For the first few moments outside, it seemed as if I’d lost all my vision. But slowly as my eyes adjusted, I could actually see Brenden surprisingly well in the dark. His skin almost had a spooky silver glow all its own, which I felt made him an easy target for something that might want to eat him. I didn’t say that out loud, though, for his sake. And as we walked farther along, I felt as though the darkest dark became more vivid like this was how the Under Realm should be seen. Things were clearer and more vibrant at night than in the daytime, even in the mist. So strange.
“Listen,” Brenden said, stopping so we’d catch up. “Follow me. I saw a place we could hide for the night while you all were having tea with a monster.”
“I liked Mr. Payne,” Holly said.
“Hey, you missed out, sour-pants,” Francisco said. “Those brownies were awesome.”
“I would kindly ask that you refrain from referring to me as my dressing drawers and be quiet,” Brenden whispered. “There’s something scuttling about up ahead.”
He shrunk into the nearest bush. We followed hiding behind a large tree.
I heard a voice say, “I’m telling you, Ferbish, I sawr it. A fairy. Its skin was like a flash of moon, it was.”
Two winged creatures bobbled toward us. As they got closer, I noticed they looked like the gargoyles guarding Payne’s place. I had no idea if gargoyles were nice, but I didn’t want to find out. I stayed still as a stone.
The other creature laughed a high-pitched throaty sound. “Go on, Grigor. Fairies wouldn’t be within a hoot an’ a hickle from here. You’ve had too much of Plum Willie’s good ale.”
“Did not. I’m telling you…hold on…what’s that?”
“That’s ye large mole at the end of yer nose, ye globstroppet.” Ferbish, the one with the blue wings, took a poke at Grigor’s nose.
“Ow! That hurt.”
“Serves ye right, ye big baby,” Ferbish sniggered.
Then he stopped laughing. “Oh, wait a minute, Grigor, ye might be right.” The gargoyle flapped his wings and jumped into the bush where Brenden was hiding. He launched upward, holding Brenden by his scruff. “Lookie what I found?” The nasty gargoyle wiggled Brenden in the air.
“Not fair, Ferbish, I sawr him first.”
“If you don’t mind,” Brenden yelled, trying to pull the gargoyle’s hand off him, “Let me down.”
The gargoyles laughed. “Think fast!” Ferbish hurled Brenden over to the other gargoyle. Grigor flew up and caught him with one hand before Brenden could flutter away.
“Amazing, I am!” Grigor boasted.
I whispered to Francisco, “What should we do? We’ve got to help poor Brenden somehow.”
“Eh…he can take care of himself,” Francisco said, scratching his shoulder like he does when he’s nervous.
“But what if they try to eat him?” Holly asked, ominously.
“I haven’t heard them say anything about eating him,” Francisco said. “Looks like they just want to play.” He leaned in closer to me. “And besides, he had it coming.”
I felt bad. I had to think of a way to rescue him somehow. But I didn’t have anything to fight off two large, muscle bound gargoyles. I hoped Francisco was right and they weren’t going to do anything horrifying to Brenden.
“Tell you what,” Grigor said. “Let’s cut him in half. Then you can have your share and I’ll have mine.”
“No one is going to cut anyone in half,” Brenden said. “Now let me down.”
“You gots a knife, Ferbish?”
Ferbish hit Grigor on the head. “You know I don’t owns any knives.”
“Well, this is a pickle.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. If I was part witch, I had to start acting like one. Rolling out from the tree we were hiding behind, I hollered, “Hey, Thing One and Thing Two. Release him or die.”
“Look, Grigor, get a
load of her?”
“Yeah…it’s a little girl.”
“Aye…and she’s still in her shroud.”
Brenden waved me off. “Athena, get out of here. I have this matter in hand.”
I smirked. “Yeah, you look like it. They’re about to cut you in half.”
The two gargoyles snorted.
“Didn’t you hear me?” I yelled. Although they didn’t seem menacing, I had to pretend I was.
“Aye, lass, we heard,” Grigor said.
Ferbish giggled through his nose, sounding like a car sputtering. “Yeah, but we ain’t listening.” The two thought that was such a funny joke.
When they stopped laughing, Ferbish flew up to me and said, “Miss, it’s not nice to be in shroud after dark. People might get the wrong impression.”
“Yeah, like ye was trying to hide somefing,” Grigor agreed.
“Take it off,” Ferbish commanded. His beady eyes grew cold. “And we’ll give ye back yer little friend.”
I rolled backward as a knot formed in my stomach. I wasn’t feeling good like I was about to puke. “I…no…I can’t…”
Ferbish grabbed my leg. “If you’re not going to take it off, I will.”
Francisco burst out and leaped onto Ferbish, but it was too late.
Like a fingernail ripping off of a finger, Ferbish tore the shroud off my body. Fire erupted all over my skin and I fell out of my wheelchair, shaking and writhing in pain.
Holly ran over to me, and I screamed at her, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Fire thundered through my legs as though hot liquid was burning them into existence.
“Ahhh!” I shrieked. I’d never experienced stinging like this. It was as if a never-ending blaze had turned my skin to bubbling flesh. Darkness swallowed me. I had to escape the torment. I wanted to die.
I could hear Holly crying next to me. “Francisco, we need to do something!”
As an inferno burned through my body, rage welled inside me. It was like a caldron or volcano that needed to explode.
I rose up on legs I didn’t know existed, rising higher in the air, I roared. Flames erupted from my mouth. The gargoyle cried out, dropping Brenden.
But then a crushing weakness overpowered me as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I collapsed. Tiny lights flickered before my eyes. My breathing was short and rapid like a dog panting.
Holly cried out, “Brenden, please help her! Is she dying?”
Brenden kneeled next to me. “I don’t know.” He thrust two of his fingers against my neck. “Her heart is weak. She needs help. We have to get back to Middle Realm somehow.”
“Awr…” said one of the gargoyles. “We didn’t means any harm.”
“Aye,” said the other. “We was just having a wee bit o’ fun.”
One of them smacked the other. “Why’d you go and take off her shroud? You know that’s not polite.”
“Ow! I wasn’t finking, okay? Nurse Mellecant can help her.”
“Aye, that. Come with us. Hurry.”
I want to thank Natalie Auditore for her explosion cc she made for this story. (There’s more to it as well that you’ll see in the coming chapters.)
Leading the charge, I rolled my wheelchair as fast as I could over the cobblestone street to Mr. Payne’s place. I kept looking back to see if we were being followed, but it seemed as if Gran hadn’t discovered I was missing.
Holly glanced around while we rushed down the street. “Is it going to rain? I can barely see ahead of me.”
The street lamps cast an ominous glow through the mist. I could see the old, Victorian style houses fairly clearly along the streets and jagged branches of black trees.
“Scotland gives me the creeps,” Francisco said beside me, looking up all around him. “It’s spring yet the trees haven’t even budded. And that’s the weirdest full moon I’ve ever seen.”
I glanced up ahead of me in the sky. The round, glowing orb that should have been the moon at night looked more like the sun on a REALLY foggy day.
Brenden didn’t stay behind as he’d threatened. He’d followed right along with us. “Oh, Great Guardian,” he implored, shaking his head.
“What have I been trying to explain to you simpletons? We. Are. In. The. UNDER REALM!”
“Save it for someone
who cares, dork,” Francisco retorted.
“Fine. Don’t listen to me, but when the sun sets, you all had better get indoors. Got it?”
“You mean it’s not night time?” I asked.
“No,” Brenden answered. “It’s about four thirty in the afternoon. The sun never really shines in the Under Realm, although you can see it. When it sets, everyone in this realm will take off their shrouds and come out to play and believe me, you don’t want to be from a different realm then.”
“We’re here!” I cried, pointing at the huge house looming ahead. “Now, all I have to do is ask Mr. Payne to call my parents and we’re saved.”
Brenden rolled his eyes.
“What’s wrong with that plan?”
Brenden crossed his arms.
“You can’t call the Over Realm here.”
I stopped at Mr.Payne’s mailbox, ignoring Brenden’s Under Realm ravings.
“See?” I pointed. “Just a normal, everyday, OVER REALM mailbox.”
“Lovely,” Brenden moaned.
“What’s wrong now?” I asked.
Francisco scratched his head. “Um…I hate to say it, Athena, but I think I’m agreeing with old sour-pants here. That’s not someplace I want to go.”
“Y-Yeah…” Holly’s already huge eyes had grown into full moons.
I didn’t understand until I saw the house. It was a typical Victorian style mansion much like most of the houses on the street except this one looked as if it had been converted from some sort of mill with strange pipes growing out its sides. And instead of a beautiful gazebo on the lawn, there were two menacing gargoyles almost growling at us.
“No…it’s okay,” I said, but getting very creepy vibes as we rolled up to the house. A shrill screechy squawk made me jump as something flew past. “I-I s-see what you mean,” I stammered, stopping my chair as we approached the doorsteps. “You sure don’t notice things like that when you’re a little kid.”
“Yeah, well, I’m outta here,” Francisco said.
He grabbed my wheelchair and pulled me back to spin me around when I heard a low haunting voice say, “Going somewhere?”
I let out a small squeak and Holly outright squealed.
But then I recognized him. All decked out in a three piece greenish gray, velvet suit, and tails, I knew exactly who he was.
“Hi, Mr. Payne. It’s me. Athena Martin. Remember me?”
His sunken eyes widened, “Athena, me lovely! My, how you’ve grown!” He waved warmly at me. “Have you paid a visit to your old friend, Payne, now? How’s your Gran? She hasn’t come over for tea in ages.”
He was about a head taller than Brenden. “Name’s Payne, but everyone always calls me Old Jack.” He winked at Holly, mischievously. “And who are yer friends?”
I smiled at the kind man. Mr. Payne had always been so nice in the past and even though Scotland may have looked a little strange, it was how I remembered. Friendly. Warm. Comforting.
“Mr. Payne, these are my friends, Francisco Romero and Holly Woodlace.”
Payne kissed Holly’s hand and said, “You aren’t related to the Woodlaces of Dreary Lane are you? You do have a bit of their gothic flair.” I hadn’t realized it, but yeah. Holly did seem to fit in around this neighborhood.
“Check out these dreads,” Holly pointed to Mr. Payne’s hair. “My mom would love all the cool stuff you’ve wrapped them in. What are those? Car parts?”
“Actually, that’s a bit of tubing from an electric pumpkin coach I’ve been building. Want to see it, lass?”
“Would I?” Holly asked, gleefully.
“Ahem, with all due respect.” Brenden flew in front of Mr. Payne to get his attention. “We’re on a tight schedule, so if you don’t mind, Athena has something to ask you.”
The man stepped back, scrunching up his face. “Good Guardian…Is that a…a…fairy?”
I shifted in my seat. I was avoiding mentioning Brenden. I had no idea how he was going to treat poor Mr. Payne when he’d treated me so badly. Since he thought we were in the Under Realm, he probably thought Mr. Payne was a goblin or something. But then I realized Mr. Payne knew exactly what Brenden was. A creepy shiver crawled along my neck, replacing what used to feel normal and homey. Maybe this really was the Under Realm.
“Um…yes, this is my friend, Brenden.” I motioned toward my used-to-be-fairy friend. I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but my feelings were still hurt. Brenden hadn’t apologized. “Just ignore him if he comes off rude.”
“Aye, lass, rude is all they know,” Payne said, raising his bushy eyebrows. “I need to talk with ye about with whom you should make friends. Fairies are not to be trusted, ye know.”
Glaring at Brenden, I said, “I’ve been beginning to find that out.”
Brenden winced a smile. “Um, yes, well, let’s be off then, shall we?” He looked behind us, nervously then motioned toward Payne’s house.
Payne bowed. “Where are me manners? Of course. You need to sit for tea, do ye? We can take it in me garden. Lodestone will attend us.”
Francisco rolled my chair down the crooked pathway, following Mr. Payne and Holly, chatting away about steam engines and pumpkins.
Brenden whispered next to me, “Athena, we don’t have time for tea. You must either ask Mr. Payne to help us or whisk us out of here yourself. We have approximately thirty-five minutes before the spooks reveal themselves, and I want to be in another dimension when that happens!”
My eyebrows knitted. I’d had enough of Brenden for one day. “Shh! Tea sounds good and you better not be rude to Mr. Payne or I’ll sic Francisco on you.”
“Yeah,” Francisco agreed.“I’ve been wanting to get him in a guillotine headlock. Fitting for this place, huh?”
At that, Brenden flew away then faced us as I glanced back. I saw a hurt look on his face.
He kicked a weed and whacked at the rot iron fence.
Hanging back, he surveyed the yard. I could tell he was scared a vampire might fly out at any moment. A little twinge of guilt rippled over me. I didn’t like fighting with him.
Inside, I knew Brenden cared even though my grandmother was a witch and that disgusted him. I mean, he was looking out for us. Although he hated being outside, he was making sure we were safe by keeping watch. A clammy shiver tingled down my back. I didn’t like the idea of creatures coming out at night either. If this wasn’t nighttime, I hated to see what this place looked like after sunset.
Our situation scrolled through my mind. If this was the Under Realm, how could I call my parents?
Brenden was right. I couldn’t.
And the more and more I saw of Mr. Payne’s yard, the more convinced I was that this wasn’t Scotland.
At the entrance of a small garden of unusual glowing grass and trees was an enormous plant with a huge, cow’s head at the top. I signaled to Francisco that I was going on ahead, and rolled up to the plant to get a better look when…
The plant lunged at me, taking a bite of air, nearly missing sinking its fangs in me by inches. I screamed and shot backwards.
Payne ran over and caressed the plant. “Now, Mordenia, you know these are me friends. Let’s not be a naughty pet today, okay, love?”
The plant growled as if it was a huge Rottweiler protecting its master. I wasn’t about to go past it. “Uh…maybe we should have tea inside instead.”
“Oh, higgledyfop.” Payne waved his arm. “She won’t bite you now that she knows we’re great pals.” He turned to the plant and cooed at it, ”Will you, dragonkins?” The plant trilled a purr.
“Now I’ve seen everything,” Francisco said, walking over to me. “You’ve got some weird relatives, Athena.”
“He’s not my relative.” But I had to agree with him. I was feeling stranger and stranger by the minute.
Holly bounced up to Mordenia and asked Payne, “May I?”
He bowed and said, “Of course. She loves to play. Go on. She won’t bite.”
Gingerly, Holly wiggled her fingers and said, “Who’s a sweet plant? Is that you, Mordy? Yes, it is! You want to play, huh?”
Mordenia huffed and whimpered which sounded almost like a laugh. She nodded that big cowhead of hers.
“Well, alright! Up you go, Mordy! Yes, that’s it!” Holly cooed.
The plant looked as if she perched on her hind…stalk…and panted, wagging her…uh…leaf.
Holly beamed. “Hey, guys! How cool is this? I just made friends with a plant!”
Payne ushered us underneath a giant, black tree to a quaint rot iron table with four chairs.
“This is the perfect setting for tea, don’t ye think?” he asked.
Taking out his cell phone, he tapped a button and a loud gong rang out.
Instantly, a mechanical butler, of sorts, rolled over to us with a full set of tea and brownies. “Thank ye kindly, Lode,” Payne said.
It clicked a few times then sputtered away to its position in the garden.
“So,” Payne said, grabbing his mug, “what brings you to our delightfully dark side of the world?”
I sipped the warm tea. It tasted like pumpkins and spice and something else I’d never tasted before but would like to eat everyday like mangos or chocolate or ice cream. “Mmm…this is good, Mr. Payne, thank you!” I sipped the warm deliciousness again then set it down and answered his question, “Well, I’m kind of in a little trouble, I guess.” I didn’t know what else to say. I mean, could I trust Mr. Payne or any Under-realmer for that matter? But what choice did I have? It was either trust him or go back to Gran. “Have you ever heard of the Shroud of Protection?”
Mr. Payne’s eyes held sadness. “Oy, yer not mixed up in that mess are ye, lass? I don’t care what ye heard.” His serious face leaned toward me and said, “Queen Casteen is off her crock. Don’t get muddled in her affairs. I said as much to your grandmother months ago. Not sure if she listened to me though.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I don’t understand everything, but if we don’t fix the shroud, your queen is going to war with all the realms.”
“Bloody houndstooth,” Payne roared. “Is that true, lass? Don’t surprise me none seeing as how that blood thirsty creature killed her way onto her pedestal in the first place.” He sipped his tea, staring far away. Pointing toward the front yard, he asked, “Is that your fairy now?”
And it was as if something hit him like a rock or a brick, and he flinched. Eyes wide, he covered his mouth and exclaimed, “Yer not the Wishcaster, are ye?”
“Not yet,” Francisco said with a little pride in his voice, filling his plate again for thirds of brownies. “But she’s gonna be.”
“That’s not true, Francisco,” I said. “I haven’t passed the Third Trial.”
I turned to Mr. Payne.“My grandmother kidnapped me as I was about to go. I don’t know what your queen wants with me, but I’ve got to get back. If I don’t…”
Payne shushed me, looking around nervously. “Great Guardian in heaven, don’t say anything more, lass. The queen has spies everywhere.” He hunkered down and whispered as if there were microphones hidden in the trees, “Most of us are peace-loving folk. I know many Over-realmers stick their fancy human noses up in the air and hate our kind, but we aren’t like her or her ilk and we don’t want no war.” He leaned in even closer, “If I help you, will you let those Over-realmers know we ain’t a bad lot? There’s a few rotten apples, sure, maybe more than usual.” Payne’s eyes grew misty and he put his hand on his heart. “But they don’t represent the majority who live and breathe and love here.”
I smiled at him, feeling unusually guilty for my own race’s prejudice. Well, my half-race. I guessed nasty witches and trolls and goblins got all the press in my world. My Gran wasn’t doing Under-realmers any favors either. “If I escape and I become this Wishcaster, I’ll do what I can to wipe out any prejudice in all the realms.” I glanced up, looking at Brenden, pacing by the front gate. He’d probably been raised to hate the Under Realm even worse than we had as Over-realmers.
As we finished talking, I noticed the sky had turned everything into a hue of deep reddish orange.
“Whoa,” Francisco whispered. “That’s the reddest sunset I’ve ever seen.”
“Amazing,” Holly said, jumping out of her seat and bounding over to the garden fence to get a better look away from the trees.
Holly looked back at me, blinking her eyes. “I never imagined it would be like this.”
Payne cleared his throat and bent over to me. “Miss Athena, you’d better get your fairy friend inside. Although I’m a wee bit liberal when it comes to fairies, most people around this neighborhood are not, and if they come upon one, well, there won’t be much left of him by morning.” He sighed. “Under-realmers have their prejudices, too.”
I asked Francisco if he could grab Brenden. It didn’t take any type of coaxing to get him inside. As it was, everything took on a crimson hue as the sun crept downward. It gave me the creeps like we were all bathed in blood.
Most of the house was styled like a rich, Victorian home with lots of beautiful velvet furnishings, large unique sculptures, and many paintings of families, important individuals, and weird animals that looked like antiquated robots. No hobgoblins. No people with missing heads. It was fairly normal so I didn’t get why Brenden was so creeped out.
I was beginning to feel tired with all I’d been through. Back home, I was sure it was bedtime. I yawned, so glad Francisco was sweet enough to push my chair for me.
Payne ushered us to his workspace. This was where he’d crafted his mechanical pumpkin. He told us he was an actor by trade, and that he’d performed amazing stunts for the neighborhood. This huge pumpkin carriage was going to be his biggest triumph.
I honestly didn’t see how this thing was so amazing. Yeah, it was big and looked pretty cool but I’d seen bigger and better stuff at our rinky dink pumpkin farm back home.
“Here,” he pointed to a large painting, “is my family. There’s me mum and dad and over here is me in adolescence with me two little sisters, Pickled and Prune and the next eldest Plummie and my little brother Sheldon. Don’t we look nice in our shrouds?”
He winked at me. “What I love about these paintings (I had them especially made by a talented witch two hundred years ago), is that once the sun sets, the shrouds come off.”
Instantly, the beautiful human looking family morphed into five hideous zombies, complete with blood dripping from their skeletal mouths.
“Wicked!” Holly squealed, inching her face closer to inspect the painting.
“S-So, you’re a zombie.” Francisco stepped a safe distance away from Payne.
“Worse,” Brenden whispered to us. “He’s an undead. It’s probably the most despicable race in the Under Realm. Oh, thank you, Athena, for imprisoning us here with your flesh-eating friend. Now if you don’t mind, use your magic and get us home!”
Although Payne talked as smooth as liquid chocolate, I was beginning to agree with Brenden. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t like the way Payne was leering at us as if we were a Halloween treat.
“Um…yeah, well, hey, Mr. Payne, i-it’s been so nice chatting with you and seeing your awesome home, but I think we’d better get back to Gran’s place. I’ll check back with you on the favor, okay?”
I hit Francisco in the side and motioned for him to grab Holly.
Payne arched an eyebrow. “Aw, lass, you can’t go now. It’s the witching hour. Time for our unveiling. I noticed yer wearing quite a thick shroud yourself and the sun is down. We Under-realmers must free ourselves. It’s only proper.” He stepped close to me, reaching for my knee. “Want me to help you take it off?”
I squealed, rolling myself backward from his touch. “Francisco…” I sang.
“On it.” Francisco grabbed my chair and waved at Payne. “It’s been real, Payne. Later!” And he hustled me toward the red door with the wooden floor creaking against my wheels. Brenden was blazing the trail ahead, muttering angrily to himself about bloodthirsty creatures and goblins and hangings and all sorts of dangers we were heading into.
I heard Payne callout, “Okay, be careful then! Take off yer shroud if you get into any trouble, lass!”
Francisco whipped my chair down the short steps and we fled into the darkest night I’d ever known.
I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to Rabooski for designing Mr. Payne’s Place. It’s the coolest steam punk house I’ve ever seen with TONS of surprises all in the house (which I didn’t get to show you here, but hopefully will in the next installment of this story (which is Part 2 which won’t happen for a while.) Download it here to gape at the fun splendor! STEAMPUNK HAUNTS
“Athena,” the witch moaned, eyes opening. “Where are you, my granddaughter?”
I whispered, quickly, “I have an idea, but you need to hide. I’ll convince her we’re alone and somehow get rid of her so we can escape. I know this neighborhood. We can go to Mr. Payne’s place. He’s nice.”
Brenden’s jaw set, and he whispered harshly, “You’re wrong, Athena! I’m in shadow. If we were in the Over Realm, I’d be golden. We’re in the Under Realm.”
“We don’t have time to argue, Brenden!” I cried. “Just do as I say, and I’ll figure this out. Hide!”
Brenden changed back into a book only the cover was a strange ebony color and his rays weren’t sparkly anymore.
Holly snatched him up and cried, “Where should we hide?”
“That closet by the stairs. But leave Brenden out. I may need him.”
Holly nodded and placed him on the coffee table as she pulled Francisco into the closet with her. Before he disappeared into it, Francisco whispered, “If you need anything, I’m just a whistle away. Got it?”
I nodded shooing him on before the witch fully awoke.
I couldn’t believe that witch was actually my grandmother. It was like a horrible dream I needed to escape. If she was truly Gran then I knew she loved me. Deep down. Maybe she would listen about allowing me to become the next Wishcaster or maybe I could convince her to tell that horrible Queen Casteen to call off the war. Anything! But then I remembered how she used magic to choke me. It seemed as if she’d wanted to hurt me in my backyard. How could she be my sweet Gran?
“Gran!” I called as she woodenly pulled herself to her knees.
She opened her eyes and stared at me for a moment, wiping her face then jumped to her feet. Flinging her arms out, she whipped around like she was about to cast a spell. “Where are the little brats? I’ll catch ‘em and roast ‘em, I will.”
Then her eyes caught mine like a mouse in a trap. “Ah…there you are, Athena.”
My heart leaped. Trying to hide any fear in my voice, I swallowed and said, “Hi, Gran. What’s up?”
“Where’s your grizzly little friends? One of them almost throttled me with their grimy fingers.”
She jerked her head toward the closet so I blurted, “Um…Gran! I’m the only one here, but I’m so confused! What’s going on? How did I get to Scotland so fast?”
The witch scratched her chin and shuffled over to me. “Why are you here in the dark, sweetheart. Turn on the lights at least.” Waving her hand, the lights flashed on.
“So, you’ve accepted the truth that I’m your Gran, eh? I’ve always known you were a smart child.” She batted her eyelashes at me. “Athena, I’ve dreamt of the day when I could take you to Queen Casteen and show her what you truly are.”
I squinted. Shivers rolled down my back. “What am I, Gran?”
My grandmother walked to her gargoyle chair and plopped into it. “That’s a wee bit of a long tale which I don’t have time to tell. Suffice it to say, you’re a bit of a…um…how do I put this delicately?” She lifted her eyes in thought then stared straight at me. “A mutt.” It came out as “moot” in her Scottish accent.
“Mutt?” I’d used that term for my dad because of his mixed ancestry, but talking to a known witch who was probably my grandmother, I decided I didn’t want to learn anything more.
I widened my eyes, trying to distract her. She loved to cook and I knew if she was busy in the kitchen, my friends and I could escape. “So, Gran, I’m hungry. Do you have anything around? Toad in the Hole? Turtle Stew? Eye of Newt?” I tossed that last one in for kicks.
She sighed looking at me like a prized stallion, ignoring my questions about food. “Oh, I can’t wait until Casteen releases you from your shroud and then, me sweet, she’ll see what an exciting eerily ethereal creature you really are.”
I didn’t like her choice of alliterative adjectives. Especially when referring to me. “Before I meet this queen, I have another question.” I stared straight at her. “If you are my Gran, why did you want to kill me at my house?”
The witch cackled which sounded strangely like my Gran’s laugh. “I would never hurt you, me lovely. I did what was necessary to bring you here. Times are dangerous now. You cannot fall into the wrong hands. Once your teacher, Ms. Claxton, told us that a Wish Book had found you, I knew the time of your revealing had come. You’ll understand all soon enough once we visit the queen.”
Ms. Claxton? Huh. I’d called her a witch all year. Too bad I was right.
“But what about my parents? Are they okay with this?” I asked.
She dusted her arms as if wiping off cobwebs. “I don’t know what that globstroppet of a father you’ve got thinks. Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. She was raised by her father who was an elf.”
My stomach dropped. “My mother…is an ELF?”
“Half elf. Half witch.” She smiled indicating herself. “Oh, your grandfather was a wonderful man, Great Guardian rest his poor soul. Handsome, too. He swept me off me feet when I was just a wee witchling. Now, it’s quite uncommon that a Middle-realmer and an Under-realmer would ever…um…how should I put it…”
“Hook up?” I curled my upper lip just thinking about my grandparents. Gag. I remembered my grandfather. He didn’t have any elfish ears. He was unusually tall and thin, but hey, lots of kids’ grandfathers were tall. And yeah, I knew my Gran and Gramps had split when my mom was young, but still…my whole ancestry had been a lie. “What’s my father then? A troll?” I almost laughed. This sounded so ridiculous.
My grandmother shook her head. “If only that be true, lass, I’d be the happiest mother in the Under-realm. Trolls are Under-realmers, you know.” She wiped her lips in disgust. “No, your father, from what I can gather, is a rather dull, stupid, and disgusting creature of the Over-realm. Against me wishes, Serena met him while doing engineering work in the Over-realm. She’s a tinker by nature and fell in love with Over-realmer things.”
This was getting wilder by the second. My parents lied to me. To Zelda. About everything! “I thought they met at a park in San Myshuno?”
Gran glanced at a clock. “Oh dear, look at the time! You need to get ready. I’ve almost completed your outfit. You’ll be a sight to see for the queen, me darling dee.” Granny hopped out of the chair, skipping around, she was so excited. I could almost see my true, sweet Gran that I’d always known inside of her. “Let me be off for a moment, lass. I shant be long. Okay?” She blew me a kiss.
I caught it like I always had and plastered on a fake smile. “Okay, Gran.”
She winked then turned and sauntered toward her bedroom.
A cloud of blue radiance shimmered, revealing Brenden once she had gone.
“So! You are a witch! And an…an…elf! And who knows what else?” Brenden glared at me in disgust.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” His words hurt. I couldn’t help what I was. Whatever horrifying darkness was inside me, I was still me. I didn’t feel any different from a normal human girl. And I was good. I didn’t care who had birthed me. Or what.
Holly and Francisco burst out of the closet. “Good grief, San Fran. Use a little deodorant, will ya?” Holly said wrinkling her nose.
Francisco smirked. “Hey, don’t think you smell like a pile of roses. Mints help halitosis, you know.”
“Guys!” I whispered. “We don’t have time! Gran is about to come back. We’ve gotta go. Now!”
Brenden glared, his dark eyes punching me in the stomach. “I’m not going anywhere with an evil Under-realmer.”
I couldn’t believe it. The one person I really looked up to now hated me. And why? Because of something I couldn’t help. “Fine!” I cried, holding back tears. “Stay here. See if I care!”
Francisco thrust a finger in Brenden’s face. “Say another mean thing to her again, wimp, and I’ll turn your face into a permanent doily.” He flipped Brenden’s flouncy collar.
Holly glowered at Brenden, pushing past him. I saw Brenden tilt his chin down and frown. Maybe he felt bad? I didn’t care. I was so mad.
Creaking open the kitchen door, Holly peered around the corner. “All clear,” she whispered.
We slipped through the kitchen and out the backdoor into the misty night.
The guards whizzed me so fast through the queen’s chambers, I didn’t get a chance to really gape at all the splendor.
I had just wrenched my head, not wanting to take my eyes off the queen’s amazing canopy bed when I heard a scream that sounded like Zelda.
“Stop!” I hollered. “You need to take me back.”
“That’s against orders, Miss,” the guard who was pushing me said. He looked like my younger cousin, Max, who was only seven. But this Max was dressed like a leprechaun.
“Hurry,” one tot ordered, pointing to a door behind a fancy fountain.
“Gordon,” another yelled pointing at me. “She must be on her way.”
Another shriek and a shrill cry pierced my body. I hit the brake on my chair. “Something’s wrong with my sister! I have to go back.”
The tot exclaimed, “Do not interfere with us, Athena of the Over Realm. You must enter the Third Trial before the witch discovers your presence.”
The guard said something and my chair lifted, floating even more swiftly toward the huge wooden door.
“You’re not getting it, Lucky Charms,” I yelled, catching a dresser’s edge, stopping myself from moving forward. “I’m going back. NOW!”
Instantly, one second I was pulling myself away from the marauding cereal box character and the next second, I was sitting in front of the queen’s chamber door, viewing the throne room from the back, although no one could see me. I had no idea how that happened, but then I felt the hard cover of Wish Book behind me and realized Brenden must have helped.
Seeing what was going on in the throne room, I gripped the arms of my chair. My grandmother (who didn’t look like the witch—it was Gran!) was pointing at the queen. My sister was crying, holding Gran’s hand, and Francisco and Holly’s hands were tied behind their backs, both looking down.
“She’s not here, Sidheag,” the queen said, calmly. “She’s entered the Third Trial and not even Queen Casteen herself can stop her once she’s ventured on The Path.”
“You’re bluffing, Oria,” Sidheag said in her thick Scottish accent. “I can feel her bones. They aren’t yet on The Path. I want what is mine. She isn’t your flesh and blood. You have no right.”
“Let me go!” my sister howled through tears. “You’re not my granny. You’re ugly. I hate you!”
I wanted to get Zelda right then but had no idea how to rescue her and free my friends.
“She will never join with you,” Holly yelled. “Let us go.”
“Quiet down,” the witch spat, “or I’ll put you in me next stew.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Francisco barked, wrenching his shoulders around, still stuck in those handcuffs I couldn’t see. “I’ll choke you again if you even get near her.”
“Silence, prisoners.” A bolt of light slammed over their mouths as a gag materialized.
Now I understood why the witch had to tie up my friends. I would have loved to have seen how they fought her before she had to shackle them.
“Threats will not work,” the queen said. “Release the children before I have you dragged to the dungeon.” By now there were some leprechaun fairy guards surrounding my friends and the witch.
At this Sidheag gave a throaty evil laugh.
I had to free my friends. But how? If the witch wanted me, then maybe she’d release them and my sister.
I moved forward. “What do you want?”
Zelda tried to spring away from the witch’s grasp, but it was too tight.
“Athena, me sweet child. So good to see you, lass. Come to Granny’s side so we can clear up this misunderstanding.”
Queen Oria pursed her lips in thought. I couldn’t believe she was listening to these lies. She said, “Athena belongs where the Great Guardian ordains. She has been chosen to prove herself in the Third Trial and by Tri-realm law she should be given that right.”
“There has never been an Under-realmer Wishcaster in all the days of the past and there shant be one now.” Sidheag chanted some words.
I felt a cold energy envelop me like a sudden snowstorm. Queen Oria then shot magenta sparks from her hands and the chills which had shuddered through my body vanished.
“Very well, Oria,” the witch spoke, obviously her magic was blocked. “These children will be my prisoners until the time when Under Realm armies overtake your kingdom and then Athena will go with us on her own, Wishcaster or no.”
“No!” I shouted. “You can take me now. Just let them go.”
“Athena!” the queen cried, pointing toward her chambers. “You must go through the trial. Remember what I told you.”
“It is done,” Sidheag said. “She has given permission.” A cold wave enveloped me again, buffeting my body like I’d gotten caught in a nasty thunderstorm.
But I resisted, thinking about my friends and how I wanted them out of their shackles.
What was happening to me?
Dark, thick clouds surrounded my vision. I went into a dream state, swirling around a large hazy whirlpool. In slow motion, I could see Holly screaming at the witch, yanking off the invisible shackes from her wrists and then the bonds of Francisco. Francisco expertly jumped around the witch and put her in a choke hold as I’d seen him do so many times in his dojo. But the wind rose up and blasted my body, shaking me. I couldn’t see anything more except darkness and then it felt as if I’d been sucked in the midst of a tornado and then just as suddenly, spit out.
I tumbled onto a carpeted floor.
Pain erupted on the side of my forehead. My body wobbled as if I’d just gotten off an insane ride at an evil theme park.
“Where am I?” I asked, head spinning, looking around. I found my wheelchair and hoisted myself into it. The room was dark, only lit by a few candles.
“Hogswallow,” the witch gagged. “Min—“ she gasped again, scratching at Francisco’s arm.
My friends! They came with me somehow, and they weren’t chained. Francisco held the witch in a wrestling move I’d never seen him try. He was sitting on the floor behind the witch. It looked as if he was choking her!
“Get something to knock her out!” Francisco yelled.
Holly screeched, “With what?”
I cried, “Take that purple urn.”
She lifted the pot off a table and shattered it over the old lady’s head. Instantly, she closed her eyes.
“Now what are we going to do?” Holly asked as Francisco wriggled his body out from under the witch.
I couldn’t believe even in her unconscious state that she still resembled Gran and not that ugly blue thing.
Before I could think about what to do next, I felt Wish Book stabbing me in the back. I whisked him out.
A jet of blue beams lit the dark room. Brenden materialized out of indigo clouds of vapor.
Omg! “What happened to you, Brenden?” In the low-lit room, his hair looked almost bluish black and his skin was grey.
But he ignored my question. “That was brilliant, Athena, just brilliant.” I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.
“You mean brilliant good or brilliant bad?”
He put his arm around me and squeezed. “You figure it out. You were supposed to be on The Path to becoming our next Wishcaster, but instead of following the wise orders of the queen, you decide to save your friends.” He shot a look of contempt at Francisco.“And then you ferry these two dolts into the pit of hell right along with me and yourself.” He leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Not good, dear Athena. Not good.”
For some reason, I felt a little jolt in my stomach just having him so near me, so I pushed him off my lap.
He tumbled onto the floor.
“Hey, what was that for?”
“It’s obvious,” Francisco said, moving toward him. “You’re being a jerk. Athena didn’t bring us here. That witch did.”
Brenden jumped to his feet, hands clenched. “You don’t have a clue what you’re going on about.” Brenden pointed at me. “Athena has her own magic. She willed you out of your invisible bindings as the witch incanted her spell, and she is the reason she’s not on The Path at this moment. I’m not the one anyone should be mad at.”
Three pairs of eyes all turned on me. “I-I didn’t do anything, Brenden,” I stammered. “You’re the one with all the magic, not me.” I didn’t understand what was happening. I just wanted my simple life back where the only thing I worried about was whether Adam Slack even noticed me or my parents would stop arguing. Now, I was being accused of not doing my duty in saving the world even though I had no idea how I was supposed to do that. All by myself.
Brenden ran his fingers through his hair. “Athena, as Wish Book, I can only wield magic to do your bidding, but you didn’t use me. You did it all by yourself.”
I shook my head and whispered, “But how? I don’t even know I’m doing anything.”
“Humans aren’t supposed to have their own magic,” Brenden said, accusingly. “I don’t know why I didn’t suspect something before.” He shot a look at Francisco as if I wasn’t even around. “Queen Oria knew. She said Athena might be the folly of us all.”
“What are you saying?” Holly sat in one of the witch’s chairs. “T-That Athena isn’t human?”
All at once, the witch moaned, smacking her lips. “Come to Granny, dear,” she croaked, still in a hazy dream.
“Guys,” Francisco whispered. “The witch is about to wake up. We need something to tie her. Brenden, can you make a rope?”
Brenden shrugged, never taking his glare off me. “I have no power here. I’m in shadow as you can see by my black hair and gray skin. Athena couldn’t even use me as a Wish Book. All my power is gone except for my ability to fly and turn into that worthless book. Why don’t you ask the witch to help?” But Brenden wasn’t talking about the hag on the floor. He jerked his head toward me.
Blood rushed out of my body and I felt woozy as if I was about to faint. This couldn’t be true. That hideous blue witch could NOT be my real grandmother. I would have known if I was different. If I had powers. I was just a normal girl in a wheelchair. Nothing more.
But something familiar needled me about the room. It felt as if I’d been here before. A huge artist’s easel sat in a corner. Had I visited here thinking I was in Scotland?
Yes. I recognized this space. This was Gran’s parlor where she’d painted and read stories to me. But I didn’t remember the chairs having gargoyles on the armrests. “Could this be…?” I wheeled myself around to face the fireplace, surveying the gnomes lining the mantle. I’d always liked looking at them–each one had their own personality. My favorite was the one in the middle with the glowing eyes.
I turned myself around, facing my accusers. “We’re not in hell, guys,” I announced, relieved. “We’re in Scotland!”
The heavy door swung wide toward us. As I tried to steady my breathing, Brenden moved my wheelchair forward, slowly.
I looked down so the queen wouldn’t see me stare at her as Brenden had directed.
Somber elder tiny tots and small adult fairies sat on benches lining the left wall.
Others stood guard at the bottom of some stairs to the throne. One was Lenora and she didn’t look happy.
At the end of the long, carpet of rose petals, I noticed four other kids with their golden clad fairies beside them. Three boys and a small girl with curly red hair and freckles who looked a little older than Zelda.
The boys were all different—one was an African American guy. He winked at me.
I smiled back.
The others didn’t seem to notice me. But if I was supposed to win in a battle against them, I was doomed. One looked Hawaiian and huge.
The other guy was tall like a basketball player. Both were definitely several years older than me.
Brenden stopped my chair and ran forward, bowing low.
“You’re late!” the queen shouted. I was dying to take a peek.
“So s-sorry, your m-majesty,” Brenden stuttered. “I was just about to start my training when I received your summons.”
“And what is this you’ve brought before me?” the queen demanded. “You think she is qualified to be our Wishcaster?”
My insides jolted. No, I said to myself. I didn’t think I was qualified at all. I had no clue why Brenden thought this highly of little me. How was I supposed to get through these trials? It was all so hopeless.
“Please, your grace,” Brenden said, “She is stronger than anyone here.”
The queen’s voice grew cold. “For your sake, Brenden, you had better hope she is not the folly of us all.”
Brenden’s gasped not saying anything intelligible for a while, then he sputtered, “What do you mean?”
“Enough blather. It is the winnowing time. The Second Trial. Brenden, I would have sent her home first, but you don’t even know who she is, and so you are safe. For now.”
I heard Brenden sigh, and he bowed even lower, backing up toward me. Once he walked behind me, he whispered, “Only do as she asks. If you fail, you will be sent home, and I will be sent to the dungeon.”
“Quiet!” the queen shouted again. A part of me just wanted to go home. This fairy queen was awful. I didn’t like how she treated Brenden, but I couldn’t bail on him. Who knew what she’d do to him? She seemed more like she belonged to the Under Realm.
“Martinique, step forward,” the queen commanded. One of the girl fairies that looked about Brenden’s age held the hand of the tall guy, placing him in front of the queen.
“His name is Chad Sparks. He’s from Riverview, USA. His strengths are running, rebounding, and babysitting. He’s quite good at it. Makes children laugh.”
“Like to play basketball, do you?” the queen asked.
“Yes!” Chad beamed. “And I’m the best. Coach gave me the MVP award this year. I’m sure I’ll be able to handle the Third trial and be your next Wishcaster. At least, I’m going to try.”
“Pride and arrogance is not a trait of a true Wishcaster. Be gone.”
Chad didn’t have time to say anything more. Sparkles swept over him and then he vanished.
I asked in a hushed tone, “Will he be okay?”
Brenden leaned in and whispered, “He’ll be fine. He was sent back. He’ll have no memory of this place.”
I breathed out, liking the idea of blotting out this memory. If I did fail, at least I wouldn’t have the burden of guilt looming over me. But I didn’t want to fail. For Brenden’s sake anyway. I didn’t understand why the queen hated him so much, but I could hear it in her voice.
“Calomina, come forward.” Another girl fairy Brenden’s age brought the little girl in front of her.
“You’re shaking, my dear,” the queen said gently. “What is your name?”
Calomina answered instead, “Her name is Shelby Smith. Her strengths are singing, dancing, and gymnastics. She’s fearless on the balance beam. Amazing to watch.”
“I see,” the queen responded. “Shelby, why are you trembling like a dragonfly’s wing? Are you scared, my love?”
Shelby squeaked, “A little, I guess.”
The queen cried, “A true Wishcaster never admits fear even if she feels it. Be gone!”
Sparkles enveloped Shelby and her body disappeared.
I stole a glance at the African American boy.
He raised his eyebrows at me, saying exactly what I was thinking. This was nuts!
The Hawaiian dude ran over to the queen and said, “I’m not scared. My name is Kalino Maheloma, your highness.”
He bowed to one knee. “It would be my honor to serve you.”
“Kalino Maheloma, who told you to speak out of turn?”
“I…uh…” But Kalino didn’t even get to finish his sentence. He was gone in a cloud of sparks before he could utter another word.
“Anyone else want to tell me of their bravery? Their worthy deeds?” the queen asked. “What have you brought me, fairies of the Shard? I’m ashamed of you. I expected as much from Brenden, the Cursed, but you, Calomina and you, Eldin. You’re my best!” I heard her sigh then she said, “Let’s get this over with. Brindelle, bring forth your charge.”
Brindelle pulled the African American boy with her. The guy winked at me, crossing his fingers. I crossed mine back.
Brindelle looked like a girl version of Brenden and had the same glistening golden hair. She bowed and said, “Here stands Marcus Wall. Reader of many books, writer of stories, maker of bicycles and other contraptions.”
The queen asked, “So, you create stories, do you?”
“Yes,” Marcus said, smiling.
“Are they about witches and dragons and…queens?”
I gulped. I didn’t know how Marcus would get out of this one.
“No. They’re about aliens. Mostly.”
Silence filled the room. All I could hear was my heart beating for Marcus. I liked him already and thought he’d make a great Wishcaster just by how friendly he was. I could tell he had a good heart.
Suddenly, the queen giggled. Then she laughed so hard the other fairies started laughing, too. Soon everyone in the throne room was chuckling and snorting.
“Silence!” the queen’s voice rang through the chamber. “I have no need of dreamers. I need a warrior. Be gone!” In an instant, Marcus’ shape dissipated as the others had.
My heart sank. All that was left was me, and I knew I wasn’t the one. My wheelchair alone should do me in. I was surprised she didn’t whip me into a sparkle tornado when she saw me.
“Brenden?” The queen called his name like my mother would when she caught me doing something wrong.
“Yes, your grace.” Brenden bowed even lower than he had before.
“Bring her forward.”
Brenden scurried back behind me and pushed me toward the queen, stopping at the foot of the stairs. My veins throbbed in my neck and my arms. I didn’t even know I had veins that big in my arms.
“May I present Athena Martin. Her strengths are drawing beautiful pictures, performing tricks on her wheelchair, and fighting off bullies. Oh, and one more thing…she has her own magic.”
At this, all the fairies drew in a breath of shock and then chattered with each other.
“Quiet down, everyone,” Queen Oria said.
In all the commotion, Brenden rushed over to me and squeezed my shoulder, smiling at me but this didn’t make me feel better.
After the fairies grew silent, the queen continued, “Indeed, she does have her own magic. This I know quite well. But whether it will serve us is another thing. Athena of the Over Realm, look upon me.”
I gazed at the queen and my mouth fell open.
She was not what I was expecting at all. Instead of a tiny tot as the other elder fairies were, she looked like she was twenty years old and radiant with long black hair, golden eyes, and tan skin. From what I saw in other parts of the castle, someone who looked this old should be in the nursery.
The queen lifted a regal eyebrow, “Surprised at my body form? You Over-realmers are quite daft when it comes to fairy-age. I matured quickly. I’m only one hundred years old as you see in my fairy body, but my mind is that of a centenarian. In fact, I have the wisdom of someone who is one hundred twenty of your Over Realm years.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I did a half bow, half nod.
She pressed her lips together in thought. “I have no choice but to put you through the Third trial. You must do it alone. Brenden cannot help you any longer with your chair. Since you do have your own magic, you’ll need it to traverse along rocks and rivers and finally, the Sea of Sand, where you’ll come to the Cavern of Souls. If you make it, you will find the real Wish Book and use it to become our new Wishcaster.” With a stare that pierced my heart, she asked, “Are you willing to do this, young Athena?”
My heart pounded as I felt myself nod, still not understanding how I was going to use magic powers I didn’t know I had to glide over rocks and rivers.
Next, I glanced at Brenden, thinking about him being a Wish Book. He had said it wasn’t fun. I wondered if the real Wish Book was a fairy, too, trapped in a cave somewhere. And then I thought about my friends and my sister. What was going to happen to them? I didn’t want to leave them behind.
I raised my hand like I was in school.
She asked, “What is it?”
“My friends and sister are here. Will they go back or can they come with me?”
“This is no place for your friends so we will usher them to their homes. Your sister will stay here until it’s safe for her to go.” She nodded at Brenden and ordered, “Take her to the Bridge of Destiny, Brenden, The Cursed, and leave her there. She will have to figure out her own way. If you do my bidding, and she is indeed our new Wishcaster, I will remove your curse and you will be restored.”
“Will I be allowed to stay?” Brenden asked, swallowing nervously.
“If you obey, then I see no reason why you cannot reside in Middle Realm.”
Brenden must have done something horrible to think he might be banished from his own world. I wanted to ask him about his past, but there was no time.
The queen floated down the stairs and gazed at me. I saw a mixture of fear and determination scroll over her face. Then she draped a hand on my head. “Athena Martin, I pray that you are indeed our Wishcaster not only for our realm but for all the realms. I don’t know how much longer we have before the Shroud of Protection is torn to shreds and then I can’t imagine our fate.”
I closed my eyes as she prayed, “Great Guardian, make Athena Meree Martin of the Over Realm swift and strong as she starts on her journey and allow…”
Suddenly, the doors opened with a loud boom!
An elder fairy whisked in. “Queen Oria! There’s been a breach! We must leave this place. At once!”
“Blast!” the queen cursed. “The fates are against us! Guards! Take Athena out behind the throne, through my chambers. Usher her yourself to the bridge and create a shield of protection so she may be on her journey unhindered. Understand?”
The leader said, “Yes, your highness. As you say.”
Suddenly, Brenden caught my eye and pointed to an area behind the stairs.
I nodded, thinking he must have something up his fairy sleeve.
When the guard came to grasp my chair, I said, “No need to push me. I can do it myself.”
He bowed and said, “Follow me.”
The guard fluttered through a doorway into a hall. I followed. From out of the shadows, Brenden tugged at my sleeve as I passed him. He hopped on my lap and turned into Wish Book in a fit of sparks.
I hoped the guards hadn’t noticed, but just in case, I placed him behind my back. Brenden definitely had a plan. I was glad because I knew one thing. I didn’t want to do this alone.
Since next update will start the holiday season of giving, I’ll try to “give” more chapters (if I’m able! It does get crazy this time of year.) I’m at a point where I can update two chapters a week! SO, next update will be Monday, December 3. 🙂
Brenden took me to a room full of maps, books and crystals.
On one wall hung three huge maps—Under Realm, Middle Realm, and Over Realm. I recognized Over Realm—it was the map of Earth—showing all the continents.
Middle Realm was fairly small in comparison. There were five kingdoms with rivers and mountains flowing between them. On the outskirts of one kingdom was something called the Sea of Sand.
“Which kingdom is yours, Brenden?” I asked.
He hesitated, flicking his eyes down then threw on a smile. “We are near the Sea of Sand, here,” he said, tapping on the green colored southern kingdom—Fairbairn.
“Sea of Sand? Is that a desert?”
“Not like the deserts of Over Realm. This desert moves much like your oceans with currents and waves. We have sand boats that sail across it, but it’s very dangerous. Many nasty creatures live there.”
Brenden waved his hand over the maps, “These Realms exist together within the dimensions of the earth and are hidden from each other by an invisible shroud or shield until such a time when all realms will live together in peace. That, unfortunately, hasn’t happened yet. As you know, the Under Realm wants to attack our realms and bring us under their submission. As Wishcaster, it’s your job to oversee the shroud, making sure there are no punctures or cracks. You will also be an ambassador for all the realms. This will be explained more fully when we see the queen.”
I had more questions but decided I’d ask the queen later. In the corner, I noticed a white and blue shimmering crystal jutting out of a stone pillar. “Is that the Wish shard you were talking about earlier?”
Brenden grinned, walking over to the stone. “Yes. We use this to view our prospects.”
“We?” I asked. “There are more people looking for Wishcasters?”
“Yes,” Brenden said. “Four others will be going against you in the trials.”
“Four,” I whispered. “Do they have two working legs?”
Brenden threw up a finger and said, “Athena, the test has nothing to do with physical conquests.”
He tapped at his chest. “It’s what’s in here that counts.”
I bit my lip. I was about to argue with him about the real limitations of a wheelchair in places like a sea of sand or a mountain range when Brenden floated toward a stack of books on a table and picked one up.
Then he gave it to me. Similar in size to Wish Book, I opened it. The title page read: Wishcaster Training Manual: 9474.
I swallowed. “Looks like it’ll take me a century to read this.”
Cocking his head, he said, “You’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted with it if you do become the Wishcaster. But for now, I only need you to read the first chapter and then we’ll talk about it.”
I flipped through the pages. One in particular caught my eye. It read, “The Wishcaster is granted three wishes in times of trouble. They are only to be used when the Wish Book is not available. Use them wisely.”
I rolled my eyes. “Three wishes? Isn’t that a little…cliché?”
Brenden peered over at the page I was reading and glared. “Why are you on Chapter Twenty Three? I told you to read Chapter One!”
“Aw, c’mon, Brenden. This seems hokey. Three wishes? I mean…every fairy tale story uses this.”
Brenden pursed his lips. “Where on all the realms do you think these authors got the idea? All fiction starts with nonfiction. There’s a niggle of truth in every story. If you ask me, most authors are really thieves. Stealing from the realities of true stories of the past. There’s not an original thought in human history.” He jerked the book out of my hands and flipped to the front of the book then sat down in a chair. “Now here’s chapter one. Read.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
Just then, a frantic girl fairy who looked about the same age as Lenora, rushed over to his side. She whispered something urgently to him, but I couldn’t make out what she said.
Brenden’s face paled and he gasped, “Great Guardian.”
Snapping his fingers, sparkles swept over me as I’d seen so many times before when Brenden was Wish Book. “What the hell?”
When the flashes dissipated, I was dressed in some sort of fairy combat outfit.
Brenden changed into different clothing as well.
Taking the book out of my hands and tossing it on the table, he grabbed the handles of my chair and raced out of the room, pushing me with him.
“What’s going on?” I cried. My stomach whooshed like I’d dropped off a swing–we were flying so fast.
“I haven’t the time to train you, dear Athena,” he yelled, careening my wheelchair around corners.
We were going to run over a tiny tot!
“Watch out!” I cried.
“Get out of the way. Wishcaster incoming!” Brenden bellowed.
The tot (and a few other rando fairies) yelled profanities at him (well, I thought they were profanities—I really didn’t understand the words).
He shouted an apology and rolled me toward a vast, golden door. Jumping around my chair, he took both of my hands, breathing hard. “Do not look at Queen Oria directly until she gives the order.”
I could see his heartbeat pounding in his neck. Mine followed. “Do not say anything until she asks you a question.” He swallowed and glanced down for a moment then said, “And most importantly, Athena. Believe in yourself.”
My stomach clenched as all the blood drained out of my head.
The doors opened with a loud boom. I flinched, blinking wildly. I had no idea what to expect except that I needed to follow Brenden’s instructions. Although I didn’t really understand all that was going on, for some strange reason, I wanted to succeed. Deep down inside, I needed to become the Wishcaster no matter how stupid that sounded. Something within me yearned for it.
Breathing deeply, I looked down at my shoes, my velvet pants, my knobby knees.
Awakening to the smell of gardenias, lavender, and pine, I breathed deeply, wanting to drown in that scent. But before I could get swept away by the smell, my eyes drank in the beauty of the area the fairies called Middle Realm. I never could have imagined it—the colors seemed to be alive themselves, vibrating out from every object. From the enormous unicorn entrance to the sparkling cobblestone path leading up toward a beautiful castle, I was absolutely awestruck.
Brenden arched an eyebrow. “Nice, eh?”
I beamed up at him, barely breathing. “Yes. N-Nice.”
Lenora’s voice shattered my moment of happiness, “We don’t have time for pleasantries. Brenden, take her to her quarters and get her prepared for the Second Trial. We’ve not a moment to lose.” I noticed she looked more like Brenden now with pointy ears and a shimmering dress.
Brenden bowed curtly, “Yes, my lady.”
Then his eyebrows drew up angrily when he looked at Francisco wrapping his fingers around my chair’s handles, preparing to push me along. “What about them?” he cried, hands on hips. “I’m not a nursemaid. I’ll not be at their beck and call.”
Lenora’s gaze picked over Holly, Francisco, and my sister one by one until she shrugged. “You chose her, so you have the honor of dealing with her…inconveniences.”
She pointed at him. “Have her ready by middle-day and not a harpswing more.”
Brenden massaged his temples and muttered, “Great Guardian, what do you have against me?” He sighed deeply as if he was about to heave five hundred pounds and said, “Come on then. Follow me.”
Brenden floated ahead of us, leaving glitterdust in his wake. Francisco pushed me as we tried to follow, but then he stopped. Some fairies were arguing in front of us.
“Asher, I told you to mop this area,” a tiny tot barked at an obviously older fairy. “What do you have to say for yourself. It’s still dirty.”
“I was just about to, milady. Just need to fetch the mop is all.”
Instantly, a large mop appeared in his hands as the fairy went straight to work.
“Strange,” Francisco said.
“Definitely,” I agreed. “I guess the fairy world is much different than ours.”
As we moved along the cobblestone path, I noticed fairies of all sizes bustling here and there on their way to an important mission of some sort or giving orders. Something struck me as I watched them—they all looked like children.
A few resembled large young adults, giggling together and floating around, playing.
And others were like Brenden—teenagers, flitting on errands with parchments or food trays, but many were very young, talking importantly amongst themselves or marching to a job here or there. And what surprised me the most were the leaders, the ones who gave the orders. They appeared to be anywhere from two to four years old. Even younger than Lenora.
As we moved along the beautiful flowered path, Francisco asked, “I don’t get it. Why are the youngest fairies in charge?”
Brenden laughed. “You have much to learn about fairies.”
He waved his hand. “You see, they don’t age as humans because time is different for them. Each fairy ages at a different rate so it’s anyone’s guess as to how many earth years they are. What counts is maturity. I’m a one hundred sixty-two earth years old fairy, yet my maturity level is that of an average seventeen year old human.”
At this, a small boy fairy interjected, “He’s lying. Brenden’s more like a twelve year old human.” A few fairies tittered at the joke. I couldn’t help but smile.
Brenden swatted at the fairy. “Mogelsby, go on now. That hurt my feelings.”
Brenden leaned toward us. “He’s kidding, of course. When fairies reach the maturity level of sixteen, they are tasked with jobs.” He snorted at Mogelsby, “So how can I have a job if I’m like a twelve year old human? Eh, Mogelsby?”
He turned back to us and continued, “Anyway, fairies are not born of their mothers as you are. Fairies are born out of the earth, full sized and large, much like a full grown adult human.”
“That explains it,” Francisco said.
Brenden glared. “What is that supposed to mean, human?”
“Just that you’re definitely not in charge around here because you’re too immature.”
I thought I heard Brenden growl. “I’ll ignore that comment. Come along. We’re wasting time.”
We strolled around the castle. It was so huge! Finally, Brenden motioned toward a set of stairs and said, “We must enter here.”
Holly jumped around as if she just realized something. “Yes. Fairies age backwards! The little kids are really old.” She stammered, “I-I mean…that’s what I think. Am I right?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. They are quite ancient.” Brenden rolled his eyes. “And they can be a little uppity about it, too. If you think Lenora is hard to deal with, just try to manage working for a pint-sized tot.”
Brenden snapped his fingers and my wheelchair ascended the stairs, floating in the air. “That’s convenient,” I said as my wheelchair touched the ground again. “You’ll have to show me that trick, Brenden.”
“One day, I hope you’ll do even better than that, my dearest Athena.” He winked.
“Ah, here we are.” Brenden stopped at a large door with a lion’s head for a handle.
“So, now that fairy age-lessons are over, I bid you three good day. I’ll be taking Athena with me as I’ve got a Wishcaster-in-training to educate. You may stay in here while you wait. The fairies will give you something a little more suitable to wear. You’re to be presented to the queen as well since we unfortunately had to bring you.” He wrapped his hand around the lion’s head. It roared and bit him.
Brenden hollered, “Ow!”
Zelda giggled, putting her hand over her mouth.
Sucking on his wounded finger, Brenden spat, “Oh, hogswallow! I forgot about the new security measures.” He patted the handle and said, “Nice kitty.” The lion smiled and purred as I heard a click.
Once the door opened, Zelda squealed and yelled, “Candy!” darting inside.
Holly seemed to float in, mesmerized.
“Holly?” I asked, “Are you okay?”
She said, “Are you kidding me? They have scientific displays that would rival the Smithsonian.”
I wheeled inside, confused. All the room contained were two little girl fairies sitting on a bench. There must have been a spell put on this room. For them anyway.
Zelda waved her hands in front of her face and cried, “A gingerbread house!”
Francisco shook his head. “Whoa. You’re all wrong. Not the Smithsonian or a gingerbread house. It’s video game heaven!”
He put his hand out to Brenden and said, “Give me some skin, bro. This is way too cool.”
Brenden grimaced as if he’d witnessed someone running over a rabbit. “First of all, I will not give you any part of my skin for your sadistic pleasures, and second of all, I could have you arrested for suggesting such a perverse plan.”
Francisco looked at me, lifting his eyebrows. “Is he for real?”
“Of course I’m real, you dopplesided goon.” Brenden brushed past Franscisco. “Now stop babbling. I’ve got things to do.”
Francisco stood his ground, inching his face closer to Brenden’s. “Why don’t you say, please?”
Brenden inched his face closer. “Make me.”
Before I knew it, Francisco had Brenden in a headlock, ordering, “Say please!”
Brenden gargled out, “Never!”
I rolled over to them. “Guys, enough! This is stupid. Francisco, let him go!”
Francisco released his grip, and Brenden stumbled forward, rubbing his neck.
“Are you okay?” I asked Brenden.
He nodded, getting to his feet. Brushing off his coat and fixing his collar, saying, “I’ll have you know, Francisco, I could have changed you into a toad, but for Athena’s sake, I resisted the temptation.”
He turned to me and said, “He’s definitely beneath your notice. He’s a clumsy, warmongering oaf.”
Francisco gave a half grin. “Aw come on. You can insult me better than that.”
“Ignore him, Francisco,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Brenden, let’s go.” I pulled his arm as I rolled away from Francisco before the two of them killed each other.
I wondered why Brenden was being so rude to Francisco–just like when he made Francisco do that weird thing in science class. Anger shot through me as I remembered poor Francisco’s face in the middle of science. I’d almost forgotten it was Brenden who did that to him.
The fairy wore a smug, happy look on his face. Catching my eyes, he asked, “What’s the matter, Athena? You’re not angry with me, are you?”
I didn’t answer him for a while. I was angry. Why did Brenden hate Francisco so much? Plus, I had no idea what being a Wishcaster meant and what this “Second Trial” was and how I was supposed to get through it.
Stopping in the middle of the hallway, I answered, glaring, “Maybe I don’t want to be your Wishcaster. Maybe I just want to go home.”
“What?” Brenden asked.
“You heard me,” I said, empowered by the thought. “I want to go home. Let someone else fight this battle.” Who was I kidding? If that first encounter with the witch showed how heroic I was, I felt like this mission was doomed anyway.
“You can’t quit on us now, Athena.”
Brenden knelt next to me. His voice softened. “We need you. Your realm needs you.” He took my hand, squeezing it emphatically. “The world needs you.”
“You keep saying that, but I don’t get what it has to do with me! What is a Wishcaster? Why do you need one? And how will that help fight against what seems like powerful, evil magic? It just doesn’t make any sense!”
Brenden let out a sigh, scratching along the arch of one of his blonde eyebrows. “Listen. I’m about to explain all of that to you. We’re almost to the training room. After that, if you still feel the same way about things, you’ll be free to go. We cannot force someone to be the Wishcaster. The Wishcaster just is.”
I cocked my head. “What does that mean?”
“A Wishcaster is one already. It’s a part of their being just as being a human is who Francisco is. The Great Guardian ordains a Wishcaster for a millennium, but once they die, we have to seek a new one. We’ve been looking for the next Wishcaster for over fifty years. Most prospects fail the first test, which you sailed through marvelously.”
“You mean with the witch?”
Brenden’s eyes widened. “No. I mean with Wish Book. You gave back the book. That’s the first test. What you did with the witch showed Lenora that you truly could be our Wishcaster.”
“It showed Lenora, but not you?”
Brenden blushed, looking down at the ground. Then he stared at me. “I’ve always known you were our Wishcaster from the moment I saw you in the Wish-shard. Lenora didn’t believe, but I did. With the witch, you proved you have your own magic. That’s why you were able to transport yourself out of Sighead’s frozen prison, something neither Lenora nor I could do.”
I tapped Brenden’s arm. “One more thing before I accept the challenge of training.”
Before I could answer Francisco’s question, a little girl with shiny blonde hair in a cornflower blue and sage green dress appeared near the large tree in my backyard.
FLOATED toward me in a shimmer of rainbow sparkles.
What the hell was going on?
“I believe you wished to give something to me,” she said. Her tinkling bell voice calmed my pounding heart.
I tossed Wish Book at her feet. “Here! Take it. I don’t want it anymore.”
Zelda rushed to the little girl, sitting next to her. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she cried. “You can save us from that nasty thing in our kitchen!”
I had no idea what Zelda was babbling about. How could this strange girl save us from our grandmother?
The girl pushed Zelda’s shoulders back so she could gaze into her eyes. “What thing, child?”
Zelda pointed to our large back window. Gran was rolling out pastry on our kitchen table.
“Oh, Great Guardian,” the little girl whispered, standing up. “Brenden. Show yourself.”
All of a sudden, golden sparkles swirled around Wish Book until a blinding light shot out of it.
Then light exploded, shimmering all around us.
A person arose where Wish Book once sat. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Before me stood a dude who looked about my age and was all decked out for a Renaissance play. He was very handsome with bright golden eyes, dimpled chin, and wide smile.
“Athena,” he said, bowing deeply at my feet. “I’m forever in your service. Thank you for saving me from the nuisance of being that odious Wish Book.”
My breath caught. “W-Who are you?”
“I am Brenden, the Cursed,” he said as if he’d just announced his knighthood.
“But the queen will have to give me a new title, now won’t she?” he added. I could see a slight smile twinge at the corners of his lips.
The girl rolled her eyes. “That is the least of our worries, Brenden. Look there! In the kitchen. That creature in a thin shroud.”
Glancing up, he said, “Heavens! You’re right, Lenora.”
Brenden snapped his fingers at us. “All of you, listen to Lenora, Fairy of Essence. Come quickly.”
I gripped the rubber of my wheels. “I’m not going anywhere until someone explains a few things.”
Francisco walked to my side and glared. “Yeah. Why should we go with you?”
Holly yelled, “Guys! I think we better leave. Something’s up with Granny!”
“Come here, dear ones,” my grandmother called from the back porch.
Pulling a translucent veil off of her body, she transformed into a scary blue skinned witch.
“Oh God, oh God,” I said, feeling like centipedes were crawling up my back. I pulled at Zelda’s shirt to follow. “Yes, we’ll go with you.”
Brenden huddled us around us, saying, “Hold hands.” Clasping mine with a smile, he went to grab another hand. It was Francisco’s.
He snarled then flicked his fingers away as if he touched something disgusting.
Francisco grinned and moved to my other side.
The witch must have figured out Brenden’s plan. “In the name of the Under Realm, you’ll not take her from me!” she screeched.
Glowing orbs appeared in her hands and she spoke some strange words.
A shower of icicles shot through the air, pinning us into a frozen prison.
Lenora breathed deeply, closing her eyes. “Do not give into her threats. Concentrate on me, no matter what she does. She cannot do anything to us that we do not allow. This is not her realm. As it is not mine.”
Lenora caught me with her eyes. “Athena. We need you now. Brenden?”
“Blast,” Brenden grumbled as he ditched my hand.
In an explosion of light, he transformed back into Wish Book. Lenora placed him on my lap along with the pencil that I’d flicked in the flower bed only moments before.
The witch cackled. “Athena, my dearest granddaughter. What is that half-pint fairy telling you? They’re lies. Me powers are indeed very strong in this realm as she knows. The rampart protecting this world is crumbling.” She scurried close to the frozen prison bars. I could smell her breath—it was like a decaying skunk on the side of the road.
“That’s why I’m here. Come with Granny, Athena, and I’ll show you what your power was really chosen for. You have a gift. Casteen, queen of the Under Realm, has seen that your time has come and allowed me to go to you.” She beckoned me, outstretching her blue, gnarled hand. “Come, dear child.”
“Ignore her,” Lenora whispered. “Wish us to my realm where we’ll be safe. A fairy kingdom with a castle, flower gardens with animal topiaries and two enormous guardian unicorns at the entrance.”
“But why can’t you snap your fingers and get us there? Aren’t you a fairy? Use your pixie dust or something.” I whispered back, freaking out. I wondered where the hell my parents were? Did that witch do something awful to them? My body trembled at those terrible thoughts.
“No, Athena! My powers are limited in this realm. You must do it! With Wish Book. Hurry!”
I didn’t know what else to do but obey this strange fairy girl. Anything was better than listening to that horrifying witch.
I pictured us on the grounds of a beautiful white castle with lots of flowers and trees surrounding it. Gigantic ivory unicorns guarded the large castle entrance with green topiaries of elephants and other animals dotting the landscape within its plush grounds.
Readying my pencil, rainbow sparkles crept up my hand. I pulled back, saying, “I can do it by myself, Brenden.”
Hurriedly, he whispered, “I’m only going to speed you along, but I need you to not resist.”
The witch hissed, “Very well. If you won’t listen, Athena, then I will stop you. You leave Granny no choice.”
The witch spoke some words and it felt like a sickening cold shackle clamped down on my throat and my writing hand. I didn’t know which would happen first, either I’d pass out from the blood not reaching my head, or I’d lose all sensation in my hand. My head pounded as my heart leaped out of control. Tears threatened. I couldn’t do this.
“I can’t,” I gasped, struggling to breathe.
“Athena,” Lenora whispered. “She isn’t more powerful than you. This is your realm. Use the Wish Book against her. Fight.”
Sparkles flew before my eyes and then I drifted into a dream of shadowy voices, melting into one another. Gradually, my focus returned. Soft grass poked my cheek. I’d somehow fallen over and now was sprawled on the ground, magically out of the ice prison.
The witch cried, “It’s over, Lenora. Go tell yer fairy queen to give up. The time of the Over Realm, Middle Realm, and Under Realm truce is finished. Convey to Queen Oria that when the new moon rises, our armies will have already overtaken your world.”
Lenora laughed, her voice like pleasant chimes. “Hogswallow, Sidheag. You and your kind can never penetrate our magic. It was ordained by the Great Guardian as was The Wishcaster.” She motioned toward my body. I closed my eyes to pretend I was still knocked out. “This move was all in vain as are your hollow threats.”
While Lenora talked, I spotted Wish Book lying next to me and the pencil close by. My heart pounded in my ears. I still had a chance.
Inching my hand toward Wish Book, I went to grasp it.
Lenora spotted me and went on with her speech even more forcefully. “And furthermore,” she said, marching to her left so the old woman would put her back to me, “once Queen Oria hears of your wicked plot, she will be ready for you. What a globstroppet idea to tell us of your plan, Sidheag. What on Middle Realm were you thinking?”
The rainbow sparkles whipped around my hand as my pencil raced across one of Wish Book’s pages.
Once I’d finished the last image, a giggle bubbled up and surrounded me, pounding against my head as if a thousand fairies were laughing in my ears. The sound whirred around and around, making me feel dizzy.
Flashes dazzled before my eyes and then they went blank like I’d passed out again and fallen into a deep black hole. But before I twinkled out, I thought I’d heard Lenora’s voice in the distance, “Do you think she’s the true Wishcaster?”
And then Brenden’s soft low voice answered, “I’ve known it all along, Lenora. Without a doubt. She’s the one.”
“Soooo, you actually chunked it in the dumpster?” Holly cringed.
“Yep,” I said, making my hands soar like the dumb book. “Heard it thud at the bottom. I’m through with it. Who knows what it would have conjured up next?”
“Yeah,” Francisco said. “I didn’t know Athena had such an arm! That wheelchair must build up huge muscles.” He squeezed my bicep.
“Stop it,” I protested, pretending not to like it but not doing a good job of it.
Shaking her head, Holly said, “You two, this is serious. I think Athena made a big mistake. She gave over control to the book which is a rule that must not be broken.”
I cocked my head. “How do you know?”
Pausing, eyes darting around, she stammered, “Uh… it’s…um…o-obvious, isn’t it? Would Aladdin ever allow the genie to make a wish for him? Would Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz ever let someone else use her magic ruby slippers?”
Francisco shook his head, laughing. “Sorry, I don’t agree. No one but Dorothy could use those magic slippers, and Wish Book is no genie. It does what it wants. I’m with Athena on this.”
“Totally,” I agreed, so happy Francisco and I were on the same team.
“Point taken,” Holly said. She loved arguments based on logic. She continued with an impish smile on her face, “But I say this magic book is indeed every bit as powerful as a magic genie or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and if Athena would take the time to use it like she’s supposed to, she may find the reason it was given to her in the first place.”
She stopped for dramatic effect, raising her arm. “But I can tell you allowing the book to have its way is not one of them.”
I threw up my hands. “Holly, who cares? The book is gone. It’s probably on its way to the dump in San Myshuno by now.”
Holly moved ahead of us, not saying anything. We followed in silence. I had a feeling she wasn’t telling us something.
The white flowered dogwood trees near my house were in full bloom, which gave me the idea to do our science experiment in the backyard. I loved the smell of spring. So fresh and sweet. And I adored sketching out in my backyard. The scenery would make the science project even more exciting. But I had to ask my mother if it was still okay to have Holly and Francisco over since I was grounded.
I stopped before I rolled up the wooden ramp to the door. “You guys stay here while I go check to see if it’s okay.” I also wanted to peek at my newly decorated bedroom.
They both nodded. Holly and Francisco sat down on the front porch bench waiting on me.
Carefully, I entered. I heard a familiar voice cackling in the kitchen. Whizzing my chair over as fast as I could, I shouted, “Gran?”
“Oh, me dumplin’ dee. Granny is so happy to see you!”
She put her knives down on the counter then bent over, enveloping me in her squishy arms.
Gran was here! I rarely got to see her since my dad had quit his job. Four airplane tickets to Scotland would bankrupt us for sure and normally, she couldn’t see us more than once every two years. “How come everyone kept this a secret? Mom never mentioned your visit.”
Gran’s silver eyes twinkled through her round glasses. “Well, that’s because she didn’t knoo herself.” Gran’s Scottish r’s trilled and sometimes she would speak so fast, I wouldn’t be able to understand every word. “It’s a surprise!” she announced.
“Your parents stepped out to buy some groceries. They’ll be back shortly. I’ve been keeping a wee bit of company with the young lass over there.” She pointed toward the entryway closet, then bent closer to me and whispered, “It don’t look as if she remembers me now. Locked herself in the closet, she has. It took all me powers of persuasion to coax her out, but she won’t have none of it.”
Zelda. That girl. How she could be bratty to our sweet old Granny was beyond me.
“Sorry about that, Gran. I’ll try to talk to her.” Then I remembered Holly and Francisco sitting on the front porch. “Oh yeah, my friends are here. We’re about to do a science project in the backyard. Would you like to see them? I think you’ve already met Holly.”
Gran beamed. “That sounds lovely, lass. Please, show them in.”
But before I could open the door, Zelda burst out of the closet, freaking out.
“What’s the matter, Zel?” I asked, trying to feign some normalcy. The girl was about to have a meltdown. I wondered what was wrong with her.
She took a peek at Gran then hollered, “That’s not Gran.”
I nervously glanced at my granny from Scotland whom I’d adored all my life. White, short haircut. Three deep wrinkles above her forehead. Milky, weathered skin. Smelled of gingersnaps and cigarette smoke. Black horn-rimmed glasses she’s worn like forever. Yes. That was Gran.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about, Gran,” I said, trying to make my grandmother feel better. “Zelda’s been having trouble lately. Yesterday, she destroyed my room and ranted about bad people. I’m a little worried about her.”
“Well, that’s okay, hun,” Gran responded to Zelda’s wild accusations. “Zelda, me lovely, I’m about to have a go at Toad-in-the-Hole. Yer favorite.” Then she squished her eyebrows, sliding her hand behind her head and whispered, “That should make her feel a wee bit better, don’t ye think?”
I grinned and nodded, throwing my head back thinking I could talk Zelda into eating my grandmother’s wonderful dishes. She cooked like a certified pastry chef. Once Zelda tasted the sausages and mouthwatering buttery crust of Toad-in-the-Hole, she’d change her mind. “Zelda, I’m serious. Behave!”
“Thena, she’s…please don’t make me stay!”
“Why are you acting like this? She’s our sweet Gran!”
“Thena… Let’s go. I don’t want to be here anymore!”
I sighed and told Gran we’d be in the backyard. She was so sweet and waved us off, saying it’d be an hour before her wonderful masterpiece, Toad-in-the-Hole, was ready.
I was so embarrassed. What had gotten into my sister?
I opened the front door and told my friends I’d meet them in the back with the box full of science experiment stuff.
Once we got there, I gave Holly the box and she put it down on the ground.
Francisco motioned at Zelda. “What’s with the rugrat?”
Zelda glared and yelled, “I’m not a rat. I’m a girl.”
Francisco laughed and said, “Could-a fooled me.”
Zelda stuck her tongue out.
I sighed. “Come on, guys. My parents are on an errand and my sister suddenly doesn’t recognize my sweet granny.”
Holly winced. “Your grandmother is here from Scotland?” Fear crept in her voice, “You didn’t say anything about her visiting.”
“I didn’t know about it until a few minutes ago.”
Holly shot a worried look. “Hum.”
“What do you mean, hum?” Hum was Holly’s catch phrase for either something was very puzzling or very wrong.
Walking to the box, Holly piled a list of reasons. “Number one, you were given a magical book by a strange little girl that holds peculiar powers, some of which can be quite nasty.” She glanced over at Francisco. He blushed, no doubt recalling his goofy poetic rant about how he loves me.
“Yeah, so?” I said, shifting.
“So, number two, your grandmother all of a sudden comes to visit all the way from Scotland without a word to anyone at this exact time. Three, your little sister doesn’t recognize her. In fact, she’s frightened.”
I gazed into Zelda’s silver eyes. “Why are you scared of Granny?”
Zelda shuddered and said, “She’s…an ugly toad.”
“Zelda!” I hollered. “Take that back! Gran is very pretty for her age!”
But Zelda just winced and shook her head.
Holly scrounged around in the box. “Oh my GOD!” she cried, then whipped out a golden book.
I pointed. “W-Where did you get that?”
“Did you dig it out of the trash?” Francisco asked.
“No. It was here in the box! I just found it.” She resembled a girlie Sherlock Holmes who’d solved her first case. “It appears this book is not done with you yet, Athena.” She opened it and shoved the book into my hands.
“Oh no. I’m not drawing in this book again. If you love it so much, why don’t you wish in it?”
Holly waved her hands. “Well, I…uh…can’t. It’s not for me, Athena. It’s for you.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. Trust me.”
But Holly didn’t have a look as if I should trust her. She was hiding something. “What is with you? How do you know anything about this book?”
Sighing, she dropped her hand, slapping her leg. “Don’t try to figure it out. We don’t have much time. Just…well, you need to make another wish. I’m not sure what, though. Think it through. It’s important.”
I glared at her not understanding why she wanted me to make a wish and why we didn’t have time. Confused, I thought about this situation. I hated that book and didn’t want it anymore no matter what Holly said. If the book wouldn’t allow me to throw him out of my life then I would wish him away. “Okay. Fine. Do you have a pen?”
“Awesome! I knew you’d listen to reason!” Holly dug through the box and pulled out a pencil. “Here!” She placed it in my hands.
I rolled over to the picnic table, readying my pencil.
I was about to start on my drawing when I heard the book say, “Let me do it.”
I looked at my friends, but it was clear they couldn’t hear what I was hearing. I gulped.
“I know what you need,” it cooed.
“NO!” I hollered, jerking my hand up to draw when suddenly, the sparkles crept up my arm as I felt a warm hand wrap around my fingers.
“Stop!” I screamed, but it didn’t stop. The hand thrust the pen to the page, ready to do what it wished. I was nothing more than a slave doing the bidding of an evil spirit.
Heart racing, I had to think fast. I was not about to let it draw whatever it wanted.
My hand wobbled uncontrollably as I fought against the unseen force. And during that struggle, I wished with all my might that I’d never accepted that horrible book.
I had only one thought. One purpose. One last wish to draw. My hand felt as if it was drawing in sand, but I drew anyway. Slowly. A face appeared. Then her skirt. A hand. Wish Book. Tiny sparkles. My wheelchair. Sweat poured down my nose as my arm burned against the power. Wish Book must have figured out what I was up to, because it fought against my pencil, trying to stop me, but I would…not…
The pencil flew out of my hand, tumbling end over end, almost in slow motion until it landed in the middle of a flowerbed.
“Athena!” Francisco gripped my arm. “What’s happening?”
Breathing hard, I turned my head slowly and peered down to see my picture.
I didn’t remember drawing all of it (I mean, what was up with that “Tough Love” shirt anyway?) But I’d hoped the message was clear and the stupid book would grant this wish.
I literally zoomed to science. I wanted to warn Francisco about the strange book. Not only had it actually talked but it’d drawn a picture I didn’t see. Plus that impish giggle sent a nervous shiver up my back.
When I arrived, Francisco beamed and waved me over to sit by him. The test tubes were already in a tray—one per lab pair. I noticed Holly perched at the back with us, writing in her notebook.
Mrs. Tanaka used Holly as a teaching assistant since this class was way too easy for her.
“Okay…let me see…” Francisco waggled his eyebrows, grabbing Wish Book out of my bag. “What awesome thing did you do for me in this class, huh? Is Mrs. Tanaka going to make me her favorite student? Give me an automatic A for the lab? What?”
“Um…about that, Francisco…” I winced. “The wish didn’t exactly work out.”
His face fell. “Huh?”
“The book is creepy. It talked to me at the library and wouldn’t let me see what I drew.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
He shook his head at me obviously ignoring my warning. Jiggling the book like it was some Christmas present, he winked at me.
Freaking out, I said, “Wait, Francisco. Seriously! I wouldn’t touch that thing. Who knows what it’s capable of doing?”
But he didn’t listen. He eyed it feverishly. More dazzling than ever, the book looked as if it was taunting him.
Francisco opened it.
I tilted my head. “Hey! It opened.” But I had a sinking feeling that wasn’t a good thing.
I was right.
Francisco studied the page for a while, not saying anything.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, squeezing his arm.
Francisco jerked away. His dark eyes glared at me and he whispered, “How can you ask me that?”
“L-Like I said,” I stammered, “it wouldn’t let me…”
But the tardy bell sounded, cutting me off. Mrs. Tanaka hushed the class.
Quickly, I flipped the pages to my last wish. Blood flowed out of my head and arms. Wish Book drew me with some horrible smirk on my face and Francisco looked as if he was running up to the front of the class. And then…I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but it didn’t matter. The words, “Dum dum and stoopid”, had arrows pointing at Francisco.
Oh my GOD!
“Class, as you can see, today is the day we get to do our organic lab. I want you all to make sure to…” Mrs. Tanaka stopped, cocking her head. “Is something wrong, Francisco?”
Instantly, Francisco bounced out of his seat and yelled, “Love potions!” His body convulsed like a huge demon had swooped into it, forcing him to twirl down the aisle as if he was a fanciful dancer.
The class giggled nervously.
He sashayed to the front of the class.
And then started doing jumping jacks, chanting like a preschooler:
“I love ice cream.
I love tea.
I love Athena,
And I hope
She loves me.”
Hot blood pulsed through my face. My neck heated up like it was 120 degrees as my body seemed to sail upward, trying to flee the class, but never moving.
What the HELL?
Laughter erupted along with tons of whistling and whooping. Some guys shouted, “Go for it, Romero!”
I sunk my head in my hands, but peeked through my fingers at Francisco.
Knees buckling and a face in full mortification, he apologized to Mrs. Tanaka.
Then he slunk back to his chair next to me, putting his face in his hands. I felt nauseated like I’d just punched an innocent person in the mouth even though I didn’t have anything to do with that wish.
I whispered, “I’m so sorry, Francisco. I tried to tell you I wasn’t the one who drew that. Wish Book did.”
Francisco didn’t move. He didn’t speak or look up or do anything to make me feel like he’d think about forgiving me.
At that moment, I was trying to process what Francisco just announced. Did he really love me or was that some assholery done by Wish Book? I was so freaking angry, I decided right then what to do next.
I was going to throw that evil book away.
I got out of my last period a little early. I hated to do it, but I blamed my wheelchair and my locker sticking and a whole assortment of other lame excuses. My Careers teacher, Mr. Glover, was a pushover. I didn’t need half of them. He was too busy reading some blog on his Slablet while the rest of the class blabbed to one another to really notice or care about what I was saying.
He wrote me a pass and told me to be careful, never removing his eyes from the small screen.
Darting to Francisco’s locker, I waited as cockroaches seemed to crawl in my stomach. I prayed he’d listen to me and understand.
A few minutes after the last bell rang, I spied Francisco in the midst of milling kids, walking toward his locker.
Once he spotted me, he made a 180-degree turn.
“Oh no you don’t,” I muttered to myself.
I dodged people with my wheelchair trying not to lose him, but he was too smart for me. He dashed toward the back door of the school that people rarely took, knowing I wouldn’t be able to follow.
Without a ramp in sight.
But I was determined, so I hit the bar on the door and rolled my wheels toward the edge of the concrete stairs, yelling, “Francisco! Wait! Let me explain!”
He shook his head. The look on his face made my throat tighten.
Out of desperation, I glanced everywhere, wishing for a ramp or a sidewalk or even a plank of wood. But there wasn’t anything except for a bunch of very steep and very scary steps.
My head swooned just thinking about what would happen if I attempted to topple down them. But I thought I’d threaten anyway. “I’m going to chase after you!”
Francisco bit his lip, squinting up at me. Then he fumbled for the keys to his motorcycle.
“I will!” I screamed, hoping he’d believe me. But he knew better. I’d freaked out around steps so many times or ranted about places not having ramps that I knew he’d bet I’d stay where I was.
Then Wish Book caught my eye.
I jerked my pointer finger at it.
“You owe me, Stupid. I don’t care if you can’t make things appear magically. You’re going to do my bidding right now.”
I grabbed a pen out of my pack. Quickly, I sketched me sliding down the steps toward Francisco, only they weren’t steps. I drew a ramp.
I waited a moment, hoping Wish Book would do its magic. Maybe a teacher would bring a board or a construction worker would help me. There were a hundred possibilities.
Francisco put the key in and revved the engine. In a few minutes, he’d disappear. I had to speak to him. Now.
Not caring what happened to me, I decided to go down the steps anyway. I’d seen bike riders bob over steps, but you needed speed and balance. I was fairly gifted at balance and could do all sorts of tricks on my wheelchair, balancing on one wheel even.
“Okay!” I screamed. “You asked for it. I’m going to kill myself trying to talk to you!”
Taking a deep breath, I backed up until the cold door handle stopped me, poking my back. Visualizing my wheelchair as a bicycle, I rotated my wheels as fast as I could. And wham!
The wheelchair soared through the air as if I’d taken off on a wheelie ramp.
My stomach felt like I’d just plummeted off the Tower of Doom as I flew over the steps. “Ahh!” I shrieked, gripping the rubber.
The wheelchair hit hard and bounced on the gravel, tossing the book out of my lap. The chair rolled a few feet then stopped. “I’m alive,” I whispered, heart hammering so hard it hurt.
Francisco hopped off his motorcycle. He scrambled to me. “Are you nuts? If you think that’s going to make me forgive you, you’re wrong. Now I’m pissed as hell at you!” He turned around and pulled at his hair. He pointed at me. “Don’t ever do that again!”
His order infuriated me. “Don’t tell me what to do, Francisco. I can do what I want. I’m not an invalid.”
“Well, don’t worry. I won’t be telling you what to do anymore because I won’t be talking to you.”
The way he was acting made my blood steam. He wasn’t even giving me a chance to explain. Obviously, the book had some sort of power, and we didn’t even understand how it worked. Why couldn’t he give me a chance?
“Fine. But you’re losing a good friend who really cares about you. I didn’t draw that wish. Wish Book did. You hear that?” I pointed at the idiotic golden book, glinting in the sun.
“So, you expect me to believe that Wish Book draws your style of manga?” Francisco caught my eyes. “I know your style, Athena. You drew that.”
Pressing my lips together, I agreed. Sort of. “Okay, so yes, I did draw it, but Wish Book guided my hand. I didn’t even see what I was doing. My eyes were closed.”
“You want me to believe that?”
“Do you believe this stupid book grants wishes?”
Jaw set, he nodded slowly.
“Then why can’t you believe it has the power to do any number of weird, assholish things? I’m telling you. IT. DREW. THAT PICTURE!”
Francisco threw his head back and heaved a sigh. Moments ticked.
Finally, he said, “I don’t know…it just seems so unreal.”
“How real is a Wish Book that grants wishes? You say you believe it, so why can’t you believe me? Tell me this, Francisco, why would I want to hurt you? Does that make sense?”
Staring at me with his brown eyes, I could see the wheels turning in his mind. I was making sense now. I was his friend. Why would I do that to him?
With a slow shrug, he finally said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Why would you want to embarrass me? And call me dum dum and stupid.”
“I wouldn’t. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Staring at the book, he went on, “I mean, if you hated me that much, you wouldn’t have launched your wheelchair skyward like some freakish flying squirrel.”
I laughed, feeling my face warm. All the anger from a moment ago seemed to release like the air out of a balloon. “I guess not.”
Francisco smiled. “You want me to walk you home? I have to go over to your house soon anyway for the science project.”
My heart fluttered. He was looking cute again.
“What about your motorcycle?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’ll run over and get it later. No problem.”
Smiling at him, I pointed at Wish Book. “Can you hand the book to me? I have something important to do first.”
Once Francisco placed it in my hands, I wheeled over to a dumpster at the edge of the school property.
“What are you going to do?” Francisco asked.
“Open the lid for me and watch,” I said.
Hurling Wish Book in the air, I heard the book hit the bottom with a satisfying clunk.