I leave the cave, my companions by my side, feeling more alone than I have felt in a very, very long time.
I feel afraid. I feel like screaming, like crying, like asking all the gods why my sister was gone from this world. What trick of fate would steal her away so cruelly.
But you could probably guess that’s how I’m feeling.
What’s important about what I feel is how very little I feel like singing.
Ordinarily, that would be an extremely random thing. But you see, it becomes a rather key element of what happens over the next while.
Why, you ask?
We run into a crowd of werewolves.
To be more exact, we run into a crowd of singing werewolves.
“SING FOR US!” one of them howls, “SING AND LIVE!”
My eye twitches. Looks like I was going to sing….
I start singing, but it’s not long before I realized I was really, really, really bad at it.
Anne shoots me a disgusted glare, opens her mouth, and begins to sing.
You know what? She’s even worse than I am.
Same goes for Max.
I groan, and wonder exactly how we’re going to be getting out of this one. Could we fight? Unlikely, they were very big and I didn’t think I could handle using so much magic in so short a time span after all the magic I had used in the cave.
So, unless we felt like outrunning extremely fast werewolves with really big teeth, it looks like our only option was to out sing them.
I look around us.
No way were we running.
I was about to give up all hope when Leslie opened up her mouth and began to sing.
She sounded like an angel….
The werewolves stare, smiling, their long muzzles contorting with expressions of apparent enjoyment and pleasure. One of them growls, “GOOD VOICE GIRL PUP.”
She smiles with pride, stops her singing, and the werewolves leave us.
And so we’re left to continue our journey feeling a lot more confused than we had before.
But, all in all, it was good that we were alive. Things could have gone a hell of a lot worse than they had.
Leslie smiles at me. Apparently the little brat feels like she deserves candy for that, and I have to admit that she does. I swing my pack of my shoulder, dig around some, and toss her a sweet. She smiles widely at me and sucks on it greedily, her eyes filled with childlike joy.
We continue on, only stopping when I realize that I have absolutely no idea where we’re supposed to be going.
I check my map, leaning against a towering tree, breathing easily. “We’re a few miles away from a town. From there, it’s about a two day’s walk to a mountain clearing, where we should find our next Key.”
They give me a tired look, and collapse to the ground, every last one of them falling fast asleep almost instantly.
It’s then that I feel the exhaustion in my own body, and I decide that we do really need a break. I curl up on the ground, using my arm as my pillow, and drift easily into restless dreams, listening to my companions’ calm breathing.
I wake up the next morning utterly calm. Feeling rather pleased with myself, feeling rather good, feeling okay. I smile, look around. The bright sun doesn’t sear my eyes too badly, so I ignore it and climb to my feet.
Wait…sun? Had we slept the whole night through?
I swallowed. If we had, than we were very far behind schedule.
I wake up the others, and start running, barely caring that they struggle to keep up. I just run hard and fast, following the directions on the map and the tugs of the stone, knowing that if I wanted to manage to do this on schedule we would have no choice but to move fast. We’d slept way too long—and those hours of sleep were definitely gonna cost us.
‘Gonna’….was I starting to sound like a human?
I groaned, slowing down just a bit, allowing them to catch up with me. “Ru-run slo-slower,” Max stammers, the first words he’d spoken in quite a while.
“We need to hurry, Max. And besides it’s not that far from here. Only a few more kilometers before we reach our destination.”
“Bu-but I can’t run that far.”
I give him a look. Sigh. “You’re going to have to, young one. We don’t have any other options. We need to keep moving.”
“Lady White wants these Keys. Therefor we must hurry to fulfill her orders.”
“Can’t she just be patient? Like normal people?” Anne asks, raising her shaped eyebrows at me.
“She isn’t normal people, Anne. She’s Lady White, and I would appreciate it if you treat her with the respect she deserves.”
“What respect can a whore earn?” she responds, sashaying up to me, daring to be near me after such a comment.
I raise my hand to hit her.
But I can’t make it fall.
“Go ahead, elf boy….Hit me.”
I stare at her.
Attempt to force my hand to move.
It refuses to.
I swallow, stare at her. “What kind of magic is this?” I ask her softly. “What are you doing to me?”
“Nothing you’re not doing to yourself.”
I swallow. Breathe deeply. “Anne….I….No. Stop this now. I will NEVER be attracted to you! You are nothing but a lowly human girl.”
She rolls her eyes at me, and then kisses me only once, before stepping back and smiling softly. “Don’t even try to tell me, elf boy, that you didn’t like that kiss….”
I swallow, turn away from her, and keep right on running.
I definitely did not to admit to her, and to all the others, that I wished deep inside my elfin heart that that had not been the only kiss.
I was, of course, horrified at myself. Was I not an elf? Was I not one of the fairer race? The better race?
So why was I attracted to a lowly human girl? And one from a different planet as well?
I couldn’t comprehend it. There was something so…tantalizing about her fragile and frail form combined with her rough and tumble personality. Something so loveable. Something I could feel myself falling for. But…No! This was not going to happen! I refused to let myself become involved with her. Was I not Lady White’s? Did I not belong to her?
I doubted it. Even though I loved Lady White….Could we ever be? Could I ever be more than a servant to her? More than a second in command?
I knew that I never would be.
So why did I serve her?
I halted right then, where I stood, the thought that had run through my mind keeping me from moving a single inch. My very first disloyal thought, I think to myself, and it was brought on because of Anne.
This was decidedly not good in the least.
I needed to get away from Anne. Get away from her fast before she compromised my mission.
But, of course, where could she and the others go but wherever I went?
And where could I go besides the next Key?
I run. I find myself on a large forest path, well used by many, cutting through the underbrush and the shade of trees that go from scraggly to giants. Before long I’m forced to light the torch, the path dwindling away at my feet, the trees’ shade becoming far too dark to support any vegetation.
The humans look around in wonder, exclaim in desperate breaths at the beauty and wonder of this place.
A strange feeling of kindness overwhelms me and I slow, turning to them. “These trees are older than time. No living elf remembers these woods when they were first beginning to grow. No records exist of this place being barren.
“This is the forest of Darwe. We’re on the edge of the Mountains of Darles, which is where we will find the next Key. In this forest, the first elves started out their lives. This place is where all life began. Where everything first started.”
“Why’d you leave?” Joey asks, looking at me, worry in his eyes.
“Because there’s…something here. Something powerful. Something beyond our comprehension, beyond our control. The only reason we haven’t encountered it yet because we are barely on the outskirts of the forest.”
Anne says slowly, “What is it?”
“To put it simply, it’s evil itself. And it’s guarding the Key.”
They swallow, and Leslie murmurs, “I wanna go home….”
We turn, and just stare at her for a few seconds. In the end, Anne bends down and hugs the kid, saying into her ear, “So do we all, kid. So do we all.”
But all of us know there’s no going home without the Keys.
We give each other looks of sorrow and understanding, before we set off once more, deeper and deeper into the forest, knowing that there would most likely be no turning back.
Not for any of us.
“I’m hungry,” Leslie says, about ten minutes later.
I’m not sure why, but I just start laughing, loud and long into the shadow of the trees, daring whatever might be listening to come and get me.
Come get all of us.
Yes, I did lose my mind for a very quick second there…..I’m afraid that I’m not really fully sane in the least. Besides, it didn’t matter to me right now whether we lived or died.
I just wanted to be done with this. Done with all of this.
I groaned, shut my eyes tightly, and started trying not to cry.
Why was everything so hard? Why was my life only growing harder? Why was my heart only breaking more and more? I was attracted to Anne, but that was wrong. I loved Lady White, but I would never get her. So what was the right thing to do?
I sighed, rubbed my eyes with clenched fists, and remind myself, No matter who I love, who I care about, I have no choice. All I can do is get those Keys. Once I have them, all else will have calmed down. When I have them, I will be okay, and either Lady White will be mine or Anne will. I just hav to believe that.
But I knew that I would never believe it, and that it would also never happen. So my only option was to just keep right on moving, do this quest, and then get back. No matter what happened afterwards I still had to do this quest.
The others caught up to me then, and looked at me worriedly. “What’s wrong, Avery?” Anne asks softly, looking perhaps just a bit worried. I raised my eyebrows at her, refusing to let myself believe that she cared whether or not I was hurt.
“I’m fine,” I reply, and I keep right on moving, deeper and deeper into the darkness.
The torch was nowhere near enough light for us. We stayed closer and closer together as time went on, our strides shortening and slowing down, taking care to not get ourselves killed by either falling off a random cliff or running into an angry bear.
It was then that I finally noticed the massive lack of animals. Of any kind of wildlife. When I realized it, I sent out desperate flicks of magic, searching for any signs of the animals that had surrounded us when we were still on the outskirts of the forest.
I found none of them.
There was nothing alive here—nothing but the vegetation and a small group of travelers on an impossible quest.
I attempt to figure out what could have pretty much annihilated all animal life, and it takes me less than a second to do so. I take a deep breath, and say to them, “We’re close. Very close.”
A few steps later, I start sensing it. My entire body fills with horror and with fear—I’m far, far too young to die! I’m too weak to fight it. I’m not going to win…
“What the hell is this?” Anne yells, drawing her knife from her boot. “What’s here?”
“Something….” I respond, my heart rate racing upwards. “Something evil. Something we can’t fight.”
“Well…that’s really cheery….” Joey mutters, but they follow me nonetheless.
I feel rather proud of them for doing that. If it was anyone but me, would they be doing this so willingly, or would they run and hide?
Did it matter at all, though? Most likely not.
Eventually, though, Anne screams:
“I forgot to put on makeup!”
I just turn and stare at her for a few minutes, wondering, is she anywhere close to sane?
As if reading my thoughts, Max muttered, “Anne’s lo-lost it.”
“Did she ever have it in the first place?” Anne responds, rolling her eyes. “Look, I need to do this. And god we also need to get changed. Didn’t you buy any clothes when you were out shopping for supplies?”
I blushed furiously when I realized that I had not. I’d spent all of my money on food and on supplies, and the money I had from when I had sold the horses was pretty much useless to us out here.
They just looked at me and sighed. “Way to go, Fearless Leader.”
I glared at her.
And it’s then that something extremely strange happens: A sack flies out from nowhere and hits me in the head.
Well, at least it was a soft sack….
I roll back to my feet a few seconds later, and glare at the sack. It was a plain brown cloth sack, tied tight with a teal scarf. The only weird thing was that it had come flying out of a forest to hit a resistance fighter elf in the head when the magical elf was unable to sense any living things whatsoever in the world around him.
That fact, of course, doesn’t stop me from opening said random sack.
I reach into it, and pull out clothes.
Anne tackles me aside and starts digging through it, wrenching out an outfit that looked to be not far off of her usual skinny jeans, band t-shirt, black leather bracelets, and boots. She grins, and cheerily scampers off into the forest, unafraid, eager to get into more fresh-smelling garments.
The rest of us do the same, thankfully going into other directions than the young girl, and before long we regroup at our random magic sack dressed in our new clothes.
I was wearing a long white tunic belted at the waist with a black ribbon, tight brown leggings, knee-length laced-up boots, and a brand-new wide-brimmed hat tilted merrily sideways on my head. I posed proudly, liking how my muscular form was made very apparent with my new outfit.
Anne was decked out almost entirely in black. Her shirt was a straight black long t-shirt, pulled tight against her body, her leggings looked like they had been custom made to fit her, her boots came with steel toes, and her long red and black hair had been pulled back with what appeared to be a metal chain dangling skulls, her slim fingers had been garnished with rings that looked like they were made for punching, and her forearms and hands were hidden beneath thick black leather gloves.
Joey looked amazingly elegant in his new getup. He was wearing brown leggings, a green tunic belted at the waist with a gold chain, and soft leather boots. He looked rather pleased with himself.
Max was a different story. Whoever had provided us with the clothes had managed to make him into a male miniature Anne: All black and red, thankfully no rings but there was definitely steel on his boots and a skull necklace around his neck. He looked terribly out of place.
Leslie…Well, she looked like a pumpkin. I have to say that I adore whoever gave us our clothing, because she was dressed entirely in orange, and her clothes were fitted so her roundness was emphasized. She, in a sentence, was a pumpkin with legs.
I think we just stood there staring at one another for perhaps a straight minute. None of us could comprehend each other in each other’s new clothes—and I myself could scarce tear my eyes away from how Anne’s neckline dipped rather far below what was considered dignified. She noticed me noticing, flashed me a white-toothed smile—it was then I noticed that she had managed to put on her makeup despite the dark, and do it perfectly—and took special care to let her eyes wander up and down my body.
I have never felt more humiliated, or more excited, in my entire existence.
Not even Lady White could get me to react this much….
There was absolutely no question about it now: I was decidedly head over heels for Anne, the human girl from another world.
And that was perhaps the worst thing that could possibly happen right now.
But, hey, at least we were clothed…..
So we were, at the very least, moving slowly up in the world.
I sighed, turned, and continued leading my ragtag group of companions deeper and deeper into the forest, knowing that right now the only thing that remained for us was to keep right on moving.
But….Moving in this direction might just lead to all of us getting killed.
It’s not like we had much of a choice though, right?
We couldn’t turn around.
Couldn’t turn back.
And, wow, I really needed to stop thinking such disloyal thoughts.
The thoughts stop when I suddenly start hurting. Every inch of my body floods with pain and I scream, halting in my steps instantly. I wasn’t the only one who felt it either—Leslie whimpered, Anne shrieked, Max screamed, and Joey yelled. We fell to our knees, our vision swimming red, unable and unwilling to move.
“What’s happening?” Anne shrieks. “What’s going on?”
I try to force out an answer, but it only comes out as a choked whimper.
But someone answers….
“I’m happening, kiddo. I’m happening.”
I looked up.
And stared into the eyes of my magic teacher Lord John.
“Hello, Avery,” he greets me, kissing my forehead gently. I recoil, my skin hurting even more where his lips had touched me. It felt like he had burned me.
“Turn off the magic….” I plead. “It hurts, Master, it hurts….”
“You were never a good student. If you truly were a student of magic, if you had allowed me to latch fully onto your power, unlock your full potential….How much more powerful you would be! But, no, you had to be weak. Too weak to undergo the most basic of magical training. Too afraid to endure even the simplest of magical torments.” Master stares at me, his deep dark blue eyes daring me to deny him, daring me to tell him I was strong, that I was a good student.
I knew him too well to do so, though. The torment he would inflict on me if I stood up to him would only worsen, only hurt more. And he, worse yet, would also increase the agony for the others.
And that I could not do.
“What are you doing here, Master? Where is the evil?” I ask instead, forcing the words out between clenched teeth, fighting to remain conscious.
“The evil? Why, evil is all around us, and inside each of us. You’ll have to be more specific, student.” He smiles at me contempt fully, even now finding little ways to taunt me, and show me how much better he is than me.
“The evil…from all the legends. That people say haunt this forest. The ageless evil that cannot be killed.” I tried to go more in-depth, but I could feel the words I wanted—nay, had to say—slipping away from me with every second of this fierce agony.
“Ah, Avery….You haven’t yet figured it out. You never were precisely wonderful at deducing things, no matter how obvious they should be. Student mine, think for a moment….If I’m here, would I allow anything else as powerful as I to be around me?”
I looked at him in horror as my mind started to figure it out. “Master….I heard you were dead. How did you get from Koronala to here?”
“Just because they found my body in my mansion doesn’t mean it was me, Avery. One of the spells us trained magicians have access to is the ability to change something’s shape. It was one of the first spells I would have taught you if I could completely train you.”
I nodded at him, “Master, could…could you…gods….let some of the pain up? For the others?”
He shook his head, eyeing me darkly. “Not happening, I’m afraid.”
It was then that something occurred to me. I turned to look at Anne, slipping a bit closer to her. I touched her ring with my finger, looking at her meaningfully. She looks at me for a second, confused, before she nods and slides off her rings, all of them, to release her power to drain the magic.
And, of course, absolutely nothing happens.
My mind wonders at it, even as a part of me starts to comprehend this while Master begins to laugh. “You honestly thought that she was powerful? The Conduits are only elven. They can only be elven. So, my young student, you have been tricked from the very beginning. Did you honestly think that Lady White would send you off alone without a way of keeping track of you? The ring is a tracking device—it’s been a trick from the very start.”
I don’t want to believe it. I refuse to. It just can’t be. She wouldn’t have lied to me—would she?
“She’s been helping you from the start. The supplies. The directions. She even delayed the guards for you when you were running from them in the capital city. She didn’t trust you in the least, Avery. She never did, my student, and she never ever will. And, ah yes, don’t expect any help from her. None of the people she sent are brave enough to enter the pain.”
My teeth clench. I force out the words: “I am not your student.”
Master only smiles and laughs, even as he increases the agony. I scream, and beside me, Anne begins to shake and seizure. “Her body can’t take it,” he laughs, “So it’s shutting down.”
“No! Stop this! Stop this now!” I scream, louder and louder, but the words are lost and morphed into a howl of agony. “Let us go!” Please just let us go!”
“Not until you are taught…” Master laughs, and increases the agony just a bit more.
“What do you want? If you let us do this, there won’t be any more Conduits! Magic will remain free!”
“And perhaps I don’t want it to remain free. Perhaps I would rather it to become something only available to the most trained, the most powerful, so you less trained army of magicians will be no longer able to fight us. And me and my fellows can finally rule over you.”
Can I just insert a brief monologue of mine here? Just to explain some things? I know that I said earlier I was the most powerful magician in existence—well, I’m not. I’m the most powerful magician of my group. Of the resistance, I was without counterpart. But, when you include the Masters and the Viziers (elfin servants of the human king who had turned traitor rather than join the resistance and lose the status and the glorified life that they had once enjoyed)—I was far beneath their level. To put it in terms you might comprehend, my magical strength was the equivalent of an ant picking up a leaf fragment. And theirs…that was the equivalent of a giant picking up a mansion.
And back into the story….
Wait…Where were we?
Oh, yes, Master had just been explaining his evil plot to take over the planet.
It seemed to me to be that this was perhaps far, far too clichéd for words.
But, yet, it didn’t matter how clichéd my story is right now, as long as it keeps on going.
And right now I honestly wondered if it would or not.
But, no matter what, it truly didn’t matter right now did it?
Perhaps because he sensed my failings at narration, Joey snaps me out of it by tackling Master.
And the pain disappears, Lord John unable to keep up the magic.
The pain disappeared for only a second, but that was long enough.
Long enough for the followers of Lady White to attack.
They blasted him backwards, ensnaring him with their magic, freezing him in place. They laughed and taunted him, even as they yelled at us to run, go get the Key.
And run we did.
We ran faster and harder than we had ever ran, covering the ground in long and desperate strides, the torch blowing out with our speed. I carry Anne in my arms, while Joey and Max carry Leslie between them. For a second I find that sight comical, before I decide it’s far less important than running and running hard.
Following the tugs of the magic stone, we soon reach the location of the second Key. When we reach it, I just stop and stare.
The Key was in a tree.
A really, really big tree.
A really, really, really big tree that glowed.
The others stop beside me, unable to comprehend the extremely weird sight that greeted our uncomprehending eyes.
Anne summed up our feelings when she said, “What the hell is that thing?”
I looked at her, then at the tree, and back at her. I could think of absolutely no answer that would tell her anything. I couldn’t make sense of any of the sights that greeted me, and I realized it didn’t matter at all whether or not I knew what was going on.
All that mattered was getting that Key.
A bit nervously, I approached the tree. I had no idea what to expect—was there danger here? Something unseen?
Why, of course there was. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out.
Trusting my instincts, I grabbed a branch, and hurled it at the tree like a javelin.
It incinerates on contact.
I just stare at it. Think to myself that it was just my luck.
But then I get moving.
I walk towards the tree, and carefully, ever so carefully, begin to send blasts of magic towards the earth. I flew upwards, and, focusing every last part of my mind and soul, began to maneuver carefully between the branches. A part of my sleeve brushes against a branch, and it turns to ash before I have the chance to move it away. I swallowed. I was going to have to be very, very careful….
And I wasn’t really good at being careful.
I gently blast against branches, trying to keep a steady blast of magic at the ground far below, rising slowly, slowly, slowly. My teeth clench, my fingernails dig into my palms, and I start trying to slip around an extremely thick branch. I contort my body, be as careful as I can, but even so my foot grazes against a branch that I pass over.
The scent of burnt leather fills the air.
Come on, Avery…You can do this. Just get that Key.
Right now, I am more afraid than I have ever been. But that’s not all.
I have also never been more determined.
I force myself upwards, flying carefully through branches that blind my eyes, using a rather unstable magic I have limited to no control over.
I honestly think this might be the best time of my life.
An eternity later, I clear the rest of the tree. I reached the top, and looked around. There, inside what appeared to be the concrete nest of a massive bird, lay a single book.
Cautiously, I landed, picked up the book, and flipped through it. It was the Key.
I’d found the Book of Journeys.
Two down, one Key remaining….