Edgar found himself standing on a tiny island covered with lush vegetation. Since he could see nothing but sky both above and below him, he correctly deduced that he had made it to Etheria.
He gazed at the exotic flora that decorated the island. There were large, wisteria-like blooms that hung over the side, a large, orange shrub with enormous tapered leaves drooping from it, and several tiny bushes with clumps of ripe berries growing from their centers. Edgar gratefully helped himself to several of these, since he had learned from his parents that there were no poisonous plants in Etheria. He also picked several more of the fruits and stashed them away for later, in case he couldn't find anything else to eat on his journey.
As lovely as this island was, it appeared to be a dead end. There was another island nearby hanging somewhat lower than the one he was currently on, but it was too far to jump to, and the only connection between the two islands was a vine that stretched between a tree on the island Edgar was on and a tree on the island he wasn't on. Edgar walked over to the vine and gave it a tug. It didn't come loose. He had no idea how the vine was affixed between the trees, and all he could tell about it was that it was sturdy and stable. Still, the prospect of making his way to the other island by traversing that vine hand over hand with nothing but empty space beneath him for at least a mile was not one that tickled his fancy.
But perhaps there was another way he could use the vine to get to the next isle. Edgar turned to look at the other plants that decorated his little piece of land. The large orange plant with the huge leaves caught his eye. He walked over to it and with some effort (as well as Gabbro's knife), liberated one of its leaves. It was large and colorful, and impervious to everything he tried to do to it. It wouldn't tear or even crease, no matter how he abused it. This was just what he had hoped.
He carried the leaf over to the edge of the island and looped it over the vine. He then gripped the two dangling ends of the leaf, took a deep breath and with all his might shoved himself away from the island with his feet. Thankfully, both the leaf and the vine supported his weight as he rode the sloping vine down to the previously unreachable island. Though he stopped just short of the island's "shore," he was able to swing himself onto it and free himself of the vine without even dropping his leaf, which he carefully rolled up and stowed in his pocket.
This new island appeared to actually be two islands connected by an elaborately constructed bridge. On the other side of the bridge was a set of stairs seemingly carved out the purplish rock of the island itself (the same color rock that the first island was composed of), winding its way up to a squat pinnacle for no discernable reason. In the distance was a third isle but unfortunately there were no vines leading to it that Edgar could zip across with his leaf. Edgar crossed the beautiful bridge and walked up the steps to the pinnacle. Nothing happened once he had reached the pinnacle, and he wasn't really expecting anything to happen either.
It seemed as if he had landed in an unpopulated region of Etheria, which wasn't necessarily bad out of context, but after reading that paper that Cassima had given him, the urgency of his unexpected mission had grown quite stronger. Unless he wanted this Shadrack to succeed in whatever it was he was planning, he had to find a way to stop him, and the only way to do that was by asking as many people as he could for advice.
But before he could find people to ask, he had to get to this next island. As he was pondering how he could do this, his pendant suddenly began glowing. In the chaos of the previous day's events, Edgar had completely forgotten about his pendant's ability to transport him to different locations as well as different lands (and times, he reminded himself with a shiver). He put the image of himself standing on that unreachable island in his mind, and within moments, that vision became a reality.
The third island was even smaller than the one he had first arrived upon; he could easily cross it with two broad strides. A single stumpy tree grew on it, and its top was covered with the same short, dark green grass that had covered the previous islands.
At first, Edgar thought that he had finally hit a real dead end, but as he gazed into the pinkish mist that surrounded him, he saw another island that was barely a silhouette in the thick haze. It was too indistinct for him to reach using his pendant, but fortunately, he had another means of travel at his disposal. He took out and readied his skyship, fastened the foot straps to it and mounted it, taking off towards this new tiny chunk of terra incognita.
As Edgar neared the island, he noticed how barren it was in comparison to the previous ones he had skipped across. It was also considerably larger, but the most apparent difference was that its flat terrain was covered with what appeared to be the ruins of an ancient fortress or tower. Fragmented foundations of walls bordered the edge of the island, while crumbling arches, single stones and truncated examples of thicker walls were scattered across the island without much indication as to what this odd structure was intended to be. There was also a large, gaping hole in the southeast corner of the island, which was just as enigmatic as the rest of the place.
Edgar soon arrived at the island, where he disembarked from his skyship and began to examine this peculiar location up close. He hadn't examined it more than five seconds before a figure seated upon one of the stray stones of the structure's ruins sprang to its feet. It was a man, lean but muscular, with stringy, wavy dark hair, a trim mustache and a sparse beard, plain brown clothing, pale blue eyes and a furious expression on his face.
"Stop right there!" he barked in a sharp, accented voice. "You won't take me without a fight! I, Acilino of Etheria, will not go down so easily!"
"Wait," Edgar protested, raising his hands, "I was only passing through…"
"Ach, sure!" the stranger snarled. "Just passing through and floating right past me like a fairy, eh? Show me your weapon, strange person!"
Edgar stared at the man, dumbfounded.
"But…why are you holding a pole?"
That was one of the main sources of his bewilderment. When the stranger got to his feet, he had pointed a long, wooden, slightly curved pole in Edgar's direction, and he was still clutching it with the same tenacity as one would hold a sword. When Edgar asked about it, the man glanced awkwardly down at the pole, then looked back up at Edgar with a hint of embarrassment in his voice.
"Bad phobia of mine." he muttered under his breath. "I can't stand blood. If you have no weapon of your own, there's another rod over there."
Here he gestured to another piece of the foundation, which an identical rod was indeed leaning against.
"Now en garde!"
"But…I…" Edgar stammered.
"I'll have you know that I've a beautiful wife waiting for me at my home! I've waited on this isle for days, but I have no way of signaling a ship! I have nothing else left to live for, and nothing to lose! So face me if you have courage enough, you little fool!"
Edgar immediately felt a sting of jealousy at the man's claim that he was married. Without thinking, and not wanting to give the stranger another chance to taunt him, he shouted:
"Well, I have a wife as well, and if you insist, I'll fight you, Acilino!"
With that, he snatched up the rod and began approaching Acilino at a deliberate pace, not even contemplating the foolishness of what he was doing until he was in the midst of a full-on duel. The rod Edgar was wielding was no sword, and he was sure that there were many sticks that were better suited to fighting with than the one he was swinging about, blocking Acilino's blows and trying his best to disarm him at the same time. He had no idea what sort of rules this bizarre form of fencing had, and trying to learn the rules by copying his rival's moves was nothing short of impossible. Once, Edgar lost his balance and fell down, but he was able to block every swipe his rival took at him with his own rod, rolling over and getting back to his feet as he did so.
"You haven't done this before, have you?" Acilino asked incredulously as their rods clacked together over and over.
"No," Edgar replied simply.
"You're good for an amateur."
Soon Edgar began gaining the upper hand, and he was surprised when he found that he was forcing Acilino towards the east end of the island.
"I know something that you do not, stranger," Acilino suddenly said, as Edgar drove him even further towards the edge of the island, beneath a large arch with a large ornamental stone sphere perched atop it.
"Yeah?" Edgar asked. "So what?"
"Knowing this gives me an advantage over you," the stranger said in his strange, sharp accent. "Though ironically, if you had known it before, it would have given you an advantage over me!"
"Why is that?" Edgar asked, a little perplexed.
"Because I am not yet married!" his rival crowed triumphantly. In the brief, bewildered pause that Edgar took following this new information, Acilino made a jab in the direction of Edgar's head, which Edgar was able to duck just in time.
Now Acilino had the upper hand. Though Edgar had learned how to fight with a rod with lightning speed, he lacked the stamina and endurance that Acilino had in great quantities. The prince was tiring while his foe was still going strong. Acilino backed Edgar towards the west end of the isle, which was fortunately bordered by a low stone wall.
As Edgar was straightening up after ducking another blow, Acilino gripped his rod with both hands and thrust it against Edgar's, shoving him against the wall and the isle's edge, which dropped off into nothingness. Edgar felt a stone behind him give way. His strength was ebbing quickly – he wouldn't be able to hold Acilino back much longer.
"Prepare to fall your farthest, odd man!" Acilino hissed.
"There's…there's something you ought to know before I fall…" Edgar managed to gasp.
"And that is?"
Edgar looked Acilino in the eye with a sudden calmness.
"I'm not married either."
Acilino faltered for an eyeblink, which was just enough time for Edgar to shove him back and spring to his feet. His foe staggered back against a thick wall. Edgar leapt into a position where he could meet Acilino when he came at him again, then with a sickening sensation he realized that he was now standing directly in front of the pit he had seen upon his arrival. In that same instant, however, an idea budded in his mind.
Acilino was glaring at him fiercely with a look that made it clear that he was about to disregard all fencing etiquette and attack Edgar without mercy. And this is just what he did half a second later – tried to do, at least, for just as he was tearing in Edgar's direction, his rod held straight out in front of him, Edgar boldly leapt to the right, and Acilino, unable to stop in time, continued onwards, tumbling into the hole. His pole, however had snagged Edgar's cloak and torn it from his shoulders. It soared through the air briefly before landing on a large chunk of masonry.
Edgar had landed on all fours. He got to his feet and spun around. Judging by the furious noises coming from the pit, Acilino was alive…and even angrier than before. Edgar looked desperately for somewhere to hide before the madman found a way out of his pit. The only spot that jumped out at him, however, was a tiny gap between two large stone foundations to the north. He brazenly ran towards it.
"You'll pay for that, maidenhair man!" Acilino growled as he began crawling out of the pit like a brazen centipede.
Edgar crouched down between the two foundations as Acilino freed himself of the pit and raced towards the left foundation, nimbly leaping atop it. He took a few steps toward Edgar's hiding place and paused, as if savoring the taste of imminent victory.
Edgar glanced frantically about, trying to figure out a way to incapacitate Acilino. Then he looked at the ground he was kneeling on and noticed an odd grove cut into the earth, with a small hollow deep within it. A hollow that looked just wide enough for…his rod.
Without thinking, Edgar jammed the end of his rod into the hollow, creating something that felt very much like a lever. He shoved it forward and instantly there was a loud grinding noise followed by a thud and a scream. Edgar glanced up. Acilino was no longer standing on the left foundation. He was lying in a heap on the right. Edgar turned and saw the reason for this sudden relocation. Apparently, the lever he had completed had controlled an odd wooden ram that shot out of a protective stone encasement on the leftmost side of the left foundation. When he pushed the lever, he had inadvertently bumped Acilino off his perch. He certainly wasn't going to be happy about that.
Edgar whirled around. Acilino was rising weakly to his feet.
"You are going to die very slowly, you little stinkbug!" he wheezed.
Edgar suddenly noticed that Acilino was standing on a large, red, tattered rug that rested on the right foundation. He did the first thing that came into his mind. He grabbed the edge of the rug and jerked it towards him as hard as he could. It worked. Acilino let out another startled scream and fell flat on his back as the rug was yanked out from under him. Having run out of similar tricks to pull from his current location, Edgar freed his rod from the grove between the foundations and fled towards the east end of the island.
"This is it!" Acilino raged. Even though he could only stagger after Edgar now, he still managed to make himself look like the very essence of intimidation. "Prepare to die, you wingless fly!"
Edgar was standing beneath the stone arch. There was nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. It seemed like the only way of escaping Acilino was climbing up one side of the arch. Edgar dropped his rod and began shinnying up one of the stone columns as quickly as he was able. He reached the top of the arch just as Acilino was nearing the bottom. If he started climbing up after Edgar, there would be no escape for the prince.
Fortunately, Edgar's eyes lit upon the stone sphere adorning the arch's keystone and he immediately knew what to do. He waited until Acilino was almost directly beneath him, then shoved the sphere from its setting.
Luckily for Acilino, the sphere was neither large nor carved out of a particularly dense type of stone. All the same, the force with which it hit his head was enough to knock him quite thoroughly unconscious. Edgar slid down from the arch and stood over his rival, panting heavily for several seconds before regaining enough breath to say:
"What I meant to say was that I wasn't married yet. But I will be someday. I don't know whether the same could be said for you."
Even though Acilino couldn't hear a word of this, it gave Edgar considerable satisfaction to say it to him. Leaving his rod where it had fallen, the prince walked over to the chunk of masonry where his cloak had landed, picked it up and refastened it about his neck.
Now that his unexpected duel had ended, where could be go from here? He had no idea where he was in Etheria, he could see no islands from his current location sans the one he had just traveled from, and flying off on his skyship with no idea where he was going didn't seem like a bright idea.
Besides, as much trouble as Acilino had caused him, he pitied the slightly maladjusted man, and he didn't want to leave him stranded on this island. Who could say how long it would be before help arrived for him…help that he wouldn't immediately challenge to a duel, that is.
The prince then remembered Acilino's remark about being unable to signal a ship. Perhaps Edgar could signal for help somehow; however, there was no wood that he could use to make a fire and create smoke signals with, he had no mirrors that he could signal for help with either, and the metal pole that resembled a flagpole sticking out of a stone base near the west end of the island wasn't much use without a large, brightly colored flag hanging from it…
Edgar didn't have a flag, but he had something large and brightly colored. He unrolled the slightly bruised and battered orange leaf, bored a hole in its thicker end with Gabbro's knife and stuck it onto the flagpole. It created a perfect signaling device. Now he just had to hope that someone spotted it before Acilino woke up.
As Edgar sat on a large weathered stone, the cryptic words of that paper Cassima had shown him kept replaying in his head. "The best way to stop a tree from branching out and spreading is to destroy it before the roots are firmly in place." A tree? Roots? What did it all mean?
Could the tree be a metaphor? Could it possibly be a family tree?
A family tree. Edgar felt like he finally had gotten somewhere with that paper. He began thinking of the family trees he was familiar with. His own tree spanned three generations. Edgar knew nothing of his father's family, but he did know that the Fates – Clotho, Lachetis and Atropos – were the aunts of the Dreamweaver, who was the brother of Malicia, Edgar's own aunt, and Titania, Edgar's mother.
Rosella's family tree was much simpler: she and Alexander were the children of Graham and Valanice, and Edgar didn't know the names of their parents. The same could be said for Cassima. He knew he had heard her parents' names before, but he simply couldn't place them.
The people of these three families, he realized, had crossed paths on numerous occasions. Cassima had helped free Graham from the dungeons of Mordack the sorcerer, Edgar had freed Rosella from her prison in his stepmother's castle, Alexander had resurrected Cassima's parents and liberated her kingdom from the power-mad vizier Abdul Alhazred, and Rosella and Valanice had helped save the kingdoms of Etheria and Eldritch, reuniting Edgar with his parents as well.
There was so much more that had happened between the three, but it seemed that every event was in some way connected to Rosella's family. If it weren't for her and Alexander, Edgar would still be living in Lolotte's castle as a green hunchback, while Cassima would still be scrubbing floors as a scullery maid in Mordack's fortress. If it weren't for them, nearly everything for the three families would be changed.
If it weren't for them…
A cold shudder passed through Edgar. The members of Rosella's family were the roots. They had to be. Everything that connected her family to his and Cassima's – it all started with them.
So what did Shadrack mean by stopping the tree from branching out? Did he mean killing Rosella and her kin before they encountered Edgar and Cassima? No, no, that wasn't it. That wasn't destroying it before the roots were firmly in place.
Perhaps he intended to kill Graham and Valanice before Rosella and her brother were born. That would fit the cryptic description, but only just. It didn't seem quite right, but Edgar couldn't think of anything else to associate with that metaphor.
He was trying to think up other possible disguised meanings that Shadrack's agent might have placed in that paper when something very large loomed just out of his field of vision to the right. He looked up to see a gigantic flying ship approaching him. Apparently his signal had worked.
The ship was similar in form to the swan-shaped ship that his parents rode in, but this one had the shape of a gigantic eagle, its beak wide open, its tawny wings stretched majestically. The ship had two masts and a minimal amount of rigging, but no sails. Of course, sails weren't necessary on ships like these, which were propelled by magic, but then again, neither were masts. Perhaps the person who constructed this ship wanted it to bear some resemblance to the more conventional seagoing ships of Rosella's world.
On the hollow in the eagle's back were three men. The first was small, with flaming red hair tied in a stubby ponytail, pointed ears and skin that was almost orange, clad in a white toga. The second was thin and lanky, with long black hair, a long nose and skin the color of a tanned hide. The third was tall, athletic, and much more human in appearance than the other two. He was wearing a plain brown tunic and dark blue trousers, with light armor plating covering his shoulders. He had bright yellow hair and large dull blue eyes, the color of the sky before a storm.
Edgar rose to his feet and watched in stunned silence as the three men slowly brought the eagle-shaped ship alongside the island's edge. Once the craft had come to a complete stop, the yellow-haired man stepped onto the wing that was nearest to Edgar and addressed him politely.
"Greetings, drifter! Don't recall seeing your face around the isles!"
His voice was loud, yet not intimidating. His tone was so friendly that Edgar trusted him almost immediately.
"Well…I was on a journey through the isles and I got stranded here," Edgar explained. He turned and pointed to Acilino's still form.
"Actually, this man and I got into a brief fight. He needs to leave here more than I do."
The yellow-haired man looked at Acilino and snorted amusedly.
"Well, he doesn't look quite ready to leave, eh?" he chuckled. "No worries, comrade. Step aboard my ship and I'll take you to the nearest town. I'll return for this fellow later."
"Are you sure you can remember this island?"
"Me? I've piloted the Aquilla for as long as I can recall, and I know this land like the palm of my hand. But no time for chatting. Step aboard, friend!"
Eager to get as far away from Acilino as possible and closer to a place where he might be able to learn about Shadrack, Edgar boarded the flying ship, which swiftly pulled away from the barren island and swooped off into the lavender haze that surrounded the tiny islands in this remote region of Etheria.
"So," the blonde stranger said to Edgar, "What's your title?"
As Edgar turned to look at his rescuer, he noticed something odd about his hair: there was one part on the left side of his head and another part on his right, making it appear as if his hair had been divided into three sections. Edgar had no idea why his hair looked like this, but it was probably a normal style in this part of Etheria…after all, many things were different in Etheria.
"Edgar. And you?"
"My mother called me Alberic, but I call myself Aubrey," the stranger explained. "I've lived alone on these islands since my mother disappeared. This ship and my crew are my home and family."
"What about your father?"
"I dunno what happened to him," Aubrey shrugged, leaning against the mainmast. "My mother never spoke of him, so I doubt he was really of any importance in this life I'm living. I've survived sixteen years without him anyway."
Edgar said nothing in response to this. To him, Aubrey didn't seem bitter about not knowing who his father was, but merely curious. Having spent most of his life under the care of a fairy that claimed to be his mother, Edgar too had experienced the frustration of not being told who his father was. Unlike him, however, he doubted whether Aubrey would ever discover his father's identity.
"You're a fairy, aren't you?" Aubrey suddenly asked.
"Why…yes," Edgar replied, slightly surprised. "How did you know?"
"There aren't many humans up here," Aubrey said, "And eight times out of ten any supernatural being here is a fairy, and you don't look like any gnome or goblin I've ever seen. Besides, there's a certain…I dunno, a certain vibe that fairies give off that sets them apart from humans. I've learned to tune into this over the years."
"Well, how about you?" Edgar asked. "Are you a fairy, too?"
"Given the odds I've just related to you, I should be," Aubrey laughed. "But I honestly don't know. I just know my mother was a human. I can be sure of that."
Edgar stared at Aubrey, fascinated by what he had just heard. Here was a man who had no idea what his lineage was, yet he seemed thoroughly contented with his lot in life. Edgar, on the other hand, knew that he was the Crown Prince of Etheria, yet spent most of his days with no idea what role he was meant to play. It was an interesting juxtaposition of feelings.
Aubrey was quiet for a moment, but then sprang to life again as he glanced past the ship's bow.
"Ah! I see we are nearing Aeolus," he said brightly.
"Aeolus?" Edgar repeated, looking where Aubrey was looking. Ahead was a small but mountainous island shrouded in a thick bluish mist, the color of its cliffs a marbled lavender. There were two buildings visible on a small plateau near the edge of the island.
"Yes, Aeolus," Aubrey said, "Known to outsiders as Lighter Etheria. It may not be the lightest, but it's lighter than most of the storm clouds floating about here. Hang on, Edgar…we're coming in…"
Edgar held tightly to the side of the ship, and Aubrey's crew did the same. The Aquilla slowed abruptly as it carefully pulled alongside the approaching island. The ship seemed to have a mind of its own, since Aubrey seemed to be doing nothing at all to its riggings as they prepared to dock. Edgar was just wondering whether the ship was somehow magically in sync with the minds of the crew when the Aquilla suddenly drew to a halt, its left wing forming a bridge to the island. Aubrey carefully disembarked, and Edgar followed him.
"You boys go back and pick up that unconscious man," Aubrey told his crew. "I'll be in the library."
There were a few affirmative gestures from the men aboard the craft. Then the Aquilla sped off again, back to the island it had just departed from. After watching it disappear into the mist, Edgar turned to see Aubrey entering one of the buildings through a pair of double doors – no doubt the library. Being a stranger in this land with Aubrey the only person he could consider a friend, Edgar entered the library as well.
It was a typical library in many respects – there were shelves full of books on display, with several ornate reading tables carved out of a delicate pinkish wood. Its only residents, however, were two people in black robes, one quite young, the other much older and crooked-looking; Aubrey, who sat alone at a table at the opposite side of the library; and a tiny creature sitting at another table. The creature was so tiny that all Edgar could see of it were two greenish-brown hands clasped around a large book, which was propped up against an odd object that seemed familiar to Edgar at first, but at the moment, he was more interested in conversing with Aubrey than anything else.
As he slowly approached the table Aubrey was seated at, Edgar examined the bookshelves that lined the library walls. The books they were filled with seemed ordinary at first glance, but closer scrutiny revealed such titles as: Observations and Theories on the Unstationary Isles of Etheria, How to Make Your Garden More Attractive to Dragonettes, Parallel Realms and Methods of Entering Them and The Unicorn: Semi-divine Beast, Rhinoceros as Seen Through the Eyes of a Tipsy Explorer, or a Mere Error in Translation? The names of the authors were elaborate and nearly unpronounceable at times, and at the end of each name was a small two- or three-letter abbreviation. Eventually, Edgar realized that these were abbreviations of what species the author was: Fae. was a fairy author, Tr. was a troll author, Fal. was one of the many bizarre talking animals of Falderal, and Und. had to indicate one of the undead inhabitants of Ooga Booga. There were also some human authors in the bunch, but there were very, very few – there were more authors in the Other category than in the Hu. category. In this realm, humans were even rarer than fairies were in the realm Rosella came from.
At first, Edgar couldn't surmise the purpose of this naming convention, but then he decided that trolls would be much more comfortable reading books by other trolls rather than fairies or humans. With so many intelligent beings in one world, it made sense for library books to be catalogued in this way.
Edgar walked the full length of the small room, approached Aubrey's table and took a seat adjacent to him, then sighed heavily in spite of himself.
"You look depressed, Edgar," Aubrey remarked.
"I know I do."
"Does it have anything to do with a loved one?"
Aubrey had hit the nail right on the head. Edgar looked up and nodded.
"Yes. It does."
"Any fairy from around here?"
"No. She's a human."
Aubrey's eyes grew bright.
"Yes. But could a human love a fairy?" Edgar said, looking down again. "Ever since I've met her, I've been uncertain that she cares for me at all."
"Very strange you should have an interest in a human girl," Aubrey said reflectively. "So do I."
Despite Aubrey's uncertainty as to whether he was a human or a fairy, this statement piqued Edgar's interest. Aubrey was proving to be quite an interesting character. In some ways, he was like the brother Edgar never had.
"You do? What's she like?"
"To be honest, I've yet to see her for myself, but I've heard tell of this girl's beauty and her unique way of thinking. I'm told that she sees things that others overlook, and her mind works in a different way. Not only that, but in her youth, she was a misfit…just like I was. It seems like we would make the perfect match."
"Where does this maiden live?"
"Well, she used to live in a small village, but she was taken from there to a castle in a far-off land. Unfortunately, the place has fallen under a curse, and no one has been able to reach the castle and free the maiden and its inhabitants."
This certainly seemed like a quest that only princes undertook to Edgar, but Aubrey didn't seem like a man who was fettered by traditions or customs.
"And you're on a quest to find her?"
"That I am," Aubrey said proudly. "I know it sounds crazy, but I feel that she is my missing half. Perhaps together, people will finally accept us."
He was certainly determined – and at least he had a definite goal, unlike Edgar, whose simple quest to seek help on wooing Rosella had quickly twisted into something completely different and twice as ambiguous.
"I wish you luck, Aubrey," Edgar said, shaking the young man's hand and rising to his feet.
"And I you, Edgar," Aubrey replied.
Edgar turned his attention to the rest of the library. The older individual in the dark robe didn't strike Edgar as someone he'd want to strike up a conversation with. When Edgar casually asked the robed boy (who, upon closer inspection, had wild black hair and green eyes framed by a much-repaired set of glasses) whether he knew of a wizard named Shadrack, the boy had asked, "Is he in league with You-Know-Who?" and when Edgar had admitted having no clue who "You-Know-Who" was, the conversation dried up almost immediately.
The last occupant of the library demanded closer scrutiny, however. Its face was buried in its book, and the object it was resting its book against – a truncated, slightly bent stone cylinder, with a brilliant diamond set in it – was very familiar indeed. It was just like the four trinkets Edgar had discovered earlier in his travels, and he had a strong feeling that he should acquire this one as well.
As he was carefully attempting to pick up the object without the creature's knowledge, the creature suddenly jerked its hand into the air with its clawed index finger extended. It all happened so quickly that Edgar was almost poked in the face by the sharp digit. The creature was suddenly looking at him out of a gleaming pair of eyes with vertical pupils set in a tiny, wrinkled face with long, pointed ears, and an even longer hooked nose. It appeared to be an imp to Edgar, and impish it was.
"Did you know that only one out of every five fairy tales contains an actual fairy?" it trilled excitedly. Edgar had expected to be reprimanded for attempting to make off with the imp's book rest, but apparently his attempted thievery had gone unnoticed.
"Really?" Edgar asked, feigning interest. "Um…that's news to me."
"Yes," the imp grinned. "It is so fascinating."
With that, it withdrew its hand and reburied its nose in its book. This being was just a little too eccentric for Edgar to make sense out of. He tried to remove the book rest again, but once again the imp's claw shot up, barely missing Edgar's ear.
"Therefore is a monstrous beast reversed!" it chirped.
"What?" Edgar asked, thoroughly perplexed.
"'Ergo' is 'ogre' spelled backwards!" the imp said enthusiastically.
"So it's fascinating, don't you think?" the imp asked.
Edgar didn't reply to this, but just as before, the imp grinned and vanished behind its book.
Edgar took a step back to think about his current predicament. He had to have that trinket, yet every time he tried to obtain it, the imp would spout out some bizarre bit of trivia, most likely from the book it was reading, effectively thwarting the prince's plan to make off with the object. It would also jab at the air with that dangerously pointed claw with uncanny accuracy. If it weren't so sharp, Edgar would gladly have grabbed that finger and swiped the trinket while the imp was attempting to liberate it – its finger, of course, not the trinket.
But perhaps Edgar could still use that finger's sharpness to his advantage…
He looked around the library and noticed a plain block of wood acting as a bookend on one of the shelves. He carefully removed it, returned to the imp's table, and with his right hand held the block in the same place where the imp would jab with its finger. As he did this, he carefully moved his left hand towards the cylindrical item propping up the creature's book.
As before, the imp's hand shot up, but this time, the claw of its index finger became lodged in the block of wood. As the little being struggled to free itself, Edgar quickly purloined the trinket and slipped it into his pocket.
"Hey! What are you doing?" the imp squawked as he did so. "You humans are always taking something that isn't yours, aren't you?"
"I'm not a human," Edgar protested. "I'm a…"
"Hmmf!" the imp snorted, finally dislodging its finger from the wood block. "You look just like one, whatever you are! Well, fine. Go ahead, take it. I was getting tired of that ruddy book rest anyway."
"Thanks, I suppose," Edgar said uncertainly, feeling a touch of conscience for what he had just done. Still, since the imp had already returned to its book and appeared to have no trouble reading it without the aid of the book rest, Edgar decided to keep the trinket – despite still having no idea what it or its companions were.
"I say, lad!" said a kindly, yet somewhat unnerving voice.
Edgar turned around to find himself face to face with the older man in the black robe – the one he had elected to avoid at all costs. Now that the man was facing him, he didn't appear quite as threatening – he had a small pair of spectacles, thin, wavy black hair, a long, large nose, beady eyes and ears that were slightly pointed.
"I've been watching you, Sonny," the man said in a slightly squeaky tone. "You look like an able-bodied youth, and I can see some brains behind those eyes of yours."
"You've been watching me?" Edgar asked in surprise. "Your back's been to me the whole time I've been in this library."
"Well, let's say I have eyes in the back of my head…in a not-so-metaphorical sense…heh heh heh."
Even if the laugh was meant to indicate a humorous comment, it still sent a chill or two scampering up Edgar's spine.
"What do you want of me?" he asked as calmly as he was able.
"My assistant in the establishment not far from this one has left me for a better pay, I can only presume. I am in need of a new one, and you, my son, seem to be just the person for that position."
"But what is your profession?"
"Ah, I am a physician for the travelers that pass through here on their flying ships. Medical aid is rare here, and thus I make a decent living here, among the rocky isles. They pay me in food and gold, and I eliminate what plagues them."
"But…where does one learn medical skills in a land like this?" Edgar inquired.
"Well, I am actually a physician who uses magic to heal my patients. It's totally harmless and entirely beneficial to the people I use it on."
"Hmm…a sorcerer-physician," Edgar remarked, half to himself, half to the subject of the preceding sentence. "That's something different."
"Indeed, yes," the physician concurred. "But I am quite inefficient at keeping my shop in order, hence my need for an assistant. You should merely do what is asked of you, tidy up my storeroom and supplies and help me when I need your…abilities."
The look in his eyes was so unnerving that Edgar found it difficult to refuse the man's offer.
"Well, if you insist…"
"I do," the physician said coolly. "You will be paid for your work, of course. Please come to my shop as soon as you can. I shall open it for you. It's nearly opening time anyway."
With that, the man scurried out of the library like a tall black spider, slamming the double doors behind him, much to the chagrin of the imp and the bespectacled boy.
As uneasy as the man and his business proposition had made Edgar, nothing about either seemed truly dangerous – after all, the physician said Edgar would be paid, and if the job was reasonable, Edgar would have no reason to turn it down.
He left the library, stepping out into the thin, yet pleasant air of Etheria. The physician's establishment – a crude, square structure with a six-pointed star perched atop it – was the only building on the plateau besides the library. A small path led northward, between the towering purple cliffs of Aeolus.
Edgar proceeded toward the physician's place of business, which was partially cordoned off by sections of white rope strung between several poles that formed a barrier around the structure. It was an odd way of saying, "no trespassing", if that was the message the physician was trying to convey. One section of rope, however, hung limp, leaving an open space wide enough for a man to pass through between two of the poles, which didn't come much higher than Edgar's midriff. Edgar walked through the gap, approached the physician's door, opened it, and stepped inside.
The inside of the doctor's building was surprisingly Spartan – the walls were bare, the only light came from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling, and the only decoration was a sculpture of two snakes winding their way up a vertical wooden pole. The physician was sitting behind a counter that bisected the room, eyeing Edgar eagerly. Behind both him and the counter was another door, which gave no clue as to what lay behind it.
Edgar looked his new employer squarely in the eye and breathed deeply.
"I'm ready to work, sir."
"Excellent!" the physician said, a wide smile contorting his wrinkled features. "I'm sure that the things I ask of you won't be too much, lad!"
"My name is Edgar."
"Ah yes. Thank you for telling me," the physician said. He gestured towards the door behind the counter.
"The floor of my storeroom could use a good sweeping, Edgar. It's right through this door. You'll find a broom there. The job should take just a few minutes. And remember: don't come back to this room unless I ask you to."
That last directive seemed slightly ominous in tone to Edgar, but nonetheless, he replied:
As he approached the counter, the physician raised the counter gate and ushered him through. Edgar managed to open and step through the back door without the physician's aid, however.
The storeroom contained all sorts of strange objects, very few of which fit the description of an object normally found in a storeroom. A cheery fireplace provided warmth and light to the room, several barrels stood in a corner and a peculiar little tree grew in a tiny planter on a carved trunk against the back wall. Knives, forks, plates and mugs that soap and water hadn't touched for months were scattered about, several crates were stacked here and there, and something that looked unsettlingly like a bloodletting dish lay next to a statue of a strange, unidentifiable beast. There was also a broom propped up against the wall, just as the physician said, and the floor did indeed appear to be in need of a good sweeping. It looked as if it hadn't been dusted in years.
Edgar cracked his knuckles, picked up the broom and began to work on the floor. It wasn't that hard once he became used to it, and this wasn't the first time he had engaged in such a chore either. When he was much younger and under Lolotte's care, he would sometimes become bored and watch the servants cleaning the castle and become fascinated by them, often pleading them to let him try scrubbing a table or sweeping a floor himself. Occasionally, the servants would let him have a go at it, and although a lack of experience and a hump on his back impeded his efforts somewhat, it still gave him much delight at that tender age – it must have provided the servants with much amusement as well, seeing a little green hunchback dragging a broom along the kitchen floor.
After ten minutes, Edgar had almost finished cleaning the storeroom and was working on the last filthy corner when the broom struck something so small and indistinct that he would probably never have noticed otherwise. Bending down, he discovered that it was a tiny pair of spectacles, dusty but otherwise nearly immaculate.
As Edgar was wiping them on the sleeve of his tunic, he suddenly heard voices coming from the other side of the door to the main room. It sounded as if the physician had a customer. Not wanting to disturb him, Edgar examined the wall beside the door and discovered a small hole at eye level. Looking through it, he was able to see the physician talking to an old man standing on the other side of the counter with a long gray beard, cloudy eyes and a walking stick – it was quite obvious that the doctor's patient was blind. Edgar stepped back from the hole, wondering just how the physician was going to help the poor soul.
It was the physician, calling Edgar's name in an annoying singsong manner.
"Yes?" Edgar replied.
"Come up here. I need you."
Despite having no idea exactly what the doctor needed him for, Edgar opened the door and reentered the main room of the building, carefully shutting the door behind him.
The old man's blindness was even more apparent at close range. He stared blankly in Edgar's direction, trying to figure out who this new person was. The physician brightened considerably as Edgar appeared, his small eyes gleaming behind his glasses.
"Ah, I'm glad you're here, Edgar," he said, gesturing to the blind man. "This poor old fellow needs my help, and I need yours."
"I'm sorry," Edgar confessed, slightly confused, "But I don't know how to – "
"I never said you needed to," the physician said curtly. He extended a sinewy, long-fingered hand and gently asked:
"May I please borrow those lenses of yours?"
Lenses? He had to mean the spectacles Edgar had just found…but how did he know about them? Had he been spying on Edgar through that crack in the wall?
"My lenses?" Edgar asked, still feeling confused and reaching into his pocket and producing the minute pair of spectacles as he did, "I guess so, though I don't know why you would want…"
The physician suddenly snapped his fingers and there was a brilliant flash of light, causing Edgar to let go of the spectacles. Then everything went black, and there was a light tinkle as the spectacles hit the floor and shattered.
Edgar hadn't passed out – his eyes were still open, yet for some reason, everything had just gone black before them. He raised a hand in front of his face. He couldn't see it. He couldn't see anything.
"Wha…what's going on?" Edgar stammered, panic starting to grip him. "Why can't I – "
"Just ignore the boy, sir."
It was the physician's voice. "He often suffers from seizures and delusions. You should be regaining it in a moment. How do you feel?"
Another voice spoke in the darkness, and it had to be that of the old man.
"Why…I can see! I can see!" he exclaimed, almost crying with happiness. "You are a gifted man, sire! Here, here's fifty gold pieces, as promised."
There was a clinking sound – obviously the sound of the coins being given to the physician.
"Good," the physician said, "Now be on your way, sir, other patients may be waiting, and I'll need to regain my strength for them."
"If you need to be alone for that, of course I'll be off," said the patient. "I'll never forget your kindness, sire! Thank you again!"
There was the sound of footsteps growing distant, then the sound of a door opening and closing.
"Listen, you," Edgar snarled, finally finding his voice. "What's going on? I can't see!"
"I think you need to spend some time in the storage room, Edgar," the physician said in a slightly menacing tone. "I can't have you disturbing my concentration."
Edgar suddenly felt a strong hand grip him by the belt. He tried to break free, but being unable to see his assailant or his surroundings, his struggles were quite futile. There was the sound of the door to the storeroom opening, through which he was dragged, then thrown unceremoniously on the cold stone floor. The door then was slammed behind him.
Edgar lay on the storeroom floor, too disoriented to get to his feet. What just happened to him? What caused his sudden blindness and the patient's sudden revival of vision? Could it be that the physician had more up his sleeve than what met the eye? He silently contemplated these questions for some time, occasionally screaming at the physician, but receiving no reply – the man could have gone and left him alone here, for all Edgar knew.
He was just starting to wonder if he would ever see Rosella again – figuratively and literally – when he started to notice vague shadows and forms taking shape. The darkness slowly began to fade, and after a few more minutes, his eyesight had returned completely.
Weak with relief, he stood up, dusted himself off, then stomped towards the door to the main room, pushed it open and stepped through to find the physician standing idly behind the counter, twiddling his bony thumbs.
"What did you do to my eyes?"
"Beg pardon?" the physician asked amiably.
"I went blind in here a few minutes ago," Edgar said coldly. "At the same time, that blind man in here with you regained his sight, and I know it wasn't a coincidence. What did you do?"
"I asked you for your lenses, and you said 'yes,'" the physician replied innocently. "There's nothing for you to get angry about."
"I thought you meant the ones I found in the storage room," Edgar said, his anger giving way to confusion – an emotion that was becoming quite familiar to him as he talked with this man. "What other lenses were you talking about?"
"Edgar," the physician said breezily, "There's a barrel full of odds and ends in the storage room. The contents need sorting badly, and I'd appreciate it if you'd do that. We'll talk about this later, all right?"
"I want to talk about this now!" Edgar demanded.
"Get to work, my feisty lad," the physician said dismissively, "Unless you want your pay, of course. You do want it, I presume?"
Edgar straightened up, thought of saying something insulting to the physician, decided against it and merely looked him in the eye and snarled angrily, then turned, opened the storeroom door and stepped through, slamming it loudly behind him.
A quick examination of the barrels in the corner revealed the barrel the physician had mentioned. Edgar pulled it over, letting its contents spill out on the floor. He knelt down to examine them. There were ten items: a wooden spoon, a glove woven out of some sort of fiber, a leather glove, a steel spoon, a pomander made out of an orange with cloves inserted into it, a colorful woven bracelet, a porcelain bowl, a glass mug, a silver ring and a pair of toy drums.
What a strange assortment of materials. Edgar wondered what the physician meant when he asked him to sort them. They were so random, it was hard to tell. He tried putting the gloves and the spoons together, but he couldn't associate the remaining six items with each other in any way.
After a few minutes of trial and error, however, he tried grouping the items together based on what they essentially were – the fiber glove, the pomander and the wooden spoon were objects made from plants, so he grouped them together. The bracelet, the ring and the leather glove were made to be worn on and around the hand, so he grouped them together, and the remaining items all fit the role of items associated with eating…all except for the toy drums. They didn't seem to have anything in common with any of the other items.
Edgar shrugged and pushed the three groups of items against their barrel, tucking the drums away with the intent on asking the physician about them at a later time. Just as he was about to open the door to the main room, he heard the doctor speaking with another patient. Looking through the hole in the wall, Edgar could see the physician talking with a young woman and an older man. As the physician spoke, the girl made frantic movements with her hands in front of the old man's eyes, to which the man made similar gestures which were, in turn, verbally interpreted by the girl. The man appeared either hard of hearing, or perhaps totally deaf. As Edgar stepped back from the crack again, he heard the physician calling him in that same horrible singsong voice:
"Yes?" Edgar said slowly.
"I need your aid again. Come up front."
Edgar sighed heavily but obeyed the order, seeing as how there was no other option.
"I trust you finished your second task, young lad?" the physician said as soon as Edgar was in the room. "Even if you haven't, I'd appreciate it if you lent me that little pair of drums you're carrying."
Edgar took a step back towards the open door and glared at his employer.
"I don't know what you're scheming, but something tells me not to say 'yes' to you, after what happened last time…"
"What do you mean?" the physician asked, sounding hurt. "All I wanted was to borrow those drums of yours! Just for a short while!"
He glanced nervously at the two people on the opposite side of the counter.
"And you're making the young lass uneasy," he added.
Edgar reluctantly relented and reached into his pocket for the set of drums he had taken from the barrel.
"Well…if you're talking about these drums, and I hope you are, yes, you can borrow them, but – "
Just as the drums were completely out of his pocket, the physician snapped his fingers, and a sudden tumult of noise slammed into Edgar's ears. He clapped his hands over them and began to scream in pain, but as quickly as it had begun, the noise stopped. So did Edgar's scream. No…he was still screaming, but he couldn't hear his own voice.
He stopped screaming and watched as the physician spoke with the girl and the old man, who was now feeling his ears and smiling and talking ecstatically. Though all three of them were talking, Edgar couldn't hear a word they were saying.
He tried talking to the physician as best as he could, and when the man ignored him Edgar started speaking more aggressively and finally yelling. The physician then turned to him and said something that couldn't have been complimentary, given the unpleasant look on his face, grabbed Edgar by the hair and flung him through the storeroom door, slamming it shut with a noise the prince could only feel.
Edgar sprung to his feet and tried to open the door, but found it locked. He pounded at it and yelled at it for the better part of a minute before slumping to the floor in defeat.
What was going on? First he was blinded, now he couldn't hear! Hopefully, he would regain this sense as well so that he could set things straight with that conniving trickster that called himself a doctor. For now, however, all he could do was wait.
After what seemed like almost a half-hour, Edgar realized that he could hear himself breathing again. At the same moment, the door unlocked. Edgar stood up and once again shoved the door open and stomped up to the physician, even more livid than before.
"I want to know what magic you're performing on me."
"You know what I mean," Edgar said, his temper becoming dangerously frayed. "I go blind, and a blind man gains sight! I lose my hearing, and a deaf man gains his."
"How could you tell that if you were deaf?" the physician asked. "You couldn't read his lips, could you?"
"I knew he could hear! He had a look of utter euphoria on his face – he looked just as joyous as your last 'patient' sounded! Now just tell me: What are you doing?"
"I'm just trying to make a living in a seedy part of this otherwise lovely archipelago," the physician said, that crooked smile never leaving his lips. "I use my talents to heal ill people by swapping their faulty or non-functioning parts with the parts of a healthy young volunteer."
"So that's it," Edgar said, the whole truth finally dawning on him. "And you were tricking me with wordplay…those lenses were the lenses of my eyes, the drums were my eardrums…what's next, my fingernails, which you'll disguise as 'my nails'?"
"Probably not," the doctor chuckled. "Nobody has much need for something like that. And remember, the spells are only temporary. They wear off after a certain amount of time."
"That means you're cheating your patients out of their money!" Edgar said, his anger flaring up again. "Can you imagine what they think to find themselves suddenly deaf or blind somewhere in the open sky??"
"Well, that's one of the advantages to living here. This isle drifts with the winds, and only an experienced pilot could find it twice. So I'm fairly safe from any 'dissatisfied customers'."
He chuckled again. Edgar narrowed his eyes.
"You are a twisted man, whatever your name is," he said coldly. "No wonder your last 'assistant' left! I don't know why I even signed up to work for you. I don't care what you were going to pay me, I'm quitting."
He turned and started walking towards the counter gate, but the physician swiftly put out an arm to stop him.
"Oh no, you're not! There is one last major chore that I cannot do alone and I demand that you do before leaving!"
"Yeah?" Edgar asked, deciding to humor the man, "And what's that?"
"Pruning my miniature Etherian oak. Now scoot!"
Before Edgar could even blink, the physician grabbed him and shoved him through the open storeroom door with a strength that belied his gaunt appearance. Although Edgar managed to stay on his feet this time, he wasn't able to reach the door before the mad doctor locked it once more.
The fire burning in the storeroom fireplace was nothing compared to the one blazing in Edgar's brain. Still, there was nothing he could do in his current predicament but pick up the pair of shears resting on the large wooden chest standing against one of the walls and begin trimming the small tree growing out of the planter that also rested on the chest.
The unusual bright blue color of the tree's leaves betrayed its origins. Even if the physician hadn't informed Edgar that it was from Etheria, Edgar could have easily deduced the fact on his own. It was oddly small for an oak, though; it was barely more than a foot tall, and quite wild and scraggly-looking. Edgar lopped off several of the larger bare, protruding branches and did his best to make the tree more presentable. He was no gardener, but after a few minutes of snipping away with the shears, he felt that he had succeeded in his latest chore.
He swept the clippings and the bare branches from where they had fallen on the chest, and as he was scanning the room for a place to dispose of them properly (or somewhere to hide them or sweep them under, if such a place didn't turn up), the door to the shop unlocked and swung open, revealing an all-too familiar black-haired, gaunt figure.
Oh no, Edgar thought, gritting his teeth.
"There is a patient out here who has been stricken with brittle legs for almost all his life. Would you please lend me two of your limbs?"
Edgar didn't even turn his head to look at the physician. He stared fixedly at the wall, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed, his hands gripping the limbs he had trimmed from the oak.
Nope, he said to himself. He's made a fool of me twice, but even if his little tricks are temporary, there's no way I'm going to say "yes" to…
The moment he thought the word "yes," his legs suddenly gave out from underneath him, causing him to helplessly topple to the floor with a yell of surprise, the branches falling from his hands. Once he had recovered from the shock, he rolled over to glare at his employer, who still stood in the doorway, looking down at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" the physician said, looking and sounding surprisingly sincere. "You didn't actually say that, did you?"
"Say what?…" Edgar gasped, still a little stunned. "I can't feel my legs…"
"You see, being a sorcerer, I didn't hear you say "yes," but I heard you think it, so I assumed you were answering my question with that word…"
Edgar groaned very loudly, in outrage, frustration and pain. The physician abruptly glanced behind him.
"Oh, pay no attention to my apprentice," he said airily. "He often has fits like these. Are your legs feeling any better?"
With that, he closed and locked the door, turning his attention to whoever was currently standing on the other side of the counter with a much healthier pair of legs. Edgar pounded his fist on the cold stone floor, shaking with fury.
"This is the last straw!" he snarled. "I'm not staying in this madhouse another minute! I'm walking out of this place, with or without my pay!"
He paused and glanced at his legs, which lay uselessly behind him like those of a limp marionette.
"As soon as I get my 'limbs' back, anyway," he reminded himself in a quieter voice.
As he lay on the floor, pondering whether it would be worth the effort to drag himself over to another corner of the room, he noticed something metallic resting under the chest. He would probably have never noticed it at all if he hadn't been in this position. He dragged himself as close as he could to the ornate chest and reached under it, presently finding whatever was there. He pulled the mysterious article free, and found that it was a small lantern. Oddly, there seemed to be something rattling around inside it. Edgar opened the lantern's hatch and something small and cylindrical tumbled out of it.
Edgar recognized it immediately. It was one of those…those trinkets again. This one was two colors – half of it was green, half of it was a warm gold, and a green-yellow stone was set in it.
Having nothing better to do while he waited for his legs to become functional again, Edgar searched his pockets and removed the other trinkets that he had been accumulating during his travels, laying them out on the floor to get a better look at them. He now had six altogether: one from the Crystal Dragon, one from Derek Karlavaegen, one from the Llewdor oasis, one from the Impossible Mountains, one from the imp in the library, and now one from the insane physician's storeroom.
He had six different gems: an amethyst, a sapphire, a ruby, a turquoise, a diamond, and this new stone, which he couldn't quite identify. There were also six color patterns on the cylindrical sections: white, gold, green, white again, light green, and half green, half gold.
He tried placing them together to form one continuous arc, and was surprised to discover that they formed a half-circle when he did. If he found six more pieces, he would have a complete circle…what that would accomplish, he had no idea, but at least it was another solid goal to aim for.
But what were these trinkets? What did they represent? What was the significance of the gems and the painted patterns on the stones they were set in? Where had they come from and why did they keep on popping up during his journey?
He was pondering these questions so deeply that he barely noticed that the feeling in his legs had returned. He stowed his belongings once more, gathered up several of the oak branches that had fallen to the floor at the same time he had, then gratefully – and cautiously – got to his feet. He then made his way to the door, and found that it was still locked. This was odd. Why was the physician keeping him a prisoner in here instead of letting him come into the main room, where he could torment the prince once more? Well, if the man was ignoring him, that was just as well. Edgar was sure he could find another way out…somehow.
He examined his latest acquisition aside from the trinket – the lantern. This was certainly a potentially useful item. Naturally, it wasn't lit, but it seemed to have a healthy amount of oil within it, and the fire in the fireplace could light the wick. The question was how to get a spark from the hearth to the inside of the lantern.
Edgar held one of the branches from the miniature oak tree out towards the fire, hoping the wood would be dry enough to burn. Fortunately, it was. Once the tip of the branch was alight, Edgar moved it within the lantern's frame, and within seconds, the wick had caught fire. Satisfied, Edgar tossed the flaming branch (as well as the other branches he was carrying) into the fireplace and shut the lantern. It would be a bit awkward to carry, but it would probably come in handy. Now if only he could get it out of here without the physician noticing…
There was a dull click as the door to the shop unlocked.
Edgar shuddered. He slowly turned towards the door.
"Come up front, please."
"Why?" Edgar asked warily, wondering whether he could bolt through the door, over the counter and out the main door without incident.
"There are no patients; I just want to give you your pay, then see you off safely."
Edgar certainly hadn't expected this. Still, he wasn't going to let his guard down, even for something as promising as this.
"I should hope so," he replied. "All right. I'm coming."
The physician was waiting for Edgar when he came through the door, trying to conceal the lantern behind his back with one hand.
"Well…" the physician said in a manner reminiscent of someone about to part with the most valuable treasure in his possession, "Here is your pay, my son."
He placed something in Edgar's open palm. Edgar stared at it. It was fortunate that he couldn't perform any truly powerful magic, otherwise the object in his hand might have melted under his gaze.
"A copper?" he yelled, his irate eyes burning into the physician's. "You terrify me nearly out of my mind and treat me like a dog for a single copper?"
He thrust the single coin into his pocket. The physician stared at the ceiling and made some tiny, nervous gestures with his fingers.
"Well…I'm not very wise at spending, Edgar," he said shamefacedly. "I do…indulge a bit, and I have trouble paying off the people who work for me. Life's not fair for sorcerers."
"It's not fair for the people who have to work for them either!"
"Yes. And to tell you the truth, Edgar, I'm quite an amateur at magic myself. That switching spell you've experienced is just about the limit to my powers, but every now and then I get a little helpful push from a friend with greater skill than I."
"I hope you don't get pushed over the edge," Edgar said, not caring if the physician could tell whether he was thinking the exact opposite or not.
"You have a right not to trust me anymore, my lad, and you have the right to leave my shop and never return. But before you go, there is just one small favor that I'd like you to do for me."
"What?" Edgar asked, his anger slightly subdued by the physician's suddenly sad and pleading countenance.
"May I have…that inner spark?"
"The fire that creates the light…the essence…it's just something that you're carrying with you, nothing great."
Edgar looked silently at the physician. He had no idea what the man was talking about. Fire? Light? Spark? He couldn't think of any body part that went by those words. Those words made him think only of the lantern he was hiding – but no, it couldn't be that. He had to be referring to something else, something Edgar had… but what?
Edgar could have just turned and walked away, but there was something that kept him rooted to the spot – there was something in the way the physician pleaded with him, something in that almost desperate look on his wrinkled face. There was also a part of Edgar that couldn't help but wonder what part of his body "the fire that creates the light" could possibly be referring to…but what eventually made him shrug his shoulders and reveal the lantern he was carrying was the pity he felt for this scoundrel of a man. As heartless and fraudulent as the physician was, he had kept his word and paid Edgar for his duties – even if it was only one copper – and he was quite aware of all of his flaws, and not afraid to relate them to another person. There had to be some good in him, and Edgar hoped that what he was doing could somehow awaken that good.
"Well," Edgar said as he lifted the lantern and held it in front of him with both hands, "I still don't completely trust you…and I have no idea why I'm risking my skin a fourth time…but if you mean this spark, then you can – "
The physician lifted a hand and made an odd twirling motion with two fingers. A sudden spasm of pain shot through Edgar's chest, making him release his grip on the lantern. For a moment, he was doubled over, almost too bewildered to think. The pain he was feeling seemed to have no real origin. Every fiber of his body ached, yet it wasn't physical pain. It subsided quickly and completely, though for a few seconds afterwards, Edgar was still breathless from the experience. Strangely, all of his senses and appendages seemed intact, and he didn't feel any different…
But he did. Something was wrong. It was as if a minor organ had been ripped from his body, and even though he had no way of knowing it was gone, he could feel the scar over where it had been, and an emptiness where it had once resided. That's what it was. An emptiness. The physician was up to his old tricks once again. Something had been taken from him…the question was what?
"What…did…you…?" Edgar wheezed.
"Oh dear, you dropped your lantern," the physician said, pointing out the broken fragments and stomping out the tiny fire that had started when the lantern shattered with his boot. "Don't worry, it's no problem. Are you feeling well? You should be all right…"
"You did something to me," Edgar said coldly. "What was it?"
"It was something that you gave me permission to do, was it not? Now please leave an old man to his own problems, Edgar."
"But first," Edgar said, still panting slightly and wishing that he could express his rage without doing so, "I want to…"
The physician's eyes became tiny slits behind his spectacles.
"Go. I'm having trouble enough with you being in the same room as I. You've done your job and I've paid you, you wished to leave, and I've granted you the option. Now leave."
Edgar took one last look at the black robed man, making sure he remembered every detail of his face so that he could avoid it completely in the future – and this time he had a very good reason for doing so.
"All right," Edgar said finally. "Good luck with the business..."
He walked past the physician, hinged open the counter gate, stepped into the patients' side of the shop, walked across the plain floor towards the main door, opened it and stepped outside. As he was closing it, however, he turned back to the thin man standing behind the counter and softly, almost inaudibly, added:
"What?!?" the man asked in a shocked squeak, but the door had slammed before the word had even left his lips, and once more, the lone sorcerer-physician of Etheria was without an assistant…and without a way to treat his patients.
The only way out of Aeolus was the small path leading north, winding its way between two sheer purplish cliffs. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do in the tiny town, Edgar began to follow it. High in the cliffs above him he could see tiny huts built into the jagged peaks, some connected by bridges that were strung across the wide chasm between them. They had to be homes of winged fairies or non-winged beings with some means of getting to such an inaccessible place.
As Edgar walked along the path, he tried to figure out exactly what the physician had taken from him. This was pretty futile in the light that Edgar couldn't even figure out what part of him was missing. It was as if the physician had stolen something that he didn't even know he had, and being without it made him feel so strange, so different, so…incomplete. He felt completely normal except for that nagging emptiness within him.
After a few more minutes of walking and thinking, he reached a large heap of rocks that blocked his progress to the north. There was no way around it, and no way of pushing the boulders aside either. It looked climbable, but such an effort would take much more time and exertion than Edgar was willing to expend.
It wouldn't be too much trouble for him to make those rocks disappear, however. He had employed a similar strategy when he had been leading Rosella's mother to the volcano control room in Vulcanix – when the elevator to Vulcanix turned out to be blocked, he simply made the rubble disintegrate. It had taken a bit out of him, but he had succeeded then, and he could succeed again now.
"This should do the trick," Edgar said to himself. "I'll just blast these rocks out of my way, and then I'll be able to walk right through. Here we go…"
He raised his hands and focused his energies on the pile of boulders. Strangely, despite his efforts, nothing happened to the pile. The rocks didn't even quiver slightly.
Edgar stared at the rocks, thoroughly puzzled. Were the rocks too large to be affected by his powers? They couldn't be. He was positive that he was capable of moving them, yet he hadn't even felt any energy building up in his hands like it usually did when he was about to perform a magical act.
"I must have done it the wrong way," he muttered. "Let me try again…"
Concentrating on the pile of rocks with all his might, Edgar turned his palms towards it, willing the boulders to turn to dust or fly away, anything to get them out of his way. As before, however, nothing happened.
I must be really off today, Edgar thought, beginning to feel a little anxious. I'm sure it's nothing big, though. I think I feel it coming. This should do it.
Once more he focused his energies on the rocks, but he felt no energy coursing through his body and accumulating in his hands. Not even a quiver of magic stirred within him, and the rocks remained where they were. Edgar dropped his hands and held one of them up to his face, looking at it in disbelief.
I don't believe this, he thought. What's wrong with me? It's as if my magic's gone…like it was…
The truth suddenly hit him like a flood of water. His mouth dropped open as he stared blankly ahead.
"'My inner spark?'" he said slowly. "'The fire that creates the light?' That physician was talking about my magic! He knew I wasn't a human, so he must have switched his nearly nonexistent magic ability with my own powers!"
He buried his face in his hands with an agonized groan. How could he have been so stupid? Without his powers he was as vulnerable as a frog in a desert. The only thing that kept him from sinking into utter despair was his recollection that the physician could only switch two people's abilities for a short while. All the same, it would still be some time before Edgar's magic returned, and he didn't want to wait by this rock pile until it did.
With a heavy sigh, he began to climb the treacherous pile, hoping that he wouldn't break a bone in the process.
When Edgar had finally made it to the path on the other side of the pile, he had to rest for several minutes. He considered himself lucky to sustain only a few bruises after clambering over that barricade, but he was still thoroughly disgusted with himself. He angrily rose to his feet and out of frustration tried to destroy a nearby stone with a magical blast, then remembered that he had no magic and became even angrier.
You and your stupid soft heart, he thought furiously. When will you get it through your thick skull that performing an act of kindness doesn't always mean becoming a recipient of one in return?
The more he thought about it, the more frustrated and defeated it made him. Some prince of Etheria he was. A village idiot would show more common sense than he had with the physician. What would Rosella think of this foolishness?
This thought made him pause for a moment. His decision hadn't brought about the best outcome for him personally, but now that he thought about it, he could have easily decided to punch the physician in the nose and stomp out of the shop, but he hadn't.
He deliberately chose the option that most men in a similar situation wouldn't even have contemplated, one fraught with risk and uncertainty – he had acted with his heart instead of his head, showing forgiveness towards someone who hardly deserved it instead of playing the revenge card.
As he contemplated this knowledge, the more it seemed to him that Rosella would have approved of the course of action he took. Still, even if this were the case, at the moment he still felt like a complete dolt over what he had done.
Shaking his tangled feelings of self-hatred from his mind, Edgar set his sights on the path ahead of him. It continued north, to what seemed like a bare ledge. He had almost reached the end of the island. As he made his way towards the edge, he could see another island looming in the distance. The sky surrounding the island seemed slightly darker, but that might have been due to the mist surrounding it.
Though the island was too far away from him to teleport himself to using his pendant, astride his skyship, it was an easy location to reach. Edgar placed his faithful (yet tiny) ship on the ground, where it swelled to its full size. He fastened the foot straps to it, carefully stepped upon it, and took off into the slightly oppressive atmosphere of Lighter Etheria, heading towards another land whose inhabitants, landmarks, and dangers were all unknown to him.
Continue to the second half...
Proceed to the next section if you've already read both halves...