The thick mist of the Impossible Mountains was replaced by bright sunlight. Cassima opened her eyes and blinked. For a moment, she thought she was still in the mountains because of the sheer rock wall in front of her, but then she felt sand beneath her feet and heard waves gently lapping behind her.
She turned to find that she was standing on a tiny beach, and the beach was at the base of a huge granite cliff. She immediately knew where she was – the Isle of the Sacred Mountain, the largest and tallest island in the Land of the Green Isles. She had made it. A feeling of relief and happiness enveloped her upon realizing that she was in her homeland again.
But was this the same land that she had left behind? Was she in the same era in which she had left Alexander or had she returned to the Green Isles of several years ago, or the Green Isles of several decades into the future?
She got her first clue that she was no longer in the same time when she examined the base of the Logic Cliffs. As far back as she could remember, there had been four words etched into the rock at eye level, one of a series of riddles that had to be solved in order to scale the cliffs. But now those words were gone. Cassima touched the blank wall and shivered. Had she arrived to a time prior to the day the riddle was created…or had the words been scoured out?
She stepped back and craned her neck, trying to make out the top of the cliffs and, like every other time she had attempted to do so, failed. How was she going to get up there with the riddles of the Logic Cliffs inaccessible to her? A few moments of thought and the answer came to her. She idly adjusted the charm bracelet on her arm, shut her eyes and spoke the word "Corvus."
She was now a raven again, but unlike the last time she had been one, she didn't have a great horizontal distance to cover. It was all straight up this time. She spread and stretched her glossy wings, stamped at the ground with her talons, then launched herself into the air.
As it turned out, flying straight up wasn't as easy as it had seemed in theory. Cassima resorted to veering away from the cliffs, then swooping back towards them at an angle which let her use stray updrafts to raise herself a few more feet. It wasn't nearly as carefree or graceful as her flight from Serenia, but at least it wasn't accompanied by any bizarre visions of oases.
It wasn't long before she had reached the summit of the cliffs. She touched down on the sandy plateau with a minimum of clumsiness and reverted back to her human form, out of habit more than anything else.
If what she had seen at the base of the cliffs had seemed slightly amiss, what she saw at the top of the cliffs was very wrong indeed. An immense heap of boulders blocked the path that led north to the City of the Winged Ones, that amazing, majestic race of people with great white wings sprouting from their shoulders. The entrance to the labyrinth, where a fierce and unsavory minotaur had once dwelt, was also blocked by a pile of stones. Both of these blockades seemed deliberate, as if someone had attempted to cordon off both locations…but why? What had happened here? Had the Winged Ones done this?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a small squeaking and scurrying noise coming from the barricaded labyrinth. She turned to see a small, flat creature creeping out from underneath a large stone. It paused, then continued crawling in her direction. Cassima approached the creature to get a better look at it. It had large, oddly colored eyes and two tiny hands and feet, which respectively bore white gloves and red boots. Its body was almost two dimensional, and it didn't seem to have any depth to it at all. Despite its bizarre appearance, it seemed pretty harmless.
"Why hello," Cassima said gently, kneeling down. "What are you?"
The thing squeaked again and wiggled closer, Cassima slowly extended a hand, and when the creature didn't object, she tried to pick it up. When she had scooped her hand underneath the creature, she almost dropped it in surprise – she couldn't see her fingers through its body. Its arms, legs and head remained solid, but its middle had rendered the portion of her hand that was beneath it invisible. It was like a hole in her hand.
"Are you the…" she began, suddenly pausing as a minor revelation came to her. "Wait a minute…you must be the Hole-in-the-Wall that Alexander told me about. He brought you here from the Isle of Wonder…this means I must be in the future!"
The Hole-in-the-Wall squeaked, as if in agreement with her words. Alexander had recounted how he had caught and used the Hole-in-the-Wall to Cassima several times, and had often mentioned how he felt guilty for not returning it to the island that he had taken it from.
"I guess you want me to take you home, don't you?" Cassima asked.
The Hole-in-the-Wall squeaked much more stridently, flopping about eagerly and somewhat piteously.
"Well, I'll certainly try to get you home," Cassima said. "Hold still, now."
She carefully slipped him into a pocket. It wiggled for a few more moments before growing still.
Cassima stood up and examined the surrounding land once again. When she had first realized she was on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain, she had contemplated visiting the City of the Winged Ones, but that didn't seem possible now. That rock barrage to the north was impassable, and with her arms still aching from her flight up the mountain, flying over it didn't seem like an available option. She could become a goat and climb over the boulders, but what if the gates to the City of the Winged Ones were barricaded in a similar fashion? Perhaps entering through the front door wasn't the best approach in this situation. Still, there had to be another way into the city. She just had to look for it.
Cassima then noticed the small hole in the rocks on the east side of the plateau. However, it looked as if someone had attempted to block it as well, since a middling boulder had sealed it off almost completely. However, there was a tiny gap between the rock and the hole, and Cassima didn't need to contemplate how she was going to fit through that gap for an instant.
She assumed her lizard's shape again and was just able to squeeze through the little opening. She was surprised to see that she had her tail again. Why it wasn't still a stump was a quandary she couldn't answer, but perhaps the charm bracelet had regenerative powers that she wasn't capable of understanding fully.
The hole led into a large, dark cave that seemed empty, except for a few tiny insects and spiders. It was so dark and ominous that Cassima wouldn't have dared continue exploring it if it hadn't been for Alexander's narration of how this very cave had a naturally formed "window" at the other end – an opening which was too small for him to fit through, but one that would be no challenge at all for a lizard to fit through. She had no idea what was on the other side of that window, but in a few minutes she was going to find out.
She carefully made her way through the dark cavern, unable to see anything in the gloom, with nothing but the echoing sound of her scratchy crawling coming to her ears. After a minute or two, the stone walls began to grow lighter and more distinct, and soon Cassima could see the large, oblong window bored through the cave's northern wall which was the source of the brightness. Although it was several feet off the ground, the rocky, irregular interior of the cavern allowed Cassima to crawl up to it easily, and within moments, she was outside once again.
But where exactly was this outside? She glanced around from her vantage point on the lip of the opening. Growing near the window was a large shrub, and judging by its powerful aroma, it was most likely a mint bush, probably the same bush Alexander had described. It was growing in a small clearing surrounded by tall cliffs, with a tiny leisurely-moving stream of water bubbling out of a small spring and flowing through a small opening between the cliffs.
That opening seemed to be the only way out of the clearing, but Cassima doubted that she could swim the stream very well as a lizard. As tiny as the trickle of water was, it seemed pretty large to her now, and it could easily grow much larger. She had to have a safer way of traveling along the stream.
The large leaves of the mint bush gave her idea. She tried to cut one of them lose with her dagger, but unfortunately, her lizard's hands weren't built for gripping daggers, so, just as she had done with the thread in the fisherman's cabin, she had to gnaw the leaf loose with her teeth. This method worked, but afterwards Cassima wondered whether she would ever get the overpowering taste of mint out of her mouth again.
The leaf fell down and landed beside the stream. Cassima crawled up to it and began pushing it towards the tiny rivulet. When she felt the stream begin to pull at the leaf, she quickly hopped onto it. Fortunately, the leaf was just strong enough to support her as she slowly floated down the tiny stream, through the gap between the cliffs that seemed like a small canyon from this angle.
For a minute or two, there was nothing but sheer walls of rock on either side of the stream as Cassima floated down it on her tiny boat. Then the wall on her left gradually became lower and lower until it disappeared altogether, revealing an awesome sight. Massive carved pillars with colossal, elaborate nests built atop them stretched upwards for hundreds of feet, looking like a grove of gigantic white-trunked trees. Cassima knew that this was the City of the Winged Ones, a place she had often heard of but never seen in its full glory.
Strangely, however, there was an odd sense of negligence hanging over the city. Upon closer examination, Cassima noticed that the pillars seemed chipped and scarred, while large branches that had fallen from the nests profusely littered the sandy earth that the pillars were constructed upon. From what Cassima knew of the Winged Ones, a noble, yet somewhat haughty and disdainful people, they wouldn't allow their city to look half as shabby as this for one minute.
The stream she was floating along began to flow away from the city, between another gap in the cliffs. She quickly hopped off the leaf and onto the nearby shore. There was a small ditch diverting water from the stream that started near where she had come ashore and continued west, along a large hedge lining the southern wall of the city. It seemed like a promising path to follow, so Cassima began to follow the little ditch, keeping to the shadows of the hedge, just in case there were any hungry birds circling overhead.
Something was terribly wrong with this island, and she was determined to find out what it was. Still, if those blockades were any indication of how receptive the Winged Ones were to uninvited guests to their city in this time – particularly human guests – she felt that she was much safer remaining in the shape of a lizard for the time being.
The "ground floor" of the City of the Winged Ones was quite barren except for the branches that were scattered about. It was as if the Winged Ones had completely ignored the earth that all non-winged creatures had to walk upon, focusing all their attention on the great nests perched atop the colossal columns in which every citizen dwelt. As Cassima continued crawling westward, however, she noticed something which she couldn't recognize at first because of her small size, but presently she saw what it was as clear as day:
It was a garden. A small, simple garden, where a variety of flowers, herbs and vegetables were growing, bordered by tiny white stones. The ditch she had been following had several tinier grooves leading from it scratched into the dirt between the plants – apparently it was an irrigation ditch. The plants weren't arranged in rows or groups; they were as disorderly as a meadow of wildflowers. All the same, the garden was beautiful in its own chaotic, jumbled way.
Then Cassima saw the Winged One kneeling beside it. He was tall and pale with dark hair just starting to show gray at the hairline, and appeared to be working the soil in a slow, monotonous fashion with a somewhat distant look in his eyes. His great white wings seemed somewhat unkempt and limp, and he didn't seem to notice her, even though Cassima knew a black lizard on pale sand would catch anybody's eye. Perhaps he was so focused on his work that he was blind to everything else.
Cassima knew that she had to find out what happened to the Isle of the Sacred Mountain – and the entire Land of the Green Isles, for that matter – by asking somebody from the Isle, and this gardener seemed like a good a person as any to talk to…provided he wasn't too alarmed by a talking lizard.
Cassima surreptitiously slipped into the garden, carefully making her way towards the Winged One. When she had narrowed the distance between them to barely three feet, the Winged One suddenly looked upwards, flexing his wings, staring straight ahead with a strange blank expression.
"Who is it?" he asked in a light, quiet voice. "Someone that I do not know has entered my garden. Please make yourself known. I promise that I will not harm you."
When Cassima, too startled to speak, had failed to answer the Winged One's question, he returned to the chore he was engaged in previously. When Cassima crawled forward a few more inches as quietly as she was able, again the Winged One raised his head, looking alert as a hound that has just caught the scent.
"If you can speak, creature, please do," he said. "I only wish to know who or what you are. I wouldn't harm you even if I was capable of doing so."
There was something so gentle and merciful in his voice that Cassima felt obliged to answer him this time.
"I am here, Winged One," she said.
"And who are you, little visitor?" the Winged One said, slowly turning his head in her direction.
"I am a friend," Cassima said, not wanting to give her identity away just yet, "A lizard."
The Winged One smiled serenely.
"Ah, but you are not a lizard from this land," he said. "For I know every type of creature that visits my garden, and a lizard that moves as oddly as you and speaks the same tongue as I is one that I have never encountered."
Something about his choice of words seemed odd to Cassima. She looked into his eyes and almost gasped. The pupils of his eyes were a dull, cloudy white, surrounded by dark gray irises.
"Yes," the Winged One said with a solemn nod. "Do not pity me, though, little lizard. I have been this way since the day I was hatched. I have never had any sight to lose, so how can I pine for something I have never lost?"
Cassima attempted a shrug, then realized how pointless the gesture was.
"I see…that is, I understand."
"Please come closer, lizard," the Winged One said. "I want to get a better look at you."
Though Cassima had no idea what he meant by this, she cautiously drew nearer until she was just a few inches away from the Winged One. Up close, he was surprisingly thin and gaunt, not the muscular godlike physique that Cassima had seen in nearly all other male Winged Ones. His hair also seemed somewhat wild and unevenly cut, his white robe was stained and dirty, and his hands and forearms were caked with dark earth.
The Winged One stretched out one of his wings, drew the tip of it close to Cassima and ever so gently ran the tip of one of its feathers down the length of her body. Because of her armor-like coat of scales, however, Cassima barely felt it.
"You certainly are a lizard in form," the Winged One said, "But you are something else in spirit."
"You are right," Cassima replied. "This form isn't my own…but who are you?"
"I am Labrusca," the Winged One replied. "The gardener of the City of the Winged Ones, ever since the Hard Times came upon us."
"The Hard Times?" Cassima asked.
Labrusca's wings seemed to droop slightly.
"Our kind has long lived under the delusion that these wings somehow made us greater than those without them, but in reality, we are no different than humans. The only thing that sets us apart from them are these."
Here he spread his wings halfheartedly.
"These wings may be a symbol of majesty and power to others, but to me, they are merely an alternative means of locomotion – and a second pair of hands as well. They let me feel what is out of reach of my fingers, and the echo of the sound created by them as I fly lets me see what my surroundings are like…"
He trailed off and looked slightly embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to ramble on like that. It's just been so long since I've had someone to talk to…"
"What about the other Winged Ones?" Cassima queried.
Labrusca appeared downcast for a moment.
"They don't speak to ones like me if they can help it. I and those who engage in similar duties are of what you would call the lower castes. A small trace of that same haughtiness from the years before still manifests itself in my people. It isn't the same aloofness with which they look down upon those without wings, but it is very near to it.
"It is this sense of overbearing pride that just made it more of a blow to our city when the Hard Times came. We used to obtain most of our food either with the aid of magic or from the other Isles – but since the Hard Times set in, the mistrust that once divided us has returned, and the magic seems to have vanished from the soil. Some of us have been forced to return to the old ways of living, working strenuously to support ourselves as well as our rulers. Perhaps I am fortunate to be as I am – how can I suffer the indignity of such a menial task if I cannot see the filth and grime associated with it?"
"But how can you support an entire city with food from such a tiny garden?" Cassima asked, trying not to let the horror at hearing this frightening story show in her voice, though she was sure that Labrusca's acute hearing could pick at up as easily as the peal of bell.
"There are several other gardens and orchards besides this one," Labrusca replied. "And besides…there aren't that many of us left now."
Cassima shivered. Though what had happened to the city in this troubled future was somewhat clearer to her now, she still had no idea what had caused this disaster…but she had a horrible suspicion that she already knew.
"But Labrusca…when did the Hard Times start? And what brought them on?"
Labrusca gazed straight ahead with his unseeing gray eyes.
"I know very little about the particulars of them," he admitted. "I am certain that our lord and lady do, however."
"Yes…and if they don't know, then the Oracle surely must."
Cassima knew little about the Oracle of the Sacred Mountain except that visits to her were very uncommon, even for the residents of the City of the Winged Ones, and that she had helped Alexander in his quest. The queen wasn't sure whether the prospect of visiting the Oracle made her hopeful or fearful, but if it meant getting to the bottom of what was going on in the Land of the Green Isles, then so be it.
"Labrusca, I am on an important mission. If I succeed in it, the wounds your city has been dealt will most likely be healed. Before I proceed to my next destination, though, I must speak with the rulers of your city. Can you please take me to them?"
"Such mighty words from such a little lizard," Labrusca chuckled good-naturedly. He paused for a moment, then turned his dead eyes to Cassima and grinned broadly.
"Lord Azure and Lady Ariel have refused to see any visitors from the outside," he said with a hint of mischief, "But if I flew up to the Royal Nest and a small creature were to hitch a ride on my robe, being blind, I would have no way of knowing of such a thing."
Cassima was even more startled at Labrusca's humor than she was at discovering his blindness. She crept towards his left side and found a deep fold in his robe, which she cautiously crawled into, clinging to the soft fabric as tightly as possible. Labrusca had obviously felt her do so, for he scraped the soft soil from his hands, spread his gigantic wings, beat them fiercely for several seconds, then he and Cassima were aloft.
Cassima decided that she liked flying much better when she was the one doing it. Even though she was sure that Labrusca knew his way around his home city like the back of his hand, the nagging reminder that he was completely blind kept gnawing at her mind. She didn't have much time to worry about this, since they soon began approaching a nest that towered above all the others – the Royal Nest. It was larger than the other nests, and a gigantic marble pavilion flanked by smaller versions of the columns that the nests were constructed upon had been erected on top of it, effectively sheltering those within it from the elements. There was a small marble balcony on the south side of the Nest, and Labrusca made his way towards this, executing a perfect landing. He then made his way to the massive carved doors to the Nest, which were guarded by two young male Winged Ones.
Labrusca stopped just outside the gates and began conversing with one of the guards, which Cassima soon realized was a diversion. She cautiously looked out of the fold of Labrusca's robe and noticed a sizeable gap between the doors to the interior of the Nest and the marble floor. No one needed to draw her a diagram. She leapt out of the robe and scurried under the door, praying that the guards hadn't noticed her.
The inner Nest was sparsely decorated and dimly lit by several candles in decorative holders. It bore that same slightly worn look as the rest of the city. At the end of the main hall were two marble thrones, on which sat Lord Azure and Lady Ariel, the same Winged Ones that had ruled the city when Cassima had left the Isles. Sitting on the floor beside the thrones was their daughter, Celeste. Cassima crept towards the thrones along one side of the hall. She wasn't sure how she was going to make her entrance as a human just yet, but she decided what to do shortly before coming within a yard of the thrones.
She scuttled towards the center of the room and muttered "Andros" under her breath as she did so. She was human again within seconds, staring calmly at the startled faces of the three Winged Ones.
Azure seemed much older than he had when Cassima had last seen him at her wedding. There were streaks of gray in his hair, and his face was heavily lined and almost haggard in appearance. Ariel had aged too, not as dramatically as her husband, but the changes in her face and demeanor were quite apparent.
As for Celeste, she had changed the most, though not in the same way as her parents. The Celeste Cassima remembered would have recoiled and cringed at the sight of a human in her home, but this Celeste merely gazed at her with a look of…what was it? Curiosity? Fear? Hope? Whatever it was, it was a look that the spoiled brat of a princess that Cassima remembered would have never given her.
All three of the royal Winged Ones were wearing very little jewelry, and their clothing seemed surprisingly plain – Cassima was almost certain that they were made from the same material as Labrusca's robe.
"Your Majesties, please hear me out," she said quickly. "I mean you and your city no harm, and all that I wish of you is information."
"How did you enter the Royal Nest without the guards' knowledge?" stormed Azure. "Or get past the gates, for that matter? Or the barrier…or the defaced cliffs…"
He had started raving in his fury, and it was fortunate that Ariel placed a hand on his, staunching his rage almost immediately.
"You're a human, aren't you?" she said, more calmly than her husband but still with an irate air. "What are you doing here?"
"Trying to help you," Cassima explained, "Your city, your island, this whole kingdom. But I can't help you until I know just what has happened here."
Azure and Ariel suddenly looked at each other in shock. Celeste silently stared at them.
"Do you think…" Azure began.
"I don't know…" Ariel replied.
"It might be…she said there would be a…"
"But what if it isn't?"
"Your Majesties, what is it?" Cassima asked cautiously. The Lord and Lady of the Winged Ones turned to face her again.
"We think that your coming may have been predicted by the Oracle," said Azure. "She said that a stranger would come to the city in its darkest hour, demand to know how this hour came to pass, then move on."
"The Oracle was correct, then," said Cassima, somewhat relieved.
"I sincerely hope so," Azure said. "So…you wish to know how the City of the Winged Ones fell into its current state, foreigner?"
"Please," Cassima said, though she dreaded what she felt the answer was.
Azure sighed deeply, his shoulders slumping slightly.
"No one is quite certain how it began…all that we know is that it began shortly after…after the queen vanished."
Cassima stared at Ariel in confusion for a moment before remembering that although Ariel and Azure ruled over the City of the Winged Ones, they in turn were ruled over by the king and queen of the Isle of the Crown. Cassima felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as she realized that the queen in Azure's sentence referred to her. She considered herself lucky that the three Winged Ones hadn't recognized her, which didn't seem that odd if they truly had been through such terrible, scarring times, times harsh enough to turn the spoiled, arrogant Celeste into a meek, silent girl.
"Nobody knows exactly why or how she vanished, but it was enough to start another period of distrust among the Isles. One Isle would blame the inhabitants of another for the queen's disappearance, and the Isle being blamed would swiftly retaliate, and out of this bitterness arose so many misfortunes in such a short time that it was difficult not to perceive them as coincidences.
"Of course, the royal family of the Isle of the Crown suffered most from her unexpected departure. It was as if she had died for most people. As for King Alexander…"
"Stop," Cassima said shakily. "I've heard enough."
She fought to keep herself from crying from Azure's words. Her beautiful homeland torn apart because of her disappearance? It couldn't be. It couldn't. That would mean that she hadn't succeeded in her quest, and she had to succeed. She just had to. If only there were some way of knowing that this future wasn't a fixed future, one which could change with the tiniest twist of circumstances. But could anyone tell her whether the course leading to this future was unalterable or not?
Then, she remembered the Oracle. Like Labrusca said, if she didn't have the answers, then no one did.
"Lord Azure, Lady Ariel, I humbly ask your permission to visit the Oracle."
"The Oracle of the Sacred Mountain has seen no one, not even us, for many moons," Ariel said. "But for you, strange traveler from the outside, I feel she will grant an audience."
"I second that," Azure said. He rose to his feet and called out towards the doors:
The doors swung open, and standing there were not only the guards, but Labrusca as well.
"Forgive us, Lord Azure," said one of the guards, bowing his head and gesturing towards Labrusca, "We tried to chase this filthy wretch away, but he refused to leave, no matter how much we reprimanded him…"
"Silence," said Azure calmly. He turned to Labrusca with a stony glare.
"Why have you been loitering in an area that is clearly above your status, gardener?"
Labrusca slowly dropped to one earth-stained knee, letting his wings droop loosely at his sides.
"I wish to carry the foreigner to the Oracle's cave, your Highness," he said softly.
"You will do no such thing," Azure said coldly. "What gave you the gall to ask such a preposterous question is beyond me, but…"
"Lord Azure?" Cassima ventured. "I am willing to let him carry me."
Azure stared at her in disbelief while Labrusca just stared at her.
"Are you soft of head, human?" he asked. "That miserable dirt-kneader couldn't carry you more than a foot before dropping you. All the people of his status are weak and inferior to the rest of us."
Cassima was barely able to restrain herself from yelling at Azure.
"I trust him, Lord Azure. If I turn out to be too heavy for him to carry, I will apologize for doubting you and allow your guards to carry me to the cave. In either event, I will be leaving your Nest, which is just what you wanted me to do in the first place, is it not?"
Azure prepared to say something in response to this but then sullenly sat down in his throne, defeated. When neither he nor Ariel said anything more, Cassima walked down the long marble hall to where Labrusca waited, still down on one knee. He rose as Cassima approached, and the two of them left the interior of the Royal Nest.
After they had gone, Celeste slowly turned to her father, and in a voice that was barely higher than a whisper, asked:
"Daddy…haven't we met that human before?"
"I was listening to your conversation from outside," Labrusca explained. "I would have left sooner but I wanted to see what you truly were first…figuratively, of course."
They reached the Nest's balcony. Labrusca motioned for her to sit down on the marble so that he could lift her without any difficulty. Cassima did this, whereupon Labrusca slipped his left arm beneath her folded knees and put his right arm behind her back. Cassima nervously linked her arms around his right arm, the blind Winged One held her gently yet firmly, and after several flaps of his mighty wings, once again they were making their way through the clear blue sky, bound for the cave of the Oracle.
Cassima was astonished at how strong Labrusca was. Even though his arms had begun to tremble as they neared the gaping hole in the mountain where the Oracle resided, he never once came even close to faltering as he carried the queen to their destination. He touched down lightly just inside the cavern's craggy maw, delicately setting Cassima down on the rocky floor.
"Not all of us are weak," Labrusca said, breathing heavily from his short but apparently strenuous flight.
"Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Labrusca muttered, "But I've certainly been worse, too."
"Why did you do what you did at the Nest?" Cassima asked. "You could have been severely punished for being so impertinent towards Lord Azure."
"It's you," Labrusca said simply. "There's something about you that makes me feel as if the Hard Times won't be going on for much longer. Even if I hadn't heard what Lord Azure said about the Oracle predicting your arrival, I would still feel this way about you. Whatever this mission of yours is, O magical lizard-human, I somehow sense that it will end in triumph for you."
He slowly stretched out his wings, which were so large that they seemed almost threatening to Cassima. He softly beat the air with them, then gently felt her sides with the tips of his feathers with a touch as gentle as the brush of a cat's whiskers. He then raised one wingtip up to her face, and when she didn't pull back, he tenderly drew the downy tips across her face so carefully and unerringly that Cassima could barely believe that this creature was blind.
Once he had finished his tactile examination of her, he looked thoughtful for a moment, then a warm, wistful smile appeared on his worn, thin features.
"You are a very beautiful human," he said.
"Thanks," Cassima said, unsure how to respond to such a compliment.
"If your beauty is a match to your will, I know you won't fail in your mission," Labrusca said. He bowed to her and stepped back towards the mouth of the cave.
"The Oracle is waiting for you," he said, gesturing towards the blackness of the cavern's interior. "Good luck."
Cassima cautiously made her way into the dark interior of the inhospitable place where the Oracle of the Sacred Mountain lived. A greenish glow soon came faintly to her eyes, and as she drew closer, she saw that the glow was coming from a small pool, which was formed in the middle of a large rocky form rising up from the cavern floor, looking like an enormous naturally-formed cauldron.
As Cassima drew closer to the pool, she heard a hoarse voice from the shadows beyond it that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end:
"Who enters the Oracle's cave uninvited?"
"I do," Cassima said, trembling a little. "I am a foreigner who has come to your land by accident and is in desperate need of your advice."
The Oracle came shuffling out of the darkness in Cassima's direction. Her form was indistinct in the dim light, and all that the queen could see of her was her prune-like face, her wild, unkempt hair and her equally shabby wings. Her beady eyes grew large when they found Cassima.
"So it is you," she said with an air of awe in her voice. "The traveler from a time that has passed."
"You know who I am, then?"
"Yes," the Oracle said, placing her hands on the rim of the pool. "Queen Cassima. Alas, you have stumbled upon a less than perfect future for your homeland, but fear not – the future is rarely unchangeable. The events that you have been informed of are not necessarily the events that will eventually come to pass."
"You mean…that the Green Isles won't fall into discord again? That I will be triumphant in my quest and return home?"
"I can't tell you precisely what your future will hold," the Oracle said, shaking her shaggy head. "The path you are on has many a twist and turn to it. All I can say is that this future may not be the one that your world is fated to endure. If you are successful, your future will be considerably brighter than this one."
Cassima said nothing. She was staring blankly into the Oracle's pool. Her mind, which had been buzzing with a dozen different thoughts when she first entered the cave, was now focused on one particular thought, which adamantly refused to leave it.
"Ah, yes," the Oracle said, "Your husband. You are concerned about him."
"Very," Cassima replied. "And I'm certain that he is just as concerned about me…I just wish there was a way I could speak to him to tell him that I'm all right."
"Ah, but there is a way," the Oracle said, ruffling her wings.
"What do you mean?"
The Oracle swept a wrinkled hand over the glowing pool between them.
"Though this pool provides a window into present and future events, it can also be a window into events of the past as well."
Cassima stared intently at the Oracle, who dipped one hand into the strange waters of the pool and twirled it slightly.
"Think of him," she commanded. "Think of the way he was when you left him, think of his appearance, his voice, his mannerisms, his demeanor…think of him and here he will be…"
Alexander was sitting slouched on his throne, rubbing his head and staring at the floor. His search of the library had turned up nothing even remotely promising so far, and he was starting to wonder whether such an endeavor was an entirely futile move on his part. There didn't seem to be any way of bringing Cassima back, so why did he keep trying to convince himself that there was? It was stupid of him, thinking that all of his problems could be solved with magic. Just because it had helped him somewhat in the past didn't mean that it could…
The voice seemed so distant and far away. It reminded him of Cassima's voice. It had that same ethereal quality it had when he had seen her in the Magic Mirror…but he pushed the fantasy aside. Every woman's voice sounded like Cassima's voice to him now…
The voice was louder this time. Alexander slowly looked up. A dry gasp escaped his throat. A shimmering image was floating in the center of the throne room. It emitted a brilliant light that made it almost impossible to see clearly, but as he squinted at the unusual sight, he suddenly recognized the figure that was staring at him through the rippling haze.
He brazenly raced towards it, tears springing to his eyes.
"Cassima!" he cried, stopping just in front of the bright image of his wife. "It's you!"
Cassima almost laughed with relief and joy as she saw Alexander come running towards her in the unearthly glow of the Oracle's pool. Now his face appeared before her as clear as a reflection.
"Are you well, Alexander?" she asked tentatively.
"I'm much better, now that I can see you, Cassima," Alexander breathed, "But…where are you?"
"I'm in the Green Isles."
Alexander gaped. For a moment, his face was completely still except for the rippling of the pool.
"But…where?" he stammered.
"I think it's a question of when."
"This pendant that I took from you…I truly don't know what came over me and made me do such a thing…I learned that it has the power to let its wearer not only leap distances, but to travel randomly to different regions of time."
Alexander stared dumbfoundedly at the glowing image of Cassima.
"You mean you're here…but you're in a completely different time?"
"Yes," Cassima said, deciding not to mention that she was in a future where she never returned to her homeland. "And I need to tell you something important, Alexander: do you recall the name of the man that your sister is in love with?"
"Of course – Edgar, right?" Alexander said. "It's odd that you should bring him up…Shamir told me that he disappeared from Etheria yesterday, but apparently he's still alive…"
"I know," Cassima nodded. "He's wearing a pendant identical to mine and I met him at the Edge of the World. What a place to meet your possible future brother-in-law for the first time."
"You've met Edgar?!" Alexander exclaimed.
"Yes, and I talked him into helping me find Shadrack, too, and he is proving himself to be a pretty useful traveling companion."
Cassima reached into her pocket and withdrew the scrap of paper that she had found in the cabin in Tamir.
"He translated this piece of paper I found that belonged to one of Shadrack's agents. It contains information that must relate to what Shadrack intends to…do with us."
Her voice had suddenly grown quite low. Alexander took a step closer to her.
"What does it say?"
Cassima held the paper close to the glow of the pool to read it.
"It says, 'The best way to stop a tree from branching out and spreading is to destroy it before the roots are firmly in place. The trick is going in at exactly the right time.'"
"Hmm…That sounds ominous. What do you make of it, Cassima?"
"Not much…I'm afraid," Cassima sighed, tucking the paper away. "It's a pretty cryptic statement. But I'm afraid he might be plotting to kill us all…"
A nasty thought suddenly occurred to her.
"…And he might be traveling through time as well. That might be what the 'going in at exactly the right time' part of that paper means. As for stopping a tree from 'branching out and destroying it before the roots are firmly in place…'"
Cassima suddenly felt very cold. Shivering, she leaned closer over the pool and whispered:
"Do you suppose Shadrack might be planning to travel into the past and kill your father, Alexander?"
Alexander looked shocked at first, but then decidedly skeptical.
"Kill my father? No…no, that just doesn't sound like something he would do…He may be evil, but from what I've heard of him, he isn't the kind that would do something that, well, crude."
"What do you mean?"
"He could have instructed Alhazred to kill you as soon as you returned to the Castle of the Crown after Father defeated Mordack, but he didn't," Alexander explained. "Either he came up with the plot for Alhazred to marry you and murder you afterwards or Alhazred came up with the idea and Shadrack concurred with it, but either way, Shadrack had a hand in that plot, and it was a subtle plot, one that took much time, contemplation and planning. I know I may sound cold, but I just can't believe that Shadrack would kill my father just to destroy us. That just seems too simple, too obvious."
"Are you thinking he might kill my parents or Edgar's parents as well?"
"No…I don't know. I just don't see how going into the past is even possible, Cassima."
"Edgar and I have done it," Cassima said. "We've traveled into the past and the future – not intentionally, you understand. But you know…I think Shadrack's tailing us. I don't know how, but we're either following him or he's following us."
"Wait," Alexander said. "I just had a thought. The king before my father…King Edward the Benevolent…if he never summoned my father to retrieve the three lost treasures, my father would never have found my mother…and then…and then…oh my…"
Despite the greenish cast that the pool gave him, Cassima could still see Alexander's face turning pale.
"You think Shadrack is going to murder King Edward?" she asked.
"Maybe," Alexander said, sounding quite shaken, "It may be wrong, it may be totally wrong, but it's the only interpretation of what's on that paper that makes sense."
"But what can we do about it, Alexander?"
Alexander looked down and sighed.
"I don't know…"
The Alexander that looked back into Cassima's eyes was the Alexander she had fallen in love with: the brave, determined Alexander whose sleep wasn't tormented by thoughts of a vengeful dark wizard.
"But I will do everything I can to make sure he doesn't succeed."
Cassima nodded and smiled.
"So will I." she said softly. "I'll try to make it home in one piece, too."
There was a long pause.
Alexander extended a hand towards the rippling visage of his wife.
"I love you, Cassima."
Unthinkingly, Cassima began reaching towards him as well. She suddenly remembered the dream she had had the previous night, just as Alexander remembered his own dream. Their hands drew closer and closer until Cassima realized that the only way she would be able to touch Alexander's hand would be by reaching into the Oracle's pool. It seemed that his hand was just beneath the surface of the water, plaintively reaching out for hers. Love eventually won out over reason, and Cassima dipped her hand into the pool, where she clutched…
Nothing but water. Alexander's face grew distorted as her hand disturbed the stillness of the pool. From his perspective, it was as if Cassima's hand had been within a hair's breadth from his own, but when he moved his hand closer, Cassima's hand dissolved into a mass of ripples as if he had merely touched its reflection. When the ripples subsided, he could see his beloved's transparent fingers passing through his own as if she were a ghost.
Once the ripples on Cassima's side had calmed, she looked at their hands, which were touching – yet not touching – then she looked at Alexander's face and smiled longingly.
"Good-bye, Alexander." she said gently.
She then withdrew her hand, and the Oracle drew a finger across the water's skin. The image of Alexander grew turbulent and fragmented, then the pool calmed, returning to the same calm greenness it had exhibited upon Cassima's arrival. To Alexander, it was as if the glimmering likeness of Cassima had split into a thousand shimmering fragments that slowly vanished like sparks from a fire, leaving him alone once more.
Cassima wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sighed a fragile, shuddering sigh.
"Thank you, great Oracle," she said. "You have done more for my husband and me than we could ever do for you and your people in return."
"I ask for and expect nothing in return for what I do," the Oracle said solemnly. "I am merely the Oracle of the Eastern Lands. I serve my purpose, and that is all."
"Well, thank you again," Cassima said. "But there is one last thing I must ask of you, Oracle."
"You wish to know where to go next to search for this foe you have been pursuing?" the Oracle asked.
"Yes, I do."
"He is closer than you might think," the Oracle said. "I can sense the tiniest fragment of him very close by. It is a very faint trace, however. It might not even be him that I feel."
"Who, then?" Cassima asked. "One of his agents?"
"That is a very likely possibility," the Oracle said. "But until you find him, there will be no way of knowing for certain."
"Where is he?"
"He is in the same time as the one you are currently in, on the Isle of Wonder."
"That's good, but…how will I be able to get to the Isle of Wonder without landing in a completely different era?"
"I will make sure that you arrive at the appropriate time," the Oracle said, arching her wings. "My power may have waned over the years, but it is still strong. I'll also tell your friend where you have gone," she added, gesturing to Labrusca, who was still standing at the cavern entrance.
"So I just need to start visualizing the Isle of Wonder now and you'll make sure I land in the same time as this one?"
"Yes," the Oracle replied with a solemn nod. "Good luck, young Cassima, and may good fortune be on your side."
After the teleportation routine that was fast becoming quite familiar to Cassima, she reappeared in the whimsical gardens of the Isle of Wonder. The unusual cornucopia of plant life had certainly changed since she had last visited this part of the island. Most of the garden was now completely bare. The tomato vines were still there, but nearly everything else had been drastically altered. Where the wallflowers once grew were two low shrubs bearing bright blue flowers; where the clinging vines had been was a tall, skinny, dark gray sapling; where the snapping snapdragons had been was a tall plant bearing flowers that resembled tiny gloves; and what startled Cassima the most were the gaudily colored gates in the wall that bordered the north side of the garden – a heavy chain bound the gates firmly shut.
Cassima was astounded at first, but then she reminded herself of the current state of the Green Isles, and found that the chained gate fit the pattern that the boulder blockades on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain had started perfectly. It didn't look like there was any way of getting into Chessboard Land, a land which was literally a gigantic chessboard with living chess pieces as its sole inhabitants.
A sudden wriggling in her pocket startled her for a moment until she remembered that it was just the Hole-in-the-Wall that she had rescued from the Isle of the Sacred Mountain. She walked over to the nearest wall and placed the odd creature on it, where it looked quite contented and at peace. Cassima gazed longingly through its body at the rolling hills of Chessboard Land on the other side of the wall, then with a sigh she turned away. Even if the gates weren't chained, there was no way for her to enter. For a reason that was never made clear to her, humans were never allowed in that land, and the two large knights guarding the path leading into it made certain of that.
Cassima walked down the pink cobblestone path that led through the swamp, towards the island's beach. She didn't get very far, though. The dirt path through the swamp apparently hadn't been maintained in a very long time. The oozing green slime of the swamp had flowed over the path, forming a large, mucky trail that Cassima didn't dare cross – there was no way of telling how deep the slime on the path was, and even if it was shallow enough to wade across, there was always the danger of getting permanently stuck in it.
She returned to the garden and started examining the unfamiliar plants more closely. The plant with the glove-like flowers was apparently a foxglove plant, judging by the paw-shaped blooms. The tall, gray sapling turned out to be an ash tree, since when Cassima tried in vain to climb it in an attempt to reach the top of the wall bordering Chessboard Land, she had gotten ash all over her hands. The flowers on the two shrubs turned out to be bluebells – when Cassima picked one, it rang surprisingly loudly. Deciding that such a thing might come in handy, she picked two of them, packing their insides with grass so that they would not ring as she moved about.
As Cassima turned, she beheld another new plant. It was a large pink flower that roughly resembled a rose, sitting alone in a patch of grass, looking oddly aloof. As Cassima was bending down to touch it, the flower suddenly sprang to life and slapped the queen's hand with one of its leaves.
"Excuse me?" it exclaimed haughtily in a very feminine voice. "Did I ask to be assaulted in such an uncalled-for manner?"
"I'm sorry," Cassima said hastily. She should have known better than to try touching a plant on an island where plants were often just as intelligent as humans. "I didn't think – "
"You probably never do, I'm certain!" the flower huffed. "Whoever allowed such vandals to walk about this pristine area should be executed without trial!"
Just as I thought, Cassima said to herself. This is a primrose.
The flower folded its two main leaves and seemed to glare at Cassima.
As reluctant as she was to do so, Cassima tried addressing the primrose again in the hopes that it could tell her anything about the state of the Isle…perhaps even something about Shadrack's whereabouts.
"Please, madam, could you help me with something?"
"Manners aren't going to get you anywhere now, intruder!" the primrose snapped. "If the monarchy weren't such a tangle of weeds now, I would uproot myself and personally report your abuses!"
So much for that. Now what was Cassima going to do? She had no idea where on the island Shadrack – or his agent – could be, and the two ways out of the garden were either flooded with swamp sludge or locked up with chains.
She found her gaze wandering back to the wall that bordered Chessboard Land. It wasn't a terribly high wall, and the unusual pedestals decorating it every few feet would be perfect for snagging with a length of rope…if only she had a rope.
Even though she didn't, however, she did have a very long scarf, which was proving to be quite useful indeed. She swiftly unrolled it, took hold of both ends and flung the looped part of it over one of the pedestals atop the wall. She then tied a sturdy knot – which she had learned from the ferryman on the Isle of the Crown – into the scarf and tugged on its loose end, sending the looped knot sliding up towards the pedestal, where it stopped and held fast. Hopefully, she would be able to scale the wall using the scarf.
She took told of it and carefully began ascending the wall, pulling herself up the smooth stone face. The knot remained taut, and soon Cassima had reached the top of the wall. She quickly glanced over at the path that led into Chessboard Land; fortunately, the knights standing guard were some distance away, and they hadn't seen her. Cassima stealthily pulled the scarf around so that it dropped down on the wall's opposite side and quickly slid down it. She went into a crouch as soon as she touched the ground, but thankfully the knights still showed no sign of having seen her.
She was now in Chessboard Land, but what was she to do now that she was in it? Start asking random chess pieces whether they had seen a dark wizard named Shadrack in their land? She would be discovered immediately, and she doubted that changing into an animal in this land would be an ideal disguise either. Then she remembered the Red and White Queens – the two rulers of Chessboard Land. They had been guests at Cassima's wedding, and she and her parents knew them fairly well.
Then she recalled that she had gone missing in this future, and she had no way of knowing how the citizens would react upon seeing her again. They could be happy…but they could also be confused or even enraged because of all the misfortunes that her departure seemed to have wrought upon them. She decided that she had to remain unseen in Chessboard Land, but she still had to speak with the two queens in some way. She made up her mind to find them before figuring out the particulars of the latter.
Cassima turned and gazed out at the peaceful, hilly, boldly patterned landscape of Chessboard Land. The ground beneath her feet was as hard and solid as a polished wooden chessboard, and the way it warped into great hills and valleys made it even more remarkable. She began making her way towards the nearest hill. Once she was beyond that one, she would be completely out of sight of the knights. She quickly made it over the crest of that hill to behold a large valley that was barren, except for a single rook sitting on its far slope. Unlike the knights, this rook seemed devoid of any way of seeing or hearing her. As she cautiously approached it, it stood as stoically as the tower of which it was a stylization. It was slightly larger than her, just big enough to provide a good spot to hide – although she couldn't see anything to hide from in her current position.
Cassima looked at the top of the hill to see another rook. She tiptoed towards it and swiftly ducked behind it, then peered cautiously around its tapered body. Several yards away were two pawns, one red, one white, which appeared to be talking to each other in low voices. Beyond them was another rook, but Cassima couldn't reach that rook without being seen by the pawns.
She carefully dug out the bluebells that she had taken from the garden and surreptitiously flung them over a nearby knoll. The flowers rang sharply as they hit the ground and their grass padding came loose. The pawns swiveled in the direction of the harsh jangling and immediately started hopping towards it in their typical, awkward fashion, moving only one square at a time.
Cassima waited until they were gone and made sure that no other chess pieces were nearby. Then she sprinted across the wide sloping distance between her and the next rook as fast as she could in her long dress, skidding to a stop at the base of the still, silent piece and almost dropping to her knees from the exhilaration of the run.
She peered around the side of her new hiding place and gaped. The path through Chessboard Land was visible several yards away, and it came to a stop at a raised dais where four carved wooden thrones sat – two red, two white. They had to be the thrones that the Queens sat, along with their Kings, though Cassima had hardly ever heard them mentioned in conversations regarding Chessboard Land. They played a very minor rule in the ruling of this strange land, but they were apparently important enough to have thrones.
In front of the thrones stood the Red and White Queens, and before them stood a third chess piece. They were so far away that Cassima couldn't even tell what sort of piece it was, let alone what it was discussing with the queens. There was yet another rook roughly halfway between her current location and the thrones, but there was no way she could make it there without being seen.
Cassima clenched her fists angrily and stared at the distant rook. If only she could make it there. If only there was some way for her to cross that space without being spotted. She had to make it there to find out what was going on with the queens. She had to. She just had to…
Suddenly she was there, standing behind the rook and barely a hundred feet from the queens and their guest. She blinked and tried to figure out how she had been behind the far rook one moment, then behind the near rook the next. She remembered wishing with all her might that she was closer to the queens, then noticing her pendant start to glow. The pendant must have somehow brought her here. Did it grant wishes, like a magic lamp? That couldn't be the case, Cassima told herself. If it were, her wish to find Shadrack and help Alexander would have been granted long ago.
She was trying to figure out just what happened when she realized that she could now hear the queens and the third chess piece talking. She peeked around the rook and listened to them intently.
"…And who are you to question the way in which we rule our kingdom?" the White Queen said scornfully.
"Yes," agreed her sister, the Red Queen. "I find your impertinence quite rude and uncalled for."
"Forgive me, your Highnesses," said the third chess piece, "But I am only asking these questions for the sake of furthering my own knowledge. I do not mean to insult either of you in any way."
Cassima stared at the third piece. It appeared to be a bishop, but for some unaccountable reason, she couldn't tell whether he was red or white. One moment he appeared reddish, the next he appeared whitish, and other times he appeared to be a dull pink. Cassima found it odd that the queens didn't seem to notice this.
"I only wish to know why you expend so much of your energy protecting your kings," the bishop said. "They are both of equal incompetence – why, they are scarcely more powerful than pawns!"
"It is the way things are done here," said the Red Queen simply, with an air that implied that she wished their conversation to end immediately. The bishop wasn't swayed by her tone, however:
"But suppose there was a war between the two of you – surely you would be much better off defending yourselves and your more valuable subjects than your quailing kings."
"We are bound to our lords," said the White Queen, "And it is our sworn duty to protect them at all costs, even if it means the sacrifice of one of our own – even ourselves."
"I see. How then, hypothetically, would one go about eliminating such a looked-after liege?"
Both queens stared fiercely at the bishop.
"What do you mean by this?" the Red Queen said icily.
"I am only asking it out of curiosity. I am plotting nothing against your Highnesses, if that is what you think I am doing."
"Well, such a dastardly plot would require much time and planning for the one carrying it out. There is no straightforward path to a successful act of regicide, but I believe it all boils down to striking at exactly the right time…"
Something about those words made Cassima shiver. "Exactly the right time?" She had heard that phrase before. It was part of the last line on that sheet of paper she had gotten from Shadrack's agent. She looked at the bishop again. Why hadn't she seen it before? The piece's strange appearance, his subtly worded questions asking how one would go about destroying a king…it was another agent, and he was collecting information for Shadrack! He must have somehow disguised himself as a chess piece and deceived the queens into thinking that he was on both of their sides.
Cassima felt faint. She shivered and took a step backwards, fear shooting through her veins. The bishop suddenly stopped talking and stiffened – how a wooden chess piece could perceptively stiffen was beyond Cassima's comprehension, but he stiffened just the same – then slowly turned in her direction. Although his features were nothing more than carved slits in his oblong face, Cassima was terror-stricken at the sight of them.
"Who is that?" the bishop asked sharply.
The queens began turning in Cassima's direction. She swiftly ducked out of sight behind the rook, but it was too late.
"A human!" the Red Queen shrieked. "A human in Chessboard Land!"
Cassima disregarded her pendant's teleportation power in favor of the strength in her legs. She took off running across the checkered hills and valleys, heading for the garden wall as fast as she could.
"You'll never escape, human!" the White Queen bellowed after her. "You'll discover what the penalty for entering our kingdom is soon enough!"
Cassima could hear the heavy clomping sound of what seemed like a half dozen chess pieces chasing after her. She whirled around to see a knight bearing down on her. She quickly calculated which square it was headed for and swerved to the right. The knight landed on a light square several yards from her and snorted angrily.
Now another bishop was approaching her, hopping diagonally towards her on the left in the hopes of cutting her off. Cassima easily outmaneuvered it. Without the restricted movement or bulky forms of the chess pieces, she was easily able to put a great distance between herself and her pursuers, and the wall that separated Chessboard Land from the outside world was clearly visible in the distance, with several thankfully disinterested chess pieces sitting near it.
As Cassima ran onwards, she realized that she was having difficulty making her way left, towards the spot where her scarf hung down from the pedestal on top of the wall. She could still move forward with ease, but moving sideways became harder and harder. It was as if an invisible force kept on pushing her back. She also found that she had to rest on every square that she arrived at, even though she didn't feel that tired.
As if that wasn't odd enough, her legs suddenly began feeling stiff and awkward. She looked down at her feet and gasped. From the knees down, her legs had become pale and rigid, and oddly shiny. She couldn't even wiggle her toes. Not only that, but her legs were becoming distorted too. They looked bulbous and rounded, and she was having trouble walking as well – it was as if her legs were starting to fuse together.
With growing panic, Cassima realized what was happening: she was turning into a chess piece. That must be the penalty that the White Queen spoke of. The reason for her growing inability to move sideways became clear to her as well: the only chess pieces that could move in only one direction and only move one square at a time were pawns. That's what she was becoming. How ironic. A queen ending up as a pawn…
Cassima forced this slightly morbid idea out of her mind and struggled to move closer to the dangling scarf. It was nearly impossible now. The unspoken regulations of Chessboard Land were starting to manifest themselves in her, and it wouldn't be long before she could move forward and only forward. She had become polished wood up to her hips by now, and she found that she could no longer move her legs, so she resorted to hopping forward like the true chess pieces, a technique which worked surprisingly well. She could hear the shouts of the queens' entourage some distance behind her, however. It wouldn't be long before they caught up with her.
Cassima stopped and stared despairingly at the scarf. If she continued moving forward until she reached the base of the wall, the pedestal it hung from would be two squares to the left of the one she stood on, completely out of her reach. She had to reach it somehow; there was no way she could scale the wall now that she was half chess piece, with about as much agility as the sea had turnips.
The queen/pawn thought quickly, then noticed a lone chess piece sitting almost directly beneath the scarf. It was a pawn, and apparently it hadn't noticed her. In her fright, she must have overlooked it. Perhaps it could help her in some way…but why would it help her, an unwelcome human? Could it help her?
Perhaps Cassima had gained insight into the mind of a chess piece, for suddenly the solution to her problem appeared before her as clear as a cloudless day: although pawns could only move forward, they captured on the diagonal. And this lone piece was in just the right position to be captured. Cassima hopped toward it, not even contemplating whose side this pawn was on. Whatever side it was on, she decided, it wasn't on hers.
Cassima halted one square to the right and one square behind the oblivious pawn. Was there some sort of etiquette or custom involved in capturing a piece? At this moment, Cassima couldn't have cared less.
"Hey, you," she panted, relieved to find that her voice still functioned.
The pawn wobbled around to face her. It did have a face, even if it was just a few grooves representing eyes, a nose and a mouth carved into its spherical head.
"You're in my way," Cassima said.
"Oh drat," the piece muttered. "I suppose it's all my fault. I was sitting here, waiting until the queen called upon my services instead of…say, are you a human?"
"In a few minutes, I won't be," snapped Cassima, "At this moment, however, I should still be pawn enough to capture you. Now move."
The pawn sighed and pitifully toppled over as Cassima moved onto its square. The tip of the scarf was now within reach. She grasped it gratefully and began climbing up the side of the wall, her wooden lower half whacking repeatedly against the hard stone. With all the strength in her arms she had left, she heaved herself over the top, then let herself fall, landing with a muffled thud on the soft grass of the gardens of the Isle of Wonder.
For a few minutes, Cassima merely lay on the ground, trying to catch her breath and staring listlessly at the sky. Presently, she remembered what had happened to the lower half of her body. Was she doomed to remain part pawn her entire life?
A look at her legs answered that question with a resounding "no". They, along with her hips and her midriff, were slowly changing from wood back to flesh and bone. Cassima sighed gratefully.
For a moment, Cassima couldn't tell where the voice was coming from. Then she realized that it was coming from within Chessboard Land, just beyond the wall surrounding it.
"Er, Miss? You've captured me. Aren't you going to take me to your side now?"
It was the pawn, and judging by the muffled quality of his voice, he must have been lying on his face.
"You're not captured anymore," Cassima replied. "Get up and keep on serving your queen and don't worry about me – I'm resigning."
"Resigning?" the pawn repeated. "Can you truly do that?"
"Maybe not in Chessboard Land," Cassima said, stiffly rising to her now completely human feet, loosening the scarf from the pedestal and tucking it away. "But out here, we play by a different set of rules."
Cassima paused to think. Her excursion into Chessboard Land had been an unfulfilling one, and even though the chess pieces hadn't pursued her beyond the borders of their land, there was still the danger of that bishop-agent following her. She had to leave this place…but where could she go?
After a few minutes of consulting her memory, she faintly recalled a place that she had wanted to visit but had been unable to go to for various reasons – the Llewdor Oasis. She had seen it in a vision as she approached Tamir, told Edgar to go to it and traveled towards it through the Impossible Mountains. That oasis wasn't going to evade her again. Nothing was preventing her from transporting herself to it now.
She cleared her mind and started to visualize two small buildings set in a seemingly endless expanse of sand, with a small pool nearby, with Llewdor to the east of it and the Impossible Mountains to the west.
Her pendant grew bright, its light enveloped her, and for the second time in two days, the queen of the Land of the Green Islands left her homeland. This time, however, nobody noticed that she had gone.
Continue to the second half...
Proceed to the next section if you've already read both halves...