I couldn’t believe what I’d seen in my dream back at the ruin had actually come true. Brenden’s brothers had caught us. And it was all Brenden’s fault.
Arching an eyebrow, Brenden said, “I think it wise to give the girl and her friends to the queen without a moment’s hesitation, Duff. She’s been searching for the Wishcaster the moment we entered the realm. I’ve felt her.”
“Yes, little brother, I’m sure she has. The old wart infested hag always likes to keep the best treasures for herself. But I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought and well, I like what I see. I think the girl would do well as one of my…pets.”
My insides flinched. Pets? What was he talking about?
Brenden raised one of his hands. “Not that it matters to me at all what you do, brother, but I must warn you…Queen Casteen has the ogres under her scepter. They do her bidding. I saw it for myself at Gilly’s Trap.” He shrugged. “If you don’t mind starting a war then be my guest.”
“Humph,” the king grumbled. Rising to his feet, he snapped his fingers and a strange force brought me to a standing position. I wanted to sit back down but it was as if my feet had been pasted to the floor. I glared as hard as I could at the evil elf.
“Brenden, you were always a worrier. But I’m not sure I can let such a prize go…especially when the queen won’t use her to her full potential.”
Duff strutted closer to me as my heart pounded. His beauty surpassed even Brenden’s, but his face was more angular and hard.
“A witch dragon. No one has ever seen the like in how many years? Well, I don’t believe there ever has been one. Think of the rarity.” Duff put his hand over his mouth in thought.
I wanted to scream, blow fire, anything to get away from him. Just being this close sent chills through me.
“That’s true, Duff,” Brenden agreed. “Think of not only the money the queen would reward you, but maybe you could come to terms on how she should finally leave our people alone. We could live in the realm without her meddling in our affairs at last.”
I couldn’t believe Brenden wanted the queen to capture me. But which was worse, I wondered. To be the queen’s who-knew-what or this king’s “pet”?
“Damn,” Duff cursed. “Why do you persistently have to make sense? I’ve always wanted to have something that no one on the planet could ever gain. But…you are right, of course. It wouldn’t be wise to upset the queen. And this witch dragon would be a nice bargaining chip.”
Brenden let out a sigh. “Now you’re talking sense, brother.”
A sly look swished over the king’s face. “And now, dear Brenden. What is it you want from all of this? Besides being given your rights back and the curse lifted, how may I reward you for using your gifting as a true Droor elf? Your cunning in this situation astounds me, I must say. I’m quite proud of you.”
“I only wish one thing. To have my alchemy chamber back. That is all.”
Before I knew what was happening, yellow kaleidoscope symbols glowed from the king’s hands as purple sparks shot toward me. Pain rocketed through my body.
Then a shroud of darkness overtook me.
When I woke up, my head pounded and my body felt like lead. I was in a strange bedroom.
“There, now, me lovely. You’ve had a mighty shock. Are ye feeling a wee bit better?”
My grandmother’s voice shook me but I was too woosy to move.
“Where am I?” I whispered. My body ached from the electric magic that had pierced through my body who knew how long ago.
Suddenly, a cool, soothing liquid seemed to rush through me and I no longer felt weak. My grandmother must have done something, but I was too angry at my situation to ask. Instead, I rose out of bed, surveying the room.
Everything glowed in reddish black luster like the blood red sunset in this godforsaken realm. Candelabras flickered around me, showering my grandmother’s cracked features with an eerie red tinge.
The expensive crimson drapes looked like they came right out of an evil Jane Austen movie. I spied a portrait of a strange ivory woman next to a wolf with haunting red eyes. Harpswing fairies flitted happily above her grasp. Her creepy look gave me shivers.
My grandmother never answered my question so I asked again only more forcefully, “Where am I?”
Gran smiled. “You’re in Queen Casteen’s palace. Oh, you’re in for such a treat! She’s coming to see you, me dearie.”
Eyes narrowing, I glared at her. “What have you done with my friends?”
She patted my hand. “No need to get your breeches in a snit. They’re just fine.”
She cocked her head. “As long as you listen to yer grandmother and not go off on some wild foolish notions. Wishcaster…” Clucking her tongue, she added, “You were not born for that lowly position. Why, you’d be no more than the fairy queen’s servant.
“No,” she added. “You were born for greatness!” Her eyes almost popped out on the last word, making her look like the witch she was. A knot formed in my throat, still mourning the loss of my wonderful sweet grandmother I thought I’d known.
I ordered, “I want to see my friends. Now. Or I’m not going to listen to you no matter what you say or threaten.”
Sighing, she shook her head. “This’ll not go well if you’re going to order me about. And that attitude will not sit well with the queen neither. If ye want yer friends alive, I’d suggest ye alter yer mood.”
“What does the queen want?” I asked, hoping there was some way I could escape all of this. If only I could channel the magic I knew I had inside me. But how?
“Well, I’ll allow the queen to talk more about it. Yer to see her soon. Any minute she’ll be sending in the sentry to fetch ye. Now, let’s sit and chat on how you’ll behave. Okay, sweetling?”
I was like a pot filled with water left to boil for too long. “Honestly, I’m in no mood to be on anyone’s good behavior list, Gran. Do you have any idea what’s been going on? Not only has my whole life been turned upside down, but I’ve been captured, three times by the way, lied to by people I thought I could trust, ripped apart to where I thought I was dying, shot at, starved half to death in the cold, and fought over like I was the last item at Simmart on Black Freaking Friday! Well, I’m not for sale. Got it, Gran? And if I don’t want to cooperate, the queen can just kiss my big blue…”
“Ooooh,” Gran cut in, “I knoo just the thing that’ll put ye in a better mood. I’ve made yer favorite cookies. Spiced shortbread!”
She tapped my knee then flounced out of the massive dark door.
My mouth watered at the thought of the cinnamon and sugar cookies. I hadn’t had anything good to eat in what seemed like months. How could my grandmother be so wicked and so nice all at the same time?
But I didn’t have time to think about it. I needed to get out of there and find my friends.
Stepping to the door, I tried to open it but of course, it was locked.
Noticing a mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself. Yeah, I knew I was blue, I mean, I saw my hands and arms every day, but gazing at my full witchy self actually horrified me.
Then I spotted a picture of an ugly witch right above it.
“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.”
Ferbish started another fire, its warmth soothing my skin but the vision of Brenden’s brothers and their threat kept reappearing in my mind. “Um…Brenden?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t think I was crazy. “I had a strange dream last night.”
He gave me a nervous look. “That doesn’t sound good. Please share it then.”
I detailed what I saw–Brenden’s brothers only they had tan skin and dark hair.
Ferbish groaned. “That’s them in shrouds, Miss. But I didn’t see anyfing while I was sleeping. They couldn’t be close.”
Grigor shook his head. “Nawr…not close. I didn’t see them either.”
“Are you sure they said they would ambush us as we leave the ruins?” Brenden asked, worry etched along his face.
I nodded wishing it wasn’t true.
Ferbish shot a glance at Brenden. “Then me and Grigor best not put on our shrouds today. Gotta fly. And I don’t fink we got time fer breakfast neither.”
Brenden gulped. “I quite agree.”
Pigeon gave a squawk and flew up ahead of us, not putting on her shroud so she could fly as well.
Ferbish wrapped his arm around me and said, “Sorry, Miss, but it’s the fastest way.”
I smiled gingerly at him, wishing I could turn into that drakkan and fly myself. I was so heavy, I felt badly. Grigor picked up Francisco and Holly. I looked all around, but there were no scary elves chasing us, thank God.
Through the cold air, Pigeon kept cawing loudly to follow her. After a while, I saw the clearing and the fence of Gilly’s Trap. “She’s taking us to the ogres. Why are we following her?”
“Because now that my brothers know about us,” Brenden explained, “we have to leave quickly. The only way out is through the Cave of Woe. Unless you can use your magic, Athena.” He searched my face, but I only shook my head.
Ferbish flew into the cave and set me down. Both he and Grigor put on their shrouds, turning into those handsome teenagers again. Luckily, the ogres weren’t anywhere around.
I spied a glow pulsing from within, similar to what I saw in the moor. “Is there crimerife here?”
Brenden shrugged. “Could be, but I wouldn’t know. Only witches can sense it. I’m an elf that’s been cobbled into a fairy. I have no powers. Do you feel something?”
Sniffing, Ferbish jerked his head. “I don’t smells anyfing, Miss.”
“Can you see a glow over there?” I asked.
“I see nofing. What about you, elf?”
“I’ve been in this cave before. I didn’t see crimerife, but there could be other things lurking. I haven’t visited the place in quite some time. But, Athena, we must get you back to Middle Realm. It’s the only way. If there is something living there, we’ll have to deal with it.”
I noticed a shimmering pond with a gaping hole in the cave’s ceiling. I shivered. And then I saw the glow, but it didn’t worry me. “Beautiful!” I whispered.
“What is it, Athena?” Holly asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered, walking closer to the light.
Right in the middle of the cave danced large, shining fireflies.
As I approached, I noticed the bright glowing things flitting around a bush.
Ferbish raced ahead, whooping. “Well tickety too, would ye look at that!”
“Wait up!” Grigor cried.
Obviously seeing the same thing I did, Ferbish went over to the bush with the glowing dots flashing here and there.
“Come here, ye little imp,” Ferbish cooed as he swiped up something I couldn’t quite see.
With a mischevous grin on his face, Ferbish said, “Close yer eyes, Miss. I have a present for ye.”
Walking over to him, I asked, “What is it, Ferbish? Tell me!”
“Nawr…I promise I’ll show ye, but we gotta be quick. Come here now.
“Open yer hands and be careful or you’ll scare it clean away.”
Draping his arms around around me, I widened my fingers and he placed a tiny pixie in my hands. It had a slender body and a delicate, angular face with wings that looked exactly like a harp. “Oh my God, is this a harpswing fairy?”
“Aye that. Be careful!” he warned. “They’ll bite if’n ye get in their way fer too long.”
Before I could say anything more, the fairy fluttered out of my hands. Suddenly, a warmth fell over me. It was as if my heart squeezed. Next thing I knew I was looking into Ferbish’s eyes as he tilted my chin toward him.
“Did ye like yer gift?” Ferbish asked, his voice so light, it was like a song that I was drifting through. What had come over me?
Without a word, I just nodded, hugging him as he hugged me back. Ferbish felt warm and safe. “It was amazing,” I answered. “Thank you for the gift.”
“Ye was lucky the full moon happened last night and a birth of harpswings was here.”
Suddenly, my head felt woozy as if I’d just spun in circles.
“What are you two up to over there?” Brenden asked.
In a haze, I floated over to Brenden–the dark elf fairy whom I liked so much, he made my heart beat fast.
For some reason, I felt all giddy like a million giggles wanted to bubble out of me. “We just saw a fairy, Brenden. A harpswing. Did you know it looked like a girl version of you only it had sharp teeth. Very cute. I wanted to kiss it but it flew away!”
“Athena…are you feeling well? You’re looking quite pale.”
“I’m feeling fine. The best ever! If only I could feel like this forever, I’d be…” But my mind forgot what I was about to say.
“Yeah, Mr. Elf. We feels just fine. Me and the little Miss got a…”
The warmth I felt earlier ran along my arm and sprang into my chest, satisfying me like sitting by a campfire on a cold night. My thoughts went to my mother and father. My sister. I wanted to see them so badly. I pictured our little house and the tiny garden. Oh, how I wanted to go back to it. I’d never complain again or wish for another life.
And then like in a dream, my heart soared to the Middle Realm. I saw myself flying over a sea of sand, yearning for a mountain in the distance. The air whipped around me, buffeting my ears with a loud roar as I flew faster.
I wished I hadn’t made Brenden talk about what happened to his friend, Rory.
He shook his head, saying, “Rory gave his life for me that day. Somehow, my brothers found out my plan to escape the Under Realm.” Tears glittered in his eyes.
“And they would have seized me if the raven hadn’t used his body…”
Brenden stopped. Swallowing, he said, “Must I go on, Athena?”
I drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry about Rory. And I believe you. But I don’t understand about the Middle Realm queen. She looked at you like she hated you. And if they gave you sanctuary, why are you still cursed?”
“They used a potent glamour on me, basically turning me into a fairy.
“It was the former Wishcaster who talked Queen Oria into it. He took pity on me that day, nearly fifty years ago, as I stumbled into Middle Realm.
“Oria didn’t trust Droor Elves or anyone from the Under Realm for that matter.
“Fairies are one of the most prejudiced creatures on the planet.”
Brenden looked at me. “Including your humans. No one in the Middle Realm knows my true identity, even Lenora, except for the queen and the Wishcaster, Great Guardian rest his soul.
“And that’s why I don’t want anyone else to know my story. The little everyone knows about me the better. Please don’t share this with your friends, Athena.”
I nodded and said, “I won’t tell anyone, Brenden.”
He wrinkled his brow.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Dropping his elbow to his knees, he said, “I’m just a bit worried about what to do next. We can’t stay here. As it is, this curse on my body is like a beacon to my brothers. They’ll find me if we stay.”
I sighed. The wind in the black trees rattled as the moon started to glow. How could a place so beautiful be so dangerous? “Then we’ll have to leave. But where can we go?”
“The way I see it,” Brenden flinched, “there are only two paths in and out of the Under Realm. The first is through the Cave of Woe. And the second…” He stared at me.
I knew what he meant
but I didn’t want to go there. I felt like a mouse hiding from a huge lion that
was about to devour me. Shaking my head, I said, “I can’t get us back, Brenden.
I have no idea how I did it in the first place. Maybe it was you as the Wish
Book all along. When you were in book form, my magic worked. I wished and it
Brenden shook his head. “That’s not it.” His nostrils flared as his eyebrows drew together angrily. “You’ve changed, Athena. I don’t know how or why but ever since you lost your wheelchair, you’ve become scared. Weak.”
“What?” I screeched.
“I’ll never forget when I first watched you, you were full of confidence. It didn’t matter who came against you—bullies, teachers, parents, little sisters, you could take on the world, standing up to them.”
He smiled at me. “I’ve never been so proud of anyone before in my life just watching you blazing a trail in that chair. And when you released your power against your grandmother in your backyard, I knew then we had our Wishcaster.
“But ever since Ferbish ripped off that shroud and took away your wheelchair, you’ve doubted yourself. You’ve turned to others for help. Me…
“the stupid gargoyles…
“Francisco…am I correct?”
I looked at my long fingers and blue skin—these were not the hands I grew up with. I didn’t even know myself anymore. Maybe he was right. In my wheelchair, I had to grow strong for people to see me. I was different so that helped me become bolder…and now? I was supposed to be this Wishcaster that needed to keep the realms from warring and have some incredible power. I felt like Samson with all the strength in the world only it had been taken away by the snip of scissors.
Brenden poked me in the shoulder and said, “Hey. Believe in yourself, Athena. I do.”
He whispered, squinting, “It’s time. Break the chains you’ve created for yourself and unleash the dragon. That’s the only way we’ll escape.”
I bit my lip, staring
into his dark eyes. “I don’t know if I can.”
Looking out to the forest in front of us, he answered, “A wise old Brindle elf once said, ‘If you think you can do a thing or you think you can’t, you’re right.’”
I’d heard that quote
before. My science teacher, Ms. Hornblatt, had it on a poster on her classroom
wall. “A Brindle elf didn’t say that. Thomas Edison did. A human.”
Brenden raised his
eyebrows. “Who says Thomas Edison wasn’t a Brindle elf?”
I had no idea. Nothing
surprised me at this point. Suddenly, my stomach made a loud gurgling sound.
We both laughed, cutting the tension.
“Best get by the fire and eat, eh, Athena?”
My face warmed.
“Yeah. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”
When I rose up to go back to the rest of our group, Brenden stopped and pulled me into a hug, whispering, “I believe in you. And know that for my part, I’ll do everything I can to get you back to the Middle Realm. I promise.”
His words made my
stomach do some crazy, mushy things and before I could think, I was hugging him
Ferbish caught some fish with his bare hands in the pond near us and we cooked them over the fire, eating until we were full.
“That was the best fish supper I’ve ever eaten,” Holly said, pointing at Ferbish. “You should be a chef. Maybe you could come back with me to the Over Realm and start a restaurant. We could call it the Roasting Gargoyle.”
Ferbish laughed so hard he snorted.
“What would yer fancy human friends say when they saw me muscles and horns now?” Ferbish said, smiling brightly.
“They’d pee their breeches,” Grigor added. “Hey, I’d like to see that, Ferbish. Maybe we should make a visit, eh?”
“I know all my friends would think you guys were cool,” Holly said. “Especially my mom.”
“All right, lass,” Ferbish said. “Tell you what. When we make it out of here, I promise to give ye a visit. But it would have to be in the nighttime. Over Realm is notoriously bright in the day. Would hurt me gargoyle eyes.” He winked.
“Now if’n ye don’t mind, I’m a might done in. Needs me beauty rest.”
Grigor snorted. “Ye means yer ugly rest. Yer about as bonny as that bald stump over there, Ferbish.”
“Am not!” Ferbish pounced on Grigor and the two wrestled until Ferbish forced Grigor to apologize.
The two said good night and then took down the gargoyle statues that were near the entrance and each jumped up on the podiums and grimaced.
“Brenden…” I asked, blinking, “what are they doing?”
“Oh…haven’t you seen gargoyles sleep? They really are worth their weight in gold sometimes if you can put up with their foolishness.
“In their dream state, they are like sentinals guarding over the place they rest. We will be quite protected. I will sleep soundly tonight.”
“That’s about the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet and that’s saying something,” Francisco said, laughing. “But cool, too.”
Next, we decided to go to sleep as well. We all found a place to rest, snuggling close together for warmth.
In the morning as the dull sun rose in the darkness, I woke to the sound of Brenden cursing. “Good Guardian, Francisco, I am not your personal pillow. Have you been resting on me all night?”
Without opening his eyes, Francisco said, “Who knew fairies slash elves were so soft?”
“The nerve! I would kindly ask that you remove your head from my shoulder at once.”
I laughed. The two seemed to be getting along much better lately.
“He did say it nicely, San Fran,” Holly offered.
“Yeah, yeah,” Francisco mumbled. But he wasn’t moving so Brenden gave up.
I went back to sleep. Hazy clouds enveloped me, and then I spied Brenden’s brothers looking for us. It made my heart shrivel. The dream was so vivid, I could have sworn it was real. And these brothers looked different from Brenden’s elf form–they didn’t have the silver hair or pointy ears. Their skin was a tan color, not a charcoal gray. It was so strange.
And one of them was talking about ambushing us once we left the ruin.
When I woke up, I was grateful it was just a dream. But the haunting feeling never left me. Something was wrong.
“Quickly, traitor,” Ferbish ordered as he flew over Brenden. “I don’t want to spend another moment in the lands of the Droors.” As if on cue, the frosty wind picked up, sending ripples over the shrubs jutting out from the snow.
“Dear, Athena,” Brenden said, wrenching his head toward me, “I will tell you everything once we’re in a safe place. The ruins are near us where no dark elves will venture. It’s just a short walk from here.” Brenden’s voice cracked, “I promise.”
I nodded at Ferbish.
Grumbling, the gargoyle cut Brenden’s bindings. Ferbish thrust his face inches from Brenden’s. “Ye better make good on ye promise to the little Miss. If no elf will venture to that place, we can leave yer body for the mealy worms to eat. Don’t fink I won’t.”
Brenden swallowed, blinking and not saying anything. He rubbed his arms from the rope pinching his skin.
Urgently, the gargoyles flew us toward the
enormous, uneven mountains. Settling on a specific area, Brenden pointed the
gargoyles toward the mouth of a small cave. Underneath was a steep cliff. One
false step and we would plummet to our death. “There it is.”
“How did ye come across this place, elf?” Grigor wondered as he gawked at the glowing crystal orb mounted next to an open book.
Brenden didn’t answer Grigor’s question but said, “We’d better start a fire and eat something before we rest.”
Ferbish grumbled, “I’ll make the fire. You start talking, elf, before I lose me temper.” He marched over to the nearest tree and started yanking off the branches.
Grigor followed dropping log after log onto a pile.
After the fire was lit, Pigeon landed on a small pillar next to us. She made a loud squawk.
Brenden tracked Ferbish with his eyes as the gargoyle came up next to him. “I’d rather speak to Athena alone. This doesn’t concern any of you except for her. She will be the Wishcaster, after all, and if she agrees to allow me to continue, that should be good enough for all of you.”
Ferbish glowered. “Are ye joking, elf? Ye finks me so dumb I’d let you run off wif the Miss and allow you to spin ye magic tricks on her? No. Ye confess now. To all of us.”
Swallowing, Brenden responded, “Dear intelligent challenged creature, I’m not so stupid as to think that, but this is none of anyone else’s business. I can assure you I don’t have my powers. As you can see, I’m a fairy in shadow and believe me if I could cast a good spell I would have done it by now and jettisoned us out of this bloody hell hole I used to call home.” Brenden’s eyes locked onto mine. “Please, Athena? I’m not lying. I will tell you everything.”
“Let me go with you,” Francisco spoke. “I’m with Ferbish. I don’t trust him.”
Lifting the side of my mouth, I said, “No, it’s fine. I’ll be okay, Francisco.” Turning to Brenden, I asked, “Where do you want to go, Brenden?”
“Follow me,” he said, moving toward a small bench away from everyone. I sat next to him.
Rubbing his neck nervously, Brenden began his tale.
“I am the youngest child born to the king of the Droor Elves, Sir Giric Dub MacAilf. I have three older brothers whose mother died a year before I was born. Grieving, my father married my mother, Siobhan, within a few months, and I popped on the scene much to my brothers’ distress. It wouldn’t have been so bad if my father hadn’t doted on me.
“It also didn’t help that my mother would inflict the fact of his preference every time she could.
“I will have to admit, as I grew, I was much more adept in the ways of the Droor Arts, excelling in fencing, riding, and magic.
“By the time I had reached my zenith birthday, to you that would be similar to your fifteenth year, my brothers’ devised a plan to get rid of me. My father had grown old, blind, and sick, and in his dementia, mentioned to my eldest brother, Duff, that I was the intended heir.
“Duff would not be bested by his little brother.
“He brought me out in a fight to the death.”
I cringed. “That must
have been awful for you. What did you do?”
Flinching, Brenden went on, “Droor law is very clear on the matter.
“I was to take up the challenge or be cast out as a coward. It was kill my brother or be killed by him. It was his right as he would have been the lawful heir if my father hadn’t deemed me his better. I knew I was done for.
“At that time, my brother was a fully-grown elf, and although I had marked potential, the fight would have been over in a few minutes. So, I took a chance that all my fool brother wanted was the throne. But I was wrong. He wanted my death.
“When I told Duff he could have the crown, he flew into a rage, whipping my other brothers against me.
“By the time it was all over, a trial by the Droor Council was set up to banish me.
“My father was powerless against it as all the elves in the Realm were repulsed by my perceived cowardice. A Droor Elf is always brave, always fearless, always cunning. I should have jumped at the chance to defeat my brother.
“The trial took a mere hour to decide my fate.
“The words were etched with magic on my body and I was cast out.
“My shroud was taken from me, so even in the daytime, all could look upon the curse and sneer at me as if I had a horrible disease. If an unseemly character happened upon me, it was their right to do what they would with me whether that be slavery, torture, or worse. Luckily, I did have my magic skills to get by, but any crafty creature could ambush me in a minute and so, all the magic in the world wouldn’t have helped.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and my heart sank, thinking about what Brenden went through. The words on his body said to show him no mercy. “But you survived,” I breathed.
Brenden gave me a dark look. “Yes, thank the Great Guardian. The Under Realm has many exceptional creatures, one of which is the raven. Ravens are special, although fearsome as you’ve witnessed with Pigeon, but if you make a friend of one, you will have a formidable ally. I made a raven friend. His name was Rory.
“He found me in the pit of despair in this very ruin. I was about to take my life through the use of dark magic. It is said that any Droor elf who even steps on these grounds will fall under a curse for the rest of their lives as it was used by our ancestors for torture and other dark arts.
“But it was a perfect place for me. I was going to use the crytallice to wield foul magic to kill myself.
“Thankfully, as I was about to utter the last incantation to obliterate my being, Rory saved me.”
“He then encouraged me to seek sanctuary in the Middle Realm.”
“So ravens can talk,” I said, thinking I hadn’t heard Pigeon utter one word other than a few garbled warblings.
“I wouldn’t call it
talking so much as perception. I basically understood what he wanted me to do.
Sort of a sixth sense. Ravens are like your Over Realm angels, in a way. They
can peer into the soul of a person. He knew I was innocent and took pity on me.
That is why Pigeon is here with us now. She knows I hold no ill will against
any of you. I’m not a traitor. If I were, she would have destroyed me long
Thinking back, Pigeon did all she could to save us, but I didn’t have any sense from her like Brenden talked about. Maybe I couldn’t understand Ravens. But it seemed logical.
Brenden continued his tale, “I then followed Rory’s guidance to Gilly’s Trap. And believe me, Athena, when I tell you there were no ogres. We ambled down the trail to the Cave of Woe.”
“What happened to Rory then? Where is he?” I asked.
Brenden swallowed, putting his face in his hands. He didn’t speak for a long time.
Ferbish yanked Brenden by the arm and pushed him toward the gate.
After the sun set, the air became clearer to me and Brenden’s skin glowed that strange pale color. Off went both Grigor and Ferbish’s shrouds.
“Been wanting to do that all day,” Ferbish snarled. “Now, fairy, I gots me gargoyle powers and will rip ye from limb to limb if ye try any tricks wit these friends of yers.”
Brenden winced. “These aren’t my friends. I don’t know anyone here. I only know of a path.”
The huge man waved at us and called out, “Come along then, all of you. I must be shutting the gate soon. It’s the witching hour.”
The man leered at me. “Seems this one got ahead of everyone and came without her shroud on. Peculiar.”
I didn’t like his tone. But before I could say anything to him, another man came alongside him.
“Best we removed ours, don’t ye fink?” his friend asked, licking his lips.
The man smiled and said, “Oh yes, where are me manners?”
He whipped off his shroud, revealing dark reddish skin, long black hair and muscles that rivaled the gargoyles.
“Ogres!” Ferbish hollered.
All at once, nasty monsters surrounded us.
One cried, “They look tasty, don’t they?”
“I gots the human
girl. Ratskin outdid himself, he did.”
Holly cried out, “Let’s get out of here!”
Instantly, Pigeon shot her hands up then shrieked unintelligible words.
A green wave of smoke enveloped the ogres closest to us like a wicked snake, sending them crashing to the ground.
Pigeon took off her shroud, turning into a raven and flew above us.
Growling low with anger, Ferbish ordered, “Grigor, get Holly and Francisco. I’ll take the traitor and Athena!”
One of the ogres Pigeon missed, lunged toward me as Ferbish scooped me up, flapping his wings in the air.
Sweat erupting on my face, I was losing my grip on the gargoyle as the ogre yanked on my leg. Noticing, Ferbish kicked her in the head as she howled, falling to the ground.
Heart beating, we made our escape into the darkness.
Looking over at Brenden’s sad face, he shook his head and mouthed, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
I glared, spitting his lies back at him. Glancing down as we rushed higher over the landscape, I saw endless dark rocks and a smattering of rivers rushing beneath me .
At that moment, my mom and dad’s face flashed in my mind, and a homesick pang gnawed at the pit of my stomach like never before.
I thought about Zelda. I hoped she was okay. Not lonely and scared in a strange place. Shaking, the blood rushed out of my head. I felt trapped. Helpless. Would I ever see my home again?
I longed for the tiny, dusty house, my old bedroom that Zelda had ruined. I wanted my old life back. I wanted to see Adam Slack—the boy I once had a crush on.
I even wanted to go back to my wheelchair.
I didn’t want to be this mixed monster. I didn’t want to fix the world. I didn’t want to become the Wishcaster.
I just wanted to go home.
After we soared over the darkness for a while, the air grew steadily colder and strangely brighter until snow flurries tingled on my face. I wiped them off. Ferbish gave a signal to Grigor to land in a clearing surrounded by tall mountains covered in snow. I shivered. Although my tunic was plenty warm enough for me, there was an eerie quality here unlike even at Gilly’s Trap.
It was as if the beauty was hiding something sinister.
Glancing at Brenden, I worried for him even though I was so mad he’d betray us. I had no idea why I’d feel bad for him. He was evil. He deserved whatever the gargoyles were going to do.
Ferbish retied Brenden’s hands and put them behind his back. He also bound his feet. Pointing at him, he warned, “And don’t try any of yer tricks. I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Now see here,
gargoyle,” Brenden sputtered. “I had no idea those ogres lived there. It was
Ratskin. He’s your traitor. Not me!”
Grigor ordered, “Hush, traitor, or we’ll do worse. We like ye friend’s plan to leave ye to the Balor bats, we does.”
“Balor bats are too
good for the likes of him.” Ferbish spat on the ground. “I say we do him in
right now. Get it over wif.”
Brenden struggled, trying to pull at the ropes. “Stupid gargoyles, you don’t even know where you are. If we don’t move out of here quickly, you’ll all be killed.”
“Says you.” Ferbish
pointed at him. “I ain’t listening to another word out of yer lying mouth.”
“I’m serious,” Brenden screeched. “Look around. Haven’t you ever heard of the Elivagar mountains?”
Grigor’s eyes glowed ominously. “Elivagar? Home of the Droor Elves?”
Grigor hit Ferbish. “If he’s right, we best be off.”
Ferbish waved his thick hand. “We’re miles from there, traitor. Don’t ye fink I know me ways around? We’re near Hemlock Hills. Gargoyle country. It always snows fis time of year.” The gargoyles didn’t seem to be affected by the cold just like I wasn’t. But my friends were shivering. We needed to make a fire.
I was about to suggest this when Brenden jerked his head from side to side. “Untie me now, gargoyle! I tell you the truth. You must have flown the wrong way. I know this field. If you go just 30 farthings back, you’ll find an old ruins. We could stay there for the night.”
Now I’d had enough. “Why should we listen to you, Brenden?” I glared at him. “You led us into a trap!”
“I didn’t! That was the dwarf,” Brenden pleaded. “Unbind me and I’ll tell you who I am and then you’ll believe me.”
“Don’t listen to
him, Miss,” Ferbish warned. “He’ll say anyfing to save his skin.”
I crossed my arms. “Tell us now. Then we’ll let you go.”
Francisco came up behind me, whispering, “Don’t make deals with him, Athena. He’s a liar.”
Holly nodded. “I don’t trust him either, Athena.”
But my friends didn’t know I’d seen a different Brenden in the mist. I’d be able to ask him questions that would be hard to think up lies. “I saw you!” I cried. “I know you’re not a fairy. I saw your dark skin and silver hair and magenta eyes. I read your curse!”
“He’s one of ‘em then, Miss. He’s a Droor elf!”
Grigor flapped up in the air, mumbling and clawing at his throat. “Oh, I don’t likes the sound of this, Ferbish. Lets be off and leave him wif his kind.”
“And give him over to his friends for trying to kill us?” Ferbish asked, flying beside him.
“Better to be off than die a slow deaf in one of them dungeons.” Grigor cringed. “Ye knows Droor elves are nasty fings. They’ll hunt us down for killing him or even for tying him up.”
Ferbish nodded and said, “Aiy that. He comes wif us then. We’ll fink about what to do wif him once we’re safe.”
“Yes,” Brenden cried.
“Now you’re making sense, gargoyle.”
“No!” I yelled.
The gargoyle’s eyes locked onto me.
“He stays there until
he explains himself. I want to know who he is, why he has a curse, and how he
became a Wishcaster trainer in the Middle Realm.”
I still am not caught up from the holidays so next chapter will be
Our journey was supposed to be easy, according to Brenden. First we’d trek off road toward the Moor of Dread, sludge through muck for a mile or so, then find a tiny gate called Gilly’s Trap. Our new friend, Ratskin, an old grouchy dwarf, possessed the key to open it.
This would lead us to the Cave of Woe. Nurse Mellecant’s eyes shifted nervously when she explained the cave’s history may have been a little…dark…but we weren’t to worry. She pasted a smile on her face but I could tell she was just trying to make us feel better. If we stayed on the path and didn’t get distracted, nothing horrible would happen to us.
Yeah, right. But did we have any choice?
By reaching the end of the cave, Brenden would be able to open a hidden door with fairy magic to his realm. Under-realmers were not permitted to see it. It was a secret pathway that only Wishcasters used.
“How do you know about it?” I asked Brenden after Nurse Mellecant told me his plan.
His face grew dark as if he was remembering something awful. “I have a bit of inside knowledge.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets, excusing himself, suddenly having to go to the bathroom.
Our troop walked toward the woods– me, Ferbish, Grigor, Brenden, Holly, Francisco, Ratskin and another friend of Nurse Mellecant’s, Pigeon. She was as small as the dwarf with short spiky dark hair and huge, magenta eyes. I had no idea why she was coming along, but Miss Mellecant assured us Pigeon would be a fearsome ally. I didn’t understand who would fear her. She might have looked a bit goth but couldn’t frighten a rabbit.
As we walked, the hood Miss Mellecant gave me itched, so I took it off. There didn’t seem to be anyone around to worry over my un-shrouded self.
“So let me get this straight,” Francisco put his hand out toward the fairy. “We’re just supposed to blindly follow Brenden to a swamp, a trap, and a cave that sounds like my last nightmare.”
Brenden looked disgusted. “What choice do you have, old chap? If you don’t like my plan, I suggest you figure out another way.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh yes, I think trotting off Hangman’s Cliff would be the perfect choice. It’s to your right. Just follow the gravel road.”
“Nice,” Francisco sneered, glaring.
“Hey, you two,” I said, “could we call a truce? The journey’s going to be hard enough without you bickering all the time.”
Brenden floated toward us and said, “Then tell your boyfriend to keep his trap shut and you won’t be bothered by a thing.”
“You’re impossible.” I raised my hands then hobbled away from the two morons.
Stumbling over my big feet, Ferbish rushed over to me. “Easy,” he said, winking one of his dark blue eyes.
“Wish ye got yer wings out do ye?” he asked.
“Wings?” I asked, confused.
“Aye,” Grigor interjected. In his shroud, he was a bit shorter than Ferbish and plump but solid like he could have been a football player in my world. “You gots the wingspan of a giant eagle, ye do.”
Ferbish gave Grigor a look. “Nawr, you dolt. A dragon! She gots the wingspan of a dragon or did ye forget that ye wet yer pants when ye almost turned to ash by her the other night.”
“Awr, do ye have to remind me, Ferbish?” The teen boy rubbed the back of his neck and sulked.
“Enough of yer yammering.” Ratskin the dwarf waved his hand. “Or I’ll poke yer voice boxes right out of their skins. Nurse Mellecant didn’t pay me good gold to suffer this nonsense. I’ve got a wife and children waiting for me, and I’d rather cozy up to a warm fire with them, taking the gold besides and not open yer fool gate.”
“Why do we need you anyway, dwarf?” Brenden asked, curtly. “Just give us your key and we’ll let you on your way.”
“Heh.” He shook his head. “Key’s worth more than any of your lives to me. I won it off one of the queen’s spies in a game of Stone Crow. She don’t even know I gots it. Ye think I’m going to award it to you pups?”
He laughed, shaking his large belly as he waddled along.
Holly sidled up to Pigeon. “So, where do you live?” Holly was great with strangers. In half a minute, she’d learn about their deepest secrets and favorite songs.
Pigeon’s magenta eyes widened as if she’d seen a ghost.
She ran up ahead of our pack, not saying a word.
“Weird,” Holly said, giving me a sidelong glance. “Okay, Athena, your friends and relatives are officially in the hopelessly freaky category. Sorry to say that.”
“Oh, don’t I know it,” I answered. “And I’m the queen freak.”
Holly squeezed me in aside hug. “Aw, don’t say that. I was just joking. So you have a witch for a grandmother, an elf-witch for a mother and you happen to be able to breathe fire sometimes. Is that so horrible?”
I shook my head and sighed.
“Look on the bright side,” she went on, “you can make s’mores whenever you want with that breath of yours. Pretty handy.” She plastered on a huge smile. That made me laugh.
After a few hours of walking, the tops of my feet felt as if someone had hammered them with bricks.
My body was definitely not used to walking. The hobbling only worsened until I was faltering.
Brenden loitered in the back and kept encouraging me to keep up, but that didn’t help me go any faster. I knew he was worried we wouldn’t make it to the gate by sundown.
It also didn’t help that the cobblestone streets had turned into a sporadic stone path, leading into a dark, ominous forest. The branches clicked together in the chilly wind, sending ripples down my back. When I thought I’d have to stop and rest, Ferbish pushed his ass in front of me and said, “Here, Miss.”
I pulled my head back
and asked, “You want me to spank you?”
Grigor howled and doubled over, he was laughing so hard. “Oh…hee…if you only knew!”
I put my hand on my hip. “Um…no.”
Ferbish stood up and poked Grigor’s head.
Grigor stumbled away, muttering curses.
“That’s fer gettin’ smart,” Ferbish hollered. He turned and smiled at me. “Yer tired, aren’t ye?Climb on me back. Go ahead. Don’t be shy. I don’t work in the mines all day fer nothing. Gots me a strong back if I do say so meself.”
I had two choices. Either ride on Ferbish’s large back feeling embarrassed or I could keep walking as tiny knives drilled into the tops of my feet. I knew my answer.
“Okay,” I said, climbing awkwardly onto Ferbish, “but this is only until we get to the marsh.”
“Hold on tight!” Ferbish cried, charging toward the front of our pack.
I whooped, catching Brenden’s shocked face.
He chased after us. “Gargoyle, put her down this instance!”
Ferbish laughed and galloped ahead until we couldn’t hear Brenden’s protests any longer. I felt like a little kid again, riding on my dad.
This gave me a pang, longing for home. I sighed.
“What’s the matter, Miss?” Ferbish asked, slowing to a walk. The jarring movement reminded me of when I once rode a camel at a Christmas festival.
“Are you sure I’m not too heavy? I’m like huge now.” I didn’t want to talk about my family. Too much had happened and it would make me sadder and miss them more.
“Nawr. You’re as light as a harpswing.”
“A harpswing. I’ve heard one of the fairies say something about that. What is it?”
Ferbish didn’t say anything for a moment then he said, “They grow in the full moon’s light and last for only a day. They’re the closest thing we have to fairies, Miss. Tiny. No bigger than me thumb. And thin. Their wings are in the shape of a harp. That’s where they gets their name.” Ferbish turned his head and smiled up at me. “And they bring great good luck, they do. I’ll catch one for you, Miss. If’n ye wants me to.”
“Sure. I’d love to see one.”
“When the full moon rises, I’ll make a present of it.” He winked.
My face grew warm. I had no idea why I was blushing. I only wanted to see a tiny Under Realm fairy. They sounded sweet and I hadn’t seen anything sweet in the Under Realm yet. Myself included. But if I thought about it, Ferbish was sweet.
The wind rose up, whipping at my hair. The tree limbs clattered like a chime of bones.
Ferbish’s back grew taut and he stood still. “Do ye smell somefing?”
He sniffed the air like a dog on a scent.
I breathed in deeply, sensing moisture as if a thunderstorm was about to erupt. “Rain?”
“No,” Ferbish muttered, thick with worry. “Myrrh Mist.”
“Dragon?” I hollered. “What were my parents? Beasts? Oh GOD!”
Brenden shook his head. “You don’t understand. In your mixed state, somewhere in your lineage there was a…ah…changeling.”
I jerked my chin down. “Changeling.”
“Yes. That’s a person who can turn into a beast or animal at will. Your ancestors must have been able to morph into a dragon type human or drakkan, which is very similar to what I saw last night when you…”
“When I what?”
“Breathed fire.” His eyes nearly glowed.
I slapped my hand over my mouth remembering the cauldron I felt inside me after the shroud was torn off.
He continued, “Now this can be a characteristic of elfin, witch, or even human lineage. Who knows?” Brenden sat down on the edge of the bed, thinking. “But if it did come from your human line, it must be very ancient indeed. Changelings were burnt at the stake in Over Realm ancient history and none survived if they were ever discovered.”
I looked at my skin. It almost sparkled in the candlelight, each scale glinting, but when I touched my arm, it was smooth as satin. “If I’m a changeling, why am I like this permanently?”
Brenden shrugged. “I’m sure it’s the rare mixture of your bloodline. Honestly, the fact that your grandmother and grandfather met and fell in love is a miracle. Add that to your mixture of a human father and an elf-witch mother…” He gave one sharp shake of his head. “Probably has never happened before. You, my dear sweet Athena, are an…an…”
I flinched. “An abomination.”
Brenden shook his head. “No. An answered prayer.”
Arching an eyebrow, I said, “Come on, Brenden. You want me to swallow that? I mean, why are you being so nice to me all of a sudden? Yesterday you were disgusted.” I’d seen first hand that both fairies as well as Under-realmers were prejudiced against some races.
“I knew it was wrong of me but…” Sighing, he shook his head like he was shaking off a bad memory. “It was a reaction I’m not very proud of. I thought you were a witch and witches…well…” Blinking several times, he went on, “Most of them become drunk with power once they find their way to…a certain substance.” He held my eyes for a moment then looked down. “But…what I forgot is you are well…you. I trust you, Athena.” He gave me this look that could melt the biggest glacier. “I do hope you’ll forgive me and not think on how I acted. I’m most ashamed of myself.”
Wanting to believe him, I gazed at him for a moment too long when flutters flew through my body. I had to catch my breath. There was something about fairies that put a spell on me. Ugh. So, I decided to change the subject. “W-What about my sister, Zelda? Is she a drakkan, too?”
“It’s hard to say,” Brenden shrugged, “but since she’s not in a wheelchair, she obviously doesn’t have a magical body to subdue.”
My changeling body gave me the creeps. I didn’t even know how I turned into that…drakkan. It was so surreal. “Yeah. Maybe she just takes after my dad.”
Brenden raised hiseyebrows. “Maybe, but she does have The Sight, which is a rare witchling trait.”
“The Sight?” I asked.
“She could see into the future. Remember when she took me as Wish Book out of your backpack? You didn’t see it, but she grabbed me while you were talking with your parents. And once she did, I could feel her emotions, and she was frightened.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said, thinking about Zelda worrying about me that time in my bedroom.
“She must have seen your grandmother and that wicked Under Realm queen going after you. If that’s the future then it hasn’t happened yet. She could also see through shrouds.”
I blinked a few times.“I remember her telling me I wasn’t like the bad people. They were ugly, but I was…” I stopped, blood rushing to my cheeks.
“Dazzling?” Brenden asked, beaming.
I pursed my lips. “No…anyway, I don’t like the idea that Zelda can see into the future and the queen and my grandmother will capture me.”
“Maybe it’s a future that doesn’t have to be but might be.” He arched an eyebrow. “Nurse Mellecant has provided us with a map and I’ve devised a bit of a plan. With much good luck, we’ll escape without ever running into your wicked friends.”
The next hour or so, Brenden outlined his strategy to escape into Middle Realm. Using the map provided by Nurse Mellecant, we’d steal into the forest with a team of misfit Under-realmers, including the gargoyles, Ferbish and Grigor, and my newfound fire breathing dragon skills, just in case anyone tried to stop us. He told me the night the gargoyles pulled off my shroud, I’d actually turned into a ferocious drakkan with huge horns and dragon wings. He thought I was going to cast some spell on all of them at first.
But then I surprised them all by spewing fire at poor Grigor from my mouth! I would have been overjoyed at the prospect of turning into a beast whenever I’d wanted except for the fact that it’d nearly killed me. Nurse Mellecant said I just needed time to toughen my body, and I’d be able to use my dragon breath at will.
Over the next few days, my strength grew as I’d drank a ton of that delicious elixir as well as walked through Nurse Mellecant’s “garden” all the time.
It was full of ratty trees and tons of bats who happened to like Brenden for some reason.
Francisco got a kick out of the poor fairy’s misery.
After Nurse Mellecant deemed me fully recovered, the time had come to say good-bye. Unfortunately, I couldn’t force myself to turn into a drakkan no matter how hard I tried. Nurse Mellecant told me it will happen naturally, so I shouldn’t worry, but the thought of roaming around the Under-realm without a shroud and without the protection of my dragon breath made me want to hide under the bed forever. And that’s even with Nurse Mellecant’s pet monsters living there. Yeah. I was totally freaking out.
“But won’t people get the wrong idea if I’m not in my shroud?” I asked her as Francisco tugged on my arm for us to leave.
Over the week, I’d learned shroud etiquette of the Under-realmers. Not wearing it during the day was like walking around the neighborhood in your underwear. We’d attract a lot of attention if I paraded around in my mixed-monster self.
Nurse Mellecant said, “Just wear a hood…none will be the wiser, lass.” She pointed at Holly. “I’ve given her your shroud.”
Holly patted a side pocket on her pants and smiled.
“Don’t wear the shroud unless you absolutely have to because once attached, you can’t take it off,” the nurse warned. “If you do, you’ll suffer the excruciating pain you did before. I don’t have time to weave you a new, lighter shroud, but Brenden assures me this will be done once you arrive at Queen Oria’s palace.”
After many good-byes and hugs, we were on our way.
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