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.

Chapter Twenty-six: In the Trap

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.

I screamed.

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.

And she looked exactly like me!

Oh my GOD! Would this nightmare ever end?

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Chapter Twenty-four: The Cave of Woe

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. 

“Athena, Ferbish!” Brenden shouted. “What’s happening?”

Without warning, the warm feelings turned into incredible pain, rocketing through my body and then a shroud of darkness overtook me.

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Chapter Twenty-three: The Challenge

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 happened.”

    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 back.

*****

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.

 

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Chapter Twenty-two: Prince Brenden MacAilf

     “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 ago.”

    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.

1apammie

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Chapter Twenty-one: The Land of the Droors

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!”

     Ferbish growled, “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

Monday, January 14th.

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