Happy Thanksgiving! 2020 has been a year unlike any other. For many, it’s been pretty poopy. For all of us, it’s brought unexpected changes. And yet, there is always something to be thankful for.
This year, I’m thankful for all of YOU. You all have been so encouraging on this writing journey, and I can’t wait to share my story with you next year. Thank you for reading, for encouraging, for commenting, for sharing. It’s so appreciated.
There won’t be a short story this week as I’m taking some time for family this week. I’ll be back in December with one more Magik Prep Christmas story, and we’ll have one other guest writer.
Until then, enjoy this week, and count your blessings.
“So there really was a ghost on your ship?” Sabra set a dainty teacup and saucer
in front of Captain Hale, then filled it with steaming amber tea. Captain Hale shifted slightly, and the spindly chair underneath him groaned in protest. “Yes, unfortunately. It would seem I have to break some sort of curse in order to get rid of the bas– ah, the uninvited guest.”
Sabra tucked a stray curl of black hair behind her ear and sat at the table across from him, and her gray eyes met his. Captain Hale had to remind himself, very firmly, to focus.
“I don’t see how I can help you, Captain Hale. I don’t know anything about curses.”
“Actually, I think you can. Or at least, your grandmother can. You see, like your grandmother, this ghost assumed I was Corsan. Any idea why that might be?”
Sabra’s brow furrowed slightly and she sipped at her tea. “I’m not sure, Captain Hale. Maybe because you’re the captain of a pirate ship, like my grandfather was?”
Hale doubted that was the case, but somehow he couldn’t find reason to argue with Sabra. “Please, call me Rylan. And that’s a distinct possibility, but it still doesn’t get the ghost off my ship.” You’re an idiot, Hale. Pull yourself together.
Sabra smiled softly and set her teacup down with a soft clink. “Very well, Rylan. I think I have an idea. My Gran kept some of my grandfather’s old things. I’ll go get them; maybe something in there will give us a clue as to how to rid you of your phantom.” She stood from the table and slipped into another room. Captain Hale watched her go, then sighed heavily when she was out of sight. Then silently berated himself for acting like a schoolboy.
Footsteps sounded from the hall and Captain Hale sat up straight in his chair, but it was only Sabra’s grandmother tottering into the room. Neela seemed to take no notice of him, just ambled around the room softly humming to herself. Sabra appeared in the doorway a moment later carrying a small chest.
“Here,” she said, setting the chest on the table. “Feel free to look while I get Gran some tea.”
Hale pried the rusted metal clasp on the chest open and lifted the lid; the hinges shrieked from years of neglect. Inside was a random assortment of objects: seashells, gold and silver coins, loose papers. Hale lifted a stack of papers from the chest and rifled through them. There were a couple of old manifests and crew logs, nothing that really caught Hale’s attention, until he spotted what appeared to be a letter, dated nearly 70 years ago. His eyes quickly scanned the letter, and suddenly details started to snap into place.
“Does the name Morgan Trask mean anything to you, by chance?” Hale looked over at Sabra, who was currently busy balancing a cup and saucer in her hand while ushering Neela into a chair.
“My grandfather’s first mate. They were best friends. Why? Did you find something?”
Neela eased into her chair, now singing softly to herself.
Hale glanced back down at the letter still clutched in his hand. “Maybe. But even if I’m correct I still don’t know…” Hale grew still, his gaze fixed on Neela as she sang.
“From the north the sea winds blow, North to the Jagged Teeth they go, The Siren’s Song one did know, While the other knew only woe. From the north the sea winds sigh, Around the Jagged Teeth they fly, But then the waves tossed too high,
And both were cursed to never die.”
“So that’s it,” Hale whispered as a chill ran the length of his spine and the hairs on his arms stood up. He went to place the papers back in the chest when his gaze snapped to a portrait sitting on top of the scattered items. Sea-gray eyes stared at him from above a tangled mane of black beard, and Hale knew at once he’d seen Corsan before.
Or his head, at least.
“I still don’t understand why we’re taking a rowboat C aptain. Couldn’t we have hired a bigger boat?” Henry Bosan tugged on the oars, his face screwed up in a scowl. Captain Hale, standing at the front of the little boat with one foot up on the prow, rolled his eyes skyward. “I’m a captain H enry. Hiring out another boat while we have a perfectly good one would injure my pride.”
“But the Teeth are dangerous, Captain. What if we get caught in a tide and get smashed between the rocks?”
Hale sighed heavily and turned to glower at his first mate. “Well I suppose you’d better steer carefully then, Henry.” The wind howled around them, tearing at Hale’s coat and sending cold spray up to hit him in the face. Hale just squinted his eyes against the stinging salt water and wind and scanned the horizon while Henry coaxed their boat around the rocks known as “The Teeth.”
The boat dipped precariously as Henry hauled on the oars, narrowly avoiding one of the Teeth. When the ship righted itself, Hale saw what he’d been looking for.
“Henry! Aim for the shore over there!” A groan came from behind him. “You mean the one with an eerie green glow?” “Yes, Henry. We’re trying to get a ghost off my ship – did you expect kittens? Rainbows maybe?”
Henry guided the boat to shore, and the bow scraped onto the deserted, rocky beach. Hale jumped from the boat and pulled it the rest of the way onto the rocks, careful to keep his footing on the slippery rocks below him.
Hale glanced up at Henry, who was making a strangled noise in the back of his throat. Henry’s face was deathly pale in the moonlight; his eyes were riveted to a point over Hale’s shoulder, and he lifted a shaking finger to point.
Hale turned, his heart hammering against his ribs. High on a hill stood a figure; bathed in the eerie green glow Hale saw from the boat, the figure was holding a lantern aloft. The ghost – for Hale was sure it was a ghost – had no head.
“Hello Corsan,” Hale whispered.
The ghost lifted a hand and beckoned to Hale, then disappeared down the other side of the hill.
“Captain. Don’t tell me you’re about to follow that thing?”
Hale took a deep breath. “Yes, Henry, I believe I am. Stay here with the boat. If I don’t happen to return, I leave all my worldly goods to your mother.”
Hale marched up the beach, leaving a dumbstruck Henry behind. He followed the light from the specter’s lantern deeper into the island until it finally came to a stop. The ghost held its lantern up, bathing a nearby tree in sickly green light, and pointed.
Leaning against the tree was a skeleton missing its skull.
“Ah,” Hale said. “Your body, I presume. And what exactly am I supposed to do now?”
The ghost of Corsan remained, still pointing at its skeleton.
Captain Hale sighed. “Look, I’m sorry you are dead and all, but your first mate’s ghost is running around my ship. Any chance you had something to do with it?”
The ghost didn’t move. Hale nearly screamed in frustration.
“Are you the one that cursed Morgan? Look, I get it. Good help is hard to find. But I need to remove the curse and get his spectral carcass off my ship.”
The ghost lowered its lantern and patted its chest, right over where its heart would have been, then pointed back at the skeleton.
Hale frowned. “You want me to check your body?”
The ghost leaned forward slightly, in what Hale assumed was a sign of assent. Hale cautiously approached the skeleton; most of the clothing had long since rotted away, but parts of what looked like a leather vest still clung to the bones in ragged tatters. Hale squinted at the skeleton’s chest; a piece of leather clinging to the ribs right above where Corsan’s heart should have been had a perfect, round hole punched through it.
“You were shot,” Hale said. He turned back to Corsan’s ghost. “Morgan?” The ghost bowed forward again. Hale rocked back on his heels, thinking. “So your first mate betrayed you, which is why I assume you’re still hanging around. But why is Morgan’s ghost still lingering? Who cursed him? You?”
Corsan’s ghost raised a pointed finger again and lifted his lantern higher. Hale looked back at the skeleton and noticed something glinting from within the bones. A gold chain hung around the skeleton’s neck, and whatever was on the end of it had slipped underneath the sternum.
Hale gingerly lifted the chain over the remaining neck bones. It was a locket. Hale pried it open; inside was a portrait of a woman with a halo of auburn hair framing her face and the deepest blue eyes that seemed to pierce Hale to his soul. Neela.
He closed the locket with a soft snick and glanced at Corsan’s ghost. “I’ll take your bones to the sea, Captain,” he said gently. “And I’ll tell her what happened.”
A soft breeze rustled the leaves above Hale, carrying the briny smell of the ocean with it. The ghost bowed from the waist, then disappeared as the wind carried him away in wisps.
Captain Hale found Sabra and her grandmother walking the cliffs near the shore.
Sabra smiled when she saw him, and Hale’s knees became noticeably weaker. He clutched the locket more tightly in his fist and forced himself to keep walking.
“Rylan! Have you made any progress with your ghost?”
Hale smiled at her. “Yes, I believe I’ll have things straightened out soon. May I have a word with your grandmother? Alone?”
Sabra frowned slightly. “Alone? I don’t know how well Gran will understand…”
Hale opened his mouth to insist, but Neela reached up and patted Sabra’s cheek. “It’s fine, dear. I feel quite clear today.”
Sabra still looked unsure, but she finally nodded and looked at Hale. “Will you bring her to the Albatross when you’re finished? We were going to get some lunch.”
Hale placed his hand over his heart. “On my honor.”
Sabra gave him a slight smile and made her way back along the path toward town.
Neela turned and watched her go. She remained still, even when she surely heard the click of the hammer on Hale’s pistol.
“How long have you suspected?” Neela’s voice was clear, no hint of confusion or the creaks of old age.
“After I read Corsan’s letter to you. At first, I didn’t understand. No pirate in his right mind would give up a life at sea. But then your song confirmed my suspicions.”
Neela turned to face him then, and the smile on her face nearly made Hale’s blood run cold. He gripped the pistol until his knuckles turned white.
“The song was a bit heavy-handed, wasn’t it?” She glanced cooly at the pistol, the smile never leaving her face. “You really don’t plan to shoot me, do you Captain Hale?”
Hale almost lowered the gun; it was as if an outside force was compelling him to drop it. His hand shook.
“Give me one good reason not to. I’m a pirate – your kind have killed sailors for eons.”
Her blue eyes hardened, darkening to the near-black of the deep ocean churning in a storm. “I’ve only ever killed one man in my life, Captain Hale. And believe me when I say he deserved it.”
She nodded, her eyes still dangerous. “He killed my Corsan. He and my husband left together, and only he returned. I don’t know why Morgan killed him, but it didn’t matter.” She paused, seemingly daring Hale to disagree with her. “I sang to him, Captain Hale. I sang his fate into existence – that he would never rest until I found my Corsan – and it drove him mad. He drowned himself in Candlekeep harbor to escape my song.”
Hale could feel his resolve waver slightly. “Why didn’t you look for Corsan’s body? His soul, and Morgan’s, have been lingering here for decades. Why not put them to rest?”
For the first time the smile wavered. “You don’t know much about my kind, do you Captain Hale? I’m bound here, to Candlekeep – I cannot leave the shore. A siren may lure as many sailors to her island as she wishes, but she cannot leave it. It is our curse – to forever feel the call to the sea, but never be able to sail it.”
Neela’s voice was so filled with sadness and longing, Hale lowered the pistol, but kept it in his hand. He held out the locket.
“I found Corsan,” he said gently. “I returned his bones to the sea.”
Neela cradled the locket in her hands and squeezed her eyes shut. “Thank you,” she whispered. She fixed Hale with her blue eyes again. “Morgan Trask will no longer haunt your ship. My Corsan is at rest, so Morgan is also.”
Hale inclined his head. But one more question burned in his mind.
“Why was Corsan giving up his ship? Did you sing to him, too? Convince him to stay on land with you?”
Neela’s eyes glittered and she arched an eyebrow. “Believe it or not, Captain Hale, I loved Corsan. And he loved me. I never sang to him, not once.” She paused, and gazed out to sea. “Corsan loved the sea. I understood that when I agreed to marry him.”
Neela smiled sadly. “I told him I was pregnant.”
Hale’s mind drifted, unbidden, to Sabra. Her gray eyes and easy smile, and for a moment, Hale thought he understood. Hale quietly slipped his pistol back in his waistband and he and Neela stood silently, both gazing out to sea. Eventually Neela’s hand slipped into the crook of his elbow, and without a word they turned and walked down the path.
Facts, Fantasy, & Fascinations is delighted to welcome fellow writer, M. E. Lebron this week. “The Curse of Candlekeep” is a super spooky read that will keep you on your toes and rushing to read more. It will be a two part feature. Next week will be the final installment. Did I mention there were pirates???
Captain Rylan Hale took one look around Candlekeep and decided he hated the town and everyone in it.
Maybe the pirate wouldn’t be so touchy if his ship was in good repair and he was standing on the deck of said ship with the salt breeze caressing his face. But as it was, Queen Hera’s Revenge had barely limped its way into port, and now Captain Hale found himself stranded.
Really, the storm he could have handled. The damage to the Revenge wasn’t the worst of it either. His bad mood had actually started with the Harbormaster.
“Welcome to Candlekeep, my good man!”
Captain Hale barely had one toe on the pier before a foppish man in a tri-corner hat accosted him.
“My name is Simon Culpepper. I’m the Harbormaster here in Candlekeep. Are you here on merchant business, or simply passing through?”
Good lord, even his name offends the senses, Hale thought. The Captain blinked at the harbormaster, then turned and glanced back at his ship. There on the mainmast, snapping in the breeze, flew a black flag – the mark of a pirate vessel. Hale fixed Simon Culpepper with a pointed stare; the harbormaster’s eyes slowly traveled up to the flag and his mouth formed an “o” of surprise.
Yes, that’s it. Scuttle away from the fearsome pirate and leave me and my crew alone.
“I see,” said the harbormaster.
Captain Hale smirked in satisfaction.
“Well, Captain. I hope you enjoy your stay in Candlekeep. But try not to have too much fun, eh?” Simon Culpepper gently elbowed Hale in the ribs, winked conspiratorially, then turned and went on his merry way, whistling as he went.
Captain Hale had stood rooted to the pier, trying to decide if he wanted to shoot at Culpepper’s retreating back, or throw up. In the end, he settled for being grumpier than usual.
Now, sitting at the bar in the disgustingly picturesque Albatross Inn, Hale could feel his mood going from sour to rancid. Everyone in Candlekeep was so nice. The men tipped their hats to him in the streets. The women smiled and bobbed their heads. The barkeeper even tried to make small talk.
“It’s not natural,” Hale muttered into his tankard of beer.
The door to the inn squeaked open and two women shuffled inside. A young woman with dark hair gently ushered the oldest woman Hale had ever seen into the inn; the young woman was clearly distressed – and clearly attractive, Hale noticed – but the old woman held his attention. Though the crone looked quite frail, she put up a valiant struggle to get away, the entire time weeping and muttering to herself.
Captain Hale sat up a little straighter in his chair. Something interesting might happen in this sleepy little town after all.
The bartender hurried out from behind the bar and took the old woman by the hand, steering her gently toward a table.
“I’m so sorry, Ned. I don’t know what’s come over Gran. She’s been like this ever since we spotted a ship in the harbor while we were walking the pier.”
“It’s alright, Sabra dear. Let’s get Neela to a table and I’ll make a cup of tea.” The old woman lifted her head and fixed her eyes on Captain Hale. “My Corsan,” she said, her voice trembling. “You’ve come home to me at last.” Every head in the bar swiveled in his direction.
Just great, he thought sourly.
The young woman – Sabra, apparently – made her way over to him. As Captain Hale took in her velvet black hair and sea-gray eyes, he decided his bad mood might be improving slightly.
“I’m sorry about my grandmother.” Sabra’s voice was sweet, almost melodic. “Her mind is… not what it used to be. She gets confused.”
Alright Hale, just tell the girl there’s no harm done and go back to your beer.
“Who exactly does your grandmother think I am?”
Drat it, man!
“Corsan, my grandfather. He… was a pirate. Like you.” Interesting. “ And what happened to him?” “He sailed away seventy years ago and never returned. I guess my Gran just saw your ship and thought…” Captain Hale adjusted his hat to a more rakish angle and gave Sabra what he hoped was a roguish smile. “Well, no harm done. Tell your Gran –” The door flew open and hit the wall behind it with a teeth-jarring bang. Henry
Bosan, Hale’s first mate, tore into the inn yelling and waving his arms. “Captain! Come quick!”
Hale rolled his eyes to the ceiling and stood from his stool. “Henry, this had better be good because if not –” “Captain sir, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But I swear on my mother’s grave, sir. There’s a ghost on our ship.”
“Henry Bosan, if you dragged me away from a perfectly good mug of beer for nothing, I’m going to tie you to the prow and let the gulls eat you.”
Captain Hale had been standing in the belly of his ship for nearly twenty minutes, impatiently tapping his boot against the deck boards. A solitary oil lantern pierced the gloom, swinging gently with the slight rocking of the ship.
“Sir, there was a ghost. I swear on –”
“Your mother’s grave, yes I know,” Hale snapped. “I also know your mother is alive and well and living in Raven’s Hollow. She’s quite flexible for her age.” Hale tapped his boot a few more times, then turned toward the ladder leading to the upper deck. “I’m leaving, Henry. Don’t bother me again unless something is sinking or on fire.”
He placed his boot on the bottom rung when the air went suddenly frigid. Hale’s breath came out of his mouth in a puff of white vapor, and he clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.
“It’s the ghost, Captain! I told you!” Hale slowly turned, his hand reaching for the pistol tucked into his belt. A figure, pale and translucent, materialized from out of the shadows. Dressed in pirate’s clothes, the phantom held a bloody dagger in one hand, and tucked underneath the opposite elbow was a severed head.
The phantom turned and fixed its milky-white eyes on Captain Hale.
“Corsan,” the phantom hissed.
The hairs on Hale’s neck and arms stood up and goosebumps prickled along his back.
“I knew you would come for me in the end, Corsan! I should have tossed your bones into the sea.” The phantom raised the knife and lunged for Hale. Hale drew his pistol and fired off a shot – the lead ball passed straight through the ghost and punched a hole through the wall behind it. The ghost bore down on Hale, then passed through him. Hale shuddered, feeling as if he’d been dropped into ice water. With a howl that nearly turned Hale’s blood to ice, the phantom disappeared.
Hale stood for a moment, staring at the spot where the ghost vanished. Then he stuffed the pistol back in his belt and turned to Henry.
“Bosan, my apologies.” Then the Captain swept up the ladder, across the deck, and down the gangplank.
That was the second time he’d been mistaken for Corsan in one day. But Captain Hale wasn’t the type to investigate. All he cared about was that there was a ghost on his ship, and if he couldn’t blast it to pieces, he needed some other method to get rid of it.
Pirates are superstitious creatures. They have to be when dealing with something as wild and unpredictable as the ocean. Superstitions gave a man the illusion of control over his circumstances. But Captain Hale knew of another profession where one needed to be more superstitious than a pirate. And lucky for him, Candlelkeep employed just such a person.
Captain Hale made his way through the neat little town graveyard to the small church and cottage on top of the hill. The ever-so-helpful barkeep assured him Father Basil Barnes, resident cleric, would be at his cottage this time of evening. Hale rapped on the door and waited.
A few muffled thumps followed by a “Just a minute!” preceded the opening of the door to reveal a squat, balding man wearing brown robes. Father Basil blinked owlishly at Captain Hale. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, Father, I believe you can. See, I’m having a bit of a problem with a ghost and I –”
The cleric rolled his eyes heavenward and shoved his head out the door to peek around the cottage.
“Dolores, you hateful old hag! I told you last week if I had to banish you one more time, I’d dig up your miserable bones and bury you next to your ex-husband!” The cleric turned to look at Hale. “Give me just a minute. I’ll get the herbs and candles. Tell the townsfolk I’ll fix Dolores real good this time.”
Hale grabbed the cleric by the back of the robes as the little man tried to retreat back into his cottage.
“Uh, Father, as interesting as Dolores sounds, she’s not the ghost in question.”
The cleric whirled around, his eyebrows shooting up. “Not Dolores? Oh, thank the gods. She’s really mean, you know.”
“No, not Dolores. A different ghost. A pirate. He’s taken up residence on my ship and I want him gone.”
The cleric scratched his chin and frowned. “A pirate, you say? Interesting. And he didn’t appear until you came here to Candlekeep?” Hale nodded.
“I see. Well, considering this ghost just appeared, I don’t think the spirit is bound to your ship. I’d say your arrival here triggered the ghost somehow. Considering it’s the ghost of a pirate, maybe you activated a curse of some sort.”
Hale resisted the urge to sigh in exasperation. “Fascinating. Truly. That still doesn’t tell me how to get the thing off my ship.”
“Oh, well, you’d need to break the curse, obviously.” “Obviously.” The cleric waved his hand dismissively. “Just find out who put the curse on your ghost and they can tell you how to lift it. Should be simple.”
Captain Hale turned and stalked back down the hill. Looks like he’d have to do some investigating after all.
Colin “Hunter” Abreen was my brother’s best friend, the best basilisk hunter instructor at Magik Prep, and definitely off limits. My treacherous heart needed more persuasion on this last part.
On a stupid whim I’d signed myself up for Colin’s 401 basilisk hunter course as my senior elective. Because I was a glutton for punishment. And a hopeless basilisk hunter. I’d been sent to the infirmary with punctures in various places more times than anyone else. Ever. More times than anyone who had ever taken the class.
It didn’t matter how hard I tried, how much I practiced my technique, how much I wanted to excel and impress Colin. I just couldn’t see the stupid creatures. But they always saw me. And then they bit me.
My pointed ears twitched, my blonde hair pulled up and out of the way so nothing would hinder my ability to hear their soft slithering. My ears were more reliable than my eyesight in picking out their inconspicuous bodies in the dense underbrush of the academy’s forested park where class was held. Even using my enhanced vision goggles that protected me from the dangerous stare of the loathsome beasts, my ears were a better bet.
My fingers gripped my net and my hooked stick. I would catch this basilisk if it was the last thing I did. We’d been stalking each other in circles for the past 78 increments. I was done stalking. I was ready to conquer.
A slither to the right!
No, there, in the bush!
I silently raised my net and hook, ready to scoop up a smarmy, slithery, insufferable creature. Crouching as Colin had instructed, I crept forward with the grace of a sleek-bodied water ghost.
A slight movement!
I howled and dropped my net that had snared a terribly dangerous patch of wildflowers and clutched my hand. My whole arm smarted as the creature’s mild venom spread needle-like tingles up to my shoulder. Glancing at the bushy fronds in front of me, I just made out the basilisk’s disappearing tail.
Biting back a curse, I glanced at my hand. It wasn’t a bad bite. But it was a bite. And I’d failed yet again to capture a reptilian fiend.
I ripped off my goggles and stomped towards the tent at the opening of the woods that served as headquarters.
Colin looked up from his desk and I swear a smile flitted across his face as I came crashing out of the underbrush.
My shoulders slumped in defeat. “Again.”
“Let me see.”
I held out my hand to him and he took it carefully in his large rough ones. I suppressed a shiver. He turned my palm over and then back to the marred skin by my knuckles.
“Come on. These are just scratches. I can patch these up with the first aid kit here.”
He led me over to a stump where I sagged like a bag of bones. I felt like a child. A child who wanted desperately to gain their teacher’s approval. Except I wanted more than Colin’s approval. I wanted him to look at me the way I looked at him. A heavy sigh escaped my lungs.
“Cheer up Kaebre. Basilisk hunting isn’t for everyone. So long as you capture one before the term ends, you’ll have passed the course.”
Mortification slid through me and I clenched my teeth to keep my chin from quivering. I was humiliated. I was pathetic. I was the only student in the course not to have netted a basilisk. Fresh worry for my grade slid over the humiliation.
“How did you become so good so quickly?” I asked him quietly. “You broke every basilisk catching record within six weeks of starting the course, and now that you’re the instructor, even top universities have started trying to recruit you for their basilisk programs. Col, how did you do it?”
He was still a minute, his broad shoulders moving slowly as he took a breath. His shaggy thatch of bronze hair grazed over his forehead in the slight breeze. His head was bent, fingers carefully tying off the gauze around my hand. He stilled even more; his body chiseled marble bowed over my hand.
Slowly he tipped his head so that his blue eyes met mine. My breath caught and my heart sped up as he locked gazes with me. His hands still engulfed mine.
“Kaebre,” he started then paused.
My eyebrows rose, encouraging him as my fingers squeezed his lightly before I could stop them.
“I’m about to tell you something that is not common knowledge. I’d like to keep it that way.”
I nodded. He was trusting me with sensitive information? Was it possible I’d worked my way up from best friend’s little sister to reliable student?
He glanced around, ensuring we were alone before meeting my eyes again.
“I’m color blind. Completely.”
I cocked my head, the full weight of his words slowly registering. Color blind? It was a rare genetic trait. Rare, undesired, and dangerous in a world filled with colored magic. Use the wrong color and you could kill yourself or somebody else.
But how did that help him catch basilisks?
The corner of his mouth tipped at my confusion.
“Their camouflage isn’t camouflage to me. I see everything in black, white, and grey. Without their colors to blend in, it’s easy to spot their markings between the leaves and the underbrush.”
I was stunned as my thoughts caught up.
“You’ve hid it your whole life.”
“I can’t see colors, but I can still see other things.” He ran his thumb over my knuckles and my face flamed.
“I’ll make a deal with you. You catch a basilisk, pass the course, and once you graduate in a month, we’ll talk about the becoming shade of grey on your face right now.”
He squeezed my hands as my eyes sparkled.
I would catch a basilisk if I had to do it with my teeth.
My good friend and writer, Rebecca Williams, has written a lovely short story for a guest post this week! If you enjoy her story, you can find out more here.
Vivvy tripped backwards when a large brown eye filled the window. She caught herself before knocking over the stack of bandages and crashing into IV poles.
“Hello?” she asked to the eye that fixed on her.
Vivvy observed the rumbling voice and the wart above the eyelid. An ogre.
Drawing closer to the window, she called out: “LARGE mythical folk can seek attention at the GIANT’S ward on the other side. We regretfully cannot accommodate you here.” As she spoke, she motioned to the room—tiny by ogre standards, filled with beds for small patients.
“Closed,” the ogre said, and his eye blinked. Her trained ears heard pain in that voice. She pulled back the curtain further and peered out to assess her unusually large patient, and the nurse smelled the injury before she could see it: ogre blood stank worse than ogre sweat. There, on his left leg, a bandage oozed with patches of sticky brown ogre blood.
The night visitor stepped back so Vivvy could see both his eyes, which now stared at the ground.
“Gimbly Mountain,” he mumbled.
“Gimbly Mountain—but that’s covered in bittersnag.” Vivvy looked now at the wound in horror. The ogre’s expression told Vivvy he already knew the lethality of the mountain’s spiny plant.
“Help,” he said again.
Vivvy’s hands went to her hips. “Yes, but—I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Paul the Ogre.” Ogres in those parts had simple names.
“Right, Paul, the only cure for bittersnag is oil from the scales of a behemoth.”
Paul nodded, hope shining in his large eyes. Vivvy looked from one to the other because at such close range she couldn’t look at both at the same time.
“I found behemoth. I take you.” Without further explanation, Paul the Ogre reached inside the window and grasped Vivvy with two fingers, lifting her out of the ward and into his hand.
Vivvy stifled a scream. “No, no, don’t take me,” she protested. The tiny nurse had been punched and kicked by patients, but none had attempted to do her so much harm as take her to a behemoth. Behemoths filled the folklore of the Balsam Woodmarsh, a forested wetland with firs and vines. Marshes interlaced the valleys between the mountainsides. Though undeniably real, the monstrous creatures slipped in and out of deeper streams with such stealth that they lurked out of view. People shared stories and fables of the beasts in fervent whispers. Preferring the valley though, behemoths never climbed to the mountaintops where most woodland creatures lived, and Vivvy hadn’t heard of a behemoth sighting in years.
“W-where?” she asked as she struggled to get out of Paul’s grip. With limping strides, his long legs distanced them from the hospital at an alarming rate. She could have called for help, but the hospital sat on the rim of an outpost facing the jungle forest. No one would hear her.
“In valley. I show you.” The ogre swung his arms back and forth as he lunged ahead, and Vivvy grew dizzy.
“Why me?” She turned her head to watch the hospital lights grow dim behind them.
Paul the Ogre grunted. “You get scale and heal wound.”
The little nurse squeaked. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t collect medicine. Sprites do. We chispas work in the hospital.”
“Chi-spa help me.”
“Chee-spa,” she corrected, sounding it out.
“Sprites not here,” he added, and Vivvy frowned. Her luminescent wings flickered on her back. That morning, the medical sprites had left to gather eel’s tooth, a plant that bloomed one night a year on the eastern side of Hale Mountain. Meanwhile, the other chispas slept in their dorm inside the outpost—now perhaps half a mile already behind them, and she alone covered the night shift of their empty ward that evening.
“Couldn’t you get it?” she asked, trying to squirm out of Paul’s grip as they took a sharp descent. An ogre seemed a better match for a behemoth.
With his free hand, Paul motioned to his size and then to hers without breaking a step. “Behemoth notice Paul. Behemoth not notice you. You fly and get scale without behemoth notice.”
Vivvy’s palms broke into a sweat, and she fingered her wings behind her back. Fly? With her left wing damaged, she could no longer soar over the mountains like she once had. Now, she could only hover. She hadn’t met Paul before though, so he didn’t know.
“Please?” asked Paul. They had already covered far too much ground for the kidnapped nurse’s comfort. How far away was this behemoth? Vivvy knew from nursing school that only fresh oil of behemoth scale would heal bittersnag wounds that could overtake victims within hours. Paul would not survive the wait for the sprites’ return.
For several minutes, Vivvy searched her mind for any excuse, but before she could answer, Paul dove to his belly on the soft marshy ground in the valley that seemed 1000 spans from her safe hospital ward. They had descended her mountain and breached the border of a marsh. He caught her eyes and nodded ahead. Her gaze followed until she saw the outline of a shadowy colossus in the marsh, rising up like a small mountain from the ground. She stifled another scream.
“Behemoth smell blood. Paul stay here.” He then opened his hand as if expecting her to fly off towards the behemoth without hesitation. But Vivvy did hesitate.
“Paul, I can’t fly,” she said, red-hot heat flushing her face.
“You fly. I believe.”
Vivvy wavered on his palm. If only it were that easy. In her mind, she could hear the soft chime of the hospital ward’s clock as if she stood next to it, reminding her that Paul had an hour—maybe two before the poison would overtake him. Too choked to speak, she unfolded her butterfly-shaped wings and began to beat them, the soft whir imperceptible to larger creatures like Paul or the behemoth. Hesitating one more time, she looked at Paul and saw hope still lighting up his face. She sighed.
Vivvy lifted herself above his palm, hovering, but only hovering. She didn’t know how she was going to fly UP to a behemoth, but dredging an ounce of courage from somewhere in her faltering heart, she turned and moved out over the shallow water, refusing to look back at the safe, dry spot on Paul’s hand.
No other noise filled the marsh; behemoths scared away even the crickets, and the beast’s large shadow took form as she approached. Closer, closer—she could see the glint of scales in the moonlight. The beast’s body loomed twenty times larger than Paul’s. She could hear the hum of deeper water on the other side of the beast, which appeared to be asleep next to the marsh’s outlet where it could easily slip into the dark waters that plumbed the unknown depths of their valley.
Trembling, Vivvy hovered towards its face. Thick crusty scales along the backs of behemoths yielded less oil—enough for a dozen little folks and perhaps enough for a dwarf, but certainly not an ogre. The best scales for oil lay above a behemoth’s eyes. Vivvy knew from textbook sketches were to look, and sure enough, there in the starlight, she could see brown scales with a bluish tint of softness on its brow.
I’m a nurse, I help people. I’m a nurse, I help people, she repeated in her head as she came to the edge where water met the snout of the behemoth at rest. With all her might, she beat her wings and gained perhaps an inch of height over the water. She tried again, another inch. Again, another inch. The tiny chispa inched until she reached the level of the bluish scales. Edging closer, straining to keep her height, she stretched out her arms between the behemoth’s closed eyes and touched the closest scale.
Fearfully, she glanced at the eyes. Neither one flickered. Taking all the care she could, Vivvy wrapped her fingers on either side of the scale as tall as she was and pulled. Such scales did not give easily. Yet something from her learning told her to shift the scale to the left and then upward. As she did, beating her wings and willing them not to lose her altitude, the hard scale loosened. Vivvy pulled it back with one swift break and clasped it close to her chest in disbelief that she held a genuine behemoth scale, fresh from the very beast’s forehead. Its absence left a miniscule opening on the large brow, and for a moment, the trained nurse looked for any broken skin that could risk infection, and thankfully, she found none. Her concerns for the predator were interrupted however when both enormous eyelids popped open, and the behemoth’s eyes clapped on her.
Vivvy stopped breathing, certain she was about to die. Behemoths notoriously left no attacker alive.
Its eyes shifted between her and the stolen scale.
As Vivvy’s anxiety turned to panic, she saw the creature focus on her wings. They were unique in size and shape, larger than wings of sprites who normally hunted such animals for their scales. Their butterfly shape and iridescent color glimmered in her hovering movements and reflected dim moonlight in the darkness.
The behemoth snuffed and exhaled a hot breath she could feel around her feet, and she wondered why it didn’t strike. Could she get away? No. With the heavy scale, she couldn’t fly fast, if at all.
Interrupting her thoughts, the behemoth rose back on its haunches, scooping her up on its rough nose and towering above the tree line. Its eyes never moved from the chispa, and Vivvy stood fearful and still. Then the creature’s tail curled to one side. Glancing at the movement, she noticed a scar stretching down its thigh. Only two things leave scars on behemoths—the claws of another behemoth, the damage of which can be life threatening, and the treatment of snarffle root that can heal the behemoth’s tough skin.
Snarffle root grows on mountaintops though. How had the valley-bound behemoth gotten there?
Glancing between the eyes and scar, Vivvy wondered if she truly grasped the gesture. The behemoth must have had help. Had it been from another chispa? The beast seemed to recognize her wings, and she wondered if he was trying to tell her something.
Vivvy nodded, to let it know she understood (perhaps). With the delicacy of one trying to slip away from death, she beat her wings until she hovered again. Meeting the behemoth’s gaze, she backed away, high above the marshy ground, and the mythical beastly creature made no move to stop her.
Further and further she retreated until she was halfway back to Paul, still at the height of the behemoth’s eyes. At that point, the creature blinked, lowered itself to the ground, and rolled into the deep waters beside its resting spot. She saw the water ripple outward from its exit. Signs of the behemoth disappeared as shallow marsh water filled the impressions of where the beast had slept.
Quivering, she watched the empty space for a moment until she remembered the scale gripped in her arms, its scentless oil clinging to her hands and tunic. Spinning around, she hurried back to Paul the Ogre and his poisoned wound. With such an abundant amount of the cure, they should have just enough time to stop the poison and save his life.
I am not ashamed to say that I did not go quietly to my death.
I bucked, kicked, and fought all the way down the gilded hallways with their velvet draperies and marble statues. I caught one guard squarely in the shin as we passed under the baleful ruby gaze of the stone dragon that stood sentinel outside the hidden room. The guard cursed me as the dragon seemed to mock me in the otherwise deserted corridor. The guard smacked the back of my head hard enough my eyeballs nearly left their sockets. Chuckling, he a button on the bottom of a sconce. With my head still spinning, I was dragged from opulence into the dank shadows of a secret cave.
Once my vision cleared, my chest heaved, and my nostrils flared. Before me stood King Hiclyr and his wretched daughter, Princess Marguerite.
All my life, I’d been told the Creator had blessed me to so closely resemble Renvale’s beautiful princess. I never gave it a second thought until I was stolen away in the dead of night to take her place as the Dragon Sacrifice.
The Sacrifice took place every ten years. Every girl in the kingdom aged thirteen to twenty-one had their name entered. I thought I was safe. There was no way I could have foreseen this treachery. Ice ran through my veins.
“Be still,” Hiclyr said. “The Dragon will not want his prize bruised.”
I spat at him. Wrym. He wiped his face disdainfully.
He clapped once. A timid maid rushed from the shadows into the circle of light cast by the torch bracketed on the wall.
“Make sure she is Marguerite before she leaves this tunnel.” His voice was hard like granite.
My gaze landed on the princess. We’d been friends once. Some deep place inside me understood why this was happening. We had all lost someone we’d once loved to the Dragon. The King had lost his son, Marguerite had lost her brother, and I had lost my best friend. Hiclyr was desperate to save his remaining child.
But this was wrong.
It was wrong to steal me away. Wrong to sacrifice me instead. Not because my sacrifice wouldn’t be worthy, but because my sacrifice wouldn’t be enough. If I went instead of the girl rightfully chosen by lot, King Hyclir would break the treaty that had existed between the Kingdom of Renvale and the Dragon Lords for over a century. It would bring open war down upon us if ever discovered.
So, while I was here, I’d use every means within my power to fight for my life. But if I couldn’t escape before dawn light lit the sky, I’d have to put on the performance of a lifetime to save my people and my country. At the expense of my own life.
The next hours were full of forced pampering. I was scrubbed, washed, shaved, styled, and put into a dress with a ridiculous number of pleats. But at the end when they stood us together—the princess and the falconer’s daughter—even I had trouble telling us apart.
I fought like a banshee as the guards once more took my arms. Thrashing and digging in my heels did no good as the soft satin of my slippers tore against the rough floor. The guard cracked the door open and weak sunlight filtered in.
I bit the inside of my lip hard enough I tasted blood. There was nothing more I could do but continue the ruse. I prayed it would be enough to save my kingdom—save my family.
On wobbling legs, I stumbled to the wooden platform raised on the beach beside the castle. The ocean’s waves lapped calmly, lending me their strength with their soothing swooshes. Terror seized me as memory flooded my mind with images I’d refused to acknowledge for the past ten years. Fire, gaping teeth, blood, smoke, screams, and Daniel’s face as he’d been caught in the crossfire. I relived the Dragon’s teeth closing over his body, taking him from me forever.
A sob choked out and I would have fallen to the ground had the guards not been holding me. My friend. And now I would meet the same fate.
The ropes cut into my wrists as they tied me to the stake. The drums beat, the wind howled, the waves began crashing in fury.
I saw the Dragon’s aura before he came into view. Fiery red and streaked with yellow that caught the sun and set spots dancing before my eyes.
His grating shriek pierced the morning and screams of terrified villagers echoed off the crags.
Creator be merciful…
Unable to hold back a wail of terror, the breath left me in a staggering rush as the Dragon morphed out of the clouds, his black talons outstretched.
The Dragon blotted out the sun. Leathery wings folded and sent sand pounding against my sides. Bright scales, eyes like fire, and a face framed in horns stole the breath from my lungs. The wings creased, revealing an odd-shaped hunch on the creature’s back.
Before I could see any more, the talons crushed around me, lifting me and the stake into the air.
Dignity left far below, I screamed as the beast rose into the air, wings beating the winds into submission.
Soaring, wheeling, gliding over the clouds would have been exhilarating if it hadn’t meant certain death.
At last the beast landed on a high crag, tossing me and the stake into an enormous nest. A groan escaped then turned to another scream as flames bit through the ropes binding me to the stake. I tore my hands away from the ropes as the fire stopped.
Shakily I stood, mouth falling open as a dark figure slid from the Dragon’s back, favoring his left side. Throwing back his hood, the sun caught the marled, puckered skin of his cheek, the wide red rope of scar from scalp to chin. But the eyes. Those crystal blue eyes were the same.
The scarred mouth wrinkled on one side before pulling into a frown.
My mouth dried as my eyes grew larger.
It wasn’t a question this time. His eyes lit with excitement.
“Emma? It’s you, isn’t it!”
“Daniel,” I whispered. I was incapable of anything else.
The smile died on his face.
“This is my father’s doing. Truly, it was my sister’s name drawn from the lottery?”
I saw no point in keeping the ruse now. “Yes.”
The Dragon snorted and my knees quaked in terror.
“It’s alright. She won’t hurt you.” He stroked the amethyst scales covering the beast’s flanks. His eyes found mind again. “My father may have just started a war he cannot win.”
“What do we do?” I had to save my family—save the kingdom.
“We must go appeal to the High Dragon Lord. Will you come with me?”
He stretched his hand to me, tiny scars crisscrossing his palm.
Kelpies are said to be giant water beasts that live in rivers, streams, occasionally the ocean. They’re most often horrid creatures who lure innocent victims to sit on their backs, then drag them down into the water, drown them, and eat them. Charming creatures!
Never again would I trust that red-headed scoundrel. It was his fault I was here, gasping for breath, gagging at the edge of the Kelpie pen.
“Hold this,” he’d said. “I’ll be right back,” he’d said. Were I not so new at this school, were I not desperate to fit in after being kicked out of the last three schools I attended, were I not so distracted, I would have realized that the thing he handed me wasn’t a wet suit, it was a Selkie skin. And said Selkie had come marching down the hallway in all her nakedness shooting sparks from her eyes not one minute later.
Guess who was left holding the bag. Literally.
My first week at Magik Prep Academy, and I was already serving detention. My punishment was to clean this stinking Kelpie pen. While taking care not to touch the beasts. Because they’d happily drag me down and eat me for dinner. Wonderful.
I snapped on the long rubber gloves to protect my skin from the ick in the water and any accidental Kelpie grazing.
“My, aren’t you a tasty looking morsel,” a watery voice said.
I brandished my long cleaning pole.
“Unless you want to swim around in your own muck, leave off, and let me do my job,” I growled. I was in no mood for teasing. Or to become a snack.
“She’s a feisty one,” another voice joined the first.
“Mm. I think the feisty ones have a nice spicy flavor,” a third voice whinnied.
Three squelchy horse heads bobbed in the water, transparent, but fully corporeal. They weren’t quite opaque, and I could see the tiled floor below them at the bottom of the pen. I poked at them with the bristled end of my long scrubber.
The first one snapped its teeth at the bristles then reached out and clamped its watery teeth on the handle, nearly jerking me into the water with them. I let go and stumbled back, glaring at them.
“Fine. But I’m the only one scheduled to clean in here this week. Your choice. Algae or fresh water.”
“Leave the poor girl alone,” a new voice said.
I looked up in surprise at the deep male voice. A regale horse head rose from the water, taller and larger than the others.
The three made loud whinnying noises that bordered on shrieking.
The male lunged up, spraying water everywhere as his front hooves churned the pool into frothy waves. The noise that echoed from his mouth sent the hairs on the back of my neck racing to attention and sent the other three Kelpies splashing into the dark water at the far side of the pool.
I sat cowered and damp against the wall. The big Kelpie sunk back into the water up to his chest.
“Sorry about them. Brood mares.” He seemed to roll his liquid eyes. I didn’t move. I was thoroughly freaked out.
He gently swished to the abandoned long-handled broom. He clipped it with his teeth and with a powerful fling of his head, tossed it back to land beside me.
“I certainly won’t stand in your way.” With a bob of his majestic head he turned to submerge.
His ears pricked forward as he turned back to me.
The Kelpie inclined his head.
“You’re welcome.” He swam closer to the edge. “I’m Kai.”
I swallowed, unsure if he was being nice to lure me to dinner, or because he wasn’t as nasty as his female counterparts.
“Lara.” I slowly got to my feet and retrieved the scrubber.
“Lara. I’ve not seen you here before. Toss me that short brush and I’ll help. You can talk. We don’t get many visitors in here.”
I threw him the brush and set to work with my own pole, still wary and keeping the big Kelpie within sight at all times.
“Tell me how your classes are going,” Kai encouraged.
“Well, I only started three days ago.”
“And you’ve already landed yourself with Kelpie clean up?” He snorted. I glared.
“It wasn’t exactly my fault.”
“I’m all ears,” he said as he scrubbed the tiles at the waterline.
Without meaning to say anything, the story just came tumbling out. I was lonely.
“And that’s why I was kicked out of the last school. I can’t control it. It just bursts out whenever it feels like it. These giant fireballs. At my last school I accidentally lit the library on fire. That was the last straw. The headmaster said I had to go. So, here I am. At yet another school, hoping they can teach me how to control this energy inside me.”
Kai looked at me. “I know it doesn’t smell as nice in here to humanoids like you as it does to us, but there’s nothing in here that you can burn up. If you suddenly start to spark, it’s no trouble for me to send a little wave and put it out. You’re welcome anytime.”
I glanced up at him. This giant water beast somehow recognized the pain and loneliness echoing in my chest and homed in on it.
“You’re not just inviting me…to be dinner?”
Kai snorted and slapped the surface of the pool with his soggy hoof. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m a vegetarian. The three harridans you met earlier would be happy to have you on a seaweed sandwich, but I won’t. And I’ll make certain you’re safe while you’re here.”
A spark flared to life in my chest and cinders formed at my fingertips.
A gentle mist appeared over my fingers, quieting the burn and sending the scorching fire back to sleep inside me.
Kai’s eyes, though still see-through, held kindness. Something I never expected from a Kelpie.
“Why would you do this for me?”
“You are not the only one lonely on this campus, Lara.”
I smiled. Maybe Magik Prep would be a good fit after all.
This week Facts, Fantasy, & Fascinations is welcoming author David Michael Williams! :). Enjoy his fresh take on fantasy creatures and some info on his books.
See you next week, back at the halls of Magik Prep. ;). Next week there will be Kelpies…
Cultivating a New Fantasy Creature: the Fosyth
By David Michael Williams
Jon gave her a confused look as she burst out of the water and sprinted toward him. She hardly noticed. The green thing behind him was a cross between a tall cactus and frilly fern. Mak knew it couldn’t be either because it hadn’t been there a moment ago.
Sure, I’ve written stories about elves, dwarves, and goblins. Fantasy novels are filled to the brim with amazing creatures from many different mythologies. Without mystical animals and larger-than-life monsters, it could hardly be called fantasy.
But what happens when five live-action roleplaying (LARPing) fans find themselves in a magical world that is somewhat familiar but also unlike any fantasy setting they’ve ever read about?
One of the challenges I set for myself while writing The Lost Tale of Sir Larpsalot was to come up with new, unique creatures. I wanted Othwyr—the sword-and-sorcery setting where the Earth-born adolescents end up—to hold some surprises for my would-be heroes and readers alike.
Throughout the story, Sir Larpsalot and company encounter the almost-elflike Anthar, battle the beetle-shelled Chitine, and hear whispers of the Taarec, a shrewd race of shamans whose minds are as sharp as their many spines. But of all the species I invented for this book, my favorite are the Fosyth.
So many of fantasy’s staple races stem from the Animal Kingdom. Combine a human and a horse, and you get a centaur. Slap some wings on a steed, and a pegasus is born. Yet very few fairytales or myths feature intelligent plant life.
And the Fosyth are intelligent, in spite of their impulsive nature.
Here are a few more facts about Othwyr’s plant people:
· Fosyth are neither male nor female; like the plants of Earth, each encompasses both genders.
· While the Fosyth roughly resemble humans in shape, they lack mouths and must communicate telepathically.
· Fosyth receive sustenance from “the Golden Eye of Nihs”—in other words, the sun. (And when you think about it, photosynthesis is pretty magical.)
· The Fosyth’s greatest enemies are the Taarec, an aggressively herbivorous species.
· Unlike ordinary plants, a Fosyth doesn’t stay rooted for long. You never know where they might wander.
There’s definitely a lot of wandering in The Lost Tale of Sir Larpsalot. Half the fun of discovering a new world is exploration, after all. As for the other half, well, it wouldn’t be a fatnasy adventure if there weren’t some danger too…
David Michael Williams has suffered from a storytelling addiction for as long as he can remember. His published works include the sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels of The Renegade Chronicles and The Soul Sleep Cycle, a genre-bending series that explores life, death, and the dreamscape. Learn more at david-michael-williams.com.
The Lost Tale of Sir Larpsalot
As the first day of high school creeps closer, five friends agree to one last LARP before splitting the party and ending their geeky game forever.
But the real adventure is just beginning…
Mistaking the teens’ costumed characters for actual warriors, a sorceress summons Sir Larpsalot, Elvish Presley, Brutus the Bullheaded, Master Prospero, and Tom Foolery to her world to complete an impossible quest. To succeed, they must become the heroes they only ever pretended to be.
And if they can’t find a way to win, it’s GAME OVER for real!
I was entirely unprepared for what waited on the other side of the door.
Caked in dust, cobwebs, and strings of fluttering magic, the most majestic of all beasts stood solitarily in the middle of a tiny stone chamber.
The golden horn was wrapped tightly with magic, though pieces of it hung in strips and whole pieces of what looked like a magic-spun cloth were dripping from its white form like ripped pieces of a funeral shroud. Cobwebs stretched from the beard to the chest and what would have been shiny golden hooves were dull and brassy with age.
“Oh,” Cariss gasped.
The nostrils flared. My heart slammed into my throat. Fenn’s tail pressed against my leg.
Ever so slowly, with a noise like cracking plaster, the eye lids fluttered, breaking free of their ancient crusts.
Then, with no warning, the creature shrieked and shook the dust from its coat.
The noise echoed in my chest and sent me cowering on the ground, my hands clapped over my ears, eyes and ears both smarting from the bits of magic flung from the unicorn. All of us were huddled, in awe and fear, staring at the creature of legend before us.
“What has happened to the magic?” The unicorn’s voice, rich like dark chocolate, smooth like velvet, and hard like diamonds, thundered in the tiny space.
We were too shocked to answer.
“What has happened to the magic?” the unicorn bellowed.
“A…a girl, a werewolf, fell onto Yggdrasil’s roots.” Cariss was the first to find her voice.
The unicorn snorted.
“We’ve no time to lose. Come.”
The unicorn stamped his front hooves, the sound reverberating around us. In awe, we watched as the dirty hair and strings of magic fell away. The coat grew thick and shiny, the hooves and horn glowed with the inner magic the unicorn possessed.
“Wolf, you may change back. No harm shall befall you whilst in my company.”
Fenn bobbed his head at the unicorn’s words.
I gathered his clothes into a neater pile on the ground where I’d dropped them then nudged them towards him and turned. He quickly shifted back, and I let myself sag a little in relief as he took my hand once he was back in skin.
The trip back through the twisty, winding underground took a fraction of the time with the unicorn confidently leading the way.
I was fairly bursting with questions, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to barrage a creature so rare that it had nearly faded into legend. It seemed too irreverent.
Instead, I clung to Fenn’s hand, trying not to think how much I was going to miss it and him once our world was righted. Assuming it could be fixed.
The hall was pitch black and deathly quiet as we crept from the belly of the earth.
“You may extinguish the torch.”
Tatianna did as the unicorn told her. With a toss of its mane, light seemed to emanate from the unicorn.
“Have you any mode of transport that will take you quicker to Yggdrasil? In my day we’d have had to round up some wild gryphons and tame them or make the journey on foot.”
“We’ve got a Jeep,” Fenn offered.
“A Jeep. What manner of beast is this? Some new hybrid, perhaps?”
“It’s…a mechanical beast.” Fenn rubbed the back of his neck.
The unicorn snorted. “All this magic and they still tinker with mechanics.” The front doors of the school loomed ahead in the shadows.
“Please, Sir, do you have a name?” Tatianna asked tentatively.
“I am called Lazaren.”
Tatianna introduced each of us. Lazaren nodded gracefully but said nothing.
Wind and hail lashed around us as leaves and magic bits zinged and flew across the parking lot. Yet nothing touched us in the circle of Lazaren’s glow.
“That thing is a Jeep?” Lazaren whickered in disdain as we reached the vehicle. “I shall meet you at Yggdrasil. See that you are not detained.” With that, he broke into a gallop and took his inner light with him. We were left again in darkness, and the sudden downpour of hail and flickering magic his absence brought.
Yggdrasil was tempestuous, leaves stripped from its branches, magic gone but for a few bare tendrils stubbornly clinging to some odd twigs. It was terrifying.
Lazaren stood beside the guardrail next to the glowing amber encasement where Lexie must have gone over. I hoped she was okay! I suddenly realized I didn’t know what exactly had happened to make her topple over in the first place.
Lazaren asked my question in his next breath.
“What transpired here?”
Fenn rubbed the back of his neck again. “She tried to kiss me,” he started, and I felt my own hackles raise, even in my human skin. I had no claim on Fenn, but Lexie certainly didn’t. She wasn’t even a member of our pack.
“It wasn’t Fennrick’s fault,” Cariss interjected. “I tried to stop her. I grabbed her arm.”
Had Fenn not tried to stop Lexie?
“She jerked back and tripped.”
“And I wasn’t fast enough to stop her,” Fenn interjected.
“And once she hit the roots, the world fell apart.” Cariss shrugged, her misery clear on her face. I squeezed her arm, and she gave me a grateful ghost of a smile.
Lazaren looked hard at each of us in the group. My skin tingled. Not in a bad way, but in an anticipatory sort of way.
Gingerly stepping over the guard rail, magic flared to life beneath his golden hooves as they touched Yggdrasil. It didn’t spread, but illuminated Lazaren, and cast light back onto the pulsating amber glow over Lexie.
“You tried to take something that does not belong to you,” the unicorn said over the quivering amber. I was close enough I could see Lexie’s eyes widened, though the rest of her body stayed still. “I will let you out, but until the wrong has been righted, the magic will not be reversed.” He glanced back at us. “No one touch the magic or the tree.”
Raising up on his back legs, Lazaren shrieked into the air and brought his flashing hooves down, and Yggdrasil’s roots quivered on impact.
My skin shivered as beads of frantic magic skittered over my skin. With one long pointed look at me that dropped my stomach to my toes, Lazaren wrenched his horn through the crust of swirling amber and a noise like thunder crashing over the ocean echoed around us.
Without meaning to, I gripped Fennrick’s hand. His fingers squeezed tight around mine.
Gasping and spluttering, Lexie sat up.
“Lexie!” Cariss said in relief.
“Phoenix, seal the gap once she’s up,” Lazaren instructed.
Tatianna nodded and Owen reluctantly let her step closer towards the barrier.
The unicorn prodded his horn at Lexie, and in a show of great humility on his part, let her maneuver herself up using his mighty horn as leverage.
As soon as Lexie had cleared her magic cocoon, Tatianna called her inner blaze. I got chills as the flames licked up her eyes before they shot out in a stream of white-hot fire over the gap in the amber crust. It sealed together like it was welded with lava.
Storm clouds still thrashed overhead, and magic and lightning lit the sky as they clashed together. Sparks flew and shattered on the ground. Fenn tugged me closer so that my arm brushed against his side.
“I…I’m so sorry,” Lexie whispered brokenly against the gale that whipped the leaves into little funnels around us.
Lazaren stared at Fenn solemnly. “T’was you who was wronged, Wolf. You must right it.
Fenn’s face paled, and his throat bobbled as he swallowed. Slowly he turned to me. Lightening flashed and showed me his hazel eyes, full of questions and hope.
“Etta,” he rasped. My heart sped up. “Lexie tried to take what’s rightfully yours. I mean, mine to give, but only for you to take.”
Understanding dawned and my lips parted in surprise. Alpha pheromones flooded the air around us.
“You want me?” I whispered.
“Yeah. I really, really do.” He smiled, though uncertainty crept into his eyes.
Tingling rushed through me and rightness settled over me. His hand dropped mine and tentatively rested on my waist.
A hot rushing wind funneled through me and my answering smile lit up his face.
“Yes.” I breathed the word.
Fenn’s eyebrows crinkled as his eyes turned serious. Wind whipped hair into my face, but before I could move it, he nudged it aside as his hand cupped my jaw. Tilting my face, his hand feathered into my hair as his lips closed softly over mine.
Literal sparks exploded around us. We jerked apart, startled, and watched as magic whirled in the sky and came streaming, rushing, swirling back to Yggdrasil. Leaves whirled from the ground back into the leafy boughs. Sunlight broke through the black clouds and bathed the ground in iridescent sparkles that came up and flitted around us.
Tatianna laughed as some of the sparkles landed in her hair and lit it up like a halo. She let the flames rise in her eyes and let loose a stream of fire towards the rising sun, lighting a path from us straight over the top of Yggdrasil.
Fenn kissed the side of my head while we watched, but I turned and tugged his head back down for another, longer one.
He pulled me flush against him, his scent closing in around us. His smell slowly began to change, and I realized his hunt for the other half of his pair—for me—was over.
“Well done, children,” Lazaren said. “You have saved your world, but if we do not return quickly to the school, without my stabilizing presence, so many different kinds of magic in one place will cause another explosion. I will not be able to save you should that happen.”
We raced back to the Academy, magic swirling happily once more, though anxiety sat heavily with us. Lexie remained silent in the back seat. Lazaren again awaited us as we pulled into the parking lot and hopped out.
Relief was potent as I saw Professor Capra waiting at the double doors. He bowed low as Lazaren approached and we followed behind.
“Lazaren. Old friend. Thank you once again for your sacrifice.” The old faun’s horns were perpendicular to the ground as he used his cane to help him show his reverence.
“Capra.” Lazaren inclined his head towards the professor.
“Children, follow me once more into the labyrinth.”
We didn’t dare question him, so we once more made the long trek into the darkness of the underside of the school. Lexie trailed uncomfortably behind. It wasn’t as scary this time with Lazaren’s glow and with Fenn’s fingers laced with mine. I sighed in contentment.
We reached the tiny stone chamber once more, the door still standing open.
Lazaren stopped just outside the door.
“You will be the next generation of leaders of this place. Capra will not live forever. Remember my existence.”
And with that, he went in and stood in exactly the same spot and the same position as when we found him.
With a twist of his head, my mouth fell open as strands of magic begin winding around his horn, funneling over his sleek body, coiling and weaving together in a magnificent tapestry of swirling, sparkling magic.
Once the magic had encased his full body, he turned his face to us. He gave us a sleepy wink with one drooping eyelid, then he went still.
Fennrick held onto my hand like it would keep him from drowning. In spite of our current heinous circumstances, it sent a curious warmth shooting to my middle. I liked the way his hand felt wrapped around mine. It gave me a fleeting feeling of security along with a wild rush of emotion. And then there was his smell. It was mouth-watering. I knew it was his Alpha pheromones hard at work, but it was nearly enough to make me forget our dire situation.
“Where do we find a unicorn?” Owen asked, the tips of his pointed elf ears going as pale as the rest of his ashen skin. His question jerked me back to the present.
“What was it the professor said before he disappeared? ‘Look below?’ What does that mean?” Fenn asked the group.
Cariss had a crease between her eyebrows. “Look below,” she repeated. “Below where?”
“Below, like below a bridge with the trolls?” Owen snorted.
“Below the ground?” Tatianna offered. She leaned into Owen, her inner fire going down to a simmer as he looped an arm around her shoulder.
“Below ground? Below ground where?” Cariss tapped her lip.
“What if he meant below the school?” I offered. The suggestion sounded ridiculous the moment it left my lips and I felt my cheeks heat in response. Fenn looked at me.
“No. What if he did mean below the school. He tapped his cane right before he disappeared. Could there be a place below the school?”
Cariss cocked her head to the side. “Well, the school is, what, a thousand years old?”
“No one has seen a unicorn in a thousand years,” I murmured.
“Could that be a coincidence?” Fenn’s fingers squeezed mine. A faraway look flashed through his eyes.
“Would the library still have original blueprints of the school building?” he asked.
“Let’s go look. We’re not getting anywhere just standing in Professor’s office,” Tatianna said as she stalked towards the door.
The halls were eerily silent as we made our way down the old Gothically arched paths towards the library. The students racing around earlier were either gone or had moved somewhere they felt was safer. Even the wraith-like creatures were gone. Erratically flickering bits of magic were the only noises as they hissed and creaked in the top-most cracks and crevices of the arches.
The library doors were open, just like they would have been on a normal school day. The floor to ceiling bookshelves were crammed with everything from ancient scrolls to modern day paperbacks.
“In the resource room?” Cariss shrugged.
“Good a place as any to start,” Fenn replied. My skin tingled as he touched my back to move me in that direction. I needed to get a grip.
The smell of dust and age-old magic ticked my nose and I clapped a hand over my mouth to catch my sneeze.
“Bless you,” Fenn whispered, still close to my side.
“Thanks,” I sniffled.
“Guys, where do we start?” Tatianna asked as we broached the resource room. There were tall scrolls and heavy ancient tomes scattered all over the large room.
“Time for the wolves to come out to play.” Fenn nodded to Cariss and me then wasted no time and jerked his arms backwards and took his shirt off in that way only guys do. I’d seen him shirtless countless times over the years growing up in the same werewolf pack. But his abs were a lot nicer now than they were a few years ago.
Cariss elbowed me and I blushed to the roots of my hair.
“Right. The older the document, the mustier it will smell,” I stammered, fervently hoping Fenn didn’t notice. Cariss and I quickly ducked behind a heavy-laden bookshelf and shifted to our fur.
I sneezed again as spangles of magic tickled my wolf’s nose. Following Fenn’s instructions, we quickly put our noses to work and it wasn’t long before we’d unearthed a stack of ancient scrolls tucked neatly away in a box in the corner.
“Hurry up and shift back, guys,” Tatianna said as she poured over the scroll.
“I think this might be it. Look!” Owen nearly shouted.
We were all back in skin and taking in the prints within a minute.
“It’s like a labyrinth.” I shuddered.
“Roll the prints up. We’ll take them with us.” Fenn took charge and Owen carefully rolled the blueprints.
Minutes later the five of us stood facing a heavy brass bound door at the end of a seemingly abandoned corridor deep in the belly of the Academy.
“I don’t like this,” Cariss whispered. I knew how she felt. Night had fallen. It was pitch black but for the occasional spatter of unhealthy magic and the glow of the one torch we’d been able to successfully light with fragmented strings of partially exhausted magic.
Fennrick reached for my hand. I didn’t object.
“Tatianna, keep your flames close in case that thing goes out,” Owen said.
“No problem with that,” she replied, her throat visibly moving as she swallowed hard.
“I’m going in with fur,” Fenn said. “Carry my clothes?” he asked me. I swear a light blush crept into his cheeks. I hoped the shadows covered my own reddening skin.
“Sure.” He didn’t need to explain that his wolf had better night vision and a better chance of defending us should it come to that.
Cariss opened the door and a long dark cavern opened before us like a giant black mouth.
A smell like wet death filtered up from the black hole before us. I shivered and Fenn’s tail brushed against me.
“Let’s go.” Cariss’ voice wavered.
Tatianna held the torch high and Fenn went in. We followed.
The stones were damp and there was the occasional squelching noise that I refused to think too hard about. Deeper and deeper we went into the ground. First through bricked arches, then into rough stones. They’d been cut by a mason, but not finished.
“How old do you think this is down here?” Cariss whispered. I’d been wondering the same thing.
Fenn growled low in his throat, his ruff standing on end.
Wind whooshed up the rough corridor and sent my hair flying as a scream built in my throat.
A deep roar boomed up from the depths. Fenn planted himself in front of the group, his own deep warning echoing back and mixing with the echoes of the thing until it made my ears ache.
The torch flickered and Tatianna screamed. Her eyes flashed once in the dark before a white-hot stream of lightening-like fire streaked down and illuminated the entire hallway.
A black apparition wavered in the dark shadows. My body froze, terror crawling over my skin like a hundred spiders.
“Light the torch, Tachi,” Owen commanded. “Don’t char me in the process.”
Breathlessly, we waited for the thing, listening, straining our senses. My hands gripped Fenn’s clothes hard enough my knuckles cracked.
Flames engulfed the torch, igniting frayed bits of magic and sending the fire bursting onto the stone ceiling.
The apparition hadn’t moved. It wavered there on the outskirts of the torchlight.
Fenn growled low in his throat and scented the air. All I smelled was toasted magic and fear. Possibly my own.
“I don’t think it’s real.” Owen whispered.
“You sure?” Tatianna said.
“If it were alive, I’m pretty sure your flame fest would have fried it. Look. I think it’s just a magic illusion,” Owen explained.
Fenn nudged me closer to Cariss with his tail, looked at Owen, then stalked down the dark hallway.
“Be careful,” I whispered. So softly I wasn’t sure anyone but me was aware I’d spoken.
I held my breath as Fennrick tracked down the hallway. His growls echoed off the stone walls.
About halfway down the hall towards the floating black mass, his posture relaxed, and he turned and trotted back to us.
He yipped once and I felt my shoulders relax.
“Not real then?” Owen confirmed. Fenn bobbed his head and met my eyes before jerking his head for us to move forward again.
He brushed against my side as we went down the corridor, sending flutters into my middle while reassuring my jagged nerves.
The apparition disappeared the moment we stepped within a few feet of it. It was nothing but wisps of ancient magic, long forgotten by its users.
We trudged on. What felt like hours of wandering and multiple stops to consult the blueprints, we finally came to the deepest point marked on the prints. A solid door fitted with an iron latch stood between us and whatever waited on the other side.
Fenn nudged me and Cariss behind him again and nodded to Owen.
Grasping the doors as Tatianna’s eyes flashed with contained flames, Owen pulled the latch. A loud CLINK echoed down the stone corridors and sent ripples of goosebumps down my skin.