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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Chapter Eighteen: A Path for Misfits

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.”

Next update will be Wednesday, December 26th. 

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