaphorically. How wrong I was.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The River of Life. All things in the Bountiful Woods depend on it for stability and survival, including the two guardians of the forest, Attis and Ceres. Without the waters of the river, these two allies of Etheria are powerless.”
“Destroying such a thing doesn’t sound like a good idea, Lady Malicia,” said Edgar contemplatively, even though something inside him was screaming.
“I am sorry, your majesty, but this is my revenge I’m planning, not yours. This should finish them.” Raising her hand, Malicia breathed in deeply, fingers trembling, preparing to concoct the spell that would destroy the River of Life.
“Malicia! Don’t!” Edgar screamed, even though that part of him that was still awake knew it would do no good.
Malicia thrust her hand in the direction of the river. A spark of lightning flew from her fingers and struck the river, taking out the white marble bridge that crossed it in the process. The water stopped flowing and became a glittering, blinding silver haze that remained for a moment more, then vanished, leaving the bright pink mud of the riverbed and several gasping fish to the hot, drying rays of the sun. The skeletal remains of the beautiful marble bridge slowly began sinking into the mud, and the parts that once connected it to the banks of the river still stood, a sad reminder of what the bridge once was.
“Now to take care of the guardians!” Malicia cried, seizing Edgar’s fist again. Edgar was feeling ready to thrust the stake he was carrying into her heart to stop this evil, but he still could not tell if what she was doing was truly wrong or not. He sank into depression as the lightning surrounded him and Malicia, the panoramic view of the woods faded, and they were standing in a young grove of trees, the dry river several yards from their location.
“There!” Malicia shouted triumphantly, whirling around with her hands raised. Edgar spun around too, just in time to see a young couple, both with long, black hair and wearing green, the man wearing leather boots, the woman barefooted and delicate as a yearling tree.
At the sound of Malicia’s voice, both started to turn around, but in a split second, Malicia’s spell had struck both of them, concealing their bodies in a dark whirlwind that shook the earth and caused the trees to bend under the force of it. Edgar could still hear Malicia talking to herself, as if she had suspended the spell for the time being.
“Now that should take care of Attis, but Ceres can still work her magic in that form…perhaps if she were handicapped or injured in some way…yes…that would work perfectly!”
Malicia glanced around the forest, looking for something that could be used to subdue the goddess of nature. There were some sharp sticks and rocks, but nothing that would have a lasting effect. She then turned to the terrified Edgar, and noticed the long stake he held in his trembling hand.
“Fenris!” she demanded, holding out a hand. “The stake.”
“What are you going to do, Malicia?”
“The stake, Fenris.”
“”I don’t think you should do something like this just for – “
“Fenris! Give me the stake!!” As she spoke, Malicia grabbed the broad head of the metal stake and tried to yank it out of Edgar’s hand. He refused to let go, and his troll body’s muscles were unyielding. When pulling failed, Malicia lifted her other hand and slapped Edgar’s face. A twinge of electricity coursed through his body and he released his grip on the stake.
Malicia snatched it immediately and strode out towards the wildly churning funnel of wind that surrounded Attis and Ceres. Edgar was not unconscious but was close to being as he tried to focus on what was happening. Malicia had the stake raised high above her head, her robes snapping and rippling in the wind. For a moment she stood there, frozen in place except for her garments, then she plunged the metal stake into the churning wind.
There was an echoing metallic clang and a flash of white light. Malicia drew back her hand and walked calmly but quickly back to Edgar’s side.
“Come on. The wind will be subsiding soon and we don’t want them to see us. We’re going to one of the outer isles of Etheria now. No one will think to look for us there.”
As she grasped Edgar’s hand yet again, he briefly glimpsed two forms through the cylindrical cyclone. One was a large tree that gave the impression that it was centuries old. One large knot was cut in two by a large, pointed piece of metal, and sap was beginning to ooze from the wounded trunk.
The other was a large stag, his antlered head looking about in confusion, then looking at the tree, realizing what had happened, and lowering his head in despair and mourning.
Then, once again, Edgar and Malicia were gone.
Oberon trudged up the winding stairs that led to the main level of the castle, then made his way down the narrow hallway. This was difficult since guards had been posted at each window to watch for any demons who tried to climb up the walls. Edging his way by guard after guard and salute after salute, Oberon finally reached his wife’s room and walked in through the open door.
Titania was sitting on her bed, gazing through the pale stained glass shutters of the one large window the room had. Oberon crossed the room and sat down next to her, his sword lying across his lap.
“We need more help, don’t we?” asked Titania, still looking out the window.
“Well, we seem to have reached a stalemate,” explained Oberon, “The demons cannot proceed any further and neither can we. Usually this means something unexpected is going to happen. I think we should summon help soon.”
“Now,” said Titania, looking into his face. “We should ask for help now, while things are still calm.”
“You are right, Titania, but the demons have reached a density so thick that not one messenger could make it out alive. If they start to gather in one or more areas, though, some of our faster scouts could escape.”
“Who can we ask for help?” asked Titania.
“Well…I’m not sure. King Otar hasn’t said anything, and I find that very unlike him, the citizens of Falderal never deal with Etherians, and the Woods…” Oberon slowly bent forward and put his hand against his forehead.
“Oberon, what is it?”
“I don’t know…it’s as if a veil was put over it…I can’t tell what is happening down there. Something isn’t right.”
“I think we already knew that, Oberon.”
“Yes, but that wasn’t what we were talking about. The only person trustworthy enough and skilled in battle enough is Vladmir.”
“Count Tsepish? Of course, he is an incomparable fighter, Oberon, but do you think only one more warrior can win a battle?”
Oberon leaned over and held Titania’s hands in his. “If we keep our hopes up, anything can happen,” he reassured her. “Anything.”
Titania looked into his eyes for a moment, then looked aside and suddenly appeared downcast. “We still need to find him.”
“Yes. As soon as this battle is finished, we have to do something. We aren’t going to lose him again.”
“That we won’t,” said Oberon, embracing her tightly, then returning to his sitting position. “I will call a meeting as soon as this chaos is resolved and Malicia is dealt with.”
“My sister,” Titania cried. “My own sister doing this…”
“I will not kill her,” Oberon promised. “Even if we were mortal, I wouldn’t think of doing such a deed. She is part of this family, and we can’t simply scratch her off a slate. We’ll figure something out soon.”
As he rose to his feet, there was an echoing of running coming from the outer hall. The sound came nearer until it reached Titania’s door, and Torrwith slumped against one wall of the doorframe, chest heaving and wings quivering.
“Highnesses,” he panted. “Demons have…crossed over…walls around…southwest…tower!”
Oberon’s stance became tense and alert. “What? How many do you think, Torrwith?”
“A’least…a score or so…need your help, m’lord…”
“We need more than that. Torrwith! As soon as you catch your breath, locate the fastest messengers in the castle and tell them to contact Vladmir Tsepish at once! Tell them it is a matter of great urgency, and also tell them to leave the island through the areas that have the least demons to ensure they make it out! Hurry, though! We need help fast!”
Sword unsheathed, Oberon ran down the hallway and back down the stairs, taking the junction towards the southwest tower. He knew that his friend Vladmir would probably save them all, but if he didn’t, Oberon was at a total loss for what would happen next.
The small island was almost entirely barren except for a few patches of dry moss. The purple rocks gave way to gravel in some places, the round pebbles hard underfoot. Hardly any other isles were visible through the clouds, and even if there were no clouds, there would probably still be nothing.
Edgar lay sprawled out on the flat stones, exhausted from the day’s events. Malicia sat a few feet away from him, straightening her dark hair and brushing leaves from her skirts. Also on the island were several dark-scaled demons, occasionally squabbling or throwing rocks at each other.
After she had finished her grooming, Malicia turned to one demon, which was perched on a nearby stone, its black webbed wings folded around it, making it resemble a small pinnacle atop the rock.
“You,” she snapped. “Find Celadon. Bring him here. Now! Move!” at her last word, Malicia gave the indifferent demon an impatient swat, sending it flapping into the air, hissing and spitting. But the creature seemed to know what the fairy wanted, for it turned and soared off into the thick clouds, as if it were being drawn on a string towards the main island.
“They can be very useful, you know, Fenris,” she said to Edgar. “You just have to know how to use them. And like that runt Celadon, they can also provide helpful advice in some cases.”
Edgar looked at Malicia out of large, confused eyes that appeared tired and sad. “What is wrong with you?” Malicia asked, standing up and walking towards him.
“Nothing, Lady Malicia.”
“King Otar, I assure you that you will be taken back to your kingdom as soon as I tie up a few little ‘loose ends’ up here. All right?”
“All right,” said Edgar, turning his head away from her and trying to appear consoled. He did not feel consoled, though. He was still trying to remember who he was, or who he had once been. Vague memories still swam past the borders of his mind, images appearing and vanishing again. Images of roses. Pale pink marble roses covered with water. Then there was a girl. A young human girl…what was her name…?
“There you are,” yelled Malicia hoarsely. “I was wondering if you were ever returning!” Edgar turned his head to see the winged demon returning, with a similar beast flapping behind it. Sadly, he turned away again, staring at the delicate clouds that floated so near the island.
The bat-like demon landed on the hard purple rocks and wrapped its wings around itself once more. The other creature was a small, green demon riding astride a reluctant falcon, possibly it was reluctant because its passenger was sitting across its shoulders and constantly cracking a leather whip in the air. Upon landing, The falcon touched down lightly and the demon went bouncing across the scattered gravel. Upon finding his footing and standing up, he managed a low bow before Malicia and croaked:
“Salutations, O overly oversized fairy of the opal skies…”
“Shut up, Celadon! I need an update on how the battle has been going.”
“The battle?” asked the small, scaly demon, looking confused. “Oh yes, yes, that! Well, we fare well against the offending fairies, they take a few bites out of us, we bite back a thousand-fold, my lady!”
“Excellent. And what about my gargoyle? Is he doing as well?”
“Oh, very well indeed. Your plan to release him at that time was genius, pure genius, lady! He had a little trouble at the start, though. I saw it all from the courtyard wall. Figured the fairies would scatter at the sight of him, but they didn’t. They were forming a wall ‘cross the doorway to the ballroom. Apparently they were being directed by someone. Think she was called…’Elfreda’ or somewhat.”
Elfreda. The name made Edgar turn and prick up his ears. Who was Elfreda? Why was she against Malicia? Why was she so brave to stand up against a creature that sounded so horrific?
“Oh, that pale-skinned twig,” muttered Malicia. “What did he do about that?”
“Killed her. Stabbed her through the chest with a spear or something. As the fairies began scatterin’ he went back to signal the others.”
“Good,” said Malicia. “Things seem to be going well. On my side, I have brought with me King Otar Fenris III…” Here she gestured toward Edgar, “Took care of his ‘friend,’ and also put Lord Attis and Lady Ceres in a place they will surely not cause any trouble.”
“Bravissima!” screeched Celadon, hopping around on the gravel in excitement. “You have just about done it, Malicia!”
“But…” continued Malicia, “Are there any more people I need to…’take care of’ before I can proceed with my plans?”
“Oh, that I don’t know, my lady,” said Celadon, scratching his bald green skull. “Wait! I do know!”
“What, then? What is it?”
“You have dealt with everyone in the waking reality,” explained the demon, “But that doesn’t mean you have no more opposing forces.”
“Enough riddles, Celadon. Out with it!”
“The ruler of the realms of unconsciousness,” Celadon whispered. “The Lady of Dreams…”
“Mab! You mean Mab, Celadon?”
“That I do, O highly intelligent egghead of Ethe – “
“Shut up!!” bellowed Malicia with such force that Celadon nearly fell over backwards. “Now: you say that Mab’s realm exists in the unconscious mind…”
“And can only be reached in sleep…”
“And nothing physical can be taken there…”
“But what about the magic abilities of an individual, Celadon?”
“Of course, my lady. For you fairies, magic is as normal to you as walking.”
“Very good,” said Malicia slowly. Glancing at the sun revealed that the day was only in the early afternoon. There was plenty of time.
“I’m going to take a short nap,” announced Malicia, lying down on the hard stones. “Celadon, you and Otar guard me, and wake me only if it is a matter of great urgency, all right?”
“Quite,” replied Celadon. “Good-night, Lady Malicia.”
The malevolent fairy’s dream was short but complete. It would probably have gone on much longer if Malicia wasn’t so overly concerned about time and the many things she had to accomplish. After a fairly difficult start, she finally found herself relaxing and falling into the realm of unconsciousness, the land of dreams and nightmares, where Mab, the Lady of Dreams, lived.
Malicia was walking along a smooth, green, seemingly infinite plane. It resembled an ocean, yet felt solid underfoot. There was nothing else to do here but walk. And walk.
As she walked, Malicia thought over her reason for coming here, to this land of dreams. It was Mab. She had to somehow render her powerless to stop her takeover from occurring. But how could the ruler of Dreamland do something as drastic as that? Malicia pondered this problem in her head for several minutes, then it made perfect sense:
Mab sent dreams to certain individuals that reflected their own lives. That meant that she knew the thoughts of every person, human or fairy. If Mab got wind of what Malicia was scheming, she could send a dream to Oberon or Titania as an omen of Etheria’s downfall unless Malicia was stopped. Even if Mab couldn’t read Malicia’s mind (and Malicia hoped she couldn’t), the evil goings-on in Etheria could be symbolized in a way that revealed a pattern, a repetitious series of events that ultimately pointed out that someone responsible for everything that had occurred.
Feeling disturbed with these thoughts in her head, Malicia quickened her step, hoping she wouldn’t be forced to run. She would have to act fast, but also cautiously. Mab could easily match her in wits and perhaps best her with magic. Malicia had to be careful if she was going to face the Lady of Dreams.
Finally, a small island appeared on the horizon. Malicia walked towards it hurriedly, hoping it wouldn’t vanish or sink into the solid ocean she was walking on. It didn’t sink, however, and the sand she stepped on from the hard green water was also convincing enough to be real.
In the center of the small island was an intricately constructed palace, though its small size made it resemble a gazebo. Malicia carefully glanced over each of her shoulders, scanned the endless horizon several times over, and entered the palace through the arched doorway.
It was much larger inside the building than it had appeared from the outside. Strange, static, pastel mists hung in the air, interrupted every few yards by odd, geometric shapes that also hovered in the air, some resembling signs of the zodiac, others like Greek symbols, and others from a language Malicia had never seen before.
Ducking behind a large column to keep a low profile, Malicia looked carefully around the walls of the palace, trying to locate a door or another archway. The walls seemed to continue into infinity, with no corners or adjacent walls. Going into the mists ahead wouldn’t prove useful, surely there would only be more of these bizarre symbols and perhaps even a rogue nightmare, something Malicia did not want to run into.
As she was thinking over her next move, a tall, slender woman, dressed in turquoise-shaded robes and long, white hair that nearly reached the floor silently walked out of the mists. “Who is it?” she queried in an irritated, elderly voice that echoed in a peculiar manner in the large room. “Who has entered my inner sanctum?”
Deciding there would be no better time, Malicia stepped out of the column’s shadow and walked towards the woman, who turned and scowled slightly at the sight of her.
“Malicia! What are you doing here? You couldn’t have floated here by mistake!”
“As a matter of fact, I did come here on purpose,” said Malicia coolly. “This visit is impromptu, I’ll admit, but it concerns matters of great importance, namely, the troubles that have been plaguing Eldritch and Etheria.”
The woman screamed in frustration. “Malicia! You, of all fairies! Coming here, acting innocent, trying to pin the crimes on someone else!”
“Mab, please,” Malicia pleaded. “Several of these so-called crimes I am totally confused about. I don’t get out of the castle much.”
“Oh?” asked Mab, raising an eyebrow. “Well, what have you heard, Malicia?”
“I think there was something about…a shortage of humor in Falderal?”
“That never happened,” said Mab.
“And some rumors from the desert,” continued Malicia, “The inhabitants say the stone idol is starting become active.”
“What? The idol is becoming active? What do you mean by…” Mab suddenly stopped and rolled her eyes in acknowledgement of the joke. “Malicia, what kind of jest are you trying to pull on me?”
Malicia smiled slightly. If there was one thing Mab didn’t have, it was a sense of humor. In the occasional times Titania and Malicia had visited in the past, Malicia often delighted in tormenting Mab with her stale puns and wordplay. “What’s wrong, Mab? Did the Dream Weaver make too many knots in his last work?”
“No, Malicia, no! That is not the subject! Now, what were we talking about?”
“About ten seconds ago.”
“No, I mean…well, you were talking about the events in Eldritch and making it sound like a big joke. I happened to know all that has happened, Malicia. I know about Edgar’s kidnapping, the invasion of Etheria, the unbalancing of the Bountiful Woods and the suddenly thickened rivalry between Vulcanix and Ooga Booga.”
“Hmm. You do know everything, Mab.”
“And I know you’re responsible for this, Malicia.”
“Why do I have to repeat everything to you? You’ve been causing this chaos, and the rulers of the fairies are sleepless and grief-stricken!”
“Is that so?”
“And you are not going to get away with your little plan, Malicia!”
“Well, I fail to see how a dream director could save an entire kingdom – in the conscious world too, I might add.”
“I can’t do something like that alone – but I know Oberon and Titania will. I will go to Etheria and tell them about what you have done, Malicia. You can never overthrow the realm of the fairies!”
“All right,” said Malicia quietly, slowly raising her hands above her head. Mab backed away from her several steps. “If you believe that, then so be it. But I see things another way.”
With that, an icy blast leapt from Malicia’s hands and struck Mab. The Lady of Dreams was able to let out one resonating scream before her world froze around her. Lowering her hands, Malicia examined her handiwork. Mab was encased in a pillar of ice, which would stay frozen indefinitely in Dreamland, according to the obscure physics of the unconscious world.
Malicia smiled again, placed one hand on the cold surface, and spoke to the figure trapped within:
“I hate to have to do this in cold blood, Mab, but I had to put you out of the way. Perhaps someday someone will find you here and defrost your snug little cocoon, but until then – “
But Malicia never finished her sentence. A pair of gnarled hands was shaking her violently, her world was falling out of focus and tumbling over and over. She suddenly realized she was awake. Then she looked into a pair of eyes in a small, green, impish face – a face she could never easily forget.
“Maliciaaaaa!! We have big, big problem, Malicia! Big problem!!!”
It happened so suddenly that many people didn’t notice until it ended. The first sign that something was occurring was the sudden tension in the hoards of demons invading Etheria. Many pairs of beady black eyes turned upward toward the skies, clawed hands pointed and panicked shrieks rang out.
The next happening was that the demons storming the south side of the castle began to retreat out the windows and down tower walls, as if something outside was calling them to arms. Then the swarms of demons coming in from the outside began to lessen, fewer new troops were arriving and many more were retreating, usually in clusters at a time.
Oberon grew suspicious about these alleged activities. Perhaps it was another ingenious tactic to catch him and his allies off-guard again. In fear of his family and his kingdom, Oberon ran down the left hallway of the palace until he reached the main junction, which looked over the great ballroom. The huge doors were still barred shut with his thick staff.
The Lord of the Fairies raced down the first flight of stairs as well as he could in his sandals, then nearly flew down the main staircase, landing with a loud clap on the marble floor. Oberon then raced to the doors, his footsteps echoing in his ears and reached for the handle of his staff, which was the only thing barring the demons from the main entrance.
Taking a deep breath, Oberon yanked the staff out of the brass slots and pulled the heavy doors open.
The courtyard was empty, except for about five or six demons who had obviously been monitoring the doors to see if they ever opened. Two were asleep, and the remaining ones took several seconds to realize the doors were ajar and someone was standing before them. With hoarse screams that barely matched the ones Oberon had heard on the battlefield, the short demons picked up their spears and charged. Oberon swung his staff and caught the first demon in the chest. A small spark of light signaled that the staff’s dormant magic had been activated by the motion.
The demon crumbled and lay sprawled in the grass. The other three hesitated and continued their attack on Oberon, but with one swipe from his staff, Oberon put a quick end to the rampage. Closing the doors behind him, hoping no one had seen them open, he stepped over the unconscious bodies and into the gardens.
The gardens were devastated by the invasion, but deserted. All the fighting was taking place in the wide fields on the other three sides of the castle. As Oberon tried to decide the quickest route to the closest field, a spurt of water from an off-center fountain, once aligned to squirt water over a pathway into a similar one, ricocheted through the air and hit Oberon squarely on the side of his face.
Muttering an ill-natured curse at the fountain and the demons that tipped it, he quickly strode right to avoid getting squirted in the face again, along the walls of the castle, towards the west field.
The ratio of fairies to demons in the field was almost three to one. The invaders were becoming scarce, but Oberon was not growing any calmer. Something was causing the demons to retreat, and he was determined to find out what it was. Whacking his way through the swarms of enemies with his brightly glowing staff, careful not to hit any of his own people, Oberon repeatedly glanced at the sky, trying to spot what the demons were spotting.
This proved to be a bad move for Oberon. Several minutes after he started making his way through the creatures, a large, muscular demon leapt through the air and onto Oberon’s back, throwing him to the ground. His fall nearly squashed another demon in the process, which squealed and scurried out from under his body like a small rat.
The beast on Oberon’s back was uncannily heavy, and it had already locked its knees around his waist. He was unable to get up, or even roll over onto the demon because of its weight. Several blows to the creature’s body did little but injure his hand. The creature was probably wearing some thick, spiked armor over his already too-thick hide.
Oberon heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed and a blade being sharpened. Still he tried to free himself, but his efforts were useless. In the blinding light of the afternoon sun, he could just make out the shadow of another weapon moving towards him: a huge, thick sword moving swiftly, the swordsman obviously of great skill and speed.
As Oberon tried to close his eyes to blot out what was about to happen, the sword flashed through the air and caught the demon on his back with a blow to the chest. The creature snarled in pain and slumped over, its grip on Oberon relaxed and the lord of the fairies rose to his feet, ready to see who his savior was.
His eyes met those of a large, black horse with sleek, iron muscles and a flowing mane and tail. Mounted atop the animal’s back, in the elaborate leather saddle was a tall, dark-haired, bearded man wearing the clothing of a soldier, with a long, red cape flying out behind him in the strong wind. His eyes, though hard with the stresses of tragedies from the past, shone with joy as they looked down upon Oberon, who by now knew who this man was.
“Lord Oberon, when will you ever learn that tangling with demons can kill you?” Count Tsepish asked jokingly, shaking his friend’s hand from his perch atop his stallion. “I’ve been trying to scatter these demons and at least scare most of them off, and it seems to be working so far.”
“How is Elspeth taking this?”
“She is fine, and so is the rest of the land – I hope I can say the same for yours soon. By the way…have you found out who or what is behind this invasion?”
“Sadly, yes,” Oberon sighed. “My wife’s sister, Malicia.”
“She caused all this?” the Count exclaimed. “Well, by my blade, Oberon, I grant that she shall cause no more damage than she already has!”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said a low voice behind them.
Oberon turned slowly around, anxious even though he knew whose eyes were watching him. He stopped to face Malicia, who was standing in a semicircle formed by many of the surrounding demons, all of whom were slowly backing away as they realized what was about to happen.
“Well. I suppose you think you’ve done well, Lord Oberon,” she said in a monotone drawl with a similar facial expression. “You’ve managed to fight off the demons and keep your stronghold intact. Now you’re causing the downfall of my army. Both of you. And especially you,” she growled, glaring at Vladmir Tsepish.
“You put yourself up for this, Malicia,” replied the Count. “You tried to overthrow the Lord of Etheria and his wife – your own sister – just to draw attention to yourself. I’m ashamed to know your name, m’lady.”
“You are only adding more painful preludes to your death,” said Malicia. “There are many more demons stationed in the trees around this island and even more fighting elsewhere. I need only say the word and they will be upon you before you know it.”
Vladmir smiled with an amusement Oberon did not understand. “Au contraire, Malicia. I circled the perimeters tenfold, and any demons with an ounce of sense flew the coop when they saw me pass. I’ve also scattered the creatures on all other sides of the castle and checked every possible nook and cranny. These demons on this field are all that’s left of your invincible army, Malicia.”
Malicia’s upper lip curled back, exposing her straight, white teeth. As she stood there, trembling with rage, a small green demon came loping over to her side. Upon noticing him, Malicia suddenly pointed towards Vladmir, commanding, “Celadon!” as she did.
The demon snapped to attention at her words and instantly leapt into the air, coming down on the neck of the Count’s horse. The black stallion, Necromancer reared back, trying to throw off the odd creature, which was slowly crawling down the length of the horse’s neck, ready to spring for Count Tsepish’s throat. Vladmir’s hand was on the hilt of his sword and just as the foul creature sprang for him, mouth open and claws protruding, he swung his weapon at an upward angle, not only knocking the demon from his steed, but also slicing off the creature’s left ear, nearly at the base.
The demon Celadon shrieked in pain and scampered away into the thinning armies of his fellow soldiers, many of which took off with him, eager to take advantage of this incident. Vladmir Tsepish sheathed his weapon and looked at Malicia once again.
“Your demons cannot win this battle for you, Malicia. That is because you have already lost. Surrender now and all will be forgiven.”
“Yes, Malicia,” agreed Oberon. “Stop this mayhem. You are the queen’s sister. Isn’t that something any fairy could wish for?”
“Yes,” said Count Tsepish. “Face it, my lady: you’re outnumbered. Better to give in now than to regret your foolishness later.”
Malicia’s eyes narrowed with irate tenacity. She raised her arms above her head, her hands pointing at the Count. For a moment, nothing happened, then an enormous ball of fire flashed from her fingers, streaking through the air in the inevitable direction of Count Tsepish. Once again, his fist tightened around his sword as he yanked it out of the scabbard. As the fiery sphere neared the Count, he whipped his sword in front of his face and caught the burning projectile with the weapon’s blade as though the fireball were a melon.
Then Vladmir Tsepish turned around in the saddle and flung the scorching sphere away from the island, over the heads of the nearby demons, causing many of them to flee, soaring through the cool air of Etheria, where it would undoubtedly be extinguished before it crashed into another isle.
Before the Count could speak again, Malicia had already conjured and flung a second fireball his way, and once again, Count Tsepish caught it. This time, however, the sphere was much too heavy to throw off-island, the farthest distance would be several feet from the edge. Not wanting to be responsible for starting a fire, Vladmir glanced around the field, trying to find the best place to fling the fiery manifestation. Finally, realizing he had no other option, the Count drew back his weapon and launched the fireball directly at Malicia.
The sphere hit Malicia in the chest, bursting into an explosion of light. The sorceress bent over, obviously in pain, but otherwise she bore no signs of injury. Panting heavily and glaring at Count Tsepish with some of the fire glowing in her eyes, Malicia raised her hands again, preparing to throw yet another deadly sphere.
“Wait!” called a voice from behind her. “Stop!”
Malicia lowered her hands, the voice sounding familiar to her. Turning around, she saw that the speaker was standing near the left side of the west castle wall, eyes wide with anxiety and fear. The pale skirts of the figure were gently blown to the side by the wind. She looked at Malicia, then began walking slowly in her direction. It was Titania.
“Malicia, please stop,” she pleaded. “This is your home, your own home you’re destroying. Please don’t continue on with this, sister. Please.”
“I am afraid that things have gone too far to simply forgive and forget,” said Count Tsepish. “Oberon, I think we both know what to do in a case like this. May I give Malicia her sentence?”
Oberon nodded solemnly, and Titania came to his side, holding his hand in hers. Count Tsepish dismounted his horse and strode towards Malicia until he was standing several inches from her.
“As punishment for these crimes against Etheria and Eldritch, Lady Malicia, I, Vladmir Tsepish, speaking for Lord Oberon, pronounce that you shall be banished from the Kingdom of the Fairies, never to return. You will leave now, my lady. Now.”
Count Tsepish pointed his hand away from the island’s side, towards the distant clouds and skies. Malicia sullenly began to trudge in that direction, her dignity destroyed, her pride crushed. There was nothing more she could do…absolutely nothing…wait. There was one more thing…
Malicia whirled around and raised her right hand towards the clouds. “Gargoyle! Come now, as your mistress commands!”
At these words, a formerly inanimate, grotesque statue on the roof of one of the castle towers suddenly sprang to life, spread its sinewy wings and took to the air. Even though the creature was on their side, many demons shied away from the ferocious monstrosity. The gargoyle swooped down, over the heads of the soldiers, the leaves of the nearby trees shuddering as it passed. Then it soared up into the sky again, waiting to be told what to do.
Malicia pointed sharply at Vladmir. “Finish him!” she bellowed. The airborne monster peered at her for a moment, then dipped down again, this time almost skimming the ground as it began its ascent. Reaching out with its clawed hands, the gargoyle snatched a huge ax from the fingers of one of the demon warriors and veered sharply to the right, speeding towards Vladmir, who began backing away in terror and surprise.
“No! Don’t!” screamed Titania, throwing herself in the monster’s path. His face paling with fright, Oberon grabbed his wife by the arm and yanked her aside just as the gargoyle streaked past, the tip of one wing slicing Titania’s arm.
Count Tsepish stood his ground, preparing to jump aside at the last second. He did, almost, for the gargoyle was apparently expecting such a maneuver, and swerved to Vladmir’s new position, knocking him to the ground, face-down.
It all took place so suddenly that the observers could barely think for several moments afterwards. The great stone beast had pinned Vladmir down upon a large piece of marble, its claws clenched around his shoulders. The gargoyle then raised the large ax it was carrying and brought it down, the afternoon light flashing off the huge blade as it cleanly severed the Count’s neck, lopping his head from his body.
Titania screamed and Necromancer reared back, neighing in terror. The stallion then turned and launched himself into the sky, galloping on the wings of the wind, searching for somewhere where he would not have to face this madness. Malicia stepped forward to where her gargoyle still crouched over Vladmir’s paling body. Then she quickly snatched up his head by the hair and threw it over the edge of the island, where it fell through the clouds and vanished within seconds.
“May you never see your loved ones again!” Malicia growled. “And may they never see you, even after death! Search the skies for a place where you can find peace, but may all your endeavors be in vain! You will pay for what you did to me!”
Malicia turned around and faced her sister and brother-in-law coldly. Titania was crying softly, and Oberon was shaking with rage. “I should have killed you when I had the chance,” he whispered hoarsely.
“You would have,” said Malicia mockingly. “Well, I’ll remember your little bargain, Oberon. You’ll never see me here again. However…you will see me again, that I can assure you.”
With a chilling laugh, Malicia vanished in a cloud of lightning and fire. The gargoyle dropped the heavy ax, spread its wings and took off into the sky, disappearing from sight. The remaining demons who still were on the battlefield quickly mounted their winged counterparts and fled from the island, flapping awkwardly towards the outer islands, with no intention of return.
Meanwhile, a lone mason-worker in Ooga Booga had just heard of the tragic events that had taken place in Etheria. Lowering his balding head in sorrow, he slowly began drawing up plans for an appropriate tomb for the late protector of his land, trying not to let himself hear the grief-stricken sobs of Elspeth, who lay weeping on her bed within the once proud Tsepish Mansion.
Edgar was staring into the glass of the mirror which stood beside his throne in the Vulcanix Underground, the one Malicia said was rumored to have magical powers. She had brought him here at least an hour ago, then left to do things she wouldn’t tell him about. He was still trying to comprehend who he was, and if he had any other purpose other than to serve Malicia.
His efforts to do this were interrupted frequently by the broad, aged, female troll that Malicia said was named Mathilde. Her cross, wrinkled face would often glare into Edgar’s and ask him if there was anything wrong. He would answer no, and ask why she asked, and she would always have a vague, unclear response, giving Edgar the impression that she didn’t trust him. Or maybe she didn’t trust anyone. He still wasn’t sure.
After another hour or two, Malicia appeared in the center of the Great Hall, and immediately noticed Edgar, slumped in his throne in a shallow sleep.
“Fen-riiis!! Get up!”
Edgar awakened at once and rose to his still-numb feet.
“Otar Fenris III, there is still more we must do before the day is done,” Malicia said. “We must go to the swamp that connects Ooga Booga and the Were-Woods. Now come here.”
Edgar solemnly shuffled over to where Malicia was pointing one slender finger. Once his shoulder was within reach, the sorceress grabbed it firmly and vanished, taking Edgar with her. The two reappeared in a misty swamp, where crickets purred softly in the fading shadows of the evening. Edgar noticed they were standing on a path, which continued eastward, into a thick, black forest. He decided not to ask why they were there.
Malicia glanced around the stagnant bogs and mud-holes on either side of the path, quietly muttering to herself. After several minutes of this unintelligible whispering, she raised her hands in a dramatic gesture and uttered a long, segmented word which seemed to wrap around the tongue as it left the throat. A flash of light briefly lit the swamp, and then a large, magenta-painted house materialized out of the air, pushing through the protesting trees with their hanging clumps of moss, and finally settling in the soft earth.
Lowering her hands, Malicia began a slow walk around the newly-created brick abode, still muttering to herself and occasionally raising a hand to add a window to one wall, or a column to another. After a full counter-clockwise journey, the woman examined a small, ugly shrub to the left of the stone staircase leading up to the main door.
“That adds a most unpleasant touch to this side, don’t you think, King Otar?” she said, turning to Edgar.
“Well…I guess so, Lady Malicia.”
“Of course. And I know just what to do with it…oh, where could he be…”
Malicia began scanning the skies above her, continuing her inaudible murmurs.
“Of course. He wouldn’t know we were here,” she decided for herself. Cupping one hand to her mouth, Malicia tilted her head upwards and bellowed:
“Gargoyle! Down here! Your creator has something for you!”
Before she had even finished, the sleek, stone beast that had beheaded the Protector of Ooga Booga plummeted out of the clouds and landed firmly on the soft earth before Malicia, its posture suggesting a dog waiting to be given a treat from its master.
“Good pet,” crooned Malicia. “I have something for you.”
She swept her hand towards the unsightly patch of weeds, which was instantaneously replaced by a large slab of carved marble, cut into a high pedestal reminiscent of Greece or Rome. Yet the darkness of the swamp seemed to mar it almost immediately as it appeared.
“Stay here and guard the house,” ordered Malicia. “I don’t want any were-beasts or Ooga-Boogaites breaking in while I’m away.”
“Ahh…” began Edgar. “Lady Malicia…”
“Oh, all right, while we’re away, gargoyle,” said Malicia, patting the stone monster upon its hard head. The gargoyle leapt atop the marble pedestal and folded its stone-sheet wings around itself. Then it closed its eyes and slept, a beast that did not sleep, or even live.
“Come. This way,” growled Malicia, taking Edgar by the hand and walking him along the west tail of the path. An iron gate loomed out of the mists and the dying light. Edgar reached out a hand to open it, but Malicia restrained him.
“Hold it, Fenris,” she snapped. Raising a hand into the air, Malicia recited another ominous phrase, which sparked a sudden gust of wind to sweep through the marshes. Clumps of moss and fungi flew through the air, possibly ripped from their moorings by the mere sound of the word. The wind lumped the airborne pieces together, forming an odd ball of vegetation in midair. More pieces of plants and strips of rotting wood leapt onto the rapidly enlarging ball, which by now had begun to take shape, forming a strange, monstrous entity which stood on two legs. Finally, the wind stopped blowing and the inanimate, mossy mannequin shuddered and sprang to life. Its huge mossy arms dangled at its sides, its mossy, hollow eyes rolling around in its barely distinguishable head.
“Guard the gates,” barked Malicia. “Let no one, save myself and King Otar pass.”
The strange creature nodded and dissolved into the air, leaving a tension in the swamp, suggesting that the beast was still there, ready to strike should an intruder pass.
“Excellent,” said Malicia, opening the iron gates. “This way, Fenris.”
The moon was rising in the east as Edgar and Malicia traveled along the south border of Ooga Booga. It was almost full, and Edgar supposed it had been a quarter a night or two ago. Why is it called a quarter anyway? It looks half-full…
These questions sparked another clouded memory of another night, standing with two other people in an island in the clouds, asking them why…but with a voice different, yet familiar to Edgar.
Suddenly there was an abrupt clattering of sticks coming from a clearing ahead of them. Edgar started back in alarm, squinting at the pile of strange, long, white branches ahead, which was shaking horrifically, as if it were about to burst into flames. In the next moment, the heap seemed to shatter into fragments as a strange, scarecrow-bodied being leapt out from underneath it, scattering the sticks right and left, which appeared even more like bones as they flashed in the moonlight. The creature hung briefly in the air, a spindly skeleton hanging from a puppeteer’s hand, then dropped back down to earth, landing in an awkward heap several yards from Malicia.
“Ah, you have arrived,” cried Malicia, in a tone similar to the one a person uses when greeting a good friend. “I need your help to perform one last task. It shouldn’t be too much for a person like you.”
The livid, green-complexioned creature raised its sharp-boned, bald head, glaring at Malicia out of two empty eye sockets and grinning with a crooked-toothed mouth.
“Lady Malicia wishes the Boogeyman to assist her?” the beast asked, in a hair-raising, half-screaming, half-growling voice. “I shall be glad to help!”
“Of course,” purred Malicia. Casually she turned to the thick brambles beside her and began breaking off several long branches, barking at Edgar to do the same. The monster called the Boogeyman watched with an unnerving, yet passable look of patience. After several minutes, Malicia turned back to him, her arms filled with black sticks.
“All right. Follow me,” she commanded. Giving Edgar a hard nudge in the shoulder, Malicia calmly strode northward, out of the clearing and into the vast sea of tombstones. Edgar was so busy trying to remember where he had seen this place before that he hardly noticed the scattered, pale branches slowly regrouping over the now resealed hole in the earth where the Boogeyman had leaped out.
The path they were on led them through the many unique stones and grave markers of Ooga Booga. A young, light-skinned mason gasped upon seeing them and quickly ducked behind a large tomb which seemed to be partially constructed. In the gloom ahead of them, Edgar could make out a large, white mansion, once proud, now decaying. It seemed as if something truly devastating had taken place here. A large, black dog lay by the doorstep, and Edgar could hear its whimpers as they approached.
“Where is the Lady Tsepish?” asked Malicia.
“Oh, the lady be dead,” shrieked the Boogeyman. “She died crying her eyes out in the mansion, only a few hours ago, yes.”
“Well, this won’t make things any different,” said Malicia coldly. Raising a bundle of twigs in one hand, she raised her other hand to it, then quickly withdrew as the sticks exploded into flame. The Boogeyman stood hypnotized by the dancing fire, the sparks reflecting in his empty eyes. The dog had raised its head at the noise, and was now barking furiously, standing defensively with his back to the house.
“Burn the mansion to the ground,” growled Malicia. “Teach them to never cross me again. Vladmir’s whole family shall feel my wrath for what he did.”
Nodding stupidly, the Boogeyman took the burning bundle in his clawed hand and sauntered towards the derelict mansion. The dog was starting to show signs of fear as it continued to bark and snarl, darting back and forth, trying to keep the Boogeyman away from the house. The Boogeyman angrily waved his torch at the hound, once nearly singeing its nose, yet the animal still retained its position, refusing to let the intruder attack.
“So you won’t let me by, eh?” the Boogeyman leered maliciously. Once again he stepped forward, trying to get past the dog. One quick step right, and the dog was in his path. One step left, and the same occurred. One step right again and then left and right again so quickly the dog did not have time to react, and the corner of the roof hanging over the front door had caught fire.
The hound yelped in rage and agony, trying to stop the fire from spreading by hopping up and down on its back legs and swatting at the flames. The Boogeyman leapt to the opposite end of the house and swept his torch across the sweeping, wooden roof. A small stream of fire shot up, bringing the dog, howling, to the ground before it, still barking insanely, trying to stop what was happening.
As the fire grew, however, the light of the Boogeyman’s torch eventually flickered and extinguished itself.
“Fenris!” snapped Malicia to Edgar, who was transfixed by the horror that was growing before him. “More wood!”
She snatched a bundle of twigs from Edgar’s arms and ignited the end with the sparks that flew from her fingers. “More wood, more wood!” screamed the Boogeyman in an insane ecstasy, hopping around the house, anxious to see the magic of the flames heightened. Malicia thrust the new torch forward, and the demented creature snatched it immediately, turning and continuing his mad frolic around the burning mansion.
“Hurry up, you!” snarled Malicia. “We don’t want to attract attention!”
Her voice was barely heard over the yelps and cries of the dog, who was now half-maddened with grief and terror. Still, it tried to stop the destruction of its home long after the exterior had become a skeleton of fire, far beyond any help from it or any other.
As the roof began sagging and cracking under the heat and stress of the fire, the dog suddenly stopped barking and streaked inside, either to die with the house or to try to awake its dead mistress, whom Malicia knew was probably lying on the bed in the master bedroom, done in by the sorrow inflicted by the beheading of her husband. There was no sound after the animal had run through the rectangle of fire that had once been the door until the roof suddenly gave a loud snap and caved in upon the house. There was a piercing howl of pain, followed by several more agonized cries. Then there was nothing Edgar could hear after that but the dull growling of the flames and the occasional insane cackle of the Boogeyman, as he destroyed all that was left of the once noble, yet strangely familiar mansion.
“It couldn’t have been only her,” said Oberon. “Who could have done all this? Who in Etheria – let alone the mortal world – could have?”
A low, concerned rumble of whispers ran up and down the long, oak table. The afternoon sun was flashing through the delicate, laced curtains of the council chamber, casting irregular patterns of light across the faces of the fairies who sat in ornately carved stone or wood chairs that circled the table. The light was a more-than-obvious reflection of the emotions which reverberated from the seated individuals.
Oberon, the Lord of the Fairies sat at the head of the table in a higher and mightier chair than the others, one carved from the familiar lavender, Etherian stone, with flowers and birds encircling the arms and an insignia of the sun, with numerous rays protruding from it, chiseled into the back of it. Oberon’s face was cold and concerned, anxious to find answers to at least some of his almost infinite questions.
“Well? What do you people think?” he asked after several seconds of silence.
“Your highness,” ventured a trembling Torrwith from the near-opposite end of the table, “Is it the disappearance of your son that you wish to know more about, or rather, the whole happenings that have been going on in this realm?”
“As much as I would like to know what creature had the wickedness to snatch my son from the garden just as my back was turned – only a few hours after we found him after all this time – I daresay I must try to uncover the greater mysteries first.”
A loud murmur of words swelled in the circle. Fairies whispered to each other and tried to gather the courage to ask Oberon his opinion on what was on their minds at the moment, but many declined to speak.
“Lord Oberon, sir,” queried a small, winged, female fairy who talked rather nasally and wore a tiara woven out of grass, “Could you describe to us what exactly happened when Edgar was kidnapped? ‘Cause a lot of us would like to know more about that, sir.”
Oberon sighed deeply and glanced out the window at the dragonettes that darted about the flowers outside, then turned his attention back to the waiting council.
“As most of you know,” he said, “Burgeon cried out the news of Elfreda’s death at a volume loud enough that Titania and I could easily hear.”
A small, male fairy seated by Oberon’s side flattened his ears and nodded, as if in guilt as Oberon continued:
“My lady turned and ran towards the palace and I turned after her but didn’t run…I had my eyes off him for just one second…then…when I looked back, he was gone.” Oberon lowered his head and put a hand to his forehead.
“I can tell this is causing you much problems, majesty,” remarked the nasal female fairy. “If you please, I am sure many of us would like to find out who or what is behind this theft of your offspring.”
A chorus of agreement traveled around the table. The Lord of the Fairies looked up and nodded slowly. At this simple gesture, scads of fairies began blurting out questions and making impromptu statements about who they considered a suspect.
“Mister Oberon, sir?” asked a small goblin who had hopped out of his seat and plodded up to Oberon’s side. “Can you tell us of any more details about the happenings on that night?”
“All right,” agreed Oberon unwillingly. As the fairies around the table fell silent, he pressed a hand to his forehead again, trying to remember the painful minutiae of the night his child had vanished. As he finally raised his head to speak, the assembly fell even quieter, and nothing but the humming of the dragonettes from outside could be heard.
“I remember – as I turned away there was a sudden gust of wind. It was a warm night, but this wind wasn’t. It was cold. Icy. Freezing. I just noticed it, it increased, reached a high zenith, then just dissipated. Even as I turned back, I could still feel it. There were also considerably fewer clouds in the sky than there had been. That’s the only thing I can remember.”
The buzz of fairy voices grew once again, several of the company gesturing wildly with their hands, as if trying to get across the “messages” the wind Oberon mentioned might be saying. For several long seconds, no one prodded him with an actual question to ponder. Then, a sharp claw poking at his elbow made him turn his head and look downwards.
“You say it was the feeling of the wind that got your notice?” asked an odd, deformed, green-colored creature peering into Oberon’s face. “Not the temperature, yes?”
“Yes, I would say the emotion of the wind made me remember, fellow – “
“And would you say,” continued the beast, “That it was a feeling of malevolence – of evil – you felt in this breeze?”
“Yes,” replied Oberon, interested in the being’s inquisitive demeanor. “Why do you ask?”
The creature rolled its large eyes left, then right and drew closer to Oberon. “Methinks it might have been an evil wind, sire,” it whispered, though its raspy voice was easily heard all around the table. “An antagonist of Aeolus.”
“What does this thing mean?” asked Torrwith, stepping forward, talking as if the imp-like thing weren’t even there. “Is this flibbertigibbet making some reference to King Levanter’s court or something?”
“Exactly!” shrieked the green gremlin, yanking Torrwith down to its level by the collar. “The Court of the Winds didn’t attend the prince’s homecoming, did it?”
“No,” said Oberon.
“And they didn’t give any excuses for not coming!”
“No,” said Oberon, growing suspicious of both the odd creature and its alleged claims.
“Then that’s it!” snapped the being, letting go of Torrwith’s shirt and nearly sending him sprawling backwards. “They didn’t come because they were plotting! Plotting, Oberon! Plotting to steal the crown prince!”
At this outburst, an agitated rumble of whispers overtook the council table. Oberon sat back in surprise, finding this sudden flood of facts hard to comprehend. “But see here, imp,” he intervened, “Titania and I have been allies with King Levanter and his queen Gharbi for decades. Now why would they suddenly turn on us, creature? Explain how that can be!”
The creature seemed at a loss for what to say next, but before the crowd of fairies could turn against its opinions, it came up with another leg to his story.
“It couldn’t have been this court on the Mountain of the Winds, Lordship,” garbled the being quickly, as if he were running short of ideas. “But most likely it was another wind from another realm, trying to take over this one.”
An excited fluttering of whispers arose. One human-sized fairy stood up in her seat and hollered, “Oberon, it could even be that an entity from this other realm possessed Malicia! Could there be an other explanation?”
A chorus of “Yea”-s and “Yes”-es came from every side of the table. “She’s right!” shouted another fairy. “This other realm may just be trying to take ours over!”
“I agree!” squawked an older, doll-sized fairy from the other end of the table. "I once visited another realm and you wouldn’t believe the inhabitants there! I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to pick up and invade another country for their own!”
With each outcry, there came even more that followed, and even more after that. At length, Oberon had to raise a hand to demand silence.
“You have aroused my interests, imp,” he said in a low voice to the green creature. “Where did you obtain this information, though?”
“From places that must remain secret,” replied the creature, “Along with basic logic.”
“What would you advise Titania and I to do now?”
“Why – try to seek out this malevolent country, of course!” cried the elfish being with a high-pitched chuckle. “The sooner you track these evildoers down, the better!”
“Hear, hear!” yelled one fairy from the crowd. “This fellow seems to know what might have happened, and if not, then at least we may be on a good start.”
“All right,” said Oberon. “Since this council seems to agree with this idea, I will go along with it. But what about…”
He stopped in mid-sentence. Titania stood in the doorway of the room, looking thoughtful and concerned.
“I heard enough,” she said firmly. “If some dark force has taken over my sister and kidnapped my son, I can’t find a better excuse to search it out. We’d better make preparations immediately, Oberon. If we stay another day in this confusion and woe, we may never know where to begin.”
“You are right,” said Oberon. “This may be a rumor, but there seems to be enough evidence behind it. People,” he said, addressing the council. “Lady Titania and I will set out on our journey tomorrow. We have left this kingdom for long times before and you know how to govern yourselves, sometimes even better without our intervention. I do not know when we will return, but when we do, it will not be without our son, alive and well. Good day.”
The assembly of fairies erupted with applause and shouted wishes of good luck and hope. The small green demon, glad to be unnoticed, slunk away under the table and chairs, waiting until the last fairy had left before exiting himself, thoughtfully rubbing the side of his head and the ugly, shriveled stump that had once been his left ear.
It had been weeks – or it could have been months, even years since the beautiful mansion had been devoured by the flames. Since then, he had been kept a prisoner in the underground, working away tediously on this huge machine, adding new features which his mistress demanded of him. “She” was the closest friend he had in this life, a life which had abruptly spit him out of the last, leaving only a ripple of a memory that sometimes fluctuated and made him recall the other side of him, the side which feared to reenter the open, and still hibernated within the darkest cranny of his mind.
He had once had a name – but this name that he was supposed to bear – “King Otar Fenris III” – didn’t sound like it at all. Sometimes he would try to remember his old name; only that would be enough, but then the woman – Malicia – would tell him to get back to work or to stop idling.
The inhabitants of this subterranean world were reflections of his own image: rough, bumpy, thick-skinned, bat-eared, none ever jumping out at him saying “I am beautiful” or “I am not beautiful.” He could never truly judge himself as handsome since he had no clue what someone handsome was supposed to look like. It had all been erased. Forgotten. Lost.
Edgar knew he didn’t belong in this life. The troll nursemaid, Mathilde, was always looking daggers at him as if he were behaving in a peculiar way. And Malicia seemed totally indifferent whether he was happy or not. For hours he would think over these facts, sometimes seated in the corroded gold throne with the red cushions or while he paced the great hall in his bare, hairy feet. Or perhaps even like today…
Edgar stood in front of the mirror to the right of his throne, the one in which he had first seen his reflection in this new form. He was thinking about one image that hadn’t withered and died with the rest of his old mind. It was a rose. No…it was a fountain, filled with roses, even though they were a pale pink in color, the blood-red passion within their cupped petals shone through.
But there was a deeper meaning in the roses and the fountain. Some picture, some image associated with them. A girl. Yes. A tall, blonde-haired young girl with blue eyes and flawless skin. A human. Why Edgar remembered that last detail he didn’t know. All he did know that she was different from him, in both this form and the form he had once occupied. And her name…
As Edgar strained to remember the name of the beautiful image, his reflection in the mirror warped and twisted. It became a subtle rainbow of colors, the vibrant hues blending into each other, creating a spiraling tunnel he was traveling through, even though he was standing still.
Rosella. Even as the name came to him, he could see her as she had appeared once so long ago. The yellow aura of her hair, the sea of her eyes reflected in a pool…she was sitting by the edge of a pond, trailing her tapering, pale fingers in the water. She was smiling, but something seemed to be missing…Edgar tried to believe what his memory was telling him…was it true that this Rosella liked him, even though he was…different?
Again, his thoughts shifted. Why had he remembered her now, and not sometime in the past? Some things had taken place. Some things he once couldn’t tell were right or wrong. Now something was pulling at him, warning him that these happenings were very wrong. He couldn’t do anything. This realm needs help…Wait. I can do something, Edgar told himself. I need to find help. But how…
The visage of Rosella slowly faded into nothing, leaving a swirling sea of greens and blues. The colors dissolved into a fantastic panorama of pastel clouds – clouds that were actually floating islands, made of purple rock, with mysterious trees growing from them. Some isles had intricate castles built upon them, with sweeping arches attaching towers and turrets, sometimes even whole islands. This land created a numbing pain in Edgar’s heart, but like so many other images he had seen since this life began, he didn’t know just why.
Suddenly, a strange creature fluttered in the face of the mirror. It resembled a small sea horse – but with wings. Again, this image set off a chain of memories in Edgar’s head. He reached out a finger and tried to touch the animal. To his amazement, his finger sank through the glass as if it were water. Edgar quickly pulled his hand away but continued staring at the picture in the glass that beat its wings rapidly and eyed him with equal curiosity.
We need help, Edgar said, almost aloud. I think I do as well. Go. Find help. Please…
The flying sea horse hesitated for a moment, then turned and flew away, through the floating islands, underneath stone arches carved by nature and by whatever intelligence lived in that land, under the low limbs of trees, then up – through a brilliant pink mist towards a large, irregular opening, through which Edgar could just make out the face of Rosella.
Yes, he silently urged. Yes! She would know what to do. I know she can help. Please bring her here.
The winged creature darted through of the opening. There was an odd ripple, as if the opening were a pond or a lake. Rosella started at the sight of the fairy-like creature, then tried to call it closer to her, but the creature resisted her motions and dived back into the pool.
Edgar nervously watched as Rosella extended a finger and touched the water, without a doubt seeing the beautiful kingdom in the clouds. Then her face vanished. Edgar trembled with anxiety, praying that his pleas were being turned down, and then, with an explosion of water and light, the girl dove into the pool and began swimming towards him.
Now what do I do? Edgar thought with a slight feeling of panic. The only available option seemed to be pulling her through the glass, which had already proven itself permeable at least twice. Rosella was now hovering in space, her right hand reaching for something…reaching for what? There seemed to be another person in the strange void with her, but there was no time to think about that now.
Clenching his teeth, Edgar hesitated for only a moment, then remembered that this land which felt strangely near to him was in danger. With this in mind, he thrust his right arm through the glass, closed his fingers around Rosella’s arm and pulled her body back through the mirror with all his strength.
The motion of pulling Rosella’s body through the mirror proved far greater than Edgar had anticipated. In a desperate move, he seized the middle of her dress with both hands in an effort to get her on the other side of the glass. Finally, he had gotten her safely out of the clutches of the mysterious mirror. She was lying in a heap on the stone floor, and Edgar was panting heavily from the sudden exertions.
Suddenly, he remembered what he had been told the first day of this new life. He was a king, and this was a most certainly honored guest. After a short fiddling with the available options, he bowed lowly, nearly scraping the ground with his beard as the princess rose to her feet.
After greeting Rosella as formally as he could with his eyes closed, Edgar looked up and looked his long-sought-for guest in the eyes. At this, his heart nearly stopped beating. Yes, it was she, Princess Rosella, the same one he had seen in the mirror, but she had become like him. She had become like every other flawed, rough-coated, large-eared troll in Vulcanix. Edgar couldn’t even breathe in his shock. He vaguely remembered what Malicia has said about the mirror being magic, but he had never anticipated that something this catastrophic should happen, especially to her…
As the girl’s blue eyes met his, she shied away from where he stood, he back to the mirror’s cold face. The first words out of her mouth were queries as to who Edgar was. Although confused for a moment, Edgar realized why she would be so confused. He had lured her from what was most probably her home.
“I…I am King Otar Fenris III. Ruler of the Vulcanix Underground.” Basic introductory sentence. A child could do that. “And…you are the Princess…Rosella, yes?” Just to make sure, Edgar told himself. You never can tell.
Rosella still appeared confused and looked just how Edgar felt the first day he started his new life. She asked about the castle in the sky and the mythical wonders she had seen through the pool, and where it was, however, the shock of Rosella entering the Underground as a troll was so great that the reason for Edgar’s bringing her there had been completely wiped from his brain.
He turned from her in confusion, confessing that he hadn’t expected this sudden twist of fate, and just as he realized too late, Rosella asked what he hadn’t expected, and a note of suspicion began to rise in her voice.
Now what do I do? Edgar asked himself wildly. He couldn’t remember why he had brought her here. He only knew it had to be something important. Think. Try to remember. He had remembered her as someone he once loved…now he was the king of the Underground…could it be that he had chosen her to be his bride? His mind began falling apart as this notion came. She was a troll now, but still…
This idea proved drastically wrong. Rosella angrily glared at Edgar, who timidly grinned, trying to show her that he had made a mistake, but it was too late. As the young princess turned to leave, she ran directly into the mirror, which, unlike the many occasions before, showed what stood before it just as plainly as any ordinary reflection.
Edgar watched in ashamed silence and Rosella stared at her image in the glass, touching her face just as Edgar remembered himself doing. Finally, Edgar forced himself to admit that she had somehow been transformed into a troll. Naturally, Rosella was utterly despaired, and Edgar’s efforts to comfort her were useless. I think I should let her take my quarters. At least…make them hers for the time being, he decided.
Taking the girl gently by the hand, Edgar led her to the door which opened into the small chamber Malicia said was his. The pain in her eyes was much like his own, but it was totally different, because Rosella knew what was going on in her world, and Edgar was still struggling to remember. Slowly closing the door and leaning against it, Edgar tried to understand what he had just done. He felt more like a fool like anything else. Eventually, Rosella’s frustrated yells from within his room caused him to leave, once more alone in the huge Grand Hall.
“Fen-riiiiiiis!!!” bellowed a painfully familiar female voice. “What are you doing this time?!?”
“Nothing, Malicia,” Edgar began.
“Enough!” Malicia roared in reply. “Get back to work on the machine! You should have learned the basics by now!”
“I have, Lady Malicia, but…”
“Then you should have learned how to work the eruptional controls!” she snapped. “Get back to the Control Room now, Fenris!”
“Yes, Malicia,” Edgar cried, running out of the Grand Hall and up the steep, rocky hill to the place where the secret passage was located. After a few seconds of groping, his fingers found the hidden button that was disguised as a rock and jabbed it unhesitatingly. After the hidden door slid open, Edgar dashed through, the echo of the panel slowly closing at his back. It was difficult to see in the darkness, and he abruptly stumbled over his own feet, tumbling forward along the ground in an effort to get back up.
Finally he reached the massive, metal doors that barred him from the Volcano Control Room. Following the directions Malicia had lectured to him, he turned the right dial, then the left, finishing the sequence by raising and lowering the center lever. The doors hissed open, and Edgar ran through, into the smoldering chamber, cluttered with machinery, and seated himself in front of the main control panel.
He still could not believe what had happened in the last few minutes. He had finally met the beautiful girl whose memory had lived within his former mind. She had changed – and yet Edgar remembered himself changing at one time in the dim past – but that was beyond him. What was going to happen to her? Had he done wrong? What would have happened if she hadn’t been transformed into a troll by the mirror? Edgar could not let himself drift off now. He was all too familiar with Malicia’s habit of spontaneously appearing out of thin air, and he had better get busy with whatever she wanted. And yet…
What’s going to happen now?
The next few hours were all too predictable for Edgar: Malicia was snapping at him to work faster or criticizing his techniques on working the mechanisms. There was still a nagging doubt in the back of his mind, admonishing him, telling him that what he was doing was wrong…and even saying that this was the reason why he had called upon Rosella…wherever or whatever she was now.
Malicia wasn’t monitoring him now. Her eyes were fixed on some crudely etched diagrams in an ancient book from one of the archives of Vulcanix (even though most think trolls aren’t a literary sort). The device she had taken from the pile of scraps lay on a nearby console, beside a small candle, whose flame flickered in envy of the rushing stream of molten lava that coursed past the chamber. Every now and then, Malicia would mutter something to herself, mark something down on a slip of parchment, and move on to a new book.
Edgar was growing quite bored; he had learned the functions of the Volcano Mechanism backwards and forwards, but didn’t want to tell Malicia for fear of her giving him something else to work on. He was just deciding whether it would be worth throwing a rock at a repulsive insect creeping up a nearby rock wall when a shrill, raspy voice resounded through the cavern.
“Maliciaaaa!” Edgar sat up with a jerk and the wrench he had been holding in one hand went flying. Malicia slapped shut the book she was scanning and looked at the burning taper beside the odd device. Edgar looked as well and noticed with surprise that there was something transparent suspended in the middle of the flame. He stood up and walked closer, hoping Malicia wouldn’t order him to sit back down, which she didn’t, to his amazement.
“What is it, Cicatrice?” Malicia groaned impatiently. Edgar suddenly realized there was a face in the flame of the candle – a familiar one, as of several hours ago of a particularly paranoid demon who kept buzzing Malicia with all levels of dangers and catastrophes. This time, however, he sounded like something was truly not right.
“Malicia! You know that blonde princess-girl that Otar dragged into the Grand Hall?”
“Yes. I heard she got warped into a troll somehow,” said Malicia indifferently. “Hah! I would have liked to see that.”
“Not anymore!” squeaked the demon-head in even more consternation.
“What!?!” Malicia thundered back.
“That witch-troll Mathilde’s been doing something with her! She’s not a troll anymore!”
“You mean she’s…”
“Yes! That witchy woman’s turned her back to human somehow!”
“Do you mean that?” snarled Malicia, as if she were suspecting another false alarm. Edgar, however, was excited. How it had happened he didn’t care to know; what he really wanted now was to see Rosella. He had only seen her image, but now to actually see her in person at last! The thought was so strong in him that suddenly the Control Room vanished and he was standing in the Great Hall. Mathilde was standing a few feet from him, looking startled, but in front of her was Rosella! Just as she had appeared in his memory, and not only that, but she had somehow managed to become human again!
Edgar was unable to find the words appropriate for the circumstances, and all that he actually said were what he would later look back on as mindless babbling – until Malicia appeared.
“You!” she growled at Rosella. “I’ve had just about enough of you distracting the King, you little snip!”
Rosella bristled and pushed Edgar aside to get to Malicia. If he weren’t so baffled by all that was happening, Edgar might have turned on her as well, but he was far too timid by all the present turmoil.
“Now look here, lady…” Rosella began angrily, looking very much as she did when Edgar somehow said that he wanted to marry her. Malicia did not respond, instead she vanished in her characteristic cloud of lightning, with her echoing “No, look here!” lingering in the great cavern.
“Malicia! No!” yelled Edgar, trying to defend Rosella, which he later realized was pointless, since even his experience with her sudden appearances could not predict where she would next appear.
As he secretly dreaded would happen, Malicia appeared, hovering above Rosella, who was still angrily looking for her. Shafts of lightning flew from her fingers and Edgar covered his eyes, fearing that this would be the last time he saw Rosella alive – but then there was nothing. Edgar opened his eyes and saw Malicia standing in front of the door to his room, talking loud enough for him to hear:
“There now, dear. Just relax. I’ll be with you before you know it.” She finished this sentence with a chilling laugh and turned to Edgar, who backed up a few steps, then started to run.
“Oh no you don’t!” Malicia snapped, suddenly materializing in Edgar’s path and grabbing his arm. “You’re coming with me!”
The Great Hall dissolved, and Malicia and Edgar were once again in the Control Room.
“Sit,” Malicia commanded. Edgar solemnly obeyed. Malicia vanished and momentarily reappeared, this time holding her tiny, ratty dog and stroking it delicately.
“Listen, Fenris,” she said slowly and icily. “That girl is something you’d best keep your ugly, oversized nose out of, you hear me? She has nothing to do with your task. You’ve done all right so far, don’t fail me now.”
Her eyes scanned the floor in disgust. “Don’t you trolls have any sense of cleanliness?” she snarled. “Clean up this pile of rubbish. Now.”
Quickly, Edgar began running from one end of the room to the other, shoving piles of parts behind machines or under consoles, occasionally throwing parts with absolutely no potential value into the molten lava river, which reflected the true power of the volcano, just as the scale model on the pedestal in front of the stream dwarfed it. After Edgar had finished after several minutes, the face of Cicatrice flickered into being within the already wildly dancing flame of the nearby candle.
“Yes? What now, demon?”
“The troll-nursemaid Mathilde’s unlocked the door to King Otar’s room! She’s trying to help that has-been troll-girl escape!”
“Oh, great, just what I need, another lump of a troll to deal with. I’ll be there in a minute, Cicatrice…”
“The girl’s not in there!”
“She’s escaped, Malicia!”
“Rats! I’ll be there as soon as I finish with Fenris. In the meantime – “ Malicia paused to blow out the candle, “ – Shut up, Cicatrice.”
She pocketed the smoking candle and the device that rested beside it and turned to Edgar, who was sitting in the main control seat, tired from the brief workout.
“Listen to me, you pudding-brained puppet,” she said, stroking her dog as she got back into the subject they were previously in. “If you and your obsession with the pale-skinned, meddlesome princess managed to disrupt my plans – “ Edgar winced and her cheeks quivered as she spoke this, “I’ll have you filleted!”
Here she calmed down and finally asked him if he had learned to work the volcano’s main mechanism, meaning “eruption.” Edgar finally had to agree, but could not help asking Malicia if all this was really right – “necessary,” as Edgar had described it.
“Oh, a village here, a township there, who’s going to miss them? Even if all of Eldritch is covered in slag, at least the blight of Etheria will be gone.”
Her tiny dog whimpered in agreement. Smiling and tucking him under her arm, Malicia strode out of the room, locking the door behind her. Edgar slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair in frustration, then got to his feet in sudden despair. Malicia’s words had struck something deep inside him, as if he were killing someone he had once loved and respected. He felt his eyes water in the sadness of the confusion that numbed his mind.
“I just don’t know what’s right,” he cried to whatever was listening. “What’s real – If only I could remember…”
It may have been either several hours or several days, but Edgar couldn’t tell. The present was too much like the distant past, with units of time blended into each other, creating one long stream of progress. Or short.
All he did know was the he had been locked in the Control Room for some time, doing minor checks and tests, things Malicia would have been pestering him to do, had she been there, which she hadn’t been since she left the room.
Edgar was idly fingering the major switch that Malicia had been ordering him to build since he first set foot inside the metal doors of the cavern. There was no harm in doing such a thing, since only a strong yank could trigger the volcano’s eruption. As he fastened one fist around the handle, Edgar heard a sound of hissing steam and grinding metal that made his heat skip a beat. He glanced wildly around the room, his hands clasped around the switch, trembling. Suddenly, the door to the room opened and there was…him!
It appeared to be an exact copy of Edgar, with the exception of the brilliant violet eyes and the furious glare on his face. And behind him was Rosella, just as she was several hours before, looking very concerned. The unexpectedness of this event took Edgar so suddenly that before he knew what he was, he had pulled the switch.
“Impostor!” growled his “duplicate” ferociously. “You have destroyed us all!”
Before Edgar could explain that he couldn’t explain what was happening, the muscular troll had flown through the air and pinned him to the floor, knocking the air out of his lungs. Far away he could hear Rosella scream. Edgar felt the ground beneath him trembling and felt that something terrible was going to happen and he had to do something to get this other Otar off him before whatever it was occurred.
“Rosella!” bellowed the other troll, rolling over as Edgar tried to right himself. “Change this impostor – back into his true – form!!”
Edgar, though uncertain what the troll meant, strained to call out: “Rosella! Get him!”
“No!” snarled his opponent, trying to keep Edgar in a firm headlock. “Get him!”
The two trolls battled furiously for a short time, twice Edgar seemed to be getting the upper hand until his opponent threw him against a huge, metal pipe at the other end of the control room. Both times he had gotten back up and tried to win over the stranger again, but it all ended the same – that is, until the third time.
Edgar had been flipped through the air by his better-experienced wrestling-mate, and had sullenly placed his crown, ready to get up and fight again, when suddenly a tingling white light enveloped him and raised him into the air. He almost yelped, but he could find no words to speak with. His airborne body slowly revolved in space, then a strangely familiar feeling, a pulling, stretching, twisting feeling manifested itself in every part of him. The light abruptly faded and Edgar shook his head in bafflement.
He gaped in shock at his hand. It wasn’t green! His fingers were long and slender, just like Rosella’s. His garments weren’t like that of a troll king, more like those of a human peasant. His legs were outrageously long, compared to what he’d been used to. Then he realized: he was himself again.
And then the memories. When a person normally loses his memory, the once familiar ones come ebbing back, little by little over a long time. But with Edgar, it was all one voluminous, immeasurable tidal wave that nearly caused him to pass out. The entity that had been hiding in the darkest crannies of his mind had finally awakened and broke through the surface, and he knew…
But where were his mother and father?…What had happened?…Elfreda…someone said she was dead…I was kidnapped…I was a…a troll? Malicia called me Fenris…but…what was my real name…?
“The son of Oberon and Titania? What are you doing here??”
In the brief space of time he had to comprehend these words, Edgar looked upon Rosella for the first time as a human in Eldritch. For some reason, she looked even more flawless and beautiful this time.
“Rosella!” Edgar said, and his voice was different. It was his. Not some warped, troll’s tongue, it was his voice. The one that made him Edgar. But no time have such a revelation, he had more important things to ask.
“Where are we? What’s going on??”
Then Malicia appeared. Quickly realizing what she had done to him, Edgar felt like wringing her neck. Before he could even take a step forward, however, Malicia had raised her arms in an all-too-familiar gesture and another queer sensation was engulfing Edgar’s body. It felt like a wind had suddenly begun rising for him alone. The breeze swept him off his feet and out the doorway.
Edgar struggled to grab onto a nearby stalactite or land himself on the ground, but there was nothing he could do. He was desperate to stop this stupid floating down the passageway; Rosella needed him. The whole realm could be in danger, all because of him and his one little mistake. He had to get out. Anywhere but here. Anywhere where he could be of better use. Anywhere…
Suddenly, he wasn’t there. He was standing on a dark patch of land in the middle of a clearing. The sky above him was black, with few stars. Immediately, Edgar knew where he was. Ooga Booga. But how had he suddenly appeared here from there? How could a person…
“There is another spell induced by strong emotions that can make a person disappear from one location and reappear in another…”
Yes. Of course. It had happened in Vulcanix when he had so wanted to see Rosella as a human again – but who had said that…?
“To fairies it comes naturally, and it can be done irregardless of the individual’s awareness of it or not. Some people will do anything to get to a place other than the one they are in.”
Of course. Father.
A rustle of branches made him turn his head. A small, black cat crept out of the surrounding underbrush of the clearing. The brilliant yellow eyes seemed amazingly familiar to Edgar, and this time he truly knew why. They were the same eyes he had seen in the brambles near Count Tsepish’s mansion, before he…and before she…and then…
Edgar would not allow himself to remember the terrible deeds he had helped accomplish. Instead he focused his attention on the cat, who seemed as if she wanted his help.
“Prince Edgar!” she cried. “Thank the heavens you’re here. Rosella is not safe now, but she will surely find her way out of it.”
Edgar gave the cat an “I hope you’re right” look and listened intently as she continued.
“However, Rosella’s mother has entered this realm too. She has summoned the winds to find your parents, who are trying to stop the volcano, but that isn’t enough. You must go to Etheria and find her and take her to her daughter. Hurry, Edgar. You are our last hope.”
Before Edgar could ask anything, the cat turned and vanished into the bushes. Great, he thought. How do I get to Etheria? I’d need a small swan chariot or a giant bird to…
Another memory was rising to the surface of his troubled sea of thought. A day when he had touched a beast said to kill those who dared come near it. A day when he discovered he still had magic running in his veins.
“I sometimes question if he is truly mine, or that I am truly his. But you will know when he is ready to be ridden, Edgar. I always do.”
Edgar suddenly remembered. Necromancer. How he had so longed to ride the great horse and how he had felt such mightiness beneath the saddle, as if the horse could cross oceans and mountains with a single bound. Count Tsepish had told Edgar he would know when Necromancer was ready to ride – and that was now.
Edgar cupped his hands and whistled as loudly as he could, his eyes fixed on the sky. For a few minutes, it seemed he had gotten his hopes up for nothing, then something caught his attention.
From a distance it looked like a strange, black eagle descending from the clouds, but as it neared the ground, Edgar discovered it was the very horse he had called for. No wonder he had felt such power in the animal. It could fly!
Assuming he would be in for a rough ride, Edgar drew up the hood of his cloak to protect his face from the wind and/or flocks of dragonettes. But hold it…where was he going? All the cat had told him was that Rosella’s mother had called upon the winds to find his parents…the winds…
“That is the Mountain of the Winds…The Lord and Lady of the Winds, Levanter and Gharbi, hold court at its peak, along with their many subjects and servants.”
Of course again! The Mountain of the Winds! That was where her mother was! There was no other place! With this in mind, Edgar grabbed the saddle horn and the reins and swung himself with incredible swiftness and momentum into the saddle. Necromancer reared back and launched into the sky like a shooting star.
Even though it had been so long ago, the sight of the Mountain of the Winds remained clear in Edgar’s mind as the great black horse climbed into the sky. The dark mist that cloaked the land of Ooga Booga faded, and presently they were coursing through the familiar lavender-shaded wisps of Etheria. Floating islands loomed ahead, and Edgar peered intently out from under his hood, trying to spot the field called the Crossroads, and consequently his goal.
His cloak flapped against his back and shoulders, sometimes with such force that he felt he was going to go flying off Necromancer’s back, but it never happened. They were now climbing higher at a monumental rate, the air thinned quickly and Edgar had to struggle for every breath.
Then there it was. The Mountain of the Winds. A colossal, single pinnacle of rock piercing the veils of clouds like a gigantic knife, straight ahead of them. The peak was not pointed, but flat, covered with soft grasses and sparse shrubs. There was also a moss-covered, almost natural throne at the end of a flight of stone stairs; surprisingly it was unoccupied. And off in the distance, nearly as high as the Mountain of the Winds, maybe even higher, was the volcano. The one thing that could destroy everything that Edgar knew was his true home…even Rosella.
And standing near the edge of the grassy plateau, with her aquamarine eyes fixed on the volcano with a blend of terror and grief, clad in a light green gown, was a woman Edgar had never seen before, yet looked so familiar in appearance that there was no mistaking her for anyone other than whom Edgar thought. She was Rosella’s mother. She had asked the Court of the Winds to seek Edgar’s parents, who had been away from the kingdom for weeks, trying to find him. Somehow, she had entered Eldritch along with Rosella. Edgar remembered the second figure he had glimpsed in the magic mirror, and now he knew it wasn’t merely an illusion. But now this woman had been left behind on the mountain, while his parents had raced to stop the volcano’s eruption. There was no way she could reach her daughter now…but Edgar now realized there was a way. He was the way.
Swiftly, Edgar yanked on Necromancer’s reins, pulling the stallion up to the side of the approaching peak. The woman looked startled at his appearance, and her face was even more like Rosella’s up close. Though she was frightened, she also looked determined to get to her daughter, who was somewhere in the wide network of passageways within the volcano.
“Come, my lady,” Edgar urged, his voice muffled from beneath the hood of his cloak. “We must hurry!”
The woman gingerly climbed into the saddle behind Edgar and clasped her hands together around his waist. He paused briefly, his daring rescue being cut short by a small flurry of forethought. Where should he go now? It seemed basic when he thought it all out: Rosella’s mother wanted to get to her daughter, and Rosella was, in all probability, still in the Volcano Control Room. There also had to be a way to halt the eruption, and surely Rosella could not do it – but here Edgar paused.
What was there that Rosella couldn’t do? She had fulfilled the wishes proclaimed by his atrocious false mother, Lolotte, she had liberated herself from the darkness of the castle and destroyed the evil fairy in the process. She was also indirectly responsible for Edgar’s return to his original form and even his reunion with his parents. There seemed to be little doubt that Rosella would somehow find a way out of this chaos. No – there was absolutely no doubt. But still, Edgar needed to get moving. Little time still remained.
The quickest route to the Control Room was through Vulcanix…but how were they to get there? Again, another swell of memories rose in Edgar’s mind, and he remembered his father’s faded words:
“I intended on telling you about that earlier. That’s the elevator which descends into the Vulcanix Underground. A very strange place, possibly the strangest in Eldritch…”
The elevator in Ooga Booga! Of course! How could he have forgotten? Edgar gave Necromancer a swift jab in the ribs with his heels, and the dark horse reared and launched into the sky once more, this time straight down.
As they plunged through the thickening layers of clouds and the world began to grow dark around them, Edgar turned and looked over his shoulder at his passenger, who still appeared frightened, but determined to find out whatever she needed to know.
“My lady,” Edgar said, forgetting the formalities he should have touched on several seconds ago. “I know your daughter, Princess Rosella. May I please ask your name?”
“Valanice,” said the woman hurriedly, “But how is it that you know my daughter? Who are you? Where is she? Do you know?”
“One at a time, my lady,” said Edgar, glancing ahead of him, then back at her. “I think I know where Rosella is, but we have to move quickly. If we don’t, it may be too late for her, and perhaps all of us.”
Edgar saw little but heavy clouds and mists as they dropped out of the sky, back into the tenebrous realm of Ooga Booga. Necromancer landed directly by the decrepit elevator, and Edgar dismounted and helped Rosella’s mother down as quickly as he could before he realized that the elevator had collapsed.
His glance snapped back to the overshadowed heap of earth that had once been a massive, gaping hole. There were two holes in the underside of the dome above the mound that he remembered to once anchor chains that ran down the shaft into the underground, down to the same place he had seen as a troll, guided by Malicia en route to the Control Room. Edgar clenched his fists and teeth in embarrassment and terror. There had to be a way to clear this. There was no other way to the Underground. Then Edgar remembered:
The fountain that had reminded him of Rosella. The rock spinning out of control, flying in the fountain’s direction. His overflowing emotions. His raised hand in an effort to stop it…and the vanishing rock…
Edgar remembered the lesson gone astray in the gardens of Etheria, and how he had caused the projectile to dematerialize like a puff of smoke. He could do it again. He knew he could. He raised his hands silently over the irregular heap of debris. He spoke nothing and heard nothing but a dull rumble and felt and a soft warmth pulse through his nerves.
He lowered his hands and let his shoulders sag in the brief moment of relief. The entire obstruction had disappeared into thin air.
Edgar’s simple magic trick had cleared the shaft but had not restored the elevator. Again, he had to find another way around this obstacle. As his mind so often did in times of crises, Edgar drifted backwards in time, trying to recall something spoken to him, something he had experienced with his parents…something like…yes…
When he was standing in the compartment of the floating swan chariot, and his parents were shouting for him to jump, telling him to trust what they said…saying he would land safely…his anxiety and apprehension…then his stepping over the edge…and he floated to the earth….
Why couldn’t that same maneuver work here, where time was not in their favor? Without pausing to answer this question, Edgar took Rosella’s mother’s hand in his and prepared to jump. She nervously retreated a step, but Edgar looked into her eyes and hoped she could see his beneath the hood.
“Please…trust me,” Edgar pleaded. “I promise, we won’t fall. Trust me.”
The woman, though still visibly untrusting of him, grasped his hand tightly. Edgar backed up one step and jumped…for one second, it seemed as if they were falling. Rosella’s mother inhaled sharply, drawing the breath for a scream…then they weren’t falling…they were lazily drifting down the shaft, with solid ground not too far below them. As Edgar’s feet touched the stone floor and then the woman’s, she almost laughed with the relief of being alive after such an endeavor. Still, there was no time to waste.
Edgar ran up the slippery rock slope, almost dragging his companion behind him. Upon reaching the rock wall, he went through his usual prodding in order to locate the hidden button, which probably took much shorter because of not only his inner tension, but also because he no longer had to probe with those clumsy, oversized troll digits. Edgar found the button and jabbed it hurriedly, almost breaking a fingernail, waited a few painful seconds for the door to open, making no comment about Rosella’s mother’s awed expression, then rushed through with her trailing behind her, not caring for the door to close before they had gotten into the secret passage.
Before they were halfway to the giant metal doors that barred them from the Control Room, the earth beneath their feet began rumbling, and pieces of rock began falling from the ceiling. The woman fell, and Edgar shivered, realizing that what he had dreaded the most was happening. The volcano was erupting.
Oberon and Titania stood on the lip of the colossal volcano, mere seconds after their meeting with the woman who had alerted them of Malicia’s scheme to destroy Etheria. The delicate swan chariot that had brought them back to their kingdom so swiftly lay moored on a nearby island, its massive wings clearly visible through the thin clouds. Titania’s green skin was nearly white as she clutched Oberon’s hands tightly in hers, whispering incoherently to herself.
“Malicia – my own sister – I don’t believe it,” she breathed. “For a moment, I thought for sure that one of those ‘evil winds’ that imp was talking about had actually possessed you and turned you bad – but to think it was actually you…”
“Titania,” said Oberon firmly, placing his tan hand over his wife’s. “Fear is just what brings the greatest of heroes down in cases like this. Our world hasn’t been destroyed yet. We still can stop this thing from happening.”
“But what do we do now?”
“The messenger said that Mab had also felt the wrath of Malicia, but that woman Valanice somehow freed her as well as summon upon us, and she should be here any moment – “
Even before Oberon finished his sentence, a figure shimmered into being on Titania’s left. Her long white hair was wild in the ruthless winds, bits sticking out at odd angles, complementing her fragile yet tough wrinkled skin, which appeared extremely contorted in her expression of rage as she stood on the crusty rim of the giant cinder cone.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Oberon,” she said in a voice that sounded as if she had just run a long distance. “And you too, Titania. Well, Malicia appears to have nicely mudded up every possible route of escape out of this quagmire…is there any clean way to abort the explosion?”
“The eruption itself cannot be terminated, Lady Mab,” said Oberon quickly, his feet shifting dangerously as a brief tremor shook the earth beneath him, “But there are ways of holding it back. Titania herself mentioned an option to me, but there is no way of knowing for certain…”
“The best option I deduced for this situation would be some sort of magical barrier,” explained Mab. “There are numerous methods for conjuring them, and many more different forms of barriers – did you have such a thing in mind, my lady Titania?”
Titania raised her trembling head to a level that met Mab’s dark eyes. “Why yes,” she quavered. “As a matter of fact that was just what I was – “
Her words were cut short as a violent quake shook the volcano. Titania was nearly pitched forward, into the tumultuous pit, and for an instant, she glimpsed a lake of lava, rapidly rising in the narrowing funnel of earth, and she fell back against Oberon’s side, gasping with fear. The ground was still rumbling as Mab rapidly continued:
“There’s no time to discuss all this. What charm did you have in mind, Titania?”
“Well – it was only the webbed-net charm I used to cover the trays of goblets at the celebration of Edgar’s homecoming – strange, it seemed so short a time ago – but I’m not sure if it’ll work – I mean, bird-sized dragonettes and swells of lava can’t be easily compared – “
“No, no, it’s perfect!” hissed Mab, her eyes doing split-second relays to the volcano’s pit to Titania’s eyes and back. “I’ll just say the word when you do. That’ll double the strength of the net. Are you ready?”
“I’m really not sure if this – “
“Titania,” intervened Oberon. “You can do this. Just think of Edgar. Think of Elfreda. This is your kingdom we have to save, and we will save it. Just trust yourself, Titania.”
Titania shivered slightly (or possibly she only shook under the rage of the increasing earthquakes). Then she raised her right hand above the smoldering crater, as Mab did the same.
“You can conjure the web from thin air, of course,” said Mab. “You’ve done this before?”
“Yes,” said Titania, her hand shaking wildly as the lava continued to rise. “Are you ready?”
“Ready,” said Mab. Titania recited the short incantation in unison with Mab. As they did, a thick mist sprang from their fingers, into the fiery caldera. Wispy strands of fog appeared, crisscrossing the pit from side to side, and at intervals, intersecting each other, resembling an imperfect spider’s web. As the mist quickly receded and vanished, the strands became solid and drew taut across the volcano, each resembling a string awaiting its plucking from a lingering hand.
“It has to work, Titania,” said Oberon. “Your magic never failed you before. I’m sure Edgar inherited his basic skills from you.”
“Please don’t talk about him,” said Titania, even more weak from the strain inflicted upon her by the spell. “We still don’t know if he is alive. I still doubt if we’ll ever – “
“Look out!” yelled Oberon not a moment too soon, for as he spoke, the lava, which had already reached a point mere inches below the rim of the crater, exploded into the air, sending blasts of hot air roaring against the cheeks of the three individuals standing so near. Titania screamed and Mab stepped back, ready to take a flying leap, disappear, and then reappear somewhere else – nowhere in particular, just anywhere but here.
The finely spun net was thrown into an irregular, domed arch by the outwardly flung sea of lava. The blood-like swell strained against the magic threads, trying to unleash its havoc upon the peaceful lands. Titania clutched Oberon’s hands in a lock like one that required a hundred keys as Mab kept her hands raised against the seething mass, whispering incoherent incantations in an effort to hold back the molten magma.
For several painful seconds, the lava fought to break free as the net remained fastened to the sides, refusing to let a single strand give way. Then, there was a soft sigh, as if something had departed from the wild nature of the volcano, and the lava slowly sank down the crater walls and out of sight.
Oberon and Titania looked at each other, breathing heavily for a few moments, then burst into laughter, hugging each other tenaciously with triumph and celebration. Mab observed them for a few minutes, then said:
“I congratulate you with your accomplishment on having saved your kingdom from what could most easily be the worst threat since the volcano that downed Atlantis, my friends. But Malicia is still at large, and wrongs must be put to right.”
She waved a hand, and the web, now dripping with molten rock and sagging in places, vanished. Immediately, a small fairy, astride a large dragonette speeded past Oberon’s head and came to an abrupt halt beside his left ear.
“Highnesses,” the fairy chimed. “Your son is alive and well, in the Control Room of Vulcanix!”
“Thank the Creator,” cried Titania, placing a hand against her heart in happiness. “Sir! Where is this Control Room?”
“The only known route is through Ooga Booga and the rest of the Underground,” said Oberon sadly. “From there, as I’ve heard, a passage runs along for several feet, along the volcano’s inner wall, straight into the Control Room.”
“Speaking of walls,” interrupted Mab, peering into the volcano’s crater, “There appears to be a hole in this one right about there.”
Oberon turned from the messenger and looked into the sheer-walled pit. Sure enough, there was a large hole in the volcano’s inner side, just large enough for someone of Oberon or Titania’s size to slip through.
“This is excellent!” said Oberon, clasping Titania’s hand excitedly. “Messenger, tell the fairies of the central island of our return. Tell them also that our son is alive, and that we will be returning with him soon enough!”
“I’ll be there when you return,” said Mab. “Good-bye, my friends.”
Mab vanished in a puff of air as the fairy messenger zoomed off for the central island. Oberon gently stepped over the edge of the crater with Titania’s hand in his, and the two of them slowly drifted down to the gaping hole in the volcano’s wall like a pair of dandelion plumes, then inside the Underground, running to meet their goal – and with this goal, their son.
For a moment, Edgar knelt by the terrified woman’s side, trying to protect her against the coming catastrophe. She trembled even more with the shaking of the passage, and hid her face from him, not wanting this stranger to see her cry. But just as suddenly as it started, the quaking stopped.
Edgar gaped at the ceiling, which was still intact, as if nothing had happened at all. Almost laughing with relief, Edgar helped his friend to her feet, who, although also relieved at the sudden halt of the shaking, still appeared determined to get to her promised destination.
“My daughter,” she said worriedly. “Where is she?”
“This way,” Edgar said, sprinting down the corridor with Valanice close behind him. Finally they reached the door. As his companion watched with quivering anticipation and interest, Edgar sharply turned each of the two dials and gave the middle lever a sharp yank. The doors slid open, and directly on the other side was Rosella.
Her mother burst into tears and ran through the doors, into her daughter’s arms. Edgar said nothing, but slowly walked in after her with a sense of accomplishment and triumph (and secretly, a small amount of guilt).
“Mama, I’m so sorry,” Rosella apologized ashamedly. “I saw the castle and jumped in and the Troll King – I mean Edgar – he…”
Edgar suddenly realized she was talking about him, and that it was time to make his entrance. As Rosella’s mother was repeating the name with an air of confusion, Edgar bashfully pulled back his hood, revealing his face to everyone in the room. Overjoyed to see him alive, Rosella ran to him and clasped her hands in his. Out of the corner of his eye, Edgar could just see the shape of the true King Otar Fenris III (whom he now felt no ill feelings towards whatsoever), solemnly applauding.
Then, in an all too-familiar explosion of lightning, Malicia appeared. By this time, Edgar was too furious to let her do anything more with Rosella. He gently pushed Rosella behind him, creating a barrier between him and Malicia, eyes narrowed with silent rage and arms spread, refusing to falter an inch.
“No,” he said in a voice he had never heard himself use, a voice used only by heroes or humans who possessed true valor and bravery. “You will not touch her.”
“Out of my way, whelp,” remarked Malicia indifferently, her arms raised as well. “I enslaved your little mind once! Don’t think I’ll be so easy this time!”
Edgar bristled angrily and refused to let his fear show itself.
“Never again, Malicia!” he growled. Malicia still had her arms raised, yet Edgar felt nothing terrifying as he noticed the gesture. All he cared for at the moment was protecting the girl whose image had haunted him since he had discovered his true identity. And now that he had discovered himself once again, he was determined not to be defeated once more.
Seeing his sudden burst of bravery, Malicia lowered her hands with a look of disappointment and turned away. Edgar lowered his arms as well, but not without a great deal of caution. He knew more about his aunt than anyone would care to know, and he was not about to let her to him that easily.
Suddenly, Malicia whirled around, her pale green eyes small slits in her white face. Her hands were sparkling with lightning, and in an eye-blink she had conjured up a ball of fire as large as Edgar’s head, which was shooting directly towards him.
Without a thought, Edgar raised his hands in an effort to stop the fireball. Nothing happened. The projectile continued screaming towards him, and before he could duck and yank Rosella out of its way at the same time, the sphere had hit his outspread fingers, bounced right back and struck Malicia in the chest, causing her to keel over in pain with a slight groan.
Edgar gasped as he stared at his hands. They appeared just as they had been seconds before, but he had no time to ponder. Malicia had created a second fireball, much swifter than the first, and launched it towards Edgar at an angle, so that it couldn’t ricochet back on her. Nevertheless, Edgar caught the fiery sphere and sent it rocketing off a metal wall. From there, it bounced wildly from stone slab to console to ceiling. How it happened, he couldn’t tell, but once again, the fireball struck Malicia in the chest again.
This second blow seemed to have weakened Edgar’s malevolent aunt. She stooped over, looking near to collapse, breathing heavily, not daring to raise her hands again. This softened Edgar. Even though Malicia had done wrong, she was still family, no doubts there. The responsibility of the death of a family member was one Edgar could not bear to keep. He lowered his hands mercifully and turned away to show his aunt that he did not mean to destroy her.
This proved to be a deadly mistake for Edgar. It all happened so swiftly that no one saw it coming. Rosella peered over Edgar’s shoulder and tried to say something, but it was too late. A scratchy cacophony of a bolt of lightning filled the cavern and an overpowering, painful force struck Edgar halfway down his spine. The force of it pounded him into the air. His vision blackened, and he was able to utter only one small note of anguish before his body collapsed on the cold, stone floor. There was a scream from Rosella, a distant echo of his name as his last breath left his body. Only this breath was not normal by any means, because with its brief, uneventful departure, his spirit had left along with it.
He was walking through a damp, white mist yet going nowhere from anywhere. He had no memory of what had happened, and no memory of how he had arrived here. Time seemed meaningless here, yet it seemed to crawl by at a deathly slow pace, almost nearing a standstill – either that or he was at a standstill – but what would that mean…?
Finally, the clouds above Edgar parted. He looked up to see a black ocean devoid of stars, with one lipid, full moon that cast no light on the ground he walked on. It was clear that he was walking upon ground, but he still could not place where he was.
Presently, an ominous structure appeared out of the dull, colorless mists. At first it resembled the entrance of a temple or a sacrificial altar, but there were few things remaining in his memory that he could compare to what he saw.
Several beings stood in rows before the altar. They weren’t human, but they appeared human in some ways. Odd, translucent figures drifted slowly along a narrow path before entering a bizarrely constructed door leading into the temple. Each figure seemed to stop before one figure, then move on a short ways before doing the same motion before another. After this, the figure would somehow vanish through the doors, even though the doors hadn’t even moved.
Before Edgar knew it, he was there. The figure nearest to him made him shudder, though he felt no goose-bumps on his skin. It resembled a skeleton, untidily pieced together with bones from all sorts of alien creatures, including humans. The skeleton had an empty key-ring hanging from one hand, the other held many small slips of grayish paper. The empty eye-sockets of the creature seemed to watch Edgar, even with no eyes to watch. Numbly, Edgar extended his right hand, as if he were expecting something to happen to it.
He started at the sight. His hand appeared intact, but transparent. It felt solid when he touched it with his left, similarly constructed hand, but somehow, it didn’t appear that way. Before Edgar could ask anyone who was listening what was going on, the skeleton standing before him thrust one of the pale slips of paper into his pale hand and gave him a push with his other fist. Edgar jumped forward and kept walking down the strange path. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.
He noticed that his boots were making no sound on the pebbly road. They also appeared transparent, for reasons which he could not guess. Before he knew it, he was standing in front of another grotesque mannequin of bones, studying the piece of paper that the first monstrosity had given him. It resembled a token of some sort, something he read that humans used to gain admission to certain events. He only had this to assume as the second skeleton snatched the slip out of his palm and gestured for him to move on.
The doors that stood before him seemed impossible to open. His pellucid hands did little to assist in opening them. Then Edgar remembered how the strange, wispy figures before him had gone: they just walked through the solid surface. With a considerable deal of apprehension, Edgar stepped back a couple paces, shut his eyes and strode forward.
If it had been any other situation, Edgar would have run headlong into the doors and be sent sprawling backwards, but he didn’t collide with them. Instead, he opened his eyes to an eerie landscape: a pitch-black river flowing underneath crisscrossing columns which supported a twisting, turning, ever-narrowing path that snaked into the thick blackness that consumed what would be several yards before him. Ancient, macabre torches constructed of bones and tendons pierced the grim darkness, reflecting off the opaque, oppressing, dark waters. Somehow he had passed through the doors, even though they felt solid under his fingers. However, he let this concept pass without trying to understand it. Nothing seemed to matter to him now.
Edgar followed the crazy route the path took him, pausing every now and then to gaze into the still, yet strangely chaotic waters of the river beneath. For some reason, he could never see himself in the water, not even when the brightest torches provided enough illumination.
Was he dead? The direful situation he was in seemed to suggest that, but some facts made the possibility less likely. He still remembered his identity, his place in life – but not much more than that. The tales of Greek mythology he had often pored over in Lolotte’s castle told of how spirits had to pass through the gates of the Underworld once they left their bodies, then cross the River Styx to the other side, where final judgment awaited. This could be the Styx flowing beneath him, yet too many things seemed to question the fact that he might as well have passed on.
He was still free – allowed to roam through this strange world, yet he didn’t seem to have a body. The one he seemed to have, this lucid, see-through form resembled the one he once possessed, but it felt foreign to him, unwanted, almost appalling. Yet it allowed him to grasp objects – with the exception of the doors now behind him – he had taken the ticket from the skeleton figure, but could he grasp – let alone pick up – anything else?
A small, rotting purse lay beside the path, spilling its contents at Edgar’s feet. There was nothing but a few rusty coins, many of which were half-eaten away. It was probably something a dying soul had tried to take with it – a miser, perhaps – and failed. Edgar knelt by the tiny pile and scooped up a small handful of the small discs. He could hold the coins in his hand just as easily as he could with a normal hand. Satisfied, he slid the coins into a pocket, relieved that they didn’t fall through, and continued down the path.
The road ended at what appeared to be a naturally formed dock. A misshapen, black craft was anchored near the chore. A shrouded figure was standing in the bow, and all around it were restless spirits, trying to get in, many being waved away or accepted aboard. Edgar stepped forward cautiously. The boatman was undoubtedly Charon, and he would let no creature, living or dead, aboard his ferry freely. He demanded a fee of each sorrowful soul that approached him, trying to get aboard the nearly full boat.
Edgar realized that those who could not pay Charon’s fee were cast away, doomed to roam this side of the River Styx forever. Seeing as that he had gotten this far, Edgar decided there was no way back, and that he had to board the boat along with the rest of the spirits. He stepped forward and felt the cold gaze of Charon on his young ghost. Without thinking, Edgar slowly reached a hand in his pocket and withdrew the palmful of coins he had rescued from their resting place on the path. Charon examined the corroded coins closely, and Edgar was worried for a moment that the ferryman might not accept his fare. But Charon icily snatched the currency from Edgar’s hand with a bony fist and gestured for him to take the last available seat. The young prince hesitated, as his careful nature often prompted him to do, then stepped into the shallow ferry and seated himself on the starboard side, close to where Charon stood, poling the raft from the shore and out across the cold, dark waters.
Edgar looked over the side of the boat and into the unstirred waters of the Styx. There was no reflection in the waters, no sign that there was anyone looking into them. Edgar realized he truly was dead. So this was it. This was really the end.
The journey took much shorter than it had appeared on the other side. Prior to Edgar’s last look back at the shore, the boat had hit the shallows at the opposite bank, and the spirits aboard it had spilled out onto land, many pulling him out along with them. As soon as Edgar had set foot on dry land, Charon pushed the ferry away from the shore and began the slow commune back to where he came from.
There wasn’t much on this shore. There was only a plain, torch-lit pathway leading up to a closed gate. As he walked through the still, dead environment, Edgar tried to explain why he could be doing this. Perhaps, he recalled, it could be Elfreda. The last time he had heard her name, it was in reference to her death. True, he had only known the fairy for a brief time, but still, the thought of her death made him weak with sorrow. He would probably never see her again, but the thought that she was at peace, not having to live with the chaos that Eldritch suffered, was just enough to move Edgar on down the pathway instead of haunting this side of the River Styx as a ghost through the rest of time.
With his mind growing more obscured by the atmosphere and his thoughts every minute, Edgar slowly ambled up the length of the path and silently passed through the closed doorway. For some reason, he sensed he had walked through something alive.
The path beyond the gate now ran straight, into a fantastic chamber. Poltergeists and spirits darted about the bone-white ceiling, which resembled a giant spider’s web. A pale, sullen sea lay below the elevated path, which led down the length of the chamber to a strange throne that seemed to become part of the chamber, the high back infused with the webbed ceiling, as did the wide arms, and the wide base also seemed to grow from the hard ground at its feet.
Chained to the throne was just the person Edgar would have expected. Sung of in epic poetry, told of in myths and stories, existent in every culture of the world, feared and respected by every pious individual that had ever lived: Samhain. The Lord of the Dead. His cold eyes met Edgar’s with a glare that would have brought him to his knees if he had still possessed enough emotions for something that proved himself so vulnerable.
“Welcome to this, my domain,” rumbled the voice of the Ruler of the Underworld. “You have brought many sorrows and memories of your past world with you, and have been reluctant to let them go. Come closer. Soon there will be no memory of your previous life. You will spend this new life free among the others who are also free in this world away from mortal pain and human attachments. Approach, late inhabitant of the World Above.”
Edgar could tell, though he didn’t mean to, that his footsteps were going slower. Part of him didn’t want to leave the world he had come from, yet another part was suffering the agony of not remembering his past, and longed to be a being which had no worries or regrets. To be free…to be forever at peace…That isn’t what I want, is it? Edgar asked himself as he felt himself reaching out one hand to touch the cold hand of Samhain, the one last motion he would need to accomplish before becoming one with the Dead. I want to remember. I don’t want to leave…not yet…I can’t…wait…
Just before his hand was close enough to touch the Hand of Death, a peculiar force suddenly ensnared and pulled tightly around Edgar’s chest, yanking him back from the monumental throne. His vision blurred, the cavern dissolved in a sea of monotone grays and whites. After the rushing in his ears died away, there was no sound, no feeling, no sense of anything, as if he were floating in the womb, awaiting birth.
Then Edgar heard something. It sounded like distant footsteps, very slowly at first, then gradually increasing and becoming louder and closer, as if some thing was approaching him at a run and was about to plow him under – then Edgar realized it was his heartbeat. Finally the pounding in his ears reached a constant, and for a time, he could hear nothing else.
Suddenly he became aware that there was something that something wanted him to do. It couldn’t be himself, but still, this force seemed familiar. It was an action so primitive, so basic, that Edgar was momentarily afraid that he had forgotten how, but then it finally came in a deep inhalation of air and a sudden clearing of his vision. He had started breathing again.
The first thing he saw was the face of Rosella. She was kneeling over him, looking into his face with an expression that was close to tears. As her image came into focus, the feeling slowly returned to Edgar’s arms and legs. He realized that her hand was holding one of his, and it also dawned on him that he was lying face-up on the floor of the Volcano Control Room. Memories came seeping out of his unconscious as he remembered what had happened.
He had died. Yet somehow he had been called back – brought back from wherever he was – and Rosella was standing over him. It had to be connected with her – somehow. But who had killed him…?
Edgar shakily grasped Rosella’s hand and allowed her to pull him to his feet; he was still trying to remember how to move. A soft sound originating from the floor made him look in the direction from where it had come. An infant was lying on the stone floor of the Control Room. For a baby, her skin was remarkably pale, with a head of thick, raven-black hair and pale green eyes. Though it otherwise resembled any other newborn child, Edgar was startled to notice that the infant looked amazingly like…
Malicia? Edgar asked himself. The shock of being abruptly yanked out of the Land of the Dead was still having a numbing affect on his senses, so going into that concept was something he wisely decided not to do. Nevertheless, his emotions were as fine-tuned as ever when two individuals came running through the open doorway to the cavern. The man was bronze-skinned and blonde-haired, with a face weathered yet gentle behind his unruly beard. The woman was delicate and insect-like, with short, black, almost liquid hair piled atop her small, pointed head, with tears of happiness in her large eyes.
“Son! We thought we’d never see you again!”
It all seemed predictable from that moment. Edgar told the whole truth behind his patchy past life with a generous amount of help from his parents, who had once again reunited with him. Titania gently picked up the infant, and even though Edgar was surprised that his suspicions proved true, he decided it would be interesting to have an aunt that was far younger than he was. And all this time, King Otar sat in the seat in front of the main control panel which bore the switch now set to its original position, laughing in satisfaction as he witnessed all the happy goings-on around him.
Edgar turned away from his father momentarily and caught the gaze of Rosella, who still stood quietly, waiting for whatever he would do next. Shyly, Edgar moved towards her, and Oberon removed his grip on his son’s shoulder, with a look that said: “I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps we are more human than we give ourselves credit for. You can speak to her.”
Even his father’s unspoken reassurance held little consolation for Edgar. Then another thought came to his mind: his old friend, the fairy Elfreda. She had died defending her kingdom, and consequently him, even though he was presumed missing at the time. Elfreda was to train Edgar in whatever he wanted, and for some reason, the human world seemed to be the only thing that called to him. She agreed to teach him all he wanted…yet now she was gone. No one else would replace her, not even his own mother, who employed Elfreda months before Edgar was even born. It was the thought of that fairy that had kept him from giving up, even at the gates of the Realm of the Dead. It was she that helped him grow accustomed to his new role as the Prince of Etheria. In fact, in a sense it was even Elfreda who had encouraged him to love – not a fairy princess from the known realms of Eldritch or Etheria – but someone who he loved for herself. It didn’t matter that she was a human, or that she had defied the odds both for and because of him. All that mattered was that he loved her, and now, he was sure that she loved him in return.
Once again, Edgar held Rosella’s hands in his and prepared himself for what she was about to say. Yet, for some reason, Rosella said nothing, as if she were expecting him to say something first. Breathing in deeply and trembling slightly where he stood, Edgar said:
“Rosella – it was I who lured you into this world. I…kidnapped you. I know you can never forgive me…but let me assure you that I was not in my right mind…I would never had done it had I known…”
He stopped, somewhere on the verge of either laughing or bursting into tears, and looked at the floor for several seconds. Then he dared to look back into those amazingly blue eyes, expecting to see Rosella with a laughing smile on her face or a look of indefinite uncertainty.
But it was neither of these. It was the slightest smile that said so much without any words. Edgar expected her to say what she was already communicating to him flawlessly: “I understand, and you don’t need to be forgiven because…there is nothing to forgive. You were in your right mind then. Anyone who saves his whole country with one right choice doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. But I’ll forgive you just the same.” But yet, it wasn’t this at all.
“Edgar?” Rosella suddenly asked. “Could you show me the sights of Etheria? After all, it’s what I came here for.”