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
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?”
“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…
Ye get free wishes. Use one o’ them.
Wishcaster gets three wishes to use in times of trouble…
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.
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
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?”
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
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.
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?”
“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.”
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
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.
I couldn’t believe what I’d seen in my dream back at the ruin had actually come true. Brenden’s brothers had caught us. And it was all Brenden’s fault.
Arching an eyebrow, Brenden said, “I think it wise to give the girl and her friends to the queen without a moment’s hesitation, Duff. She’s been searching for the Wishcaster the moment we entered the realm. I’ve felt her.”
“Yes, little brother, I’m sure she has. The old wart infested hag always likes to keep the best treasures for herself. But I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought and well, I like what I see. I think the girl would do well as one of my…pets.”
My insides flinched. Pets? What was he talking about?
Brenden raised one of his hands. “Not that it matters to me at all what you do, brother, but I must warn you…Queen Casteen has the ogres under her scepter. They do her bidding. I saw it for myself at Gilly’s Trap.” He shrugged. “If you don’t mind starting a war then be my guest.”
“Humph,” the king grumbled. Rising to his feet, he snapped his fingers and a strange force brought me to a standing position. I wanted to sit back down but it was as if my feet had been pasted to the floor. I glared as hard as I could at the evil elf.
“Brenden, you were always a worrier. But I’m not sure I can let such a prize go…especially when the queen won’t use her to her full potential.”
Duff strutted closer to me as my heart pounded. His beauty surpassed even Brenden’s, but his face was more angular and hard.
“A witch dragon. No one has ever seen the like in how many years? Well, I don’t believe there ever has been one. Think of the rarity.” Duff put his hand over his mouth in thought.
I wanted to scream, blow fire, anything to get away from him. Just being this close sent chills through me.
“That’s true, Duff,” Brenden agreed. “Think of not only the money the queen would reward you, but maybe you could come to terms on how she should finally leave our people alone. We could live in the realm without her meddling in our affairs at last.”
I couldn’t believe Brenden wanted the queen to capture me. But which was worse, I wondered. To be the queen’s who-knew-what or this king’s “pet”?
“Damn,” Duff cursed. “Why do you persistently have to make sense? I’ve always wanted to have something that no one on the planet could ever gain. But…you are right, of course. It wouldn’t be wise to upset the queen. And this witch dragon would be a nice bargaining chip.”
Brenden let out a sigh. “Now you’re talking sense, brother.”
A sly look swished over the king’s face. “And now, dear Brenden. What is it you want from all of this? Besides being given your rights back and the curse lifted, how may I reward you for using your gifting as a true Droor elf? Your cunning in this situation astounds me, I must say. I’m quite proud of you.”
“I only wish one thing. To have my alchemy chamber back. That is all.”
Before I knew what was happening, yellow kaleidoscope symbols glowed from the king’s hands as purple sparks shot toward me. Pain rocketed through my body.
Then a shroud of darkness overtook me.
When I woke up, my head pounded and my body felt like lead. I was in a strange bedroom.
“There, now, me lovely. You’ve had a mighty shock. Are ye feeling a wee bit better?”
My grandmother’s voice shook me but I was too woosy to move.
“Where am I?” I whispered. My body ached from the electric magic that had pierced through my body who knew how long ago.
Suddenly, a cool, soothing liquid seemed to rush through me and I no longer felt weak. My grandmother must have done something, but I was too angry at my situation to ask. Instead, I rose out of bed, surveying the room.
Everything glowed in reddish black luster like the blood red sunset in this godforsaken realm. Candelabras flickered around me, showering my grandmother’s cracked features with an eerie red tinge.
The expensive crimson drapes looked like they came right out of an evil Jane Austen movie. I spied a portrait of a strange ivory woman next to a wolf with haunting red eyes. Harpswing fairies flitted happily above her grasp. Her creepy look gave me shivers.
My grandmother never answered my question so I asked again only more forcefully, “Where am I?”
Gran smiled. “You’re in Queen Casteen’s palace. Oh, you’re in for such a treat! She’s coming to see you, me dearie.”
Eyes narrowing, I glared at her. “What have you done with my friends?”
She patted my hand. “No need to get your breeches in a snit. They’re just fine.”
She cocked her head. “As long as you listen to yer grandmother and not go off on some wild foolish notions. Wishcaster…” Clucking her tongue, she added, “You were not born for that lowly position. Why, you’d be no more than the fairy queen’s servant.
“No,” she added. “You were born for greatness!” Her eyes almost popped out on the last word, making her look like the witch she was. A knot formed in my throat, still mourning the loss of my wonderful sweet grandmother I thought I’d known.
I ordered, “I want to see my friends. Now. Or I’m not going to listen to you no matter what you say or threaten.”
Sighing, she shook her head. “This’ll not go well if you’re going to order me about. And that attitude will not sit well with the queen neither. If ye want yer friends alive, I’d suggest ye alter yer mood.”
“What does the queen want?” I asked, hoping there was some way I could escape all of this. If only I could channel the magic I knew I had inside me. But how?
“Well, I’ll allow the queen to talk more about it. Yer to see her soon. Any minute she’ll be sending in the sentry to fetch ye. Now, let’s sit and chat on how you’ll behave. Okay, sweetling?”
I was like a pot filled with water left to boil for too long. “Honestly, I’m in no mood to be on anyone’s good behavior list, Gran. Do you have any idea what’s been going on? Not only has my whole life been turned upside down, but I’ve been captured, three times by the way, lied to by people I thought I could trust, ripped apart to where I thought I was dying, shot at, starved half to death in the cold, and fought over like I was the last item at Simmart on Black Freaking Friday! Well, I’m not for sale. Got it, Gran? And if I don’t want to cooperate, the queen can just kiss my big blue…”
“Ooooh,” Gran cut in, “I knoo just the thing that’ll put ye in a better mood. I’ve made yer favorite cookies. Spiced shortbread!”
She tapped my knee then flounced out of the massive dark door.
My mouth watered at the thought of the cinnamon and sugar cookies. I hadn’t had anything good to eat in what seemed like months. How could my grandmother be so wicked and so nice all at the same time?
But I didn’t have time to think about it. I needed to get out of there and find my friends.
Stepping to the door, I tried to open it but of course, it was locked.
Noticing a mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself. Yeah, I knew I was blue, I mean, I saw my hands and arms every day, but gazing at my full witchy self actually horrified me.
Then I spotted a picture of an ugly witch right above it.
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.
For the first few moments outside, it seemed as if I’d lost all my vision. But slowly as my eyes adjusted, I could actually see Brenden surprisingly well in the dark. His skin almost had a spooky silver glow all its own, which I felt made him an easy target for something that might want to eat him. I didn’t say that out loud, though, for his sake. And as we walked farther along, I felt as though the darkest dark became more vivid like this was how the Under Realm should be seen. Things were clearer and more vibrant at night than in the daytime, even in the mist. So strange.
“Listen,” Brenden said, stopping so we’d catch up. “Follow me. I saw a place we could hide for the night while you all were having tea with a monster.”
“I liked Mr. Payne,” Holly said.
“Hey, you missed out, sour-pants,” Francisco said. “Those brownies were awesome.”
“I would kindly ask that you refrain from referring to me as my dressing drawers and be quiet,” Brenden whispered. “There’s something scuttling about up ahead.”
He shrunk into the nearest bush. We followed hiding behind a large tree.
I heard a voice say, “I’m telling you, Ferbish, I sawr it. A fairy. Its skin was like a flash of moon, it was.”
Two winged creatures bobbled toward us. As they got closer, I noticed they looked like the gargoyles guarding Payne’s place. I had no idea if gargoyles were nice, but I didn’t want to find out. I stayed still as a stone.
The other creature laughed a high-pitched throaty sound. “Go on, Grigor. Fairies wouldn’t be within a hoot an’ a hickle from here. You’ve had too much of Plum Willie’s good ale.”
“Did not. I’m telling you…hold on…what’s that?”
“That’s ye large mole at the end of yer nose, ye globstroppet.” Ferbish, the one with the blue wings, took a poke at Grigor’s nose.
“Ow! That hurt.”
“Serves ye right, ye big baby,” Ferbish sniggered.
Then he stopped laughing. “Oh, wait a minute, Grigor, ye might be right.” The gargoyle flapped his wings and jumped into the bush where Brenden was hiding. He launched upward, holding Brenden by his scruff. “Lookie what I found?” The nasty gargoyle wiggled Brenden in the air.
“Not fair, Ferbish, I sawr him first.”
“If you don’t mind,” Brenden yelled, trying to pull the gargoyle’s hand off him, “Let me down.”
The gargoyles laughed. “Think fast!” Ferbish hurled Brenden over to the other gargoyle. Grigor flew up and caught him with one hand before Brenden could flutter away.
“Amazing, I am!” Grigor boasted.
I whispered to Francisco, “What should we do? We’ve got to help poor Brenden somehow.”
“Eh…he can take care of himself,” Francisco said, scratching his shoulder like he does when he’s nervous.
“But what if they try to eat him?” Holly asked, ominously.
“I haven’t heard them say anything about eating him,” Francisco said. “Looks like they just want to play.” He leaned in closer to me. “And besides, he had it coming.”
I felt bad. I had to think of a way to rescue him somehow. But I didn’t have anything to fight off two large, muscle bound gargoyles. I hoped Francisco was right and they weren’t going to do anything horrifying to Brenden.
“Tell you what,” Grigor said. “Let’s cut him in half. Then you can have your share and I’ll have mine.”
“No one is going to cut anyone in half,” Brenden said. “Now let me down.”
“You gots a knife, Ferbish?”
Ferbish hit Grigor on the head. “You know I don’t owns any knives.”
“Well, this is a pickle.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. If I was part witch, I had to start acting like one. Rolling out from the tree we were hiding behind, I hollered, “Hey, Thing One and Thing Two. Release him or die.”
“Look, Grigor, get a
load of her?”
“Yeah…it’s a little girl.”
“Aye…and she’s still in her shroud.”
Brenden waved me off. “Athena, get out of here. I have this matter in hand.”
I smirked. “Yeah, you look like it. They’re about to cut you in half.”
The two gargoyles snorted.
“Didn’t you hear me?” I yelled. Although they didn’t seem menacing, I had to pretend I was.
“Aye, lass, we heard,” Grigor said.
Ferbish giggled through his nose, sounding like a car sputtering. “Yeah, but we ain’t listening.” The two thought that was such a funny joke.
When they stopped laughing, Ferbish flew up to me and said, “Miss, it’s not nice to be in shroud after dark. People might get the wrong impression.”
“Yeah, like ye was trying to hide somefing,” Grigor agreed.
“Take it off,” Ferbish commanded. His beady eyes grew cold. “And we’ll give ye back yer little friend.”
I rolled backward as a knot formed in my stomach. I wasn’t feeling good like I was about to puke. “I…no…I can’t…”
Ferbish grabbed my leg. “If you’re not going to take it off, I will.”
Francisco burst out and leaped onto Ferbish, but it was too late.
Like a fingernail ripping off of a finger, Ferbish tore the shroud off my body. Fire erupted all over my skin and I fell out of my wheelchair, shaking and writhing in pain.
Holly ran over to me, and I screamed at her, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Fire thundered through my legs as though hot liquid was burning them into existence.
“Ahhh!” I shrieked. I’d never experienced stinging like this. It was as if a never-ending blaze had turned my skin to bubbling flesh. Darkness swallowed me. I had to escape the torment. I wanted to die.
I could hear Holly crying next to me. “Francisco, we need to do something!”
As an inferno burned through my body, rage welled inside me. It was like a caldron or volcano that needed to explode.
I rose up on legs I didn’t know existed, rising higher in the air, I roared. Flames erupted from my mouth. The gargoyle cried out, dropping Brenden.
But then a crushing weakness overpowered me as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I collapsed. Tiny lights flickered before my eyes. My breathing was short and rapid like a dog panting.
Holly cried out, “Brenden, please help her! Is she dying?”
Brenden kneeled next to me. “I don’t know.” He thrust two of his fingers against my neck. “Her heart is weak. She needs help. We have to get back to Middle Realm somehow.”
“Awr…” said one of the gargoyles. “We didn’t means any harm.”
“Aye,” said the other. “We was just having a wee bit o’ fun.”
One of them smacked the other. “Why’d you go and take off her shroud? You know that’s not polite.”
“Ow! I wasn’t finking, okay? Nurse Mellecant can help her.”
“Aye, that. Come with us. Hurry.”
I want to thank Natalie Auditore for her explosion cc she made for this story. (There’s more to it as well that you’ll see in the coming chapters.)
Leading the charge, I rolled my wheelchair as fast as I could over the cobblestone street to Mr. Payne’s place. I kept looking back to see if we were being followed, but it seemed as if Gran hadn’t discovered I was missing.
Holly glanced around while we rushed down the street. “Is it going to rain? I can barely see ahead of me.”
The street lamps cast an ominous glow through the mist. I could see the old, Victorian style houses fairly clearly along the streets and jagged branches of black trees.
“Scotland gives me the creeps,” Francisco said beside me, looking up all around him. “It’s spring yet the trees haven’t even budded. And that’s the weirdest full moon I’ve ever seen.”
I glanced up ahead of me in the sky. The round, glowing orb that should have been the moon at night looked more like the sun on a REALLY foggy day.
Brenden didn’t stay behind as he’d threatened. He’d followed right along with us. “Oh, Great Guardian,” he implored, shaking his head.
“What have I been trying to explain to you simpletons? We. Are. In. The. UNDER REALM!”
“Save it for someone
who cares, dork,” Francisco retorted.
“Fine. Don’t listen to me, but when the sun sets, you all had better get indoors. Got it?”
“You mean it’s not night time?” I asked.
“No,” Brenden answered. “It’s about four thirty in the afternoon. The sun never really shines in the Under Realm, although you can see it. When it sets, everyone in this realm will take off their shrouds and come out to play and believe me, you don’t want to be from a different realm then.”
“We’re here!” I cried, pointing at the huge house looming ahead. “Now, all I have to do is ask Mr. Payne to call my parents and we’re saved.”
Brenden rolled his eyes.
“What’s wrong with that plan?”
Brenden crossed his arms.
“You can’t call the Over Realm here.”
I stopped at Mr.Payne’s mailbox, ignoring Brenden’s Under Realm ravings.
“See?” I pointed. “Just a normal, everyday, OVER REALM mailbox.”
“Lovely,” Brenden moaned.
“What’s wrong now?” I asked.
Francisco scratched his head. “Um…I hate to say it, Athena, but I think I’m agreeing with old sour-pants here. That’s not someplace I want to go.”
“Y-Yeah…” Holly’s already huge eyes had grown into full moons.
I didn’t understand until I saw the house. It was a typical Victorian style mansion much like most of the houses on the street except this one looked as if it had been converted from some sort of mill with strange pipes growing out its sides. And instead of a beautiful gazebo on the lawn, there were two menacing gargoyles almost growling at us.
“No…it’s okay,” I said, but getting very creepy vibes as we rolled up to the house. A shrill screechy squawk made me jump as something flew past. “I-I s-see what you mean,” I stammered, stopping my chair as we approached the doorsteps. “You sure don’t notice things like that when you’re a little kid.”
“Yeah, well, I’m outta here,” Francisco said.
He grabbed my wheelchair and pulled me back to spin me around when I heard a low haunting voice say, “Going somewhere?”
I let out a small squeak and Holly outright squealed.
But then I recognized him. All decked out in a three piece greenish gray, velvet suit, and tails, I knew exactly who he was.
“Hi, Mr. Payne. It’s me. Athena Martin. Remember me?”
His sunken eyes widened, “Athena, me lovely! My, how you’ve grown!” He waved warmly at me. “Have you paid a visit to your old friend, Payne, now? How’s your Gran? She hasn’t come over for tea in ages.”
He was about a head taller than Brenden. “Name’s Payne, but everyone always calls me Old Jack.” He winked at Holly, mischievously. “And who are yer friends?”
I smiled at the kind man. Mr. Payne had always been so nice in the past and even though Scotland may have looked a little strange, it was how I remembered. Friendly. Warm. Comforting.
“Mr. Payne, these are my friends, Francisco Romero and Holly Woodlace.”
Payne kissed Holly’s hand and said, “You aren’t related to the Woodlaces of Dreary Lane are you? You do have a bit of their gothic flair.” I hadn’t realized it, but yeah. Holly did seem to fit in around this neighborhood.
“Check out these dreads,” Holly pointed to Mr. Payne’s hair. “My mom would love all the cool stuff you’ve wrapped them in. What are those? Car parts?”
“Actually, that’s a bit of tubing from an electric pumpkin coach I’ve been building. Want to see it, lass?”
“Would I?” Holly asked, gleefully.
“Ahem, with all due respect.” Brenden flew in front of Mr. Payne to get his attention. “We’re on a tight schedule, so if you don’t mind, Athena has something to ask you.”
The man stepped back, scrunching up his face. “Good Guardian…Is that a…a…fairy?”
I shifted in my seat. I was avoiding mentioning Brenden. I had no idea how he was going to treat poor Mr. Payne when he’d treated me so badly. Since he thought we were in the Under Realm, he probably thought Mr. Payne was a goblin or something. But then I realized Mr. Payne knew exactly what Brenden was. A creepy shiver crawled along my neck, replacing what used to feel normal and homey. Maybe this really was the Under Realm.
“Um…yes, this is my friend, Brenden.” I motioned toward my used-to-be-fairy friend. I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but my feelings were still hurt. Brenden hadn’t apologized. “Just ignore him if he comes off rude.”
“Aye, lass, rude is all they know,” Payne said, raising his bushy eyebrows. “I need to talk with ye about with whom you should make friends. Fairies are not to be trusted, ye know.”
Glaring at Brenden, I said, “I’ve been beginning to find that out.”
Brenden winced a smile. “Um, yes, well, let’s be off then, shall we?” He looked behind us, nervously then motioned toward Payne’s house.
Payne bowed. “Where are me manners? Of course. You need to sit for tea, do ye? We can take it in me garden. Lodestone will attend us.”
Francisco rolled my chair down the crooked pathway, following Mr. Payne and Holly, chatting away about steam engines and pumpkins.
Brenden whispered next to me, “Athena, we don’t have time for tea. You must either ask Mr. Payne to help us or whisk us out of here yourself. We have approximately thirty-five minutes before the spooks reveal themselves, and I want to be in another dimension when that happens!”
My eyebrows knitted. I’d had enough of Brenden for one day. “Shh! Tea sounds good and you better not be rude to Mr. Payne or I’ll sic Francisco on you.”
“Yeah,” Francisco agreed.“I’ve been wanting to get him in a guillotine headlock. Fitting for this place, huh?”
At that, Brenden flew away then faced us as I glanced back. I saw a hurt look on his face.
He kicked a weed and whacked at the rot iron fence.
Hanging back, he surveyed the yard. I could tell he was scared a vampire might fly out at any moment. A little twinge of guilt rippled over me. I didn’t like fighting with him.
Inside, I knew Brenden cared even though my grandmother was a witch and that disgusted him. I mean, he was looking out for us. Although he hated being outside, he was making sure we were safe by keeping watch. A clammy shiver tingled down my back. I didn’t like the idea of creatures coming out at night either. If this wasn’t nighttime, I hated to see what this place looked like after sunset.
Our situation scrolled through my mind. If this was the Under Realm, how could I call my parents?
Brenden was right. I couldn’t.
And the more and more I saw of Mr. Payne’s yard, the more convinced I was that this wasn’t Scotland.
At the entrance of a small garden of unusual glowing grass and trees was an enormous plant with a huge, cow’s head at the top. I signaled to Francisco that I was going on ahead, and rolled up to the plant to get a better look when…
The plant lunged at me, taking a bite of air, nearly missing sinking its fangs in me by inches. I screamed and shot backwards.
Payne ran over and caressed the plant. “Now, Mordenia, you know these are me friends. Let’s not be a naughty pet today, okay, love?”
The plant growled as if it was a huge Rottweiler protecting its master. I wasn’t about to go past it. “Uh…maybe we should have tea inside instead.”
“Oh, higgledyfop.” Payne waved his arm. “She won’t bite you now that she knows we’re great pals.” He turned to the plant and cooed at it, ”Will you, dragonkins?” The plant trilled a purr.
“Now I’ve seen everything,” Francisco said, walking over to me. “You’ve got some weird relatives, Athena.”
“He’s not my relative.” But I had to agree with him. I was feeling stranger and stranger by the minute.
Holly bounced up to Mordenia and asked Payne, “May I?”
He bowed and said, “Of course. She loves to play. Go on. She won’t bite.”
Gingerly, Holly wiggled her fingers and said, “Who’s a sweet plant? Is that you, Mordy? Yes, it is! You want to play, huh?”
Mordenia huffed and whimpered which sounded almost like a laugh. She nodded that big cowhead of hers.
“Well, alright! Up you go, Mordy! Yes, that’s it!” Holly cooed.
The plant looked as if she perched on her hind…stalk…and panted, wagging her…uh…leaf.
Holly beamed. “Hey, guys! How cool is this? I just made friends with a plant!”
Payne ushered us underneath a giant, black tree to a quaint rot iron table with four chairs.
“This is the perfect setting for tea, don’t ye think?” he asked.
Taking out his cell phone, he tapped a button and a loud gong rang out.
Instantly, a mechanical butler, of sorts, rolled over to us with a full set of tea and brownies. “Thank ye kindly, Lode,” Payne said.
It clicked a few times then sputtered away to its position in the garden.
“So,” Payne said, grabbing his mug, “what brings you to our delightfully dark side of the world?”
I sipped the warm tea. It tasted like pumpkins and spice and something else I’d never tasted before but would like to eat everyday like mangos or chocolate or ice cream. “Mmm…this is good, Mr. Payne, thank you!” I sipped the warm deliciousness again then set it down and answered his question, “Well, I’m kind of in a little trouble, I guess.” I didn’t know what else to say. I mean, could I trust Mr. Payne or any Under-realmer for that matter? But what choice did I have? It was either trust him or go back to Gran. “Have you ever heard of the Shroud of Protection?”
Mr. Payne’s eyes held sadness. “Oy, yer not mixed up in that mess are ye, lass? I don’t care what ye heard.” His serious face leaned toward me and said, “Queen Casteen is off her crock. Don’t get muddled in her affairs. I said as much to your grandmother months ago. Not sure if she listened to me though.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I don’t understand everything, but if we don’t fix the shroud, your queen is going to war with all the realms.”
“Bloody houndstooth,” Payne roared. “Is that true, lass? Don’t surprise me none seeing as how that blood thirsty creature killed her way onto her pedestal in the first place.” He sipped his tea, staring far away. Pointing toward the front yard, he asked, “Is that your fairy now?”
And it was as if something hit him like a rock or a brick, and he flinched. Eyes wide, he covered his mouth and exclaimed, “Yer not the Wishcaster, are ye?”
“Not yet,” Francisco said with a little pride in his voice, filling his plate again for thirds of brownies. “But she’s gonna be.”
“That’s not true, Francisco,” I said. “I haven’t passed the Third Trial.”
I turned to Mr. Payne.“My grandmother kidnapped me as I was about to go. I don’t know what your queen wants with me, but I’ve got to get back. If I don’t…”
Payne shushed me, looking around nervously. “Great Guardian in heaven, don’t say anything more, lass. The queen has spies everywhere.” He hunkered down and whispered as if there were microphones hidden in the trees, “Most of us are peace-loving folk. I know many Over-realmers stick their fancy human noses up in the air and hate our kind, but we aren’t like her or her ilk and we don’t want no war.” He leaned in even closer, “If I help you, will you let those Over-realmers know we ain’t a bad lot? There’s a few rotten apples, sure, maybe more than usual.” Payne’s eyes grew misty and he put his hand on his heart. “But they don’t represent the majority who live and breathe and love here.”
I smiled at him, feeling unusually guilty for my own race’s prejudice. Well, my half-race. I guessed nasty witches and trolls and goblins got all the press in my world. My Gran wasn’t doing Under-realmers any favors either. “If I escape and I become this Wishcaster, I’ll do what I can to wipe out any prejudice in all the realms.” I glanced up, looking at Brenden, pacing by the front gate. He’d probably been raised to hate the Under Realm even worse than we had as Over-realmers.
As we finished talking, I noticed the sky had turned everything into a hue of deep reddish orange.
“Whoa,” Francisco whispered. “That’s the reddest sunset I’ve ever seen.”
“Amazing,” Holly said, jumping out of her seat and bounding over to the garden fence to get a better look away from the trees.
Holly looked back at me, blinking her eyes. “I never imagined it would be like this.”
Payne cleared his throat and bent over to me. “Miss Athena, you’d better get your fairy friend inside. Although I’m a wee bit liberal when it comes to fairies, most people around this neighborhood are not, and if they come upon one, well, there won’t be much left of him by morning.” He sighed. “Under-realmers have their prejudices, too.”
I asked Francisco if he could grab Brenden. It didn’t take any type of coaxing to get him inside. As it was, everything took on a crimson hue as the sun crept downward. It gave me the creeps like we were all bathed in blood.
Most of the house was styled like a rich, Victorian home with lots of beautiful velvet furnishings, large unique sculptures, and many paintings of families, important individuals, and weird animals that looked like antiquated robots. No hobgoblins. No people with missing heads. It was fairly normal so I didn’t get why Brenden was so creeped out.
I was beginning to feel tired with all I’d been through. Back home, I was sure it was bedtime. I yawned, so glad Francisco was sweet enough to push my chair for me.
Payne ushered us to his workspace. This was where he’d crafted his mechanical pumpkin. He told us he was an actor by trade, and that he’d performed amazing stunts for the neighborhood. This huge pumpkin carriage was going to be his biggest triumph.
I honestly didn’t see how this thing was so amazing. Yeah, it was big and looked pretty cool but I’d seen bigger and better stuff at our rinky dink pumpkin farm back home.
“Here,” he pointed to a large painting, “is my family. There’s me mum and dad and over here is me in adolescence with me two little sisters, Pickled and Prune and the next eldest Plummie and my little brother Sheldon. Don’t we look nice in our shrouds?”
He winked at me. “What I love about these paintings (I had them especially made by a talented witch two hundred years ago), is that once the sun sets, the shrouds come off.”
Instantly, the beautiful human looking family morphed into five hideous zombies, complete with blood dripping from their skeletal mouths.
“Wicked!” Holly squealed, inching her face closer to inspect the painting.
“S-So, you’re a zombie.” Francisco stepped a safe distance away from Payne.
“Worse,” Brenden whispered to us. “He’s an undead. It’s probably the most despicable race in the Under Realm. Oh, thank you, Athena, for imprisoning us here with your flesh-eating friend. Now if you don’t mind, use your magic and get us home!”
Although Payne talked as smooth as liquid chocolate, I was beginning to agree with Brenden. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t like the way Payne was leering at us as if we were a Halloween treat.
“Um…yeah, well, hey, Mr. Payne, i-it’s been so nice chatting with you and seeing your awesome home, but I think we’d better get back to Gran’s place. I’ll check back with you on the favor, okay?”
I hit Francisco in the side and motioned for him to grab Holly.
Payne arched an eyebrow. “Aw, lass, you can’t go now. It’s the witching hour. Time for our unveiling. I noticed yer wearing quite a thick shroud yourself and the sun is down. We Under-realmers must free ourselves. It’s only proper.” He stepped close to me, reaching for my knee. “Want me to help you take it off?”
I squealed, rolling myself backward from his touch. “Francisco…” I sang.
“On it.” Francisco grabbed my chair and waved at Payne. “It’s been real, Payne. Later!” And he hustled me toward the red door with the wooden floor creaking against my wheels. Brenden was blazing the trail ahead, muttering angrily to himself about bloodthirsty creatures and goblins and hangings and all sorts of dangers we were heading into.
I heard Payne callout, “Okay, be careful then! Take off yer shroud if you get into any trouble, lass!”
Francisco whipped my chair down the short steps and we fled into the darkest night I’d ever known.
I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to Rabooski for designing Mr. Payne’s Place. It’s the coolest steam punk house I’ve ever seen with TONS of surprises all in the house (which I didn’t get to show you here, but hopefully will in the next installment of this story (which is Part 2 which won’t happen for a while.) Download it here to gape at the fun splendor! STEAMPUNK HAUNTS