Chapter Thirty-five The Second Challenge

Before I could catch my breath, my computer teacher, Ms. Claxton, turned into the witch I knew she was.

“The queen has been looking for you, Ms. Michaels, and now I’ve got you. You’ll not get away from me,” her elderly voice cracked on the last word.

Although the magical cloud still rained depressing thoughts over me, feelings of rage bubbled through my head, heating up my face. I’d show her who she was dealing with.

Spewing all my anger at her perpetual torment of me all school year, I lit a firestorm and didn’t let up until I was sure she was down.

When I had to catch my breath, to my surprise, it was as if my fire didn’t touch her.

Raising her arms in glee, she said, “Your piddly fire tricks won’t hurt me. In fact, it’s made me even stronger.”

In horror, I watched as the bottom half of her morphed into an ugly crab spider type creature.

“What the…” I whispered.

“Come with me or die!” she screeched.

“I’ll never join you or the Under Realm queen.” My voice sounded so weak like I was a mouse squeaking at a dinosaur. If my fire couldn’t hurt her, how was I ever going to defeat her?

I remembered in her class, I was so embarrassed by how tiny she’d made me feel. I knew she hated me. Because I was different.

Suddenly, a power shot out of her hands and I dodged, but barely. The self doubt invaded my thoughts. What could I do? A part of me wanted to run. Fly away and hide. Just like I’d wanted to when I was that weak girl in high school with only a few friends.

“You can’t escape me forever!” Ms. Claxton hissed.

A sharp pain swallowed me up like I was being eaten by a huge monster. My wings batted trying to free myself but I couldn’t move.

“Stop resisting. It’ll make the pain grow worse!” she warned.

It was true. The more I pulled away from her power, it was as if thousands of knives twisted through my body. She had full control.

“Give up, Ms. Michaels. It’s useless to resist. I’m too powerful for such a weak creature as yourself.” She flipped me over then let go.

I tumbled to the ground, hitting my head hard.

She was right. I wasn’t strong. Why was I chosen to go through this trial anyway? It was all so pointless.

The witch let out a shriek. “She’s mine now, Queen Casteen! Make ready your armies. We attack tonight!”

Brenden’s voice echoed in my mind like it was coming through a mist. “Most importantly, Athena. Believe in yourself!”

The witch skuttled toward me, her claws clacking along the deck.

I shut my eyes, wincing and wondering when this would be over.

Lenora’s words drifted inside my head. “It isn’t about brawn and strength as it is about the heart.”

The heart. The trials weren’t about strength. That’s what they’d been saying to me over and over. Queen Oria dismissed anyone who thought strength triumphed character.

What was I doing? I couldn’t defeat the witch with my strength. But maybe…

It was as if a veil lifted from my eyes and with it, power flooded through me. I rose up, wings flapping with the capability I had all along. “I won’t be going with you because I know who I am.”

I rose higher in the air and shouted, “I’m Athena of the Over Realm, Middle Realm and Under Realm. I am stronger than you because I believe I can defeat you! You’re a weak, evil wretch, not worthy to even be here speaking to me. Now go! And never show your face to me again!”

“Stop it!” the witch screeched. “Stop saying those awful things!”

I landed next to her, seeing that she was a truly pathetic creature. I pitied her. “I’ll never be afraid of you. Ever.”

“NO!” she yelled, her legs buckling underneath her.

Sparkles whipped around me then the beautiful Fairyland came into focus. I spotted a tiny tot, no doubt a very aged Godrick.

“Well done, Athena. I was a bit worried there for a moment. I almost whisked you away when the monster plunked you down. Your defeat was imminent.” He waved his hand toward me. “But you worked through it. I must say I’m very happy about that.”

I lifted my mouth. “I’m kind of worried about the next challenge now. Will it be even harder?”

“Harder is a perspective word, my dear. It is what you make of it as are all these challenges. Are you ready?”

No sooner did I give a slight nod than the magenta flash swooped over me, lifting me off the ground.

Light as air, my stomach whooshed like I was on a rollercoaster. “Whoa!” I cried.

Next thing I saw was my mom and dad smiling at me. “Hello, sweetheart,” Mom said. “I’m so glad to see you. We have a lot to talk about.”

What the hell? Had all of it been a dream?

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Chapter Thirty-four The Third Trial

In the morning, Brenden grilled our breakfast and we ate in silence. My nerves felt like they were literally going to jump out of my skin. I’d never been so jittery. So much was riding on me conquering this final trial, and I had no clue what I was going to go through. Brenden said it was different for everyone. But he assured me it wouldn’t be as difficult as facing the Under Realm queen since I couldn’t lose my life. If I failed, I’d go home.

“Are you ready?” Brenden asked, as we stood up.

“What if I said no? Are you sure you can’t give me any tips? I’m not gonna lie. Your training kind of sucks.”

He laughed, then pulled me along beside him. We walked for about a mile until he stopped in front of a stone hut. “There it is. The Cavern of Souls.”

“Promise me something,” I said, staring intensely at him. “If I fail, you’ll come find me. I want to help fight the queen.”

“Athena…you know I’m not in a position of promising…”

But before he could say no, I pulled him to me and kissed him. I hoped that would change his mind.

He didn’t move away. Instead, I left him breathless. Neither of us wanted to leave the other.

But I had a job to do.

I waved good bye before I entered the hut. He looked sad and alone.

Tearing my eyes from him and with one huge sigh, I opened the door.

Surprisingly, I was met with an irate glare from Lenora, the fairy who was with Brenden in the beginning of this journey. “You’re late,” her tinkling bell voice reverberated off the stone.

Looking around the tiny place, I said, “Yeah, that kind of happens when you get abducted by an Under Realm witch.”

“I’m not going to argue with you about all that you’ve unearthed. Queen Oria is livid. That Brenden is walking around as a dark elf is horrendous enough and now you…you are…well…”

I put my hand over my forehead trying to snuff out a headache. “I know. I’m something other than what you’d ordered.”

“We don’t have much time. You must complete this trial in less than twenty four hours. You must think through each challenge. Just as in all the trials, it isn’t about brawn and strength as it is about the heart. I want you to remember that. Understand?”

I nodded feeling as if I’d just jumped out of an airplane. There was no going back now.

Lenora flitted beside me, waving her hands. The ground shook and a stairwell appeared.

“Now Athena of the Over Realm, Middle Realm, and Under Realm, it is time to grasp hold of your destiny and become the Wishcaster. I bid Great Guardian’s blessings over your journey. Good luck, child.”

With a gulp and a huge lurch of my stomach, I tapped down the stairs.

The place stunk of old mold and the air was as clammy as a dead fish.

I spied a seat in the middle of a pool. It was all lit up. Pretty obvious where I was supposed to go since there were no doors.

I splashed my way to the middle and clamoured up onto the seat. Nothing happened for a while. Then I relaxed and allowed all my nervous tension to drift away.

Every muscle unwound. My mind went blank and I felt as if I was floating in the air.

Suddenly, a gentle breeze blew over my face. I opened my eyes to find I’d traveled to a magical place that looked as if it came right out of Fairytale Central. Tiny white fairies fluttered like butterflies over the flowers and trees. “Whoa,” I muttered, totally forgetting why I was even there.

Then I noticed my clothing had changed into a pretty, flowing dress. How was I going to fight in this? Lenora’s words came to me–it’s about the heart. Maybe I wouldn’t be fighting after all.

I walked toward a rainbow waterfall, gazing at the fluttering fairies. They reminded me of the Under Realm fairies, the harpswing, except these were smaller and definitely not scary.

I wondered if I was supposed to climb the rocks. Maybe this was going to be a puzzle I’d have to solve.

Then I heard a deep voice call my name. “Athena Meree Martin.”

I turned to see a handsome fairy all dressed up in a golden coat much like the way Brenden was dressed when he was the Wish Book.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am your servant should you prevail this trial. My name is Godrick, the eternal Wish Book. I’ve come to give you your challenges. You must conquer three problems. If you fail, you will be sent away immediately.”

I eyed him. He looked even older than Brenden. And this man was a fairy. That meant he was like a toddler. “If you’re the Wish Book, why are you so young?”

“I am eternal, transcending time. When you defeat each foe, you will find that I’ve grown older in that span. Do not worry about my form. Worry about the tasks set before you. Are you ready, Athena of the Over Realm, Middle Realm, and Under Realm?”

I gulped, heart beating so hard it hurt. Then I nodded.

Brilliant light blasted from his hands bathing me with warmth.

He muttered words I couldn’t understand as the light poured over me like honey.

“What’s going on?” I whispered. My head swooned.

And then the next moment I was in the middle of a swamp. The mist was thick and I couldn’t see very well.

Once I got my bearings, I recognized it.

“The Moor of Dread,” I spoke out loud. The delicious smell of licorice lured my eyes to what I knew I’d find.

Crimerife. It glowed ahead, winking through the mist.

Senses tingling, the familiar euphoric invincibility rushed through me. “Yes!” I hunched over, trying to get a good look as to how much would be mine.

Racing toward it, the biggest piece of rock almost sang to me. I wanted it. No, I needed it. I’d be hard to defeat with all that crimerife in my possession.

I could take on the queen’s army all by myself with it. Maybe I would be able to turn into a real dragon with the magic I’d gain!

The queen would have to bow down to me in that case.

As I was about to touch the rock, from deep inside I heard myself shout, “NO!”

Brenden said crimerife in this form was deadly to witches. This was a trick.

I then knew what to do even though my body longed to taste and touch the rock.

Energy surging through me, I blasted the stone, destroying it into a million tiny pieces.

Instantly, I was back in the fairy forest, staring at a child. “Are you…Godrick?”

“Yes, it is I, Godrick, the eternal Wish Book. Well done! You may be the first to finish all three challenges in record time. I am most pleased with your determination and willpower.”

“Thank you. Will all the tasks be that easy?”

“I cannot say. These tasks are failings you possess inside. If you conquer them in your heart, it very well may be easy for you. We shall see.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

Raising his hands, the shimmering light flooded over me. But instead of fillng me with light and warmth, this filled me with dread and sadness.

It was as if a heavy cloud drifted over me. I didn’t feel like I could conquer anything or anyone. “What is wrong with me?”

And then I was suddenly standing on the dock near my home.

I stared at an ugly old woman. I recognized her.

“Mrs. Claxton?” I screeched.

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Chapter Thirty-three Resting Place

As I flew deeper into the mountains, my wings began to ache. Thankfully, the heat from the sun dissipated the impending storm and the skies cleared.

“Athena, are you all right? Why don’t we rest? We’re near the cavern.”

Suddenly, my wings felt as if they were carrying an eighteen wheeler. Did Brenden put a spell on me so I’d stop flying?

“But Brenden, we don’t have time. The queen will be here in two days!”

Grabbing my hand, he said, “If you don’t rest, you won’t be able to conquer the first challenge of the trial. It’s time to take a welcome break. We’ll eat and sleep, getting you prepared for the morning.”

Facing him, I said, “I’d feel better if we rested later. I’m not tired. I want to do this.” I glared at him, hoping to get my way. It was like I was in a long race and I could almost see the ending. Even though I was actually exhausted, I couldn’t stop now.

“Athena, you’ll do much better with a dip in the creek and some food. Please listen to me.”

Looking at his cute face, I melted. “A creek? Where? I’m dying to get this awful makeup off me.”

Showing me the tiny creek, flowing downstream, he watched as I gingerly plunked a toe into the cool, soothing water. Then I shooed him away. “Go make a fire or something. You’re NOT watching me take a bath!”

He chuckled then walked away.

After I’d floated in the calming stream for a while changing back to my witchy self, I climbed out of the water then ambled toward the rich smell of the fire. The arid desert air dried me off almost instantly.

“There. Are you happy now? I don’t smell like I’d just taken on twenty thousand monsters without wearing deodorant.”

But Brenden didn’t even flinch at my joke.

“Hey…” I nudged him with my foot. “Are you awake?”

Nodding, without looking up, he said, “Come sit with me, Athena.”

Sighing, I dropped down next to him, feeling the relaxing warmth of the fire.

Brenden palmed the back of his neck and said, “The Third Trial is a test of your strength. Unfortunately, that has been compromised. I loathe myself for allowing you to bring me here. I hope you will forgive my idiocy, Athena. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“But…isn’t it better that you teach me about what I’m going to face?” I countered. To be honest, my whole body ached and my stomach growled. He was right. I wanted to find a bed and sleep for three days.

“When you enter the cavern, you will find the real Wishbook. He will try to cut you down in ways I can only imagine. No Wishcaster ever relays what horrors they faced, but legend says they are different for everyone. Most candidates fail this part…I have no doubt you will conquer but….I want you at full capacity. Do you understand?”

I knew what he was implying but I didn’t want him to leave. A part of me was so thankful to have him with me alive. And what was the harm? “Don’t you think having you here helps me, Brenden? You take my anxiety away. I feel calm just being with you. If you’re worried that I’ll be too tired, don’t. All I need are a few winks and I’ll be good as new.”

Gazing into the fire, he sighed. “I hope you’re right.

After both of us didn’t say anything for a while, I broke the silence. “Are you worried that I’m going to fail now?” Jitters clamored in my stomach almost making me sick.

Taking my hand, he answered, “I’m not worried. If anyone can survive the trial, it’s you. You’ve had more training than any Wishcaster candidate with what you faced with Queen Casteen.”

He put his back on my shoulder. “So…no more talk. Time to rest and recharge.”

I arched an eyebrow. “How is this helping me rest?”

“Didn’t you know? Helping an elf to go to sleep is good luck.”

I laughed pushing him away. He winked then waved his fingers, sparkles transforming the nearby rocks into what looked like hot dogs.

He shrugged, giving me a sheepish look. “It’s the only transfiguration spell I know. Comes in handy for times like this but I do hope you’ll like the taste. Somehow, the sausages take on the flavor of the item I transform.”

“I don’t care. I’m so starved I think I’d even eat a rock at this point.”

We cooked the sausages over the fire as the spicy smell wafted through the dusky air.

The sun set lazily on the horizon, casting a beautiful pinkish glow.

It reminded me of home and a sudden pang seized me. Then my thoughts went to Brenden. “Do you ever miss home? I mean, the Under Realm is so different. I just wonder how you coped being a fairy all that time.”

He shrugged and said, “I don’t miss it. Believe it or not, I never felt I belonged there my whole life. And as the years passed, I almost had forgotten my real identity. Living here is easy. It’s the prettiest place on the planet, in my opinion.”

I nodded in agreement. It was very stunning, but the Under Realm held its own special beauty as well. “Are you going to go back to being a fairy now? I mean…don’t fairies hate Droor Elves?”

“That’s very true. They do hate us with a passion and for good reason. If a fairy were to venture into the Elivagar mountains, I believe a Droor Elf would feel honor bound to torture them. We have a very…tulmultuous history. So…I’m not sure what I’m going to do at this point…”

“You shouldn’t change who you are, Brenden. I’ll talk to Queen Oria for you.”

He chuckled. “Prejudice isn’t something you can talk away.” He looked me in the eyes and said, “You must view how ugly it is for yourself. I doubt the fairies will see the error in their ways. I won’t be staying at the castle if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I’ll do my best to make them see how bad it is. They’ll have to accept me–a witch drakkan, won’t they? If I’m going to be the Wishcaster.”

Dropping his stick, Brenden pulled me over to him.

I squeaked, feeling my face flush.

Then I settled into his lap as he caressed my cheek and answered, “If anyone can make the fairies love Droor Elves, it’ll be you.”

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Chapter Thirty-two The Sea of Sand

As we entered the Cave of Woe, everyone beamed at us.

I couldn’t believe the last time I was here, we’d buried Brenden. Now…I held him safely under my arm.

As I glided to a landing on the soft sand of the cave, I smiled at my friends. I was getting fairly used to flying by now. Dragon wings were waaaay better than legs.

In that instant, all the events that had recently happened overwhelmed me. I grabbed onto Brenden in a rough hug, wanting to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Stiffening, not hugging me back, Brenden said, “Great Guardian, Athena, what is wrong with you?”

Pulling away, I wiped a tear that couldn’t help dribbling down my cheek. “I’m just so glad to see you, is all.”

Francisco put his hand behind his head nervously. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually glad to see you, too, sour pants.”

     Holly ran over to him and enveloped Brenden in her arms. “Are you sure you’re real and not a ghost?”

     Pulling back, Brenden waved his arms dramatically. “For higgledypickle’s sake, I didn’t just rise from the dead. Why is everyone making cow eyes at me?”

     Ferbish cocked his head. “Well, fairy er…elf, ye sort of did. The little Miss here saved yer life.”

     Grigor nodded in agreement.

     Clasping her hands, Holly beamed. “Brenden! She’s really the Wishcaster! She cast her first wish!” She then relayed exactly what had happened to him before my time travel wish.

     “Then why are we still here in this hell hole?” Brenden threw his arms on his hips. “Athena, wish us back to Middle Realm!”

     “And now he’s back to his sour self,” Francisco mumbled.

     “Aye, Miss,” Ferbish added. “The queen is sure to chase us. We best be off.”

     “You want me to use another wish? I thought I only got three for emergencies.”

    Brenden grinned, his magenta eyes holding me. “If you saved me using a wish without a Wish Book, then you can use your own magic, my dearest Athena. Just concentrate. I know you can do this.”

    My heart sped up as my body felt as if it was trying to run away. Sweat beaded up on my nose. Wiping it off, I nodded. I would try. This time, I would sincerely try.

     Waving everyone to me, I said, “Stay close.” Francisco reached out to Brenden, but he grimaced and moved over to my other side. I grinned, so glad to have my snooty, grumpy friend back.

Placing my hands together, I concentrated, making my body one with my surroundings.

    Relaxing my arms, legs, and head, my mind swirled with images flashing of the Middle Realm. The old map came into view and I could see the red rock mountains with the Sea of Sand off to the side. This was the place where the fairy queen had wanted me to go for the last trial to become the Wishcaster. Crimson orange dust devils twirled and danced along the edges of the shore in my mind. While I was focusing on the Sea of Sand, a great wind roared as dust from the cavern floor pelted us.

The wind picked up, hitting us like a cracking whip. This time, I saw the Sea of Sand with the waves roiling like a cauldron. And a dock. The crimerife crown thrummed, filling me with hot energy.

     In a flash, I opened my eyes to find us standing on a wooden dock near the Sea of Sand with what looked like a deserted ghost town in the distance.

“You did it!” Brenden howled, hugging me from behind and pinching my cheek. “I knew you could do it all this time!”

His antics made me giggle. “Stop it, Brenden. I’m not even sure where we are.”

“It’s bloody better than my old home, I can very well say that.” Brenden winked at me. “I think we’re at Gimballs Knoll. It used to be an old gnome town until the rock monsters got out of hand. Hope to Great Guardian we don’t see any of those buggers.”

Holly’s eyes widened in shock. “O. M. G.”

     That didn’t sound good. I turned to see two huge boulders form into giant, ember filled beasts, rumbling toward us.

     “Speak of the devil!” Brenden shouted.

I didn’t transform into my drakkan self because dragon breath would do nothing to these creatures. But…I did have my power. The crimerife crown hummed.

Without thinking, energy shot out of my hands, sending one of the giants backward.

Smirking, Brenden said, “I’d forgotten you were a witch.” He finished off the first one with his magic as the other almost reached us. The monster roared and took a swing at us, then Brenden and I pummeled it with magic blows.

Finally, it whined like a freight train and fell over.

“Great Guardian, Athena, you’re a natural. Where did you learn that spell?”

“I dunno.” I shrugged. “It just…happened?”

Shooting me a look of pride mixed with respect, he said, “Impressive. Just think what you’ll be able to do with a bit of training. Great Guardian, what a Wishcaster you’ll make.”

     Our eyes met and something flickered inside of me, making my cheeks blush.

He must have felt it, too, because he clasped his hands together suddenly, looking away, and said, “Um, w-well now, everyone. I must get you back to the castle at once. Athena’s grandmother threatened that the army would be marching by Nickelmus which is in three days.”

     Thinking about the Third Trial, my heart hammered. I had to conquer it before I could mend the shroud protecting the realms and block Queen Casteen’s army. And in only three days! “No, Brenden, I’ll get them to the castle, but I’ve got to stay here and find the Wish Book.” I winced thinking about being on my own. I didn’t know what I was doing. Brenden didn’t have time to train me.

“Circle around, guys.” I lifted my hands, beckoning my friends to come beside me.

     When Brenden arched an eyebrow, I explained, “It’ll be faster. Besides, I need the practice.”

     Closing my eyes, I pictured the throne room with the small fairies bustling around inside. The wind picked up, sand whirling around us. I saw rows of white benches lining the walls and I concentrated, wanting to set my friends right on them, stunning the attending faires.

    When I opened my eyes, my friends were gone except Brenden was staring fiercely at me. “Why am I still here, Athena?”

     Swallowing nervously, I stammered, “M-Maybe my spells don’t work on dark elves. T-They’re t-too…um…evil.” I grinned sheepishly, hoping he’d buy it.

   Rubbing his chin, he said, “I cannot go with you, you know. The fairy queen won’t like it. She hates me already. This will just send me straight to the dungeons. Hell, I’m in my elven form. She’ll really go off her nut.”

Never taking his gaze off me, he ordered, “Now run along. And do not forget who you are. The Cavern of Souls is at the top of the middle mountain on the other side of this sea.” But he didn’t look like he wanted me to leave.

Was there hope he was going with me?

I decided to plead my case. “Brenden, I need you. And if Queen Oria doesn’t like it, maybe she’ll have to witness my anger.”

     Brenden laughed, shaking his head and taking my hands in his.

Pulling me to him, tingles rippled through me being this close.

He lifted the side of his mouth. “You do have a way with words… or maybe I should say fire.” Leaning his face toward me, silver ponytail waving around his shoulders in the light breeze, he spoke softly, “You can do this by yourself, you know. You don’t need me or Holly or the gargoyles or Pigeon or even that meathead who thinks he’s Great Guardian’s gift to the UFC.”

     I cocked my head. “How do you even know about that?”

He lurched his chin back. “I watch the telly in the Middle Realm, too, you know.”

     I laughed, holding Brenden tighter. I didn’t want him to leave. I did need him.

     Putting his finger under my chin, he inched my face toward his.

     Was he going to kiss me?

     My heart pounded so loud I thought even the gnomes could hear it (wherever they were now.)

His warm lips softly brushed against mine as I felt like I was floating on air.

Well, actually, the kiss was so amazing, I didn’t realize I’d turned into a drakkan, swept away by the heat I was feeling inside. Mmmm…I flapped my wings, lifting us both off the ground.

Noticing, Brenden pulled back and said, “Athena, darling, what are you doing?”

“I’m whisking you away to our clandestine cave like you see in those old romance movies. You did say you watch tv, right?”

Brenden shook his head. “You’re dreadful, you know? If I mess this up…”

Elation filled me. He was going to go! “You won’t. I promise. And I’ll try to do this by myself. All you have to do is shoot some of your sarcasm to motivate me. Okay? And I’ll even threaten to turn you into a toad if you so much as look like you’re going to help.”

     “Athena, you don’t even know how to turn a maggot into a tadpole.”

     Smiling, so happy I convinced him, I said, “I know, but it was worth a shot.”

Flying over the Sea of Sand toward the mountains, I watched the clouds darken in the sky ahead of us.

Flashes of lightning signaled rain ahead and I could only hope I could reach the Cavern of Souls in time.

But I was thankful I had my friend beside me—the one who believed in me from the beginning. Brenden the Cursed who isn’t cursed anymore.

The Droor Elf.

The one who would help me to become The Wishcaster.

Chapter Thirty-one Wishing

    To save time, I transformed into a drakkan as Ferbish and Grigor flew alongside me, gripping Holly and Francisco. Pigeon led the way through the darkness. I felt as if my insides were hollowed out in a horrible dream. Knives seemed to crawl along my skin. I couldn’t get out of it though. My nightmare was real.

    In horror I’d watched Grigor find a little depression in the ground as he placed Brenden’s unmoving body in it. Then one by one, my friends placed stones over him. I couldn’t help this process. I was too hurt by how I’d failed him. Everyone cried for a while until we had to go.

    Over and over I kept remembering the things Brenden had said to me. The things he did. And over and over I felt ashamed at how we’d treated him. No one ever gave him the respect he’d deserved. How he’d paced outside, looking for enemies while we were at Mr. Payne’s place. And I thought he was a scared fairy but he was really brave.

     How he drew a map to the cave so we could escape, but we accused him of setting a trap and the gargoyles bound him as a prisoner.

He never got angry at any of us.

He only plead for his innocence. Sickness grabbed my stomach.

    If only I could go back and do it all over again, I’d change a lot of things.

    But no one gets second chances.

   And then Brenden’s words rang in my ears like he was walking right next to me as he always did. Like when he saved me from the mist.

By my side, he said, “There are only two paths in and out of the Under Realm. The first is through the Cave of Woe. And the second…” I could almost feel him staring at me the way he did in the ruins amongst the Elivagar Mountains. The path out of here was through me. He knew it.

     As we approached the end of the cavern, stalagmites jutting up all around us, a crushing sensation overwhelmed me. I couldn’t ignore it.

Brenden’s words echoed loudly, “A wise old Brindle elf once said, ‘If you think you can do a thing or you think you can’t, you’re right.’”

     Transforming back into my witch self, I planted my feet in the dirt.

     Ferbish and Grigor stopped, hovering in the air.

     “What’s wrong, Miss?” Ferbish asked.

     “Nothing,” I lied. Bending down, turning my body into a ball, I rocked back and forth, thinking about Brenden’s words,     

 Break the chains you’ve created for yourself…

 and Ferbish’s,

 Ye get free wishes. Use one o’ them.

 and Holly’s,

A Wishcaster gets three wishes to use in times of trouble…

and Francisco’s,

She’s gonna be the Wishcaster…

     It was time I stopped relying on my friends and started listening to them.

    Balling my hands into fists, I pulled at my hair.

It was time I believed.

*** 

All at once, I was back on the bridge, transformed as a drakkan, fire burning in my throat. The queen laughed hysterically and there was Brenden atop Mr. Payne’s huge pumpkin coach.

Exactly as it’d happened before.

Disoriented, I turned to see my friends chained and then I realized what I had done.

The queen screeched, “I did not think ye so stupid as to want to provoke the ire of said gift, but don’t let me stop ye, lad. Athena? Ye may show our friend yer hospitality. NOW!”

    But instead of doing nothing like I had before, I turned and spewed my rage at Casteen—all of my sadness and misery of watching her kill my friend unleashed as a torrent of flame, knocking her down. She could only shield herself against the furnace of my wrath. I enjoyed watching her cower and never let up.

At that moment, Brenden somersaulted down, unchaining our friends with his magic.

   When I had to catch my breath and stopped spewing fire, Brenden kicked the queen in the face. He moved behind, throttling her. “Go, Athena! I’ve got this!”

     Oh no! It was happening again. I couldn’t stop it.

    “NO!” I yelled. Deep inside, I knew what to do like a dog knows how to bark or a bird knows how to fly. Thrusting out a hand, I spied Pigeon hovering over Brenden. “Pigeon, MULTIPLY!”

In a swirling cauldron, dozens of ravens cawed, encircling the queen as she launched Brenden over her head.

She screeched in rage and tried to strike them with her magic, but the ravens were too quick.

“Athena? What are you….?” Brenden muttered.

I dove after him. Casteen would not get a second chance at killing him. Thankfully, it looked as if the ravens were all she could handle at the moment. Three of them whipped the wand from her hand and threw it over the side. It splashed into the water.

Panting hard, I beat my wings as fast as I could, hoping somehow her magic wouldn’t spiral into my back or hit my wings.

As we soared away, Brenden asked, “Athena, did you really do that to Pigeon?”

I bit my lip. I actually wasn’t sure what I’d done. It all went by so quickly. “Um…I think so? I mean…it just happened…I hope she’s all right.”

Smiling up at me, Brenden said, “I think she’ll be just fine. Pigeon’s having the time of her life right now. There’s nothing better for a raven to do than beat the bloody hell out of an evil queen.”

I answered, nervously. “You think so?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the situation.

Arching an eyebrow at me, Brenden said, “You know what this means, my dearest Athena.”

I lurched my head back. “What?”

“I’m going to expect you to get us back to Middle Realm now.”

I nodded vigorously. “Oh, yeah, don’t worry, Brenden. I plan on it. As soon as we meet up with the gang at the Cave of Woe.”

Holding me closer and placing his head on my shoulder, he sighed. “Ah…now that’s the girl I know. I never doubted you for a second.”

Snuggling into him, I was so thankful to have my friend back. Tears pooled at the corners of my eyes, I was so happy. He didn’t know how I’d almost failed him…how it’d almost ended.

But…I wasn’t dreaming. I was really holding my friend. He was alive and breathing, here with me.

All I had to do was believe.

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Chapter Thirty Saying Good-bye

Warning: VERY emotional chapter

     I didn’t rest for many hours, flapping and flying until I felt my wings ache. I followed Ferbish and Grigor through the darkness. They both had given me horrified looks when we’d met up some time after we’d fled the queen’s lair.

I knew what they saw but I didn’t want to believe it.

    Gently, I glided down to the ground of the Cave of Woe, settling on a rock, not wanting to let my friend go.

    And then I saw in horror what my friends knew.

    Holly drew in a breath and wept, burrowing her face into Francisco. Even Francisco’s eyes were swollen and red.

    Tears streaming, I stroked Brenden’s cold face. There was no smiling. No funny jokes. No worried looks. My friend. My best friend was dead.

   I gathered him closer to me and I cried, “How? How could this happen? I can’t believe it.”

Ferbish said gently, “Come, Miss. We best be going. The queen’ll be here befores we knows it.”

“Let her come. I’ll burn her alive if she does,” I cried.

Ferbish nodded. “I understand, Miss. We all are sad. These are dark times yet…”

I blinked. A wet drop trickled down my face and I tried to swallow down a lump, not wanting to wail in front of everyone. I needed to get out of there. “Yet what?”

He shrugged then gestured toward Brenden. “This elf here believed in ye, Miss, and well, he gave his life for somefing bigger than himself. And ye being the Wishcaster was his belief. If that be true, well then, ye better start acting like it. The realms needs ye.”

Ferbish pointed at Brenden and said, “He said ye could do anyfing, right? Well, I knows a Wishcaster can wish on anyfing for a price, o’ course. Ye get free wishes, mind. Use one o’ them.”

“Three wishes?” I said. “But I’m not the Wishcaster. I can’t wish my friends back to life.”

Holly eyes brightened a little. “Yes, Athena, he’s right. A Wishcaster gets three wishes to use in times of trouble when they don’t have their wish book handy. The price is that it’s not an easy wish. You’ll have to figure it out.”

“But I’m NOT the Wishcaster! I didn’t go through the third trial! I didn’t find the real Wish Book! And Queen Oria hasn’t sworn me in!”

Ferbish rubbed his wrist, face somber. “It’s all right, Miss. I just thought I’d suggest it. But we gots to go now. The queen…”

Gazing into Brenden’s face, I realized his body was just a shell. It was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen and I’d never forget it. He was gone. My friend was gone. “I can’t leave him.” Although I knew it was pointless, I hoped that by me thinking about Brenden alive and willing him to wake up that it would happen.

I squeezed my swollen eyes shut and sniffed. “I can’t be the Wishcaster. I can’t,” I choked out.

Shaking Brenden, I said, “You’ve got to wake up! I need your help. Without you, everything is lost.” But when he didn’t move, didn’t breathe, I cried, my chest shaking with misery.

I thought about how he did everything for us. For me.

Even sacrificing himself as a traitor so he could use his elf powers to save us. And all the while, I had the ability to free us, but I just couldn’t do it.

I never could do what he wanted me to.

I wasn’t the Wishcaster.

Bending down, I laid my head on his chest. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

Ferbish, Grigor, Holly, and Francisco helped bury my friend. We all cried, holding onto one another.

I understood then why it was called The Cave of Woe.

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Chapter Twenty-nine The Ceremony

My grandmother fixed a crown on top of my head. It shimmered with the familiar magenta and gold of crimerife.

Getting me ready for the swearing in ceremony that night, she hummed a Gaelic tune. I was going to be knighted in Queen Casteen’s great army of goblins, ogres, and who knew what other nice gruesome monsters were to be my cohorts in crime. I made sure my friends would be there with me. My plan was to transform and somehow fly away with them. Somewhere. Anywhere. But I had to be smart about it otherwise, Casteen would throw an invisible net of doom over me and my friends would lose their lives.

I’d checked on them every day to find out if they were treated well. Unfortunately, my magic didn’t work when I’d visited them that first time. Wrathe was nice about it though. He had no clue what I was doing and basically hauled me out of there.

Thankfully, Queen Casteen allowed my friends some nice quarters instead of the dungeon at my request. If I played nice, the queen could be decent, it seemed.

“I’m so proud of you, me sweetling,” my grandmother said, stroking my hair. “You’ve done so well in yer training. Queen Casteen is amazed by your talent.”

    Glancing at my image in the mirror, I lifted the side of my mouth. “What talent? I can’t even transform without the crimerife. And what about my witch abilities? Can you teach me some magic?”

     Grandmother’s eyes darted away. I suspected that. If I grew too powerful, maybe I could release my friends easily. I had to figure out what powers I held.

“Don’t be thinking on that score, lass. It’s the drakkan in ye she wants. If ye be searching fer other powers, she may do ye in. We don’t want that, now do we?”

I knitted my eyebrows rising up to adjust my outfit near the full length mirror. “Why are you doing all of this? I mean, if she wins, what good is it? She might kill off Mom or Zelda. Do you really want that?”

  She shook her head. “I’ve got that all figured out, lass. Don’t worry. And besides. It’s better to be on the inside of the most powerful team–for once Casteen wins, that’s when you can strike and defeat her. Get it?”

“That’s a deadly game.,” I said “What if I get killed?”

“Ye won’t. With your powers?” She laughed.

I bit my lip as she gazed at me in my special dragon armor.

“There now,” Grandmother crooned, raising her hands in triumph. “Ye look prettier than a cobra on the head of a pharaoh’s crown.”

I could only hope I could strike like a cobra at the right time.

*****

As I entered a huge stage in front of hundreds of smelly, dirty ugly monsters, Wrathe winced. Then a small witch slithered up to me with a suspicious staff and look in her eye.

“What gives?” I asked.

“Orders, Miss,” he said in his gravely, thick ogre accent. “Fer safety reasons.”

Out of nowhere, a sharp pain slit through my stomach as vines draped over my body. The familiar gag appeared over my mouth.

Damn. I wondered if the queen could read minds. Now my plans disappeared like the mist dissipating in the surrounding mountains. The spell that witch put on me forced me to stand at attention. I didn’t have command of my own body like this.

We were outside the castle as snow fell lightly on us. To my right stood my friends. They were bound which was against what I’d specifically asked. The stupid queen was one step ahead.

Queen Casteen held out her hand and opened her speech. “Welcome dear guests, foul fiends, and murdering monsters.” Her voice echoed off the surrounding hills.

Cheers roared like a thousand cement trucks mixing gravel.

“We are at the apex of history. No longer will the likes of the other-realmers use us as the butt of bad jokes. No longer are we to be the disdain of every creature on earth and the hated enemies of fairy stories.” She raised her arm. “WE will be the heroes. WE will write the jokes. And WE will be the only creatures left to rule all the realms!”

A thunderous roar shook my body. My heart pounded hard as I swallowed.

“And how will this war be any different from the wars in our history ye might ask?” She waved her hand out, motioning me toward her.

As I moved, I heard a shout behind us and a raucous churning sound as if an enormous truck’s engine roared its pistons, bouncing off the hills.

And then I saw it!

A gigantic pumpkin coach clanked toward us, scaling a stone like a spider then settling atop of it.

I recognized it as Mr. Payne’s contraption he’d been working on in his house.

     And then I gasped.

Brenden seemed to salute the queen, riding on top of the pumpkin.

His silver hair blew in an unfelt wind and his eyes seemed to hold a pink fire I’d never seen before. A shiver flew up my back, making gooseflesh spring on my skin.

With a bow, he said, “Dear Queen Casteen, I’m honored to be in your presence.”

What was he up to?

Cocking his head, he shrugged. “But I was highly mortified when I wasn’t invited to your little soiree. I mean, it was I you have to thank for this very expensive gift.” He waggled his fingers at me.

Fire rose in my stomach as if he’d struck a match and tossed it at me. My muscles tensed as I felt my body starting to transform. I wanted to unleash my anger at what he did.

The queen laughed. “I did not think ye so stupid as to want to provoke the ire of said gift, but don’t let me stop ye, lad. Athena?

“Ye may show our friend your hospitality. NOW!” She released my gag.

But before I could spray him with fire, he pointed at me, glee in his eyes. “Yes, Athena! That’s it!” Pumping a fist in the air, he shouted, “BREAK THE CHAINS!”

At that moment, Pigeon appeared, swooping in behind him.

And he catapulted himself toward the stage.

Before I knew what was happening, purple sparks burst from his hands as he discharged the magic that made me the queen’s slave as well as the binds of my friends.

“What the hell is going on?” I whispered.

As Brenden settled near us, he yelled, “GO, ATHENA!” Sparks emanated from his hands while electricity erupted from Casteen’s staff.

Thinking fast, I flapped awkwardly toward my friends. I pointed at them and shouted, “Get out of here!”

Ferbish nodded to Grigor and they grabbed Holly and Francisco, sailing away into the night.

As I watched my friends leave, I noticed huge bat-like creatures climbing out of the sides of the pumpkin, descending upon the monsters in the pit underneath us.

They must have belonged to Brenden. Or maybe they were Mr. Payne’s pets? Wouldn’t have surprised me.

I wanted to help Brenden in his fight, but how? Without warning, a giant flash of electricity hurtled toward me from the queen’s staff, but I spiraled up and dodged it.

She was going to have to do more than that to stop me. Soaring back, I spewed fire at the witch, hoping to turn her to ash.

But she buffeted my attack with the staff. Damn.

Jumping up, Brenden kicked her in the face before she could use her magic, knocking her down. He choked her from behind. “Go, Athena!” he shouted. “I’ve got this!”

Not wanting to leave, I hovered as the huge bat fiends fought valiantly against her army underneath me.

But while Brenden watched me, the queen launched him over her head then shot electricity through him.

“NO!” I screamed.

As I was about to unleash my fire, Wrathe actually kicked the queen in the mouth, sending her reeling backward.

What the hell?

With his ogre strength, he picked her up and tossed her over the side of the bridge as she tried to zap him, but he was too quick for her.

And then I spotted Brenden’s still body on the ground. I bolted to him. “Brenden. Are you okay?” When he didn’t answer, I checked his pulse. He was alive, at least.

Wrathe came up to me as I cradled my friend, hoping he’d be okay. “Ye better leave, Miss. The queen won’t be out fer long. Sorry about yer friend.”

“What about you? Won’t you get in trouble for treason?” I asked.

“I’ll be all right, Miss Athena. Never ye mind that.

“Me bats’ll take me home.”

“Those are yours? That means you know Mr. Payne,” I said, puzzled. Was Wrathe in on this plan? Did he know Brenden?

“Aiy that. Ye could say I know him. Now, off with ye, lass!”

Lifting Brenden in the air, I hovered, worrying for Wrathe and so grateful for him, too. The queen wasn’t dead, so I needed to get out of there as fast as possible.

Brenden was surprisingly light as I flapped into the cool dark night with only the ominous Under Realm moon to guide me.

I gathered my friend to my chest, praying he’d wake up soon and chastise me for being too slow or for not holding him correctly.

I headed straight in the direction of the Cave of Woe, so we could get to Middle Realm as quick as possible. Queen Oria would be able to help Brenden. At least, I hoped so.

I want to give a shout out to Natalie Auditore for all the cc she did that made this chapter possible. The fire that Athena blew as well as Pigeon as a raven were made especially for this story. Go and support her or give her likes on her work on Tumblr. And if you ever need fantasy cc, she’s a one-stop shop! She always posts her work for free but her patreons get it first.

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Chapter Twenty-eight Surprise!

After that horrible meeting with the queen, the ogre, Wrathe, helped me up, taking me back to my room. I was so tired, I literally fell onto the bed and didn’t wake up for twelve hours.

My grandmother didn’t come to visit. I guessed she was ordered not to as a punishment. The queen didn’t realize her absense was welcome to me. All Gran did was make me more confused than ever about my feelings toward my family for lying to me all these years.

Wrathe had actually been decent to me. In fact, the look in his eye right before I entered my room was more like reverence. Maybe he’d seen what had happened. I wondered if he hated the queen deep inside.

And hopefully, I could use that to my advantage.

Looking through the closet, I couldn’t find anything decent to wear. The queen was obsessed with the color red, so that’s what I had to put on. Next, I dusted a little makeup on my face all the while trying to think up a plan to at least see my friends.

Then an idea hit. “That’s it!” I exclaimed to my mirror self.

I wasn’t sure if the seemingly nice ogre would go along with me, but it was worth a try.

Gingerly, I peeked out the window of my door. My heart hammered as I prepared what I was going to say. Focusing, I imagined me asking the ogre to take me to my friends and he obeyed my every word.

Knocking on the window, I motioned for him to open it. To my surprise, he did with a slight smile on his face. “What is it, lass?”

“Um…” I said, blinking wildly. “I…have a favor to ask of you, Wrathe.”

“Favor?” the ogre said, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes…you see, the queen said my friends were safe. I just want to peek at them to make sure. I don’t have to even speak to them. Just one glance. It would make me feel better.” I hoped he’d allow me to get close to them. I thought maybe I could summon up a little magic to ferry us out of this hell hole. Ever since I’d held the pure crimerife, I could sense an essence coursing through me. It was worth a shot.

He laughed. “Ye think I’m a dunderhead, do ye? Wanting me to gets in trouble by allowing you access to yer friends, eh? But if ye must knoo, they’re safely put, sitting in a dungeon.”

“Dungeon?” I cried. “They ARE torturing my friends! If I thought my friends were being mistreated, I’d be furious. And Wrathe, you wouldn’t want me to get angry, would you?”

He chuckled, shaking his rather large belly. Not exactly the response I was looking for. “I knoo ye ain’t got a bit o’ magic in ye. Ye needs the crimerife. But that were a good try, nonetheless.”

I gritted my teeth. What a dumb plan. Of course he’d laugh at me. He was right. I didn’t possess an ounce of magic. “Oh…well…it was worth a shot,” I said, shrugging. I was about to head back to my room when he held me back.

Smiling, he said, “Ah, well, let it not be known that we ogres are a hateful lot. And fer the bravery I saw when ye was with the queen, how about I grant yer request?”

“You mean….?”

“Aiy, lass. You can visit yer friends. I’ll arrange everything.”

My insides danced like I’d won the lottery. “T-Thank you.”

Who knew ogres had a heart? Or did my magic spell work? Hmmm… maybe I could rescue us out of the queen’s grasp after all.

We wound through the castle until he took some stone steps that lead to a narrow hallway. This time, the lighting took on a dark, foreboding tone.

Inside my head, I tried to imagine Middle Realm, trying to conjure up those warm feelings. Unfortunately, my mind couldn’t concentrate.

And then when I saw my friends, my throat closed. “What in the world?”

“Athena!” Ferbish cried. “We’re so glad to see you!”

“How did you get here?” Holly asked.

But Holly looked as if someone had put a spell on her. “What the hell did they do to you, Holly? Are you okay? Your ears! They stretched them! Your hair! And those tattoos. What’s going on?”

“Oh,” Holly’s eyes darted like she was caught doing something wrong, “um…your grandmother told the queen about me and they magicked my shroud away. It was even thicker than yours so that’s why no one could see it,” Holly said, guiltily. “I’m…uh…a Brindle elf, actually. Like your grandfather.”

“A Brindle elf? H-How? Why?” Not believing I was asking my best friend these questions. My Holly. The only kid back in fifth grade who wanted to even talk to me. A cripple.

“Look, Athena, I-I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you. My mother made me swear and she promised it was for your own good.”

My legs wobbled as my head spun. This could not be happening. 

“Miss, are ye okay?” Ferbish asked in a worried voice. “Ye wants to sit down maybe?”

“No,” I snapped, “I’m fine.” His hurt look made me wish I didn’t take it out on him, but I was so full of anger, hurt, confusion, that I couldn’t think straight.

Holly explained, “My mother and yours have always been best friends. They grew up together since your mom lived with your grandfather. But when your mother decided to marry your dad in the Over Realm and have you, your mom was scared about your mixed self. As you grew, she knew you held special powers that the Under Realm queen might want. So my mom said she’d help watch over you since she had me.”

My eyes narrowed. “So you were never truly my friend. You were just doing it as a job.” I shook my head. “Figures.”

     “That’s not true. I am your best friend. That’s just how it started is all,” Holly answered. “You’ve got to believe me.

Tears welled up and I wiped them away. I couldn’t trust anyone. How could my whole life be one big lie? How could my mother do this to me? I had no friends. 

I was about to leave them all there without even trying to get us out of this mess, when Francisco piped up, “For what it’s worth, Athena, what does it matter if she’s a Brindle elf or a human or a girl who can turn into a dragon? We are who we are inside. Right? I may be just a human…but I’m still your friend no matter what. So is Holly. Can you just give her a break here? It’s hard enough being stuck in this dungeon…”

I let out the air I’d been holding. Francisco was right, of course. Holly had always been my friend even if she was some sort of monster…just like me. I slapped my hand against my forehead. “God, how could I not see it earlier? What ten-year-old carries around books like CIVIL ENGINEERING IN ACTION and THE SCIENCE BOOK OF EVERYTHING?”

Francisco shrugged. “Holly?”

“Yeah, Holly. The Brindle elf.” I wanted to scream. “And her mother has a degree in Folklore and Mythical studies. I mean please. How stupid could I be?”

“You’re not stupid,” Holly said. “You just didn’t know. I’m…very sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I was going to once we got out of here.”

“Sooo…” Ferbish interjected, “are ye going to forgive her, Miss? She’s a very nice Brindle elf, if I do say so meself. Too bad her power don’t work in this realm or she would have ferried us back to our homes a long time ago.”

I shook my head at this situation. “Okay…” I announced, “if anyone here is not who they’re supposed to be then I want to know right now. Francsico? Are you sure you’re not hiding behind a shroud because if you are, I’m going to be VERY pissed at you.”

With a solemn face, Francisco said, “I can promise you I’m one hundred percent, normal, boring human. No surprises coming from me.”

“Good,” I said, giving him a hug. “I like boring. I can’t get enough of that around here.”

He laughed, squeezing me, saying, “I’m glad.”

“Miss Athena?” Wrathe said, “It’s time to say good bye to yer friends.”

Crap. With all this drama, I’d totally forgotten what I was supposed to do here in the first place. Putting out my hands to my friends, I said, “Let’s ditch this place.”

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Chapter Twenty-seven The Queen

After I’d eaten my fill of the delicious cinnamon sugar cookies, Gran waved her hands, magically dressing me in some sort of witchy number complete with goth makeup.

“Really, Gran? Can’t I dress myself? What’s the deal with the makeup?”

“Awe, ye want to look yer best for the queen. She’s especially smitten with red.”

No kidding. “Can I visit my friends?” I asked. “I want to see them. Where are they?”

“They’re safe being well taken care of, never ye fear about that, lass.” Changing the subject she went on, “Now, once yer with the queen, make sure to be kind and polite like ye usually are. If she says anything to get yer dander up, please don’t retaliate. It’ll only make things worse.”

“How can things get worse?” I asked. “If I do everything she says, will she send my friends home? And what about Zelda? Is she okay?”

“Zelda’s in Middle Realm. That nasty fairy queen has her, holding her fer ransom from me but we’ll have the last laugh on her to be sure.”

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

Gran opened it, allowing a huge man to enter.

“Miss Athena of the Over Realm, the queen has summoned ye.”

I stared at him, trying desperately to use some sort of magic tricks on him, telling him to take me to my friends instead. But the man didn’t flinch. It was hopeless.

I had no power and no way out.

As we tapped our way down the stairs, I rolled over in my mind on how I could unleash my magic. The only way might be through using the Under Realm queen. A tiny crazy plan was forming in my head. But it was so wild and maybe stupid, I hoped I’d survive.

The man took me to a huge door and opened it, revealing a small living area with tall ceilings, all in red and black like the bedroom I’d been in. A short woman dressed in a warrior suit of ebony leather scale had her back to me. Her black hair was pulled up into a bun. I couldn’t see her face. She was gazing out the windows.

“Leave us be, Wrathe,” she commanded.

  The ogre bowed. “As ye wish, me grace.”

My stomach flinched as my heart pounded loudly. Thinking about making a deal with the queen was one thing, but actually doing it…well, I felt like I was in a dream, trying to scream but nothing came out.

The man walked out the door as the queen sidled up to me, making my knees shake.

     “My, aren’t ye the slippery little fish who doesn’t want to get caught?” She gripped me with her beautiful silver eyes. “Don’t be frightened, little fish. Ye are me guest. I don’t want to hurt you.”

She dropped into a chair, still smiling at me like she’d caught me on her hook. “How do ye like yer accommodations? Are ye comfortable in that room?”

If my plan was going to work, I had to get on her good side, so I smiled slightly and said, “Yes. I think it’s beautiful. I especially like the paintings.” Well, that was half a lie. They actually gave me the creeps, too.

     She chuckled at my reaction. “I see ye have a good heart, lass. I like that.” Putting out a hand, she said, “Please favor me and take a seat.”

     Shaking from nerves, I gingerly sat on the edge of a dark antique chair that matched the one she was sitting in next to me. I watched her nervously.

     The dark queen folded her hands and said, “Yer grandmother says yer full of promise, lass. In fact, she’s bragged about ye so much, I had to see you for meself. I must say, ye are a thing to behold to be sure.” Her eyes glimmered. “She claims ye can turn yourself into a drakkan. Is this true?”

     I took in a deep breath. Now here was my way to take a step in the direction I wanted to go, but my palms sweated so much and my heart beat so fast that I had to gasp to rip away from the frightened cocoon I’d wrapped around myself. All I could do was nod. Brenden was right. I was weak.

     “Can ye change now?” The queen’s eyes widened with a crazy glint as she pulled me to my feet expectantly.

     Was she kidding? She wanted me to transform right here? I’d burn her alive.

     I gulped, shaking my head.

     Her eyebrows rose. “That is a wee bit of a problem.”

She walked toward a chest near one of the large windows. I stiffened, wondering what she was up to.

She motioned toward it. “Open it, little fish. See what’s inside. Maybe you’ll find something, eh?”

Even though I didn’t want to, I obeyed. The chest had a strange eye symbol on the top and it was freakishly heavy. Heaving, I grunted as I slid it open.

 A pulsating golden light showered out as I felt a warm power envelop me. I recognized its properties. “Crimerife!” I whispered.

“Yes, little fish, that’s correct. It’s in its purest form. Take it. Don’t worry. It can’t harm you now as its been refined.”

Cautiously, I slipped my hand into the chest, gathering what seemed like liquid shimmering gold into the palm of my hand.

      Closing my eyes, I smelled the subtle licorice scent given off by the energy. I focused, picturing myself flying over the mountains of the Elivagar. Elation flooded my senses. I could feel the power coursing through me. “Yes!” I cried.

     “Aye, lassie,” the queen crooned. “Yer witch self can sense the power. Good. Now if only yer humanity twasn’t holding ye back.”

Dark sapphire scales crawled over my body, as I sprouted wings and horns. Comforting warmth swelled within my throat.

The evil queen chuckled. “Yes, little fish. That’s it! Now you’re in your true form. What a dazzling sight you are.”

But she didn’t know what she had done. I was a beast and she would be defeated.

     With the force of a huge furnace, I blasted her with the fire I’d been keeping within me.

But she waved a staff that magically burst into her hands. It buffeted my blast away, setting the couch on fire, instead.

Instantly, a heavy vine wrapped itself around me along with a gag over my mouth as I transformed back into my witch-girl self.

I was locked down as if a metal net laid over me. I wasn’t able to even raise my head. I tried to transform again but the energy was gone.

I whimpered, struggling.

     All I could see were her black boots near me as I gasped for air. I didn’t think I could survive much longer. Her spell was so powerful, I thought I was going to die.

     “That will teach ye never to cross me again. Ye are me pet and will do as I command. Otherwise, I’ll kill off yer friends one by one. Do ye understand?”

    Crying inside, I couldn’t say anything but I nodded.

I hated myself. Why couldn’t I think of a way out?

She bent down and said, almost too sweetly, “No one owns a drakkan they can command such as yerself. Make no mistake–you’ll be at the helm of me army. And when it’s all done, and ye do well, I’ll reward you. Do not worry about that, wee little fish.”

     I swallowed down tears that threatened at the edges of my eyes. Images of me killing people of the Middle and Over Realms was a future I would never let happen. But I needed to go with her madness in order to defeat her somehow.

Let the witch think I was hers, I thought. With the crimerife, I could transform whenever I wanted. All I had to do was free my friends somehow. 

Simple.

Twenty-five: Traitor

“Ye finks she’ll be all right, Francisco?” I heard Ferbish’s low voice above me.

Woozy, I took a deep breath, opening my eyes. Instead of the dark cavern, I was lying on a cold, stone floor.

“Athena? Are you awake?” Francisco asked, stroking my forehead.

Blinking, I pulled myself to my knees. “Where are we?”

Francisco gulped. “You’re not going to like it.”

“We’re in the Droor Elf dungeons, that’s where we are, Miss,” Ferbish explained.

“And it’s me own damned fault. I shouldna given ye that harspwing fairy. It put us under a spell, and before we knew it, an army of Droors surrounded us. I would have been on me guard but got distracted.”

“But where’s Brenden? And Pigeon?” I looked around and only saw my friends and the gargoyles.

Francisco glared. “He sold you out. When the elves were going to kill him, he explained that you were the Wishcaster and that the Under Realm queen would want to see you. He’s nothing but a coward.”

“I don’t believe it,” I whispered. “There has to be a reason he’d do such a thing. Maybe he’s planning an escape somehow. You said there was an army of elves. We couldn’t fight them off obviously.”

Holly and Ferbish gave each other knowing, sad looks.

“I’m sorry, Miss,” Ferbish said. “It’s as yer friend here says. Brenden got rewarded fer turning you in.”

“Yeah,” Gabby interjected. “And they also uncovered his glamour. He’s a full-fledged, malicious Droor Elf with all the power, too. He handed you over, cackling like a witch. No offense, Athena.”

I rolled my eyes, not believing what I was hearing. “But why didn’t they just take us when we were in the mountains? That doesn’t make sense.”

   Francisco shook his head. “Maybe they needed more elves to attack us. That bird was in on it with him. She watched from above, not helping us fight them off.”

“Yeah, I shoulda known somefing was funny when Pigeon didn’t put on her shroud in the cave,” Ferbish added with a sneer. “But that harpswing made me mind go funny. Bloody hell, I’m so stupid. It was the perfect trap.”

I sat on a cold hard stone, stunned. Everyone followed, not saying anything. How could I have been so dumb? So deceived? But it all didn’t make sense. If Brenden needed me to end his curse, he could have done it dozens of times throughout our ordeal. I just couldn’t believe he was a traitor. When he spoke to me at the ruins, he seemed so sincere. 

But then what if he was the one who spirited us into the Under Realm? And he would need help to get us to the Elivagar mountains near his brothers. Maybe he’d devised his plan while we were at Nurse Mellecant’s home.

My stomach lurched. The thought of Brenden being evil was making me sick.

“I heard the guards mutter that we was going to the Queen soon,” Grigor said, waving his arms. “She’ll make us slaves. Or worse. The queen hates gargoyles.”

“They won’t make me no slave,” Ferbish spat, jumping to his feet. “I’ll fight ’em off or die trying.”

Suddenly, two guards came in. One put up his hands as magical designs like a kaliedescope appeared. Shackles materialized on the gargoyles and my friends. A gag wrapped itself around my mouth, startling me. One guard smirked and said, “We can’t be too careful with you, now can we?” He jerked my arm and brought me out of the dungeon.

The guards ushered me through the castle to a large living area, and I saw what I assumed to be Brenden’s three brothers sitting in some chairs. The middle one wore a crown.

And then I spied Brenden. He wouldn’t look at me.

My head wanted to burst. Traitor! How could he allow them to gag me and treat me so horribly? He knew I couldn’t cast a spell with my mouth. It was so humiliating.

“Ah, little brother, you HAVE outdone yourself this time.” The elf chuckled. “Hello, dearest Athena of the Over Realm. I am Sir Duff McAilf, King of the Droor Elves. I’m so happy to make your acquaintance.”

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