A sequel to the fan-made King's Quest IX: It Takes Two to Tangle
(inspired by Sierra On-Line's King's Quest series)
The sun shone in the near-cloudless sky, casting a warm light upon the land beneath it, a land filled with thick forests and rushing rivers, bordered by imposing mountains and expansive seas. This was the kingdom of Daventry, a land whose history had been a peaceful one for the most part, though it had suffered its share of misfortunes as well.
Barely a mile away from the land's stronghold, Castle Daventry, a small creature soared low over the tops of the trees, occasionally swooping low over a clearing. The creature might have been mistaken for a large bird from a distance, but it was certainly nothing as ordinary as that. It had the head and wings of an eagle and the ears of a dog, while its hindquarters were that of a lion and its forelegs resembled the feet of a bird of prey. Such a beast would normally be termed a griffin, but this griffin was no larger than a small cat. It was not native to the land, in fact it wasn't native to the world that Daventry was part of at all: it had come from a realm that existed alongside Daventry's world...and so had the individual who was watching the griffin from the ground, beside a tranquil pond.
The individual's name was Edgar. His homeland was Etheria, a land where fairies reigned and humans were rare. However, thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances, Edgar had decided to live in the human world, married to the woman that he had first met several years ago and loved deeply from the first moment he set eyes upon her: Princess Rosella.
With her brother Alexander reigning in a distant kingdom, Rosella was the sole heir to the throne of Daventry, and by becoming her husband, Edgar was now the future king.
Both Rosella and Edgar were observing the tiny griffin as it started to dip low over the pond they were standing next to. Edgar had acquired the griffin (which he had been informed was fittingly called a pygmy griffin) in his recent journey, and the beast had become a charming -- if somewhat uncouth and bizarre -- pet.
Rosella's father, King Graham, was also watching the little griffin. He had encountered his daughter and her husband on the way back from his morning walk, and had paused to see just how skilled a hunter his son-in-law claimed his pet was becoming.
Presently, the griffin hovered in midair for a moment, then dived toward the pond, breaking its surface with a resounding splash. He floundered in the water for a moment, then flapped his gray wings and took off, heading towards the spot where Edgar, Rosella and Graham were standing.
"Do you think he caught anything?" Rosella asked Edgar.
"I don't know," Edgar replied. "I can't -- ""Look!" Rosella cried excitedly, pointing at the approaching griffin. "I think he's got a fish in his right claw!"
"Why, he does!" Edgar exclaimed.
The pygmy griffin triumphantly flapped to Edgar's shoulder, the slippery fish he had just snatched from the pond clamped in his talons.
"Good catch, Scrimshaw," Edgar said, stroking the beast's back.
"Looks as if you were right, Edgar," Graham said with a wide smile. "He does seem to be improving."
"Seem to be?" Edgar chuckled. "A few weeks ago, he was only catching dragonflies, grasshoppers and the occasional rodent. Now he's grabbing fish right out of the water. He doesn't seem to be improving, he is improving!"
"To think I once thought he would just be a fancy pet that constantly needed to be tended to," Rosella reflected bemusedly. "I suppose I owe the little fellow an apology for underestimating him."
Oddly, Scrimshaw hadn't started eating the fish he had caught. Throughout the conversation, he had been sitting almost motionless on Edgar's shoulder, staring silently at the side of the prince's head. Then he started to pull at Edgar's light brown hair, so gently that for a few moments, Edgar hardly realized he was doing it.
"Hey, Scrim, what are you doing?" he asked amusedly.
"Perhaps he's trying to pull it out and make a nest with it," Rosella giggled. She reached out to pull Scrimshaw away from Edgar's head, then froze and stared at the region of hair that Scrimshaw was pulling at.
"Edgar..." she said quietly.
"Your hair," Rosella said nervously. "It's starting to turn gray."
"It is?" Edgar asked in surprise. He leaned down over the surface of the pond and gazed into it, while Scrimshaw fought to keep his grip on his master's shoulder. Graham peered at Edgar's hair -- which was much shorter than it had been several months ago, but still fairly long -- and saw that there was indeed a noticeable gray color starting to creep back from the prince's temples.
"Looks like you're right," Edgar said as he studied his reflection from various angles. "Well, I suppose it was bound to start happening one of these days. Being destined to look after an entire kingdom is a prospect that would put gray hairs on anybody's head."
"But I never noticed all that gray before," Rosella said, sounding almost frightened.
"Don't worry," Edgar said, rising to his feet and holding Rosella's hand gently. "It's just a color. It's nothing to be scared about."
"He's right," Graham said, though he too was curious as to why Edgar's hair had gone gray so suddenly. "But speaking of worrying, I'd better get back to the castle before Valanice starts to worry about me. Are you two going to stay here for much longer?"
Edgar and Rosella exchanged a few words and eventually decided to return home with Graham. Though they had several cheery conversations as they made their way across the countryside, Rosella and her father still felt slightly apprehensive, and Scrimshaw remained completely silent the whole way.
Several days passed, during which things went on as they usually did in Castle Daventry. Graham and his queen, Valanice, were approached by people with various problems that required the king's assistance, and there were several documents that Graham needed to look over and sign as well.
One day, when Graham had a chance to get away from this endless monotony, he met Rosella in one of the upper hallways of the castle. She was walking quietly along, so lost in thought that she barely noticed Graham approach and start walking along beside her.
"Rosella, where is Edgar?" Graham asked. "I haven't seen him all morning."
Rosella looked at her father with deep concern in her large blue eyes.
"He said he was tired and would get out of bed later," she said softly. "But it's almost noon now, and I think he's still in our chamber. I was just going to ask him if all is well."
Graham nodded in reply and followed Rosella until she reached the room that she and Edgar shared. She knocked on the door, and after a few seconds, a muffled "Come in" came from within the chamber.
Rosella cautiously opened the door as Graham peered over her shoulder into the room beyond. A figure was seated on the bed in the center of the room, its back to the king and the princess. It was Edgar. He was bent forward slightly, his head was bowed, and he was still wearing his nightclothes.
Rosella ran to his side.
"Edgar, what's wrong?" she said urgently. "Why are you still in bed?"
"It's all right," Edgar said in a low, weary voice. "I'm just a little tired. That walk yesterday must have been more strenuous than I thought."
"But we've taken that walk dozens of times before, and it's never made you this tired," Rosella said.
"I know," Edgar sighed. "Maybe I'm just a bit sick. I'll be getting up now, though. I just -- ah!"
As he had started to rise from the bed, he suddenly cried out, then stiffened and slumped down again.
"What is it?" Rosella demanded, her voice more worried than ever.
"It's nothing," Edgar insisted. "I'm sure it's nothing."
"Edgar, tell me what just happened, please!"
"It was just a little pain in my leg," Edgar said. "But like I said, I'm sure it's nothing."
"Edgar, it can't be nothing. Something's been happening to you these past few days."
Edgar raised his head to look Rosella in the eyes.
"And I'm sure it'll pass on its own," he said, starting to sound irritated. "I just need to..."
His voice trailed off. Rosella was staring at Edgar with a terrified look on her face that Graham could see even from where he stood in the doorway. After a few endless seconds, Rosella turned her attention to Graham.
"Father," she said, her voice trembling. "Please find the Court Physician and tell him to come here. Quickly."
As Graham was about to respond to and carry out Rosella's request, the prince turned to face him, and the king could barely contain his astonishment. Even though Graham was standing some distance away, he could still see the many wrinkles and slightly sunken cheeks in the young man's face that had definitely not been there a fortnight ago.
"I simply don't understand it, Your Highness," said the Court Physician, rolling his trim gray beard between his thumb and forefinger, his brow deeply furrowed. "If the prince is ill, it is no illness that is known to me, and I have studied medicine for thirty years."
"Can you not at least determine what has happened to him?" Graham asked the thin little man earnestly. They were standing just outside Rosella and Edgar's room, talking in hushed tones. The physician had just finished his examination of Edgar, who was now lying on the bed, too tired to argue that nothing was wrong with him any longer. Rosella was with him, too concerned for his well being to leave his side.
"It is so strange," the physician muttered. "Even though the lad's mind is certainly still as alive and active as the mind of any youth, his body seems to have inexplicably aged."
Graham nodded, although he had been tempted to draw the same conclusions from Edgar's rapidly changing appearance. The patches of gray that Rosella had noticed in his hair two weeks prior had become larger and larger, and now nearly a third of the hairs on his head were silver instead of brown. The sinews in his hands had started to show more, and the prominent wrinkles in his face made him look twice as old as he truly was.
"Do you have any idea what might be causing this?" Graham asked.
"Alas, I do not," the physician said sadly. "Unless he has contacted some bizarre ailment common to those of his kind, I'd say there is something far more dire than a mere malady plaguing Prince Edgar."
"Such as what?"
The physician breathed deeply and licked his thin lips nervously.
"Something magical in nature," he whispered. "Though I am a man of science, Your Majesty, I still acknowledge magic's existence. I have encountered it only a few times during my life, and thankfully I have never had to deal with any of its darker facets. Still, I have heard many unsettling tales of people who have suffered from the effects of evil curses and enchantments."
Graham felt as if a cold breeze had just brushed past him.
"Though I wish it weren't so, I'm inclined to agree with you," he said. "I can't think of anything else that might be causing this. What do you think we should do?"
"Find somebody who is skilled in magic and ask his advice on this matter," the physician replied. "That's what I would do."
"Do you know where I might find such a person?"
The physician put a hand to his pointed chin.
"I have heard rumors of a man who occasionally appears at some of the houses on the outskirts of the town and helps cure those who are deathly ill for a substantial fee. Some of the peasants there claim that he is a powerful sorcerer."
"The outskirts of town, you say?" Graham asked.
"Yes," the physician nodded. "I suppose if you wanted to find this alleged sorcerer, you might want to send someone to start asking the people there if they know where he lives."
"I'm not sending someone into town," Graham said firmly.
"You aren't?" the physician squeaked in surprise. "I thought you wanted to find this sorcerer!"
"I do," Graham said. "That's why I'm going to go look for him."
He turned and started walking briskly down the hallway.
"Tell Edgar, Rosella and the Queen that I will be away for a few hours," he called over his shoulder to the dumbstruck physician. "I should be back before the end of the day."
Graham quickly made his way through the cobblestone streets that crisscrossed the expansive town that surrounded Castle Daventry. He was wearing a hooded cloak to keep his identity a secret, as well as to keep the chill of autumn at bay. On his head was the blue cap with the red feather that he always wore when he traveled, and in his right hand he was carrying an item that he had acquired from the Royal Treasury shortly before leaving the castle: a round titanium shield decorated by a circle of emeralds.
This by no means an ordinary shield -- it was one of Daventry's three lost treasures that Graham had discovered more than twenty years ago, and the reclamation of the treasures had earned him the throne. The mirror that Graham had found guarded by a dragon in a cave beneath an ancient well foretold the future and provided visions of the present and past as well; the chest he had found guarded by a giant in a land surrounded by clouds at the top of a tremendous beanstalk was perpetually filled with gold; and the shield he had found in the underground Kingdom of the Leprechauns protected its bearer from all mortal harm.
Though the chest had helped keep Daventry wealthy and the mirror had helped keep it safe from future threats (save for one particularly malicious spell that was once placed upon it), the shield had remained nearly forgotten in the treasury. Looking back, Graham realized that there were many times and places in his past when carrying the shield would have aided him greatly. When he had sailed to Kolyma to find and rescue Valanice, he must have been too blinded by love to think of taking the shield with him, and when his castle had been stolen by an evil wizard during one of his walks in the forest, the thought of bringing the shield along on such a harmless excursion had never occurred to him.
Graham hadn't forgotten the shield this time. With his successor suffering from what could only be a dark enchantment, he wasn't going to risk getting himself killed. Even though the town was hardly crawling with murderers, he didn't want to face the sorcerer without some form of protection. He had also taken a small pouch of gold coins from the treasury, just in case the sorcerer demanded money in exchange for his help.
As he walked on, the townspeople paid him little mind and went about their daily affairs. The cobblestone street beneath his feet soon became a dirt road, with deep ruts from the wheels of countless carts and carriages, and hundreds of fallen leaves were strewn across it. The houses had become smaller, and the various shops so common in the busier part of town had stopped showing up along the sides of the road. More trees were appearing between the houses, and there were more fields and pastures to be seen as well. Ahead of Graham were the wide, grassy fields of the Daventry countryside, and beyond them were forests, lakes, rivers, mountains and eventually, the sea. He had reached the town's outskirts, and now all he needed to do was to find a family that knew where the sorcerer lived...provided this person really was a sorcerer.
Graham walked up to the door of a small cottage with a sod roof and knocked gently. For a while, there was no reply and it seemed as if no one was home, but there were soon some faint shuffling sounds from inside and a woman with narrow eyes and long, dark, matted hair opened the door and stared out at the king.
"Good day, my lady," Graham said kindly. "If it's not too much trouble, I have something I want to ask of you."
The woman's narrow eyes became even narrower as she squinted at Graham's hooded face.
"If you've come to buy the goat, you're too late," she said in a hoarse voice. "Some filthy scoundrel ran off with it."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but my question doesn't concern your goat," Graham said.
"What is it, then?"
"I've heard rumors of a man who occasionally visits the houses in this part of town and helps heal people who are near death," said Graham. "Are these tales true?"
The woman's eyes grew wide, and Graham was surprised to see that they were a beautiful, vivid shade of blue.
"Are they?" she cried. "Not only have many of my neighbors met that fellow, but he came to this very house not three months ago! My daughter -- it was the strangest thing, one day she just collapsed. Even though her eyes were open, she didn't seem to notice a thing, her skin was cold, and she had hardly no breath or heartbeat either! She were like this for two days and we all thought Death was going to take her, then this stranger in a brown robe carrying a knapsack shows up at the door and says he can cure her."
"And he did?"
"In less than five minutes!" the woman exclaimed. "He went into the room where she was, and just a few moments later, he comes out and tells us that my child is well again -- and I'll be hanged if she wasn't! He must have used magic; I don't know how else he could have saved my Ella so quickly."
"Remarkable," Graham breathed. The woman's eyes became narrow again.
"Then he asked for money for his help. We asked him how much, and it turned out he wanted almost all that we had. My neighbors who've had him help them say that he demanded that much from them, too."
Graham nodded sympathetically. Though the deeds this man performed were miraculous to say the least, they didn't do the families of the people he healed much good if they were left so little money.
"Do you know where this man lives?" Graham asked.
"I believe I do," the woman replied. "You see, we couldn't pay him everything we owed him when he made Ella better, so we just paid him half of what he asked for, and promised to pay him the remaining half once we had earned enough. After much arguing, he agreed and told us to leave the money under a large stone near a bridge on the banks of the Raging River."
"And you did this?"
"We may be poor, but we're not dishonest," the woman said firmly. "I took the remaining coins to the Raging River myself, and there were only one bridge I could find -- and that bridge stretched across that river and ended at this tiny island in the center, with a tiny hut built on it. I don't know why a man who makes so much money would live in a place like that...even our home is grander than his."
Graham's spirits lifted. Not only had the sorcerer he had been seeking turned out to be real, but the place where he lived was only a short distance from Castle Daventry as well. Feeling deeply grateful to the impoverished woman, he tucked his shield under his arm and pulled his pouch of coins out of his pocket.
"Thank you kindly, my lady," he said, shaking out half of the gold coins into his palm. "In exchange for your help, I want you to have this...it also might compensate for having your goat stolen."
The woman's azure eyes grew wider than ever.
"Why...why sir!" she gasped, standing rigidly as Graham handed the gold to her. "All this, just for telling you about that odd stranger? I...I can't tell you how grateful I am to you, sir...but who in the world are you?"
Graham tucked the pouch back into his pocket and pulled back his hood just enough to let the woman see his face clearly. Her mouth fell open as she recognized him, and she had to hold the doorframe to keep from staggering backwards.
"Someone who cares for the subjects of his kingdom and always returns favors from them whenever he can," he said quietly.
He bid farewell to the woman, who shakily did the same to him. Then he turned and made his way across the house's tiny yard and back towards the main road.
The Raging River lived up to its name. It was a fierce, swift, churning river south of Castle Daventry full of large, jagged boulders, where dozens of foolhardy swimmers and boatmen had lost their lives. Graham hadn't visited the banks of the Raging River in a long time, and his most vivid memory of the river was being dropped onto a large island in the middle of it by an amiable condor during his quest for Daventry's lost treasures.
He could hear the roar of the Raging River long before he glimpsed it through the numerous trees that adorned the countryside, and by the time he reached its banks, the noise was almost too loud for him to hear anything else. As he walked along the river's west side, he noticed an island splitting it in two some distance ahead. It wasn't the one that the condor had dropped him on all those years ago, though: it was a tiny island, barely twenty paces across, and unlike the island that he remembered, this one had a plank-and-rope bridge leading to it and a small hut constructed upon it. It had to be the island that the woman had spoken of.
Graham slowly approached the island, wondering if the sorcerer really lived there, or whether it was only a temporary refuge for him. As the woman said, why would a man with so much wealth live in such a miserable hut? Graham also wondered where this island had come from, since he had no recollection of seeing it before...of course, his memory wasn't quite what it used to be, he grudgingly reminded himself.
The closer he came to the bridge connecting to the island, the more dilapidated and miserable the hut upon the island looked. It looked as if a strong wind would knock it down, or at the very least take off the roof, which he was certain let in every drop of rain that fell upon it. It wasn't a well-constructed hut either: the door was crooked, there were gaps between the planks that made up the sides, the thatch on the roof looked as if someone had merely spread hay atop the house, and the entire structure was leaning so far to the left that several logs were being used to prop it up.
Not wanting to look at the sad little hut anymore, Graham turned his attention to the bridge leading to it instead. It appeared stable enough. It was also lined by rope railings, attached to sturdy wooden stakes on either side and was only a few feet long, but the deadly river beneath it made Graham a little reluctant to cross it. Still, since it was the only way to get to the island, he breathed deeply and gingerly stepped onto the first plank of the bridge, only to freeze in his tracks at the sound of a harsh voice in his ear:
"HALT! Who goes there?"
Graham looked around wildly, but couldn't see a single living soul anywhere. The voice had come from his left, but there was nothing on his left except one of the tall stakes holding the bridge's ropes in place, which had a small stone statue of a squat reptilian monster perched upon it. The stone beast was about a foot high, and its eyes were almost level with Graham's. There was an intense look in those eyes, and as Graham was staring at them, they suddenly blinked, and the beast's mouth opened.
"I repeat," it squawked, "Who goes there?"
For most other men, encountering a talking statue might have been a startling, if not a near-terrifying experience. But Graham had seen and heard so many bizarre, miraculous, impossible things during the course of his many adventures that for him, a talking statue was a rather tame surprise. After all, such a thing made Graham feel more than ever that whoever lived in that hut had to be a sorcerer. Who else would have such a creature guarding his home?
Graham turned and addressed the stone beast politely:
"I am King Graham of Daventry."
"And what is your business here?" the beast asked.
"I wish to speak with the man who lives on that island," Graham replied. "I hear that he is skilled in magic, and I am in desperate need of his help."
The stone creature squinted suspiciously at Graham. After a moment of what appeared to be contemplation, it said:
"You may pass. My master is home at the moment, and he will see you."
Graham thanked the creature and began to cross the daunting bridge. Fortunately, it was stronger than it looked, and the planks didn't even creak as he strode across. When Graham reached the hut, he tried peering into its windows to see inside, but they were too smeared with grime for him to make out a thing. The wooden door seemed nearly rotten, but fortunately it didn't fall away when he cautiously knocked on it. When he received no reply from his first knock, he tried again, but once more there was no response from the hut's occupant. Graham wondered whether it would be rash to attempt entering the hut without permission from its owner, but he did have the protective shield with him, and in a sense, the stone beast had invited him in as well.
Tightening his grip on the shield's handle, Graham grasped the door's latch, pushed the door open and stepped inside...and what was within the hut was so unexpected that for a moment, he thought he was dreaming.
He was standing not within the small, damp hut interior that he had expected, but at the bottom of a large, circular stone tower. Two enormous bookcases hugged the walls, crammed with ancient leather-bound tomes and dozens of peculiar apparatuses. More books were strewn about the floor, and various yellowed maps, charts and diagrams decorated the walls. The stone floor of the room was inlaid with a circle of several large gold symbols that seemed to be glowing gently. A large, elaborate sword hung on one wall, several large bunches of dried herbs hung from the ceiling, a wooden staff leaned against the side of a bookcase, and a wrought iron spiral staircase wound its way to a second floor.
Graham pulled back his hood and gazed in astonishment at his surroundings as he slowly approached the stairs. Some things were beginning to make sense: though the sorcerer lived in a grandiose home, he avoided detection by building it in a remote location as well as making it appear to be nothing more than a squalid shack from the outside. Graham suspected that the sorcerer could easily change the interior to that of a hut as well.
The king began to ascend the staircase, gazing at the various implements on the bookshelves that he couldn't even name, let alone guess the purpose of. He soon reached the tower's second floor, which had several large trunks placed against the walls, two cupboards, and a large alcove in the wall containing two large, elaborately carved chairs with red cushions and a small, round, polished wood table. A strange object resembling a cage made out of twisted glass hung from the alcove's ceiling, looking like a chandelier without candles.
Two windows bordered by velvet drapes let in ample light from the outside and provided Graham with a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside (which, he was glad to see, was still Daventry). There was a table set beneath each window, and both tables were covered with a variety of alchemical ingredients and tools.
Not seeing the sorcerer anywhere, Graham continued up the stairs, which seemed to be leading to a third floor. However, the opening in the ceiling through which the stairs should have continued up through was covered by a small trapdoor, secured by thick iron bars. After trying to find a way to open the trapdoor and failing, Graham rapped on it gently, hoping that there would be an answer to his knock this time. To his relief, he heard a low, elderly voice emanate from the floor above him:
Instantly, the bars on the trapdoor vanished into thin air, and there was a brief odor of molten metal. Astonished yet again, Graham slowly lifted up the trapdoor and climbed the few remaining steps that led to the third floor.
The third and topmost level of the tower was surprisingly barren compared to the two below it. Though a ring of large, tall windows circled its rounded wall, the only object in the room was an overstuffed armchair sitting on the wooden floor. Though the chair was facing away from Graham, he could see a withered hand resting on one of the arms, and a conical black cap stuck up from behind its back.
With a soft grunt, the figure in the chair rose and turned to face Graham, and if the king had had any remaining doubts about this man not being a sorcerer, they would have disappeared the moment he set eyes on him.
The man that stood before Graham was tall and lean, and his skin was shriveled and crisscrossed with wrinkles. His hair was fine and white, and he had a long, slightly discolored beard that reached his chest. He was dressed in a long black robe and a pointed black cap, which were both embroidered with hundreds of tiny white stars that seemed to twinkle ever so slightly.
"Greetings," the sorcerer said courteously. "What was it you said your name was, friend?"
"Graham, King of Daventry," Graham replied, surmising that the small statue by the bridge was in some way an extension of the sorcerer's mind.
"Ah yes," the sorcerer said, nervously scratching the side of his head. "I'm afraid I have no name that can easily be pronounced in your tongue, however."
"Well, I'm glad to meet you nonetheless," Graham replied.
"Thank you, King Graham," the sorcerer said. "I also gathered from my friend at the bridge that you have a serious problem that may require my assistance in solving."
"In that case, if you could kindly follow me, we can sit and discuss whatever this predicament of yours is."
The sorcerer began walking stiffly towards the staircase. Graham followed him at a polite distance as the sorcerer led him down the winding steps to the second floor of the tower. The sorcerer then motioned for Graham to sit in one of the cushioned chairs in the alcove, which Graham did after removing his cloak and discreetly tucking the shield inside it, the sorcerer himself taking the remaining seat.
"So," the sorcerer said, putting his thin, bony hands together, "What is it you wish to help you with?"
Graham related the story of Edgar's sudden old age to the sorcerer, making certain to include all the details that he felt would be important, including the one about Edgar not being human and coming from another world.
"How odd," the sorcerer said when Graham finished talking. "I don't know why this should be happening to the boy. Tell me, did anything unusual happen to him in his past?"
"Yes," Graham nodded. "Many unusual things, in fact."
"He was stolen from his parents when he was an infant and was enchanted by an evil fairy, who changed him into an ugly hunchback. When he was released from the enchantment several years ago, he was taken to his true home, but was then temporarily transformed into the likeness of a troll by a malevolent relative of his."
"He went on a lengthy endeavor several months ago that involved journeying into periods from the future and the past...and a year before that, he was nearly killed by the same entity that changed him into a troll, but my daughter Rosella saved him just in the knick of time..."
"Wait," the sorcerer said abruptly, suddenly sitting up straighter in his chair. "What exactly happened when he was nearly killed?"
"I wasn't there when it happened," Graham explained, "But from what Rosella tells me, he was struck by a magical ball of fire, and when she examined him, he wasn't breathing. Edgar even claims that for a brief moment, he was actually in the Realm of the Dead."
The sorcerer kneaded his beard nervously.
"But how in the world did your daughter save this boy, if he was that close to death?"
"She 'gave' him another life. Earlier in her travels she aided a cat, who was so grateful to her that it gave her one of its lives..."
The wizard suddenly slammed his fist on the armrest of his chair and leapt to his feet.
"So that's the answer to the riddle," he gasped.
"What is?" Graham asked uncertainly. The sorcerer looked soberly at Graham.
"It's a rather sad business, king," he said. "I have never encountered a case like this before, but I think I know what is wrong with Edgar nevertheless."
He paused, and Graham quietly asked him to continue.
"It all comes down to this," the sorcerer explained. "When your daughter gave Edgar that cat's life, it somehow 'replaced' his own life. For nearly two years, he has lived on this cat's life will no ill effects, but now it seems that that life is finally catching up with him."
"What do you mean?" Graham asked worriedly.
"How old is Edgar?"
"I believe he is nearly a score and three years old."
"Well, King Graham," the sorcerer said slowly, "A cat only lives to be about twenty-five years old at most, and since Edgar is living on a cat's life and he is approaching twenty-three...I'm afraid his time is running out."
Graham sat motionless in the chair as the shock of this news washed over him. After several fearful seconds of silence, he spoke again with a dry throat:
"What can be done to help him, sorcerer?"
"Nothing that I am capable of, I'm sorry to say," the sorcerer said sadly. "This is some very deep magic at work here, and the power to restore a man's life in a situation such as this is something far beyond my own abilities."
"Then who can help Edgar?" Graham demanded.
"No one who practices only white magic," the sorcerer solemnly replied. "The art of manipulating the lives and souls of mortals is something that only the darkest of wizards would be familiar with."
Graham suddenly felt very cold. Edgar's situation had seemed dire enough before, but hearing that a black-hearted mage was the only individual who might know of a way to help him made it seem as if there was no hope for him at all.
"How can I possibly persuade such a wizard to tell me how to save my son-in-law?"
"I don't know," the sorcerer said with a shake of his head. "But tell me, king: have you ever encountered any evil wizards or sorcerers before?"
"Do you know what became of them?"
"I remember running into one many years before in Daventry," Graham recalled. "And another in the land of Kolyma. I never knew what became of either. My son Alexander defeated the wizard Manannan by changing him into a cat, but Manannan's brother Mordack found him soon afterwards and sought revenge. When I found Mordack's island fortress, I killed him and left Manannan for dead. The only other sorcerer my family has encountered was a creature of shadow disguised as a man named Shadrack, and that abomination has been destroyed."
"So," said the sorcerer, beginning to pace the floor, "That's two wizards with unknown whereabouts, and at least two dead...but tell me, how did you deal with this Manannan?"
"I put him in a sack and left him in the fortress."
"And when did this happen?"
"Nearly two years ago."
"And there was no possible way for this wizard-cat to escape the prison you put him in?"
"I...I don't think so," Graham said contemplatively. "Cats have sharp claws, and there were several monsters living on that island that might have freed him...but why are you asking all these questions, sorcerer?"
"I suspect that this Manannan might still be alive. Even though you left him the way you did, Graham, you didn't kill him...and we wizards, enchanted or not, do not die easily."
"So what should I do, then?" Graham asked.
"Return to Mordack's island and try to find the cat," the sorcerer said. "If Manannan lives, he is the only hope you have of finding a way to save Edgar."
"Return there?" Graham asked in alarm. Journeying to Mordack's fortress had been an unnerving, horribly unpleasant experience the first time he had been there, and he was more than a little reluctant to go there a second time.
"It is the only way," the sorcerer said sadly. "After all, you know the castle, and if any of the monsters you spoke of are still there, since they have no master to serve, they will probably leave you alone. All you have to concern yourself with is finding Manannan."
Graham hesitated, then sighed.
"Very well. I'll go there."
"Good, Sire," the sorcerer said. "Luckily for you, I have something which will speed your journey tremendously."
As Graham watched from his chair, the sorcerer moved over to a cupboard and began rifling through it. He eventually located a small, ornately crafted wooden box, which he opened and found empty. Frowning, he replaced the box and shuffled over to one of the room's tables. After picking through much of the debris that covered the table, he gave a triumphant shout and plucked a small iron key from its surface.
"This key will open a door to anywhere you wish to go," he explained, returning to Graham with the key held out at arm's length. "Merely use it on my door after saying where you want to go, then unlock the door using the key. When you want to come back here, merely tell the key that you wish to return, and another door leading back here will appear in the nearest wall -- however, this key will only return you to this tower. Just tell the key that you want to go to Mordack's island, and -- "
"Wait, sorcerer," Graham said. An unpleasant thought had suddenly occurred to him: what if this sorcerer was attempting to lure him into a trap by pretending to assist him?
"I don't know you, and it's apparent that you know little of me, so why are you extending me this much help and not asking for anything in return?"
The sorcerer paused for a moment.
"I'm afraid that there's nothing else I can do to convince you that my intentions are good, Your Majesty. I only wish to do what anyone with my powers would do when faced with a situation such as this."
"But I was told you asked the peasants you helped for nearly every coin they had in exchange for your aid," Graham said.
"True, but you are no peasant," the sorcerer said. "I merely wish to serve my king now that he has need of me. All I can give you is my word as a sorcerer that I do not wish harm upon you. If you wish, I can step through the doorway with you to show you that it is safe."
"Very well," Graham said. He rose to his feet and picked up his cloak and his shield. The sorcerer began making his way down the spiral staircase, with Graham close behind. When they reached the floor, the sorcerer approached the door, gave the iron key he carried to Graham and motioned to him to speak the name of his destination, which Graham did.
"Good. Now unlock it," the sorcerer said.
Graham inserted the key in the door's lock, turned it and then removed it.
"Do you wish me to open it?" the sorcerer asked. Graham nodded. He was still not altogether convinced that the man was as trustworthy as he appeared.
The sorcerer slowly pulled open the door, which revealed not the banks of the Raging River and the Daventry countryside, but a dark, dilapidated chamber that might have been grand once, but was now a ruin. Sections of the ceiling had collapsed, furniture lay smashed and strewn about, rugs were tattered and mildewed, fungi clung to the damp walls and various statues that had once decorated the room lay in pieces on the stone floor. Despite the room's decayed appearance, Graham still recognized it all too well: it was the vast dining hall of Mordack's castle.
With Mordack dead, the castle seemed to be slowly dying, as if his magic were all that kept it standing. Graham didn't feel an iota of sorrow upon seeing the majestic carvings that once graced the fortress's vast interior lying in pieces. After what Mordack had done to his family, Graham hoped that the castle would eventually vanish from the earth, though it seemed that it would never vanish from his memory.
"Are you ready, sire?" the sorcerer asked quietly.
Graham nodded and stepped through the doorway, the sorcerer directly behind him. As he did, the air grew much colder and a sound of distant churning waves rose around him. As soon as both men were through the door, it swiftly shut itself, then rapidly shrank until it was completely gone. Graham looked over his shoulder where the door had been on the crumbling wall, then back at the shabby interior of the chamber.
"Here we are," the sorcerer said quietly. "This is Mordack's castle, correct?"
"Yes, it is."
"Good," the sorcerer replied. "Then, if you don't mind, I'd like to return to my home now."
"You're not going to try to help me find Manannan?" Graham asked hopefully.
"Me?" the sorcerer squeaked in surprise. "An old, feeble, dried-up soul like myself? I'm sorry, my king, but I would be much more of a burden than a help to you. After all, you know this island and its fortress much better than I, and if what I know of you is true, you will surely be able to find that feline fiend in less time than it takes me to make a pot of tea."
Graham nodded solemnly.
"Now, if you would kindly open the door home for me?" the sorcerer requested.
Graham turned to face the wall behind him and held the iron key out in front of him.
"I wish to return," he told it.
Instantly, a door appeared in the wall, expanding from a miniscule speck until it had reached its full size. Graham inserted the key into the lock, turned it and pushed the door open.
"Thank you, Sire," the sorcerer said, hobbling towards the door. Through it, Graham could see the interior of the man's unusual home through the doorway.
"I promise to be waiting for you when you return," the sorcerer added. "I won't step out of the house for any reason."
"Thank you," Graham said, carefully removing the key from the door. The sorcerer smiled and nodded, then stepped through the portal that connected Daventry with Mordack's island and shut the door behind him. Once more, the door shrunk and vanished, leaving Graham alone in the ruined castle.
Graham slowly picked his way through the wreckage of the chamber. Parts of the surrounding walls, thick as they were, had fallen completely away, revealing the strange, twisted rock that Mordack's island was composed of. In fact, the wall to the south, where the castle's main entrance had once stood, was almost entirely gone, providing Graham with a good view of the path leading up to the castle.
The island didn't look nearly as dark and ominous as it had been the last time Graham had visited it. The rock seemed much more weathered and natural, and though the light of day had been obscured by a swirling mass of black clouds before, now the sun's rays streamed in from the outside. The two stone serpents that had once guarded the path to the main gate were nothing more than two piles of scattered rock, and the path itself was eaten away in sections or blocked by heaps of fallen boulders.
Graham stared out at the withered landscape as he walked through what had once been the castle's foyer. To his surprise, the stairs leading to the second floor were almost completely intact, though there were a few sizeable holes in the ceiling. The floor was strewn with sand, dirt and crumbled bits of masonry, but there were no footprints that Graham could make out. How in the world was he going to find Manannan in this tumbled-down tomb, if indeed the cat-wizard was still alive? Even though Mordack was dead and gone, his castle was still a perilous place to walk around in, for the ceiling above Graham could cave in at any minute, and he faced the danger of the floor collapsing if he decided to take his chances on the level above him.
Just as Graham was contemplating what to do, a peculiar hum emanated from some distance behind him. He turned sharply to see a glowing, black, rectangular doorway appear in the far wall. Out of this doorway lumbered a large, dark green beast with long, sinewy arms and legs. It clambered through the doorway like a huge monkey, then stopped abruptly as it noticed Graham. It stared at him for a moment out of its huge black eyes, then turned and scampered back through the doorway with an ominous low moan. The doorway flickered and vanished as soon as the beast had gone.
Graham shuddered. The beasts. He had almost forgotten about them. Mordack had somehow enslaved them and used them to protect the castle, and it had taken all of Graham's luck to evade them when he had first arrived on the island. However, Graham had only had to face two beasts: a large, bulky, elephant-like creature that skulked in the labyrinth beneath the castle; and a swift blue monster with oddly jointed limbs. He had never seen the green beast before...but it had entered the room the same way that the blue creature had, through a glowing doorway. It had to be another of Mordack's monsters that the king hadn't encountered the last time he was here, and where there was one monster, there were bound to be more.
He hoped that what the sorcerer said about the beasts having no reason to harm him was true, and that the shield would protect him if this weren't the case. He didn't have too long to fret about the particulars of this situation, since another glowing doorway appeared in the wall directly in front of him. Out of this doorway stepped the green beast, with a second creature following it: the blue beast that Graham had dealt with on his last visit.
The two monsters stared fiercely at Graham, who was too shocked at the moment to do anything but stare back. Then the green beast turned to the blue beast and made a soft, cooing-moaning sound. The blue beast turned to its companion and grunted softly, then the green beast turned and hobbled back through the doorway, which vanished as promptly as it had before.
Graham tensed his legs and prepared to flee, but oddly, the beast made no move towards him. It merely stood on its muscular hind legs, peering at the king out of its glowing reddish eyes as if it were waiting for something.
"Stay back," Graham said coldly. "You're not going to get me this time."
By these words, he had hoped to show the beast that he wasn't frightened of it, but instead, he seemed to frighten the beast. It lowered its head and shuffled back several steps, holding its clawed hands in front of its face. It was a far cry from the fierce monster Graham had faced before. The king observed the cowering creature for the better part of a minute, then addressed it again:
"Do you understand me?"
The beast cautiously looked up, then nodded its elongated head.
"Whom do you and your comrades serve?" Graham slowly asked.
The beast blinked several times. It looked left and right as if it were searching for something, then turned back to Graham, shook its head, and held out its hands with the palms facing upwards.
It seemed that the sorcerer had been right about the beasts becoming harmless after the death of their master. They hadn't been inherently malevolent, but Mordack had been, and now that he was gone and could no longer control the beasts, they were nothing more than sad, lonesome creatures trapped on this bizarre island. Now that Graham was certain that the beasts wouldn't hurt him...could they possibly help him in some way?
"Beast," Graham said to the blue creature. "I need to find the black cat that your master kept in this castle. Does this cat still live?"
The beast paused, looked puzzled for a moment and then nodded.
"Will you take me to where he is?"
The beast started nodding again, then stopped abruptly and slowly shook his head.
"What do you mean?" Graham asked. "Will you or won't you do what I asked?"
The beast hesitated again, then turned and began lumbering towards the flight of stairs that led up to the second floor. It stopped at the foot of the stairs, looked back at Graham, and gestured towards the staircase with its head. Graham slowly approached the beast, which began eagerly clambering up the stairs, occasionally peering over its shoulder to make sure that the king was behind him. Unsure of what he was getting himself into and uncertain whether it was the wisest course of action or not, Graham followed the blue beast up the crumbling stairs to the second floor.
The castle's upper hallway was much brighter than Graham remembered it, mostly due to the nearly nonexistent ceiling overhead. Though the walls at the right end of the hallway had collapsed almost completely, the walls at the left end were still mostly intact, and it was towards the single door at the left end that the beast was leading Graham towards.
Graham followed the beast cautiously, staying as close to the wall as he could, for fear of the floor giving out if he attempted to walk down the center of the hall. As he reached the stone doorway at the end, he heard a distant rumble, like that of several dozen pieces of masonry tumbling down. Another piece of the castle must have collapsed. Graham hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for before another chunk of the castle decided to fall and crush him.
Through the doorway was what had once been Mordack's bedroom. There wasn't much left to identify it as such, save for a pile of wood and torn silk vaguely resembling a bed lying crushed under a heap of rubble. The floor of the room was almost completely gone, and even the beast seemed nervous as it picked its way around the border of the room to another doorway on the south wall.
Through this second doorway was a room that Graham immediately recognized as the castle's library. Unlike every other room of the fortress, this one was surprisingly intact. All of the bookcases save one were standing, and the large desk at the opposite wall of the room was immaculate except for a thick coating of dust. The ornate pillars supporting the library's ceiling still rose proudly to meet the ceiling, and the numerous long-toothed stone grotesques still leered down at Graham from their perches atop the pillars.
The beast hobbled into the center of the room, gazed about it for a moment, then ambled towards one of the bookcases. It then stopped, turned and looked expectantly at Graham. Graham looked at the beast, then glanced around the room as it had done, but didn't see Manannan anywhere.
"Where is he?" Graham asked the beast. "Where is the cat?"
The beast stared silently at him and blinked several times.
"The black cat," Graham said. "Is he in this room?"
The beast shook his head.
Graham sighed. He half-wished that his son's wife Cassima were there to help him deal with the beast. She had been kidnapped by Mordack years ago, and despite her difficult time as a slave to the cold-hearted wizard, she had proven herself to be quite a resourceful princess. She had learned how to navigate the perplexing labyrinth beneath the castle without a map, learned of a secret passage leading to a prison cell that even Mordack wasn't aware of, and even befriended the various fierce beasts that guarded the castle. Perhaps she had somehow discovered a way to understand and communicate with them. However, with Cassima expecting a child in a few weeks' time, she was in no condition to be stumbling through a collapsing castle, and even if things were different, Graham knew that she would be even less eager to return to this fortress than he was.
"All right," Graham said to the beast with an exasperated sigh, "Then why did you bring me here?"
The beast turned and gestured toward the bookcase. Puzzled, Graham approached it. When he had gotten close enough to read the smaller titles on some of the ancient volumes, the beast pointed to one of the shelves. Starting to understand what the beast wanted him to do but not clear as to why it did, Graham started slowly running a hand along the books' spines, from the left side of the shelf to the right. The beast remained still until Graham's hand touched a slim volume towards the right side of the shelf, then it nodded violently. Graham carefully withdrew the book and examined the cover, which read Conjuring Creatures From Worlds Beyond.
Graham stared at the cover, then stared at the beast, which continued to look hopefully at him with its piercing red eyes. The king opened the book to a random page and began to read:
Aside from the world of mortals, there are many others that exist both inside and outside it. The most well known of these worlds are those of Light and Shadow, from which creatures occasionally slip, entering the mortal realm and either astonishing or destroying any mortals they come into contact with.Though the denizens of Light and Shadow typically enter and leave the mortal world of their own accord and are most commonly encountered in dreams or visions, there are ways of luring them into the realm of mortals, where, once captured, they will do the bidding of whomever has ensnared them.
The creatures of Light are quite frail and docile and are useful only as companions, but the inhabitants of the Shadow world can be quite strong and fierce, and will do anything within their power to serve the man who manages to tame them.
One of the more noteworthy skills of the creatures of Shadow is their ability to travel through the Void. The Void is the empty expanse that all creatures must cross when going from one world to the next. Though a creature of Shadow cannot return to its home world once it has been summoned, it can move from one spot in the mortal realm to another in virtually no time at all. To do this, the creature will open a door into the Void, step into the Void, then open another door to its destination. The creature can even take humans with it through these doors. Obviously, the value of this skill cannot be overstated.
Graham looked up at the blue beast. So it and its companions didn't come from his world. That fact certainly explained their bizarre appearances, but Graham still couldn't fathom why the beast had taken it upon itself to educate him about its origins. He continued to leaf through the pages. They included various descriptions of the beasts one might choose to summon and the ways to bring them into the mortal world. Finally, he came to a page with a large, circular diagram on it. When the blue beast noticed the image, it sprang forward frantically and pointed at the page with its long fingers. Graham read what was printed on the page opposite the diagram:
If one should wish to return a creature of the world of Shadow to its home, a one-way door to the world of Shadow must be opened. The instructions for how to accomplish this are listed below.
The instructions were fairly basic: the design depicted on the facing page was to be either etched or drawn on the ground or floor, and it had to be a certain number of paces across. The person who drew it was to walk around it three times and repeat a magical phrase each time. If the spell was successful, a door to the world of Shadows that could only be entered from the mortal realm would open in the middle of the design, and there was another incantation that had to be spoken to close the door. Graham finally understood why he had been led to the library, and what he had to do.
"So," he said to the beast. "You want me to help you and the others from your world return home?"
The beast nodded.
"And in return for helping you, you will help me?"
The beast nodded again, more vigorously this time. As fearful of the beast as Graham had been at first, he now took pity on the freakish being. It and its brothers had been snatched from their world and enslaved by one of the most unpleasant individuals in the mortal world. Now that he was gone, all they wanted was to return home, and Graham felt that that was just what the poor creatures deserved after all they had been through.
Graham had difficulty finding something to draw the diagram with. He searched the library's desk for a piece of chalk but couldn't find one, and the contents of the desk's inkwell had long since dried up. However, he soon noticed a simple clay pot lying in pieces by the single collapsed bookshelf. He picked up a shard of the pot and tried scratching the stone floor with it, and was pleased to see that it left a pale orange mark.
Pushing the large crusty carpet that dominated the floor aside, Graham started to reproduce the design. He had difficulty making straight lines on the gritty stone, and hoped that their wobbliness wouldn't send the creatures somewhere other than the Shadow world.
After several minutes of bending over the hard floor, Graham stiffly rose to his feet and turned to face the blue beast, which was still watching him from across the room.
"All I have to do now is speak the incantation and you'll all be able to go home," he said. "Will you help me find the cat now?"
The beast nodded. It began to trot out of the library, and Graham followed closely behind it. It led him across the hallway, down the stairs to the castle foyer, along the dining hall, and down a lower hallway, then stopped. The end of the hallway was covered in rubble raining down from the deteriorating ceiling above it. Graham dimly recalled that there was a doorway here that led into the castle's kitchen, but there was no sign of that doorway now.
"Er...where is he?" Graham asked the beast.
The beast moved to an unburied section of the hallway's end and pointed to a small hole in the wall, one that looked just large enough for a cat to fit through.
"I'm guessing that leads to the kitchen, and the cat is in there?" Graham said.
The beast gave its usual affirmative response.
"Well, how can I get into the kitchen when the door is buried under all this stone?" Graham asked.
The beast hesitated. It pointed to Graham, then itself, then the collapsed wall. It repeated the gesture again, and Graham soon understood what the beast was proposing.
"All right...but be careful."
The beast lumbered towards him and gently put its large arms around his waist. There was a familiar hum as a dark opening appeared in front of them. The beast lifted Graham off the ground as if he weighed nothing and strode through the opening. Graham had a fleeting vision of hundreds of distant points of light swirling around him and a strange floating sensation, but then another doorway appeared before them, this one leading to yet another decaying room in Mordack's fortress. The creature moved through this doorway, set its large hind feet down upon the cold stone floor of the room and released Graham from its clutches.
Graham barely recognized the room they now stood in as the kitchen where he had first met Cassima. Scraps of food, pots, plates and utensils littered the floor, tables had been crushed by falling chunks of masonry, and a foul smell permeated the gloom. As Graham squinted in the dim light of the kitchen, he noticed something small, dark and shaggy lying on a pile of rags in the large, cold hearth. He slowly approached the hearth and his heart raced as he saw that it was just what he sought: the former wizard, Manannan.
Manannan's feline body was quite emaciated, and his fur was unkempt and sparse. He was sleeping in a stiff, sprawled position, and his chest rose and fell slowly. The king might have pitied such a miserable looking animal were it not for the fact that the man this animal once was had kidnapped Graham's only son, and was indirectly responsible for nearly killing Graham's entire family. At least Manannan was now weak and helpless, unable to do them any more harm...or so Graham hoped.
He reached out to pick Manannan up, but before he could grasp the back of his neck, the cat's dirty golden eyes flashed open. Graham jumped back, expecting the animal to leap at him with its claws out, but all Manannan did was swat feebly at Graham and hiss half-heartedly. The ex-wizard seemed even weaker than he had first appeared, and when Graham attempted to pick him up again, all Manannan did was growl and snarl, which appeared to be all that he had the strength to do.
Graham grasped the cat by the scruff of the neck and lifted the surprisingly light creature out of the fireplace. After a moment of contemplation, Graham knelt down, removed his cloak with one hand and wrapped the protesting cat up in it, leaving only his head sticking out. He then held the immobilized feline in the crook of his right arm and gripped his shield in his right hand, and turned back to the blue beast.
"I'm ready to return you to your home," Graham said. "Take me back to the library and I'll get started."
The beast bowed, seized Graham again, pulled him through the Void and set him and Manannan down on the floor of the library. The beast then turned and vanished through the doorway before Graham could say another word to it.
With the cat and the shield still firmly in his grip, Graham consulted Conjuring Creatures From Worlds Beyond, then began circling the design he had drawn on the floor and repeating the phrase written in the book. When he had intoned the phrase and rounded the intricate drawing three times, there was a low thrumming noise and the air within the circle seemed to pulsate and become oddly warped.
As Graham stood staring at this odd sight, a doorway to the Void opened nearby and out stepped the blue beast, followed by the green monkey-like beast, the gray, bulky beast that Cassima had called Dink, and well as two other bizarrely formed creatures. Apparently, Graham had only seen a small portion of Mordack's menagerie when he first explored the castle.
The blue beast stood aside as the other monsters lumbered eagerly towards the drawing on the library floor. As the first one stepped inside the circle, its body seemed to dissolve and vanish, and Graham thought he could detect a distant joyous baying as the creature faded away.
The other beasts all stepped through the portal one by one, none of them paying any attention to Graham save for Dink, who paused and gazed at the king with what looked like a faint smile of recognition. Then he bounded through the portal to join his comrades.
Finally, the one beast remaining was the blue one. Once again he stared unnervingly at Graham. It must have been an odd moment for both of them, Graham reflected. The beast had captured him and thrown him into a cell years before, now he had become the savior of the beast and its companions.
The beast bowed its head deeply and placed one of its limbs across its chest. Even though it couldn't speak, Graham felt that such a gesture didn't require words.
"You have my thanks as well," the king said.
With yet another nod, the beast started towards the portal to the world of Shadows.
"Wait," Graham said suddenly. He had remembered something that he wanted to ask the beast before it departed.
"One last question: Are you the one that Cassima called Sam?"
Though the beast had no mouth, the look in its red eyes made it appear very much as if it were smiling. It nodded cheerily, then trotted through the portal.
Graham made sure to close the portal and rub out the pattern on the floor as thoroughly as he could, all the while making sure to keep Manannan from wriggling out of the cloak he was wrapped in. When these two chores were finished, Graham took the iron key that the sorcerer had given him from his pocket. He was more than ready to leave this gloomy, crumbling fortress.
"I wish to return," he told it.
There was a loud grinding and crashing sound from the wall adjacent to him. Graham turned to see a bookcase being split down the middle as a wooden door appeared in its center. The shelves folded in upon themselves, either crushing books or spilling them out. It was all the pillars framing the bookshelf could do to remain standing as dust and debris rained down. Apparently, since there were no bare walls in the room, the door had materialized in the only possible location -- with disastrous results.
Hurriedly, Graham unlocked the door and opened it. Then, with cat and shield firmly grasped in his hands, he bolted through the doorway into the sorcerer's home, just as the pillars gave way and the section of ceiling above them decided to follow suit. Graham quickly slammed the door before the avalanche of stone and mortar could follow him through the passageway between the island and the tower. Once again, he had barely survived a visit to Mordack's fortress, and this time, it was truly empty when he left it.
"My, my, my," came an amused voice from the spiral staircase. "You certainly know how to make an entrance, don't you, Your Majesty?"
The sorcerer removed the mangy black cat from Graham's cloak and shoved the scrawny animal into an iron cage, which he and Graham carried up to the top level of the tower and set on the floor. Manannan hissed and spat at the two men weakly.
"The poor devil seems like he's not long for this world," the sorcerer said sadly. "He's half-starved, and I think one of his back legs might be broken."
"He does look bad, but can you understand him?" Graham asked the sorcerer, not feeling any sympathy for the former wizard that lay on the floor of the cage.
"I believe so, though my Feline is a bit rusty," the sorcerer admitted.
"What is he saying now?"
The sorcerer squinted intently at the furious, snarling cat for the better part of a minute.
"He says that he is displeased," he finally said.
"I see," Graham said impatiently, "But I might have come to that same conclusion."
"Sorry," the sorcerer said. "But he's doing nothing but muttering obscenities at you at the moment. He's not very happy to see you."
"I have the same feelings towards him," Graham said impatiently. "Do you think he can still understand our language, sorcerer?"
"I should think so," the sorcerer said. "After all, he still has the intelligence of a man, he simply can't speak like one any longer..."
Without waiting for the sorcerer to finish, Graham picked up the cage and glared at its black, scruffy occupant.
"Listen, Manannan," he growled. "My son-in-law's life has somehow been replaced with a cat's life. He is now reaching the end of that life and he is going to die in a matter of weeks. You are the only one I know who has the knowledge that can save him. I could easily kill you now, but I'll let you live on the condition that you help me."
Manannan stirred feebly and meowed and snarled quietly.
"What did he just say?" Graham asked the sorcerer.
"He said that he isn't impressed by your threats," the sorcerer said. "And that death would actually be welcome now...he has apparently had a very difficult two years on that island."
Graham clenched his jaw and angrily shook the cage.
"You help me save Edgar or I'll make your life even more miserable than it already is, you filthy, conniving, worthless..."
"Your Highness, Your Highness, please," the sorcerer pleaded.
Graham stopped shaking the cage and stared at the sad creature within it. There was no malice in those golden eyes now, only pain and weariness. It seemed as if the wizard hadn't adapted to the life of a cat very well. Without his brother to care for him, it was a wonder that he had survived this long, and it seemed unlikely that he would last much longer.
Graham slowly regained his composure, realizing that it would do him no good to let his rage overwhelm him. He needed to think clearly now, and anger and clear thought could not exist in the same mind.
"Sire?" the sorcerer asked cautiously.
"What?" Graham asked, the man's words barely piercing the surface of his thoughts.
"I've just had an idea. Come here...but leave the cat where he can't hear us."
Graham set the cage down and walked over to the other side of the room with the sorcerer.
"Why don't you offer his own body back in exchange for his help?" the sorcerer whispered.
Graham gaped in disbelief at the sorcerer.
"His own body?" the king repeated. "No! No, I would never even think of offering that monster such a thing!"
"He seems to have gone through a lot during his isolation," the sorcerer reflected. "Perhaps he is no longer the villain he once was..."
"And perhaps he still is," Graham retorted. "Besides, even if I were foolish enough to offer such a thing to him, there would be no way to keep my promise."
"Why is that?"
"The spell my son used to turn him into a cat is irreversible. There's no way to change him back."
"Are you certain?"
"That's what the book of spells he used said."
The sorcerer kneaded his beard thoughtfully with two of his fingers.
"Hmm...I still think you might want to make him that offer, in the hopes that he takes the bait."
"And what if he decides to comply and I'm left with no way to fulfill my part of the bargain?" Graham asked. "He might take his revenge by sneaking into the castle and clawing all our eyes out in our sleep!"
"We'll deal with that problem when we come to it," the sorcerer said firmly. "Right now we have to concentrate on finding out what you need to know: how to save your daughter's husband. After all, you just might find a way to make things turn out for the best for both your family and the cat."
"All men will be keeping dragons as pets before that happens," Graham grumbled.
"Oh my," the sorcerer muttered, shaking his head. "To be honest, though, dragons aren't that bad..."
When Graham made his proposition to Manannan, the cat seemed slightly suspicious at first. Then, after several moments' contemplation, he grudgingly agreed to help Graham. After all, the former wizard had nothing left to lose, and if, by some amazing stroke of luck, Graham did find a way to restore him to human form, he had everything to gain.
"Very well," Graham said once the two of them had come to an agreement. "Now tell me: how can I save my son-in-law's life?"
Manannan began meowing and caterwauling again, and the sorcerer quickly began translating:
"There's nothing that any...that any mortals or wizards can do. If the boy's life has truly been...replaced, the only thing left to do is to...is to consult..."
The sorcerer paused and blinked nervously.
"Consult whom?" Graham asked.
Graham stared at the sorcerer's frightened face, then at Manannan lying languidly in his cage.
"What do you mean?" the king demanded.
"You must seek out Death...and speak to him," the sorcerer said as Manannan began howling again, "With luck...he will take pity on you and restore the boy's life."
"Seek out Death?" Graham asked. "Do you mean I must travel to the Realm of the Dead and..."
"No," the sorcerer translated. "Not there. The entity that lives there only reigns over the souls of the dead. You must find the being that watches people's lives...and comes to them when it is their time."
Graham was much relieved that he didn't have to go to the Realm of the Dead. After what his son, his son-in-law and his daughter-in-law had told him about that eerie realm, he didn't want to visit it even once while he was still alive.
"So where does this being live?" he asked Manannan.
"In a realm outside this world," the sorcerer translated. "There is only one way that mortals can reach it...you must wear a Mortis charm and recite this phrase seven times..."
The sorcerer said something in an ancient-sounding language that Graham could not understand. Manannan then fell silent.
"And...is that it?" Graham asked.
"Yes -- no, wait," the sorcerer said, as the cat began to speak again. This time the sorcerer didn't say a word until Manannan had grown quiet again.
"He says that you should leave that shield behind," the sorcerer said somberly, looking at the exact spot where Graham was hiding the magic shield beneath his cloak. "He and I both know of the power of that shield, but it can only protect you from mortal harm, and Death is no mortal. After all, Death may be much more receptive to a man who enters his domain with no means of defense."
The sorcerer leaned towards Graham and spoke more quietly:
"You might also want to take this opportunity to tell your family that you are leaving," he said. "There's no way of knowing how long this mission of yours might take."
"Shouldn't I bring some men with me?" Graham asked.
Manannan howled from his cage.
"No," the sorcerer said. "A journey outside the mortal realm is one best made alone. If many men went on such a journey, they could easily be turned against each other and become scattered."
"Are you sure that that cat is telling the truth?" Graham asked suspiciously.
"I'm afraid it is true," the sorcerer said. "I have done some reading on the various realms that exist alongside this one, and what he says is the same thing as my books say."
"So..." Graham said slowly. "I should return to my castle and come back here once I am ready?"
"Yes," the sorcerer said. "I am certain I have a Mortis charm somewhere, and I'll hunt for it while you are away."
Graham nodded silently, then began making his way down the spiral staircase. Once he had reached the floor, he opened the heavy door and stepped out into the cool autumn air of the Daventry countryside. He refastened his cloak around his neck and pulled the hood up. Then, with his head down, he slowly walked across the bridge that led from the sorcerer's island to the mainland and began the journey back to Castle Daventry, which seemed much longer than it had been earlier that morning.
When Graham entered the castle's throne room, Valanice was there. She came to him and embraced him tightly, then glared crossly at him.
"You could have at least told us you were leaving the castle yourself," she said.
"I'm sorry, Valanice," Graham said earnestly. "I was just in too much of a hurry to think clearly."
"Can you think clearly enough to explain exactly why you left us so suddenly?" Valanice asked. Though her voice was stern, there was still a faint touch of humor in it.
"I was looking for a way to help Edgar," Graham replied.
Valanice glanced at the floor, her face downcast.
"Oh," she said quietly. "I see...I should have known. Were you successful?"
"I believe I was," Graham said. "But I'm afraid I have to leave again, and this time, I don't know when I will return."
"Why?" Valanice demanded. "What's going on, Graham? Do you know what's happened to Edgar?"
Graham had known Valanice for too many years to think that he could keep the truth from her for long. After finding a servant to return the magic shield to the Royal Treasury, he quietly led his queen to their chambers, and there, he told her everything that had happened that morning. Valanice remained completely silent until he had finished his story.
"So...you're going on another adventure?" she asked, trying to make light of the dire situation.
"I'm afraid so," Graham replied.
"What if that demon Manannan is secretly trying to do you in?" Valanice said worriedly.
"The notion has crossed my mind," Graham said, "But why would he kill me when I have offered to change him back into a human?"
"And if you should find a way to do that, what do you think he will do to us once he is his old self?" Valanice said.
"I don't know," Graham sighed. "But all we can do now is hope that I will be successful in persuading Death to help me."
"I suppose so," said Valanice gently. For a while, she and Graham held hands and said nothing, wondering what the future held in store for their family.
Graham and Valanice went to Edgar and Rosella's chambers, where they found Edgar sitting in a chair near the door, looking just as frail and aged as he had been that morning, his pygmy griffin Scrimshaw perched on the back of the chair. Rosella was sitting on the bed, and she swiftly rose to her feet at the sight of her father.
"Father, where were you?" she cried, running to meet Graham. "Mama and I had no idea where you'd gone, and all the Court Physician could tell us was that you were out looking for a sorcerer, and..."
"The Court Physician was right," Graham said.
"A sorcerer?" Edgar said in a tired voice, staring up at the king. "Why were you looking for a sorcerer? Were you..."
He suddenly paused. His wrinkled brow furrowed in thought, then he looked back up at Graham with deep concern in his brown eyes.
"It's about me, isn't it?"
Rosella stared at her father, and Valanice nodded solemnly.
"Yes, it is." Graham said quietly. "Edgar...the reason this is happening to you is because of the cat's life Rosella healed you with after your aunt nearly killed you. It has replaced the life you started out with, and now that cat's life is nearing its end."
Rosella let out a tiny gasp and stared in horror at Edgar, who blinked several times but said nothing. Scrimshaw stared at Graham, sitting as still as a statue.
"However, I believe I have found a way to help you," Graham continued. "But I must leave Daventry in order to do it. I may be gone several days or several weeks, but I promise to return successfully and as soon as I can."
"Is there...is there anything we can do?" Rosella asked shakily.
"Just help your mother and the servants keep the kingdom running, Rosella," Graham said gently. "And most importantly, look after Edgar."
Edgar smiled bitterly and snorted amusedly.
"I suppose I should have seen this coming," he muttered.
"Oh, Edgar, I'm so sorry," Rosella said in a quavering voice, putting her arm around his shoulders. "This is all my fault...if I had only known..."
"If you had known, it wouldn't have made much of a difference," Valanice said. "If you hadn't given that life to Edgar, he would have died. You did what was right at the time, Rosella. Now we need to do what is right at this time."
Rosella sighed and let her head rest on Edgar's shoulder.
"Don't worry," Graham said after their embrace was over. "I won't come back until I have succeeded. Just promise me that you will keep my castle and people safe until I return."
"I promise," Rosella said, blinking back tears.
"As do I," said Valanice.
"I may not be of much help," Edgar muttered. "But I promise to do what I can...and thank you, Your Majesty."
It was late in the afternoon when Graham had finally finished preparing for his journey. The only preparations he had made involved packing a small knapsack with enough rations for several days and various other essentials, and this hadn't taken nearly as long as saying good-bye to his daughter, wife and son-in-law.
Graham's heart felt ten times heavier than his knapsack as he departed Castle Daventry, making his way through the much quieter town streets. Even though his cloak was once again hiding his face, he sensed that his despair was all too obvious to the people who noticed him slowly trudging along with his head bowed.
Once he had reached the less populated outskirts of the town, he pulled back his hood to let the cool air reach him more easily, as well as to get a better look at the surrounding land. The peaceful countryside's fields and trees had been painted gold and red with the passing of the seasons. Twenty years ago, much of Daventry had been a dangerous country to travel alone in, since thieving dwarves, fierce ogres, mischievous sorcerers and ravenous wolves prowled nearly every mile of land within its borders.
When Graham had inherited the throne and put the powers of the three treasures to good use, however, the various fiends roaming the kingdom were either driven out by Daventry's strengthened population or retreated of their own accord into the thickest, most inaccessible forests in the realm. These days, those places were the only ones in the kingdom that were still considered dangerous.
As Graham continued south, he suddenly heard a voice coming from close by:
"Your Majesty...Your Majesty!"
Graham turned in the direction of the frantic shouts to see a young man approaching him through the trees at a fast walk. The king stopped and waited until the stranger had reached his side before responding to him:
"Yes? You wished to speak to me?"
The stranger opened his mouth, but suddenly became very nervous and insecure, rubbing his hands together anxiously, glancing at the ground and stammering as he tried to talk:
"W-w-ell, K-k-king G-graham...I w-w...w-wanted to...th-that is, I...I..."
Graham raised a hand and the young man halted in mid-stutter.
"Please," the king said gently. "Calm yourself. I'm not wearing a crown and we're not standing in a throne room, so at the moment, why can't we merely speak to each other as two men, regardless of our status?"
The stranger seemed puzzled by these words for a moment, but he nodded eagerly and seemed to relax somewhat. He couldn't have been much older than twenty, and his shaggy brown hair almost covered his icy blue eyes. His face was thin and somewhat angular, and a tiny, trim goatee bisected the curve of his chin. His clothes, though undoubtedly the clothes of a peasant, were oddly elegant, despite their simplicity.
"Please forgive me, Your Highness," the stranger finally said in a steadier voice. "I just never imagined that I'd meet you like this. I'm truly honored to finally meet you, Sire."
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Graham said. "Who are you, stranger?"
"You may not know me," the stranger smiled, "But you did know my parents."
"Your parents?" Graham repeated, confused. "Who were they? What were their names?"
The stranger's smile grew wider.
"Do you, by any chance, recall a clay bowl with the word 'fill' painted inside it?"
Graham's eyes opened wide as the truth of the stranger's identity began to unfold inside his head.
"Of course...then the couple I gave it to...they were..."
"...My dear mother and father," the stranger said with a hint of pride. "Your gift saved them from starvation, and when I was born years later, it helped keep me fed as well. They were astounded to hear that the young knight that gave them that magic bowl had become king of Daventry, and they never stopped telling me the story of your visit. I've always dreamed of meeting you, but I never imagined that I truly would."
"My word," Graham gasped, thunderstruck. He had nearly forgotten the poor woodcutter and his wife that he had encountered so many years ago in his quest to find the kingdom's three lost treasures. And now that woodcutter's son had reached manhood...where had the time gone?
"I've become a tailor now," the woodcutter's son continued. "And I have come into possession of a needle that is unlike any other needle in existence."
"How so?" Graham asked.
"With it, I can sew anything together. Not just cloth, but anything. Wood, stone, glass, metal, even living flesh. I can repair anything that has been broken, leaving it good as new."
"That's quite remarkable," Graham said, considerably impressed by the tailor's claim. "But why are you telling me this?"
"I want to repay you for saving my family," the tailor replied. "I know sewing something together probably isn't an adequate means of returning such a noble need, but it's the only thing I can offer to you. If you ever have something that needs mending, come to my home. Even if it isn't cloth, I have no doubt that I can fix it."
"I thank you for your generosity," Graham said, "But I'm afraid I don't know where your home is."
The tailor reached into a pocket and pulled out a small spool of thread.
"You don't need to know," he said. "Take this thread."
"What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.
"When you want to visit me, simply drop that spool on the ground. It will unroll, and the thread will form a path to my home. Just follow it, and eventually, you'll arrive at my door."
Graham eyed the spool with interest, then tucked it safely away.
"Well, thank you very much, young tailor," he said to his new acquaintance, "But I must be on my way now."
The tailor's eyes looked concerned for a moment.
"You're not...you're not on another journey, are you, my king?"
Graham paused, then decided that the tailor was a trustworthy soul and that it wouldn't hurt to be honest with him.
"Between the two of us, yes, I am," the king said in a low voice. The tailor nodded gravely.
"Well, good luck to you then, Your Majesty. And please consider my offer if you come upon anything that needs mending."
Graham thanked the tailor again and bid him farewell. As the young man walked away, the king contemplated his offer. Though Graham had no doubt that the tailor's needle and thread could do all that the lad claimed they could do, the king doubted that they could mend his breaking heart.
As Graham reached the bridge to the sorcerer's house and began to cross it, he once again heard a loud voice to his left:
"Halt! Who goes there?"
He turned to face the stone creature, much more irritated than surprised this time.
"King Graham of Daventry."
"And what is your business here?"
"The sorcerer told me to leave his home and prepare for my journey," Graham said impatiently. "And to return once I was ready, which I am now."
The beast looked puzzled.
"Then you've been here before?" it asked.
"Yes," Graham said with a sigh.
"Oh," the creature grunted. "Very well. You may pass."
Relieved to leave the creature behind, Graham cautiously crossed the wooden bridge, trying not to glance down at the vicious currents beneath it. He didn't bother knocking on the door of the ramshackle hut this time, but simply let himself in, and noticing no one on the first floor of the tower concealed within the hut, he made his way up the iron staircase to the second floor. There he found the sorcerer sitting in one of the large chairs in the alcove, with the caged Manannan on the small, round table between the two chairs. As Graham approached the alcove, he noticed that there was a bandage around one of the cat's back legs.
"I hated to see the poor wretched thing suffering so," the sorcerer explained, noticing where Graham's eyes were directed. "So I took it upon myself to feed him and fix up that leg of his. It turns out that it was broken. Something heavy must have fallen on it. It must have been a humiliating injury for him, suffering from something so common as a broken limb, unable to repair it himself with magic..."
"I'm ready to leave now, sorcerer," Graham said, uninterested in hearing about his former nemesis's physical condition.
"Oh, yes, of course," the sorcerer muttered. "My apologies, Sire."
He rose to his feet and started rummaging in one of the deep pockets of his star-speckled robe. Despite the man's various eccentricities, Graham was starting to have better feelings about this nameless sorcerer. Though he had had his doubts about him at first, the sorcerer had turned out to be a surprisingly kindly gentleman, who just happened to have a good deal of knowledge about magic. In some ways, he reminded Graham of the wizard Crispinophur of Serenia, whose heart was always in the right place (though his mind was often wandering). Graham hadn't known many benevolent wizards in his time, and he was thankful that he had found one, especially now.
"Here we are," the sorcerer said, pulling a small object out of his pocket and holding it up for Graham to see. "You just need to wear this, and I'll tell you the phrase you need to say to enter Death's domain if you've forgotten it."
Graham stared at the object. It was a small, oddly shaped black amulet on a silver chain, with a crude depiction of a doorway carved into the amulet itself. When Graham took the odd charm from the sorcerer, he shuddered as he realized that the amulet felt as if it were made out of bone -- and upon closer examination, he recognized it as a bone from a human hand, stained black.
"So this is a Mortis charm?" he asked.
"It is," the sorcerer confirmed. "It's odd -- I've known what that thing is for decades, but I've always thought it was merely a charm to ward off death and illnesses. I never even dreamed that such a thing could actually send a mortal into Death's domain..."
Graham stared coldly at Manannan as the sorcerer spoke. Was the cat-wizard truly scheming to kill him, or was he truly desperate enough to aid his foes in order to regain his humanity? There was only one way to find out...but there was another uncertainty that was troubling Graham as well.
"Sorcerer, once I have reached my destination, how do I return to this world?"
"I asked the cat about it while you were gone, and apparently you just need to recite the same phrase you say to enter the realm -- seven times as well, of course."
"What if I can't remember the phrase once I'm there?" Graham asked, who certainly couldn't recall it now.
"Don't worry, I'll write it down for you," the sorcerer said. He walked over to one of the room's cluttered desks and began rummaging about, looking for a quill and paper. As he searched, Graham slipped the Mortis charm over his neck. He didn't feel any different wearing the charm, but a trinket powerful enough to open a doorway to another realm undoubtedly contained an incredible quantity of magic. He cast a look at Manannan once again, and prayed that the twisted old fiend was being true to his word.
"Here we are," the sorcerer said several moments later, returning to Graham with a small scrap of paper. "I had difficulty translating the runes to your language, but the phrase should be effective just the same."
Graham squinted at the scrawled characters and convoluted words on the paper and tried his best to pronounce the odd phrase. The sorcerer shook his head and spoke the phrase aloud. Graham attempted to repeat it, but again the sorcerer shook his head. The king's third attempt was apparently successful, since the sorcerer smiled and nodded encouragingly in response to it. Graham held the paper tightly and repeated the phrase written upon it again, then a second time with greater confidence.
After his fourth recitation of the phrase, the air in the room seemed to have grown colder, and the objects in the room had grown oddly indistinct, as if a dense fog had entered the tower. Apprehensively, Graham continued to repeat the phrase, the words resounding louder and louder within his mind every time he spoke them. As he spoke the phrase for the seventh and final time, the room had become a gray blur about him, and when the last words of the phrase left his mouth, a strong, howling wind came out of nowhere, nearly knocking him over. As the scream of the wind became louder, the room swiftly faded into blackness, and Graham could just make out a faint "Good luck!" from the sorcerer.
The blackness faded as soon as it had come, and Graham found himself in a strange new world. It was not a dark, gloomy place that could drive all hope from the hearts of Man, but a pale, misty place that looked like an overcast sky before a sunset. It was hardly the sort of place Graham would associate with Death.
The king was standing on a small, gray rock ledge, with no land visible beneath him. Wisps of cloud drifted slowly by, and directly ahead of him was a series of stone slabs suspended in midair, each one slightly higher than the last, forming a floating staircase, leading somewhere that was impossible to make out in the thick mist. As daunting as the staircase looked, it seemed to be the only route Graham could take.
As he stood staring dubiously up at the stone steps, there was a sudden gust of wind, and the scrap of paper with the magic phrase on it was plucked out of Graham's hand. Panicked, Graham prepared to make a grab for it, but just as quickly stopped himself and watched the paper drift away and become lost in the clouds. If he had reached out for that paper, he would have lost his balance on the tiny ledge and fallen...and if there was ground beneath him, it was a very long way down.
A cold shroud of dread fell over Graham. If he forgot that phrase now, there would be no way for him to return to his own world. All that he could do now was see where those mysterious floating steps led, and hope that he could find another way out of Death's domain...after he found Death.
Graham climbed the floating stone steps as slowly and carefully as he could, trying his best not to look down. Though the fog made it impossible to see just how high in the air he was, somehow not being able to tell this made the experience even more unnerving. It took all his will to limit his gaze to only the steps ahead of him and the thick mist ahead.
The never-ending silence that dominated the realm made the sound of his footfalls almost deafening. There wasn't even a distant whistle of wind in the air or the far-off call of a bird. This place didn't need to be dark and cloistered to frighten mortals, Graham realized. The absence of all familiar sights and sounds was enough to make any man fear it.
Graham suddenly stopped, his right foot planted firmly on the next step. A large shape had appeared in the mist ahead of him. He watched it intently, as if it were a fierce beast crouched behind some foliage. Then, one of the larger clouds that was masking the shape drifted away, and before him, Graham beheld something that appeared to be part structure, part landform. It towered above him like a fortress, yet it was not constructed out of stones or bricks. It seemed as if it were formed out of solid rock, though the rock looked as if it had been wrapped around itself and sculpted like clay. The top of the fortress was topped with long, sharp, twisting pinnacles where the stone coils ended, looking like solid gray flames frozen in time...if there was such a thing as time in Death's realm.
Graham slowly continued up the steps, refraining from looking at the peculiar formation again until he had reached the top of the surreal staircase. Once he had, he found that, like the steps, the massive structure was also hovering in midair, and at the base of the structure was a tall doorway. There was no door or gate barring the opening; there was simply a doorway. Praying that the Fates would have mercy on him, Graham stepped through the doorway, wondering who or what he would encounter on the other side.
The doorway led into a dark, narrow, twisting hallway, lined by the same peculiar rock that the exterior of the structure was made up of. There were no carvings, paintings or decorations of any kind on the walls, making the hallway feel as barren as a mole's tunnel. The hallway finally ended in a large, circular room that was much brighter than the passage leading to it. A look upwards explained why: the room had alarmingly high walls, but no ceiling, letting light from the world outside filter down, bathing the chamber in a soft, ethereal glow.
Somehow, the fog seemed to be present even within the structure. It swirled around Graham's feet and made the rest of the room indistinct. There were several doorways lining the walls of the room, but a strange, dark smoke obscured each one. Though Graham had no idea exactly what the smoke was, he was fairly certain that it served the same purpose as a lock on a door.
The king lingered on the threshold of the doorway he had entered the room by, uncertain what to do next. After several anxious minutes, a wind suddenly swept through the chamber, stirring up the mist and twisting it into a plethora of bizarre shapes. Then a wisp of gray fog appeared in the center of the room. It rapidly grew larger and denser until it resolved itself into a tall, thin figure clad in a tattered, faded black robe. A pointed hood partially hid the figure's face, which seemed to be scarcely anything more than skin stretched over a skull. Long, bony fingers affixed to sinewy wrists and emaciated arms protruded from the robe's oddly short sleeves, and equally gaunt, sandal-clad feet stuck out from beneath the robe's frayed hem.
Even though Graham had never set eyes upon this entity before, in his heart he knew that it had to be the one he had come to this realm to seek help from.
"Good day," he said as humbly and reverently as he could. "Are you Death?"
The figure's bloodless mouth frowned slightly. Then he slowly opened it and spoke in a low, hoarse mutter:
"Yes, that is the name Man has given me...though I am afraid your concept of days is rather foreign to me, mortal."
There was no malice in his voice, and the words he spoke didn't fill Graham with fear either. Death was hardly the dark, sinister monster that the king had expected. Death could probably walk the streets of any city just the way he appeared and not call any attention to himself...and, with a shiver, Graham suspected that Death did do just that, and often.
Death beckoned to Graham with his twig-like fingers.
"Do come in," he said politely. "It has been eons since a mortal has come to my abode."
As Graham nervously approached Death, two stone chairs materialized on either side of Death. They too were made out of the warped stone that the room and the structure were composed of, and hardly looked comfortable, but Graham, not wanting to offend Death, gingerly sat down on the chair offered to him.
"Before you tell me why you came here," Death said, lowering his frail body onto the chair facing Graham, "I wish to know your name and what part of the mortal world you come from."
"My name is Graham, and I come from the land of Daventry."
Death leaned forward slightly.
Death stroked his angular chin thoughtfully.
"Ah, yes...King Graham of Daventry. I know you."
Graham shuddered, wondering whether he wanted to hear what Death was going to tell him next.
"Your life nearly ended recently," Death said. "I was certain that it was going to end, so certain that I watched you for some time. I was quite surprised when your life suddenly grew even stronger and brighter than it had been before. You were quite fortunate then, King Graham."
Graham realized that Death was speaking of the sudden illness that had overtaken him several years before, just after his son's triumphant return to Daventry. If it weren't for Rosella's help, Graham's life would indeed have been cut short.
"And now we meet again," Death continued. "Only this time, you have sought me out. Why have you done this, King Graham?"
"I've come to you on behalf of my son-in-law, Prince Edgar of Etheria. I was told that something has gone terribly wrong with his life, and that I should seek out your help in order to heal him."
Death was silent for a moment, making a soft, growling noise as he contemplated what Graham had told him. Then he rose to his flat, bony feet.
"Come with me," he said dully.
Graham followed Death to one of the smoke-filled doorways. As Death approached the doorway, the smoke vanished, revealing another tunnel leading off what had to be the central chamber of Death's abode. Death led Graham down the length of the tunnel, which twisted and turned and grew increasingly darker. Soon, however, Graham could see a faint glow ahead of them, and when they reached the end of the tunnel, he froze in astonishment at what lay before them.
It was a huge cavern, so tall that Graham couldn't see the ceiling and so long that he couldn't see its end. However, the cavern wasn't dark or gloomy at all, for lining its walls were rows upon rows of brightly burning candles of various heights, fading into a dull golden glimmer in the distance. Some burned brightly and steadily while others flickered constantly. There seemed to be more candles in this cavern than there were stars in the night sky.
"What is this place?" Graham breathed, unable to contain his astonishment.
"This chamber," said Death solemnly, "Contains the lives of every living mortal. Each candle you see is a mortal's life. The tall ones are those of younger people, the short ones are those of the sickly or the elderly."
Death held out his hand and a candle appeared in it. Though it wasn't as tall as some of the candles, its flame burned strongly and steadily.
"This is your life," he said.
Graham felt a little lightheaded as he gazed at the candle in Death's hand. Death, apparently sensing his agitation, made the candle disappear, returning it to where it originally was in the cavern.
"So...when someone's time is drawing near...you 'put out' their life?" Graham asked.
Death frowned coldly at Graham, then softened and sighed shallowly.
"So many mortals say that I take their lives from them, blaming me for the misfortunes of their world. But I do not end mortals' lives. When a mortal's life is destined to end, I merely go to that person to make certain that their soul completely leaves their body. I don't deal directly with souls; I just make sure that they do not stay in the mortal realm to become what you call ghosts."
Graham nodded silently, trying to comprehend what Death was telling him about the inner workings of the afterlife.
"But enough about my duties," Death said. "What did you say that other mortal's name was, King Graham?"
"Prince Edgar of Etheria," Graham said. "He was born in the realm of Eldritch but now resides in Daventry."
"Ah, yes," Death growled. He held out his palm and another candle appeared in it, this one much taller than Graham's.
"Is that Edgar's life?" Graham asked hesitantly.
"But there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it," Graham said.
"That's because there isn't anything wrong with it," Death said. "This Edgar is quite an unusual case, King Graham. Like you, I also visited him when his life had almost gone out. His soul had even left him, but it was still clinging to the mortal world, though it might have briefly been in the Realm of the Dead. Then suddenly he was alive, but his life had been jolted from his body...by this life."
Death held out his other hand, and in it appeared a tiny, flickering stub of a candle.
"This is the first time I can recall a mortal walking around in perfect health, yet living on a life that isn't his. This cat's life has apparently displaced Edgar's life."
"Is there any way that his life can be returned to him?" Graham asked.
"I believe there is," Death said after another thoughtful pause. "Yes, I am certain that it can be done."
"Then will you please return Edgar's life to him, Death?"
Death sighed a heavy, ponderous sigh. The two candles in his hands vanished.
"I admit your predicament has interested me, King Graham," he said, "But I do not grant favors such as this at the drop of a hat, as you mortals say."
"What do you mean?" Graham asked worriedly.
"Come back to the central chamber with me," Death said, brushing past Graham and entering the tunnel that led out of the cavernous room. "I'll explain there."
"As I said," Death explained once he and Graham were once again seated in the stone chairs, "I do not grant favors for every mortal who calls out my name and begs for me to have mercy on them and their loved ones. I also do not interfere directly with the lives of mortals."
"Is there anything I can do to convince you to help me, then?" Graham asked desperately.
"I believe so," Death said. "I will help you, King Graham, but only if you perform a series of tasks to prove yourself worthy of my assistance. I will send you where you need to go in order to complete each one, but you cannot return home until you have succeeded in all of them."
"What are these tasks?" Graham asked.
"Tell me whether you wish to embark on this mission first," Death said.
Though Graham didn't like the idea of blindly plunging into whatever plans Death had in store for him, he didn't have much of a choice.
"I do," he said firmly.
"Good," Death said, smiling widely, exposing several long, yellowed teeth. "Once you have completed the first task I give you, I will bring you back here and tell you what the next one is. Therefore, you do not need to use that charm any longer."
He pointed to Graham's chest with a long, sinewy finger. Remembering the Mortis charm that he was wearing, Graham gratefully removed the black bone from around his neck and carefully tucked it into his pocket.
"However," Death continued, "I may not be able to bring you back here immediately, because there are many dying people that I must attend to, especially now that I've spent all this time talking with you."
"I'm sorry," Graham said, unaware that his presence had been interfering with Death's duties.
"Don't be," Death said. "It was my decision to speak with you, so the fault rests only with me. Now, for your first task, I will be sending you to a land in the northern part of your realm, where you are to locate a -- "
Death stopped in mid-sentence and turned sharply towards one of the doorways. Graham turned as well, just in time to see the smoke obscuring it dissipate. Suddenly, his mind felt clouded and his eyelids became heavy. He felt his body begin to weaken, and though he fought with all his might to remain conscious, his surroundings quickly faded to a blur and a thick darkness swallowed him.
"King Graham?" came a hoarse, low voice. "King Graham?"
Graham slowly opened his eyes to find himself slouched in the stone chair, with Death standing beside him. He didn't feel any different than usual, and he still seemed to have a body, so he couldn't have died...
"What happened?" he gasped, cautiously sitting up.
"Something that was my fault again," Death muttered, shaking his head. "My brother told me he was going to pay me a visit, and I completely forgot. I suppose I should have warned you about him."
"Your brother?" Graham asked confusedly.
"Yes," Death replied. "I'm certain that you know him. He's kept even busier than I am, tending to all you mortals. I'm amazed that he was able to find time to visit me at all."
"But who is your brother, and what does him coming here to do with what just happened to me?" Graham demanded.
Death's wrinkled mouth shaped itself into a tiny, wry smile.
"What happened to you happens to all mortals whenever my brother visits them," he said. "He is the one that you call Sleep."
Graham stared straight ahead, his mind swimming.
"The poor fellow was so ashamed," Death muttered. "He's much too self-conscious for his own good. After apologizing to me about seventeen times, he gave me something to give to you when he departed."
"And what is that?" Graham asked, still feeling slightly disoriented.
Death held out a small, elaborately carved crystal vial filled with a dark blue liquid, corked with a piece of black cloth sewn into the shape of a bung.
"It is a potion which will send any mortal that drinks it into a deep, restful slumber," Death explained. "During which all of the questions and problems that may be preying upon his mind will be answered in his dreams."
"Well...tell your brother that he has my thanks," said Graham, taking the vial from Death. "I'm sure I might find a use for this."
"I'm certain he will be relieved to hear that," Death said. "He's so terribly sensitive. Now, where were we? Ah yes: Your first task, King Graham, will be to find and procure a fresh snowdrop."
"A snowdrop?" Graham repeated, rising to his feet. "But that flower only blooms in early spring. How can I possibly find one in autumn?"
"You will have to find a way to accomplish that yourself," Death said. "I am going to send you to a land north of your own, and there, if you are fortunate, you will be able to find me a snowdrop. Farewell, King Graham."
Graham was suddenly surrounded by mist, so thick that he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. Then the mist was gone, and Graham found himself standing on a low hill, looking down on a wide valley surrounded by tall mountains, which cast long shadows in the light of the setting sun. Several small houses dotted the valley, with a little grouping of them at the base of the hill Graham was on. A tiny road wound its way through the valley, and thick groves of trees sprouted up hither and thither.
Graham had no idea where this valley was, nor did he have a notion as to how he could possibly find a flower that bloomed in late winter when it was mid-fall. Since he knew he wasn't going to become any wiser by standing where he was, he began walking down the hill, heading towards the group of buildings that started to look more and more like a small village as he neared it. Hopefully, he would be able to find someone to advise him there.
The sky was completely dark by the time Graham arrived in the village. There were fires burning in many of the small houses, but most of the businesses had closed for the night. Only one business had a lamp burning outside its door, indicating that it was still open. It was a small tavern with a sign that identified it as The Cockerel's Spur. Two large men dozed in chairs under the eves of the tavern, and a warm glow came from the building's windows. Glad of an opportunity to get out of the cold evening air, Graham pushed open the tavern's door and went inside.
The Cockerel's Spur had many tables, but only a few of them were occupied, mostly by men who seemed too busy with their drinks to talk to Graham. However, there was an upset-looking young man seated at one of the tables who didn't look much older than Graham's son.
A large fire was blazing in the tavern's fireplace, and a door that probably led to a small storeroom was set in the wall opposite Graham, with a tall, muscular man standing beside it. Standing behind the tavern's counter was a man with bristly black hair and an even more bristly beard who had to be the barkeep. Behind him were shelves stacked with mugs and bottles, and below them were several kegs lined up against the wall. As Graham approached the counter, the barkeep greeted him boisterously.
"Ah, welcome to my humble establishment, traveler," he crowed. "I assume you are a traveler, judging by your attire and the knapsack you carry -- am I correct?"
"Yes, you are," Graham replied. "But I'm afraid that I have lost my way. Can you tell me what land this is, barkeep?"
"You are near the northern border of the kingdom of Monticore," the barkeep said. "I'm afraid this little village is too small to have earned itself a name, however."
Graham vaguely remembered Monticore as a small realm some distance north of Daventry and Serenia.
"Then I believe I am in the right place," he told the barkeep.
"I'm glad of that," the barkeep replied. "What brings you to Monticore, stranger?"
"I know it may sound ridiculous, but I was told that I might find snowdrops flowering here."
"Snowdrops?" the barkeep asked quizzically. "What in the world are those?"
"Small white flowers that only bloom between winter and spring," Graham replied.
The barkeep grunted amusedly.
"Then I doubt you will find any blooming this time of year," he chuckled. "In case you haven't noticed, it's harvest time now."
"I know," Graham muttered. "But I was told that they might be found here, despite that."
"Well, good luck looking for them," the barkeep shrugged. "I certainly don't know how you'd find these snowdrips of yours if they only grow in the snow."
"Thank you," Graham said flatly.
As Graham turned away from the kindly though unhelpful barkeep, he looked at the young man he had noticed upon entering the tavern, and saw that he wasn't merely upset, but downright distraught, as if he had lost everything that mattered to him. Though Graham's own problems were troubling him, he couldn't help but feel sympathy for the lad.
He slowly approached the young man's table and quietly addressed him. The man shakily looked up at Graham. His black hair was tousled, his clothes were unkempt, and there were dark circles under his hazel eyes.
"What do you want?" he said, his voice cracking.
"I want to know what is troubling you, and whether there is anything I can do to help," Graham said.
"What's troubling me is none of your affairs," the man said angrily. "And there's nothing anyone can do to help me, so leave me alone!"
"What makes you so sure of that?" Graham asked.
"I know no one can help me," the stranger trembled. "I just want to be left alone."
"Listen to me," Graham said gently, "I've lived much longer than you, and consequently I've gone through many more hardships and misfortunes than you, and if there's two important things I've learned over the years, it's to never turn down help that is offered to you, and never keep your misery to yourself."
The young man stared coldly at Graham, breathing heavily.
"If I tell you what's troubling me, will you go away and not bother me again?" he snarled.
"I promise," Graham said.
"Very well," the man muttered. "I live in a kingdom east of here, at the edge of a deep forest. My fiancée Jorinda and I were walking together in the forest one evening when suddenly, right before my eyes, Jorinda changed into a nightingale and began to fly away. I tried to run after her, but I couldn't move...if was as if I had been turned to stone. Then a haggard woman appeared, grabbed Jorinda and vanished.
"Soon after that I was set free from the enchantment that bound me, and I learned that that woman was a witch. She lives in a castle deep in the forest and changes any young maiden that comes too close to her home into a bird and takes her prisoner, and if any young man is with the maiden, the witch casts a spell on him that freezes him in his tracks so that he doesn't get in the way.
"They say she has hundreds of birds that once were maidens in her castle, and she loves their songs so much that she continues to collect more and more...and no one has ever even seen the witch's castle, let alone reached it without having a spell cast on them by her...Jorinda...my Jorinda..."
He had started sobbing as he reached the end of his story. Graham was inclined to agree with the fellow's claim that no one could help him find and rescue his beloved, but the king had had experience with witches in the past, and there was almost always a way to defeat them. Unfortunately, Graham had no way of knowing how the young man could deal with this witch. Then he had an idea. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the vial of potion that Death had given him.
"I think I might be able to help you."
"Oh?" the man said cynically, his face buried in his arms.
"This is a powerful potion that will send you into a deep sleep, and the dreams you have during that sleep will answer all the questions you have about how you can find Jorinda and triumph over her captor."
The lad looked up at Graham.
"Are you speaking the truth?" he asked coldly. "Or are you merely trying to play a cruel joke on me?"
"I swear by all the stars in the heavens that I'm not trying to trick you," Graham said. "I'm only trying to help you."
He stared earnestly at the young man, who stared back at him through weary, bloodshot eyes.
"You do seem like an honest fellow," he said softly. "And I must admit that I haven't been able to sleep for days...I suppose I would be a fool to refuse that potion."
He slowly took the vial from Graham and solemnly thanked him.
"If this truly does work," he said, holding the vial up and watching the blue liquid in it shine in the lantern light, "I'll never be able to thank you enough. All that I can give you to thank you right now are these."
He pulled two gold pieces from his pocket and handed them to Graham. As he did, Graham suddenly remembered that he had left the pouch of gold coins he had brought to the sorcerer's house in his room while he was preparing to leave Daventry, and immediately felt just as grateful to the young man as the young man felt towards him.
The man slowly rose from his seat at the table.
"I should be leaving now," he said. "By the way, I suppose it was rude of me not to introduce myself: My name is Joringel."
He extended his hand, which Graham shook.
"My name is Graham," the king said. "And if we ever meet again, I hope circumstances will be better than they currently are for both of us."
Joringel nodded and left the tavern. After a few moments, Graham began to move towards the door as well, but just as he was about to grasp the door's handle, something struck the left side of his face. He turned in the direction that the projectile seemed to have come from, but saw nothing except an empty table in the tavern's corner. He turned back to the door again, but was once more hit with something that seemed no larger than a tiny pebble.
This time, Graham decided to take a closer look at the empty table. As he approached it, he was startled to see a man holding a sling standing on top of the table -- a man that didn't seem more than three inches tall.
"Closer," the man said to Graham, in a voice surprisingly loud for his small size. "Closer. Now sit down."
Graham obeyed the tiny man, too dumbfounded at the moment to ask why. It was difficult for the king to make out the details in the man's face, but all that he could tell was that the man was quite muscular, had dark brown hair, wore a quiver of arrows on his back and a sword at his side, which appeared to be nothing more than a needle.
"The reason I called you over here is that I am in need of your assistance," the man said curtly, tucking his sling away. "Do you see that big oaf standing near that door?"
He pointed towards the large man beside the door to the right of the tavern's counter. Graham glanced at the man and nodded.
"There are currently several men in the room behind that door," the tiny man said, "And a some of them are discussing a topic which I must listen in on. I need you to carry me into that room, and now."
"But why me?" Graham asked suspiciously. "And what sort of men are in that room?"
"No time for questions," the tiny man said impatiently. "You must take me in there now. I'll answer any questions you have later. Now hold still."
Astounded by the man's audacity, Graham sat frozen as the little individual leapt clambered up his sleeve with startling quickness, climbed up the side of his head and nestled inside the brim of his hat.
"Now listen to me," the tiny man hissed in a much quieter voice, "When you approach the door, the oaf will ask you for a password. It's 'While the watchdog rests, we shall work.' Now hurry -- move!"
Graham felt strange that he should feel so compelled to obey the word of a man that he could probably kill with one hand -- but this man could move much swifter than Graham, and Graham was certain that the man's weapons, tiny as they were, could still be dangerous.
"Before I go through with this little scheme of yours," Graham whispered, slowly walking towards the door at the back of the tavern, "Might I ask your name?"
"There are many names that people call me by," the tiny man said with a touch of pride, "But the only one I will answer to is Thomas."
"Thomas?" Graham repeated. "Just Thomas?"
"Yes, just Thomas," Thomas repeated crossly. "Now hurry! Remember, it's 'While the watchdog rests, we shall work!' And don't try talking to me again once we're inside the room!"
Graham slowly approached the door. The muscular man guarding it looked at him with a pair of tiny eyes shadowed by bristly eyebrows.
"Password?" the man grunted.
Graham quietly repeated the phrase that Thomas had given him. The man peered skeptically at Graham for a moment, then shrugged and opened the heavy door. Graham nodded his thanks and cautiously stepped through the doorway.
The room behind the door was small and cramped. There were no windows, and the only light in the room came from several lanterns placed upon a number of oak tables. Sitting at these tables were men talking in low voices, most of them with thick beards and hardened looks on their faces, dressed in shabby clothing. Many had knapsacks at their sides. Some sat alone, some sat in pairs or trios, but the largest grouping of men was at the far side of the room, crowded around a table that seemed much too small to accommodate all of them.
Graham felt something tug at a lock of his hair, followed by a small, stern voice from his hat:
"Move slowly and act completely disinterested in everything," Thomas said. "At the same time, move close enough to each group so I can hear what they're saying. I'll tell you what to say if any of them should speak to you. Now go!"
Graham reluctantly obeyed Thomas and casually shuffled over towards the nearest group of men, who were hunched over a table by the door. As he grew closer, he could make out snatches of their conversation.
"They say he'll be riding along the east road," one of the men growled.
"But all the men I've talked to say he'll be on the south road," another man protested. "Should we watch both roads, or have everyone watch one of the two roads, in hopes that it is the right one? We may not get a chance like this again."
"Keep moving," Thomas suddenly whispered.
Graham slowly turned and walked idly towards a pair of men who appeared to be boasting about their latest accomplishments -- all of which involved theft.
"Move on to the next group," Thomas urged.
Graham continued moving from one table to the next, hearing more and more unpleasant snatches of conversations from the men that sat around them. This room seemed to be full of morally bereft scoundrels that relied on nothing but robbery to support themselves, and probably wouldn't be below killing in cold blood either.
Finally, Graham reached the largest gathering of men at the far side of the room. When he started to overhear what they were talking about, Thomas excitedly hissed:
"Stop -- but don't stay in one place. Wander around the table and occasionally lean against the wall and stare at the floor. Just be sure to stay close enough so that I can hear them. I'll tell you when we can leave."
Graham did what the tiny man asked, idling around the table, pretending not to notice them. As he did this, he listened to the men's conversation and learned that they were planning to ransack a large mansion in a nearby town the following evening. The leader of the mob, a large, muscular man with a scar across his nose, went into exacting detail about where each of the men were to be stationed during the robbery to ensure that none of them were caught, as well as where they were to meet up afterwards.
Graham nervously listened to the robbers' conversation, praying that none of them would notice them. Though he thought he saw one or two of the men glance suspiciously at him, none of them ever spoke to him. After several tense minutes of this eavesdropping game, Thomas told Graham that it was safe to leave, and Graham gratefully left the gloomy room as quickly as he dared.
Once Graham and Thomas were back in the main room of The Cockerel's Spur, Graham made his way to the table nearest to the tavern's door and sat down. Thomas swiftly jumped out of his hat, landed on his shoulder and leapt onto the table.
"Thomas, why in heaven's name did you make me go in there?" Graham demanded. "Those men could have killed me -- and you as well!"
"I had a very good reason for wanting to go in there," Thomas said coolly. "I've been in this tavern for several days now, and I've been hearing rumors about a major robbery soon to take place involving a gang of several men. As luck would have it, this tavern appears to be a secret hiding place for a band of thieves, among which are the very thieves planning on robbing a nearby mansion -- apparently, they bribe the barkeep to keep him quiet. I've been planning to find out the details of this robbery and reveal them to the people that own the mansion. Then once the robbers have been caught, I will most likely be rewarded with money for my help, and I will send the money to my parents -- who, incidentally, are the same size as most other people. All in a day's work for me."
"Why didn't you sneak into the robbers' den yourself instead of using me?" Graham asked. "You could have slipped under the door."
"If you were my size, would you walk into a dimly lit room full of large, uncouth men?" Thomas asked crossly. "I'd prefer to listen in on a conversation without running the risk of getting stepped on, thank you very much. I also didn't want to hitch a ride on a robber who might mistake me for a mouse and crush me."
"So I seemed like the best candidate for helping you?" Graham asked.
"Yes," Thomas said curtly. "Not only that, but you aren't from around here, so those ruffians probably won't be able to find you. And now that you have done all that I required of you, I'm going to go talk to the barkeep, then I'll be on my way. Excuse me."
Without waiting for a reply, Thomas sprang onto Graham's shirt and quickly climbed down until he reached the bench Graham was sitting on. Then he leapt onto the floor, made his way towards the wall and began following it towards the left side of the tavern. Graham glared angrily after the impudent little man. For such a tiny individual, he had an incredibly inflated ego, and he didn't even have the courtesy to thank Graham for risking his life. Fuming, Graham left The Cockerel's Spur and stepped out into the cool evening air.
Once outside the tavern, Graham paused to allow his eyes to become adjusted to the night. Though he had just aided two people, he was no closer to completing Death's task. As he was staring out at the surrounding countryside, something flat and heavy thumped him on the back. He turned to see a tall man with unruly golden hair standing next to him, smiling.
"Hello," the man grinned, patting Graham's back with his large hand. "New to our village, eh? Well, don't worry, you'll get used to it quick. I am Eskel. What is your name?"
"Graham," the king replied cautiously, suspecting that Eskel had had one too many drinks at The Cockerel's Spur.
"Well, Graham, I'm certain you will enjoy your stay here," Eskel said, still grinning.
"I'm afraid I'm not going to be here very long," Graham said.
Eskel's round, jovial face fell.
"Oh," he said sadly. "Why not?"
"I've been sent here on an odd mission," Graham said, "One that seems impossible to complete."
"Oh?" Eskel said again. "What's that?"
Although Graham felt that his time could be better spent doing something other than conversing with a drunk, he reluctantly continued talking.
"I'm supposed to find a flower called a snowdrop that blooms in the winter, even though it's fall at the moment," he muttered. "I don't suppose the seasons are incredibly erratic around this village?"
"Er...no..." Eskel began. Suddenly his eyes lit up.
"Wait a minute," he said in a much more lucid voice. "I just remembered something. Come here."
Eskel stepped out into the dirt street and gestured for Graham to follow, which Graham did. Eskel led the king to the outskirts of the tiny village and pointed towards the vast mountain range that bordered the north end of the valley. One of the mountains seemed separate from the rest, standing alone about half a mile away from the peaks at the end of the valley.
"You see that?" Eskel said, pointing towards the lone mountain. "One day in winter I looked out my window at that peak, and I swear to you that its top was completely green, as if spring had come there. A few hours later, it had turned white with snow again. The next day I sat and watched that mountain, and this time, I saw it turn green with my own two eyes -- and I hadn't drunk a thing that day!
"Then the day after that, the top of the mountain turned golden, as if it were autumn up there...then after that, the mountain never changed again. I asked some of the other villagers about it, and some admitted seeing the green and gold on the mountaintop too."
"So you think that mountain is enchanted in some way?" Graham asked.
"I think it has to be," Eskel said. "This happened years ago, but I don't see why it couldn't happen again -- but I wouldn't try climbing that peak without knowing more about it."
"Neither would I," Graham agreed. "Who do you think would know about the mountain?"
Eskel scratched the side of his head for a moment.
"I know a farmer named Stefan," he said. "He lives with his wife in a cottage that's closer to that mountain than any other house in this valley. I'd say he's the best person to ask about it."
"Well, thank you, Eskel," Graham said. "I think I will call on this Stefan."
"Very well," Eskel replied, turning and starting to make his way back to the tavern. "Good luck finding your flower, Graham."
The journey to Stefan's cottage was shorter than Graham thought it would be. A small path wound its way through the valley, and a nearly full moon made it easy to see. Soon, Graham was nearing the base of the lone mountain, and he could see a small yet beautiful house standing beside it, surrounded by a low wooden fence. Smoke curled from the house's chimney, and a golden glow filled its windows. There was even a small stream nearby, surrounded by tall reeds.
Graham knocked on the cottage's door. A man with dark hair and a short beard answered it.
"Good evening," Graham said. "Are you the farmer Stefan?"
"Yes, I am," the man replied. "But who are you and what do you want of me at this late hour?"
"My name is Graham, and what I am about to ask you may sound peculiar, but is it true that the top of mountain that stands near your cottage once changed to spring and fall during winter?"
Stefan looked confused, then concerned.
"Come inside," he said quietly.
Graham stepped inside the cottage, which was humble, yet just as lovely as it appeared from the outside. Graham followed Stephan into the sitting room, where a woman with straw-colored hair sat in a rocking chair near a blazing hearth, knitting.
"Marushka?" Stefan said gently.
The woman looked up. She had deep blue eyes and small, delicate lips.
"Marushka, this man asked me about the mountain...I felt that you were the one to decide whether we should tell him about it or not."
Marushka laid her knitting down and peered closely at Graham.
"He has a kind face," she finally said in a voice as sweet as honey. "I'm certain it's safe to tell him -- and don't waste your breath, Stefan. I'll tell him the story myself."
Stefan nodded and invited Graham to sit down in a nearby chair, taking another one for himself. Marushka turned back to Graham.
"As Stefan already revealed to you, my name is Marushka," she said. "Who, may I ask, are you, stranger?"
"And why do you wish to know about the mountain, Graham?"
"I'm trying to save a man's life," Graham said. "And in order to do it, I must accomplish an odd and almost impossible task: finding a snowdrop in autumn."
Marushka cocked her head to one side.
"That is indeed an odd task," she said. "But you were right to come here, for what is on top of that mountain may indeed be the solution to your problem."
"What is up there?" Graham asked.
"The twelve months of the year," Marushka said in a near-whisper.
Graham stared at Marushka, perplexed by her words.
"I'll try to explain," Marushka said. "Years ago, I lived here with my stepmother and my stepsister, Holena. They both treated me cruelly, and made me do all the work that they despised. One winter day they must have decided that it was time to get rid of me, for they told me to climb up the mountain and pick violets for them, knowing that I would either freeze to death or come back empty-handed. When I reached the top of the mountain, there were twelve men sitting around a fire...and they told me they were the twelve months."
"Twelve men?" Graham asked. He had never before pictured the months of the year as men...but of course, he had never pictured Sleep as an individual either.
"Yes," Marushka said. "I told them of my troubles and they took pity on me -- Brother March brought spring to the mountaintop so I could bring violets back to my stepmother and Holena. The next day, they demanded that I go up the mountain and bring them back some wild strawberries, so once again I climbed to the top and told the months why I was there, and Brother June made it summer."
"I take it your mother and sister still weren't satisfied?" Graham asked, somewhat familiar with situations like Marushka's.
"No, they weren't. The next day they sent me up the mountain for fresh apples, and the day after I returned with them, Holena decided to climb up the mountain and find some more of those apples for herself. When she didn't return, my stepmother went out after her...and I haven't heard from either of them since."
"What do you think happened to them?" Graham asked.
"I don't know," Marushka said with a sigh. "Perhaps they met the twelve months, who might have decided to punish them for the way they treated me...or perhaps they merely perished. Whatever happened, I can't say that I miss them. Now that I'm married to Stefan, I've never had a day half as miserable as the days I spent with stepmother and Holena."
Stefan leaned towards Marushka from his seat and gently patted her hand. Graham nodded.
"So do you think the twelve months can help me by changing the season from autumn to winter, when snowdrops bloom?" he asked.
"If you treat them respectfully and your intentions are good, I am certain that they will help you," Marushka said. "But I don't know if you will be able to climb that mountain now."
"There was a great landslide several days ago, and the bottom of the mountain is covered in boulders and loose stones," Marushka said sadly. "You can't possibly climb it wearing only those boots."
"But I've got to get up that mountain," Graham protested. "There has to be a way."
"There might be indeed," Stefan said. "There's an old shoemaker in the village who sells spiked metal contraptions that can be attached to shoes that help the wearer keep their footing on difficult terrains. He also has a habit of working late at night."
"Where does this shoemaker live?" Graham asked.
"I'm not certain," Stefan admitted. "I've only heard of him; I've never seen his shop. I don't visit the village very often. Try asking the barkeep at the tavern."
"I'll head there right away," Graham said, rising from his seat. "Thank you, Stefan...and thank you too, Marushka."
Marushka smiled an angelic smile.
"Good luck, Graham," she said.
Graham hurried back to the village and made his way to The Cockerel's Spur, which was almost empty except for the barkeep and the man guarding the door to the robbers' den.
"Ah, welcome back," the barkeep said. "I'm afraid that we're going to be closing within the hour, friend, so if you're going to buy any drinks, buy them now."
"Thank you, but I'm afraid I must refuse your offer," Graham said. "Instead, could you please answer a question for me?"
"As long as it isn't about flowers," the barkeep roared, letting out a bellowing laugh at his joke.
"It isn't," Graham said. "It's about the shoemaker. Where is his shop?"
"His shop?" the barkeep repeated. "It's on this side of the road, four houses down. If you're lucky, he may still be up. Poor fellow...it's no wonder he always such a grouch in the morning, working at all hours of the night."
"Thank you," Graham said. "That's all I wanted to know. Good evening."
As Graham was moving towards the door, something close to the floor in the corner of the tavern caught his eye. It looked like a mouse caught in a large spider's web. Upon closer examination, the spider web turned out to be just that, but the mouse was not a mouse at all, but Thomas. He had become ensnared in the web and was trying frantically to cut himself free, and for a very good reason: moving quickly towards him was a large, black spider. Though Graham knew little about spiders, he knew a venomous spider when he saw one, and this spider was not a harmless one.
Graham thought quickly. He couldn't pull Thomas from the web since the spider was too close to it, and trying to shoo a venomous spider away was a ludicrous idea. Graham looked quickly around him and spotted an empty wooden mug sitting on a nearby table. Grabbing the mug and dropping to his knees, he moved as close to the spider as he dared, then brought the bottom of the mug down on the spider, crushing it. Thomas sighed with relief.
"Can I help you out of that?" Graham asked, replacing the mug.
"I'm perfectly capable of freeing myself, thank you," Thomas snapped, starting to slice through the remainder of the sticky strands that were binding him. "I'm sure I could have taken care of that eight-legged fiend myself as well."
He pointed disgustedly at the spider's smashed body with his sword.
"Now, if you would please leave me be now, I would appreciate it."
Graham glared at Thomas in disbelief, then rose to his feet and turned away from him. The king had just saved the man's life, and the impudent little thing didn't even have the courtesy to thank him. Graham hoped that he would never see the arrogant thumb-sized man again.
He made his way towards the door, but paused as he noticed that the door to the robbers' den was slightly ajar, and the guard was talking to someone on the inside. Not wanting or caring to know what the conversation was about, Graham left The Cockerel's Spur.
The shoemaker's shop did indeed prove easy to find, and Graham's luck seemed to be holding strong, for there was a lantern flickering in one of the shop's windows. Graham rapped gently on the door, and a weary voice from inside muttered, "Who is it?"
"A stranger to this town," Graham replied, "But there is something I need to buy from you that can't wait until morning. I saw the light in your window, and -- "
"All right, you can come in," the voice droned. "But please don't let in any more cold air."
Graham entered the shoemaker's shop, which looked just as he had expected it to look. It was small, dimly lit and sparsely furnished, with shelves lining the walls displaying many pairs of shoes and boots, while a long table near the rear of the shop had several unfinished pairs resting on it. Hunched over this table was an elderly man with long white hair, carefully shaping a piece of leather around a wooden mold. He barely glanced at Graham as he entered.
"So what is it you want?" he grumbled, not looking up from his work.
"A pair of spiked metal devices that can be fitted on shoes," Graham said.
"Oh?" the shoemaker muttered, still not looking up from his work. "Why do you need them?"
"I need to climb the mountain at the north end of the valley."
This got the shoemaker's attention. He stared piercingly into Graham's eyes.
"Now why in the world would someone like you want to go tramping around -- "
He paused and stared quizzically at Graham.
"Odd," he remarked. "You dress like a commoner, yet the way you stand and the way you speak...you're not royalty by any chance, are you?"
"Well," said Graham quietly, "Now that you mention it, yes, I am."
"My word," the shoemaker breathed. "Fancy that. A king, I presume?"
The shoemaker shook his head in disbelief.
"You know," he finally said, "Though I may not look like it, I was a king once too."
"You were?" Graham asked in surprise.
"Oh yes," the shoemaker said dreamily, rubbing his temple. "I was once the ruler of all Monticore...and a good ruler too, from what I was told by my servants. But after only a few years as king...things started to go a bit wrong."
"Indeed. When my oldest son came of age, he decided to seek out and destroy a witch that was causing trouble in a nearby village. When he didn't return, my middle son set out after him. They both returned many days later, but it turns out that the witch had cast a spell on my oldest son to make him fall in love with her, and when my middle son killed her, it broke my oldest son's heart. To this day, he still mourns her death. As for my middle son, he is still haunted by the witch's ghost. He has tried to find a way to be rid of her, but to no avail."
"I'm terribly sorry to hear of your misfortunes," Graham said sincerely, "But if you could -- "
"Then sometime later," the shoemaker continued in a monotonous voice, "The witch's brother found out what had happened to her and came to my castle, where he changed my youngest son into a deer. Shortly after that, a minor war broke out, and a peasant approached me and informed me that he was the true king of Monticore. News of this 'true king' spread quickly, and since the people of my kingdom were eager to have one of their own in power, my family and I were forced out of the castle."
"Er...was the sorcerer responsible for this as well?" Graham ventured.
"No," the shoemaker sighed. "Apparently a conspiring nursemaid had switched me with that peasant when we were infants, and the true king had just been waiting for the ideal time to take the throne. After we were thrown out of the castle, my two older sons moved to different parts of the kingdom, while my wife and my youngest son came with me to this village, where I became employed as a shoemaker's apprentice. I became good enough at the craft to take over his shop when he died, and my wife and I had another child, a lovely girl. The people here have grown used to my youngest son, so he doesn't seem in danger of being shot by a hunter, though I still try to keep him indoors most of the time."
"Well, it sounds like you finally found a happy ending after all." Graham said encouragingly.
"Of course, a few years ago, my wife grew tired of being married to a old shoemaker and left me in search of a younger man who made more money than I. As for my daughter, she's gotten it into her head that she wants to be a carpenter when she grows up, of all things."
"Well, there's nothing too unusual about that if she's still a child," Graham said.
"Perhaps not," the shoemaker agreed, "But I can't help but wonder whether the sorcerer is still taking out his revenge on us. I suppose I should be saddened by all of this, but to be honest, after so many misfortunes I feel that I've grown quite numb to my sorrow. At least all of my family is alive...and I do occasionally get letters from my two older sons, and my daughter helps take good care of my youngest boy, especially when his antlers start re-growing in the spring..."
"Er, sir?" Graham interrupted cautiously. "Could I please get what I came here for?"
The shoemaker blinked.
"What you came here for? What was that?"
"The metal things that I need to climb the mountain at the north -- "
"Oh, those," the shoemaker muttered, getting up off his stool and shuffling towards a door at the back of the shop. "I'll get them for you. It may take a minute, though."
Graham stood beside the table full of unfinished shoes, dumbfounded by the shoemaker's almost ludicrously sad account of his life. It certainly made the misfortunes of Graham's own family pale by comparison. Though Graham pitied the former king and wished that he could help him, he had no idea where to start, even if he had the time to help him and his family.
As Graham waited for the shoemaker to return, he heard the door behind him creak open. He turned around and felt a cold chill rush through him, for standing in the doorway was a large man with a scar across his nose. It was the leader of the mob that Graham had eavesdropped on...and he didn't look very happy.
"Well, well," the mob leader growled. "So you didn't leave the village after all, did you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Graham bluffed. "Who are you?"
"You know perfectly well who I am," the man said with a snarl. "And as for you, you were the one that somehow got into our den earlier tonight...I should have known you weren't one of us. How the blazes did you get the password, you whelp?"
"I truly don't know what you're talking about," Graham said as calmly as he was able, searching the room for some sort of weapon. "You must be mistaking me for someone else."
"Oh, no I'm not," the man replied, stepping closer to Graham and taking a long, pointed dagger from his belt. "Nobody in this village looks like you, and I have a good idea where you've come from and why you're here."
"Oh, do you?" Graham asked.
"Yes," the man hissed. "I think you're a man sent by the king to spy on us and then expose us. Your disguise might have fooled the barkeep, but it didn't fool us. I'm afraid you're never going to see your king again, you poor fool..."
He suddenly flinched, looked confused and scratched at the side of his neck with the hand that wasn't holding the dagger.
"And if you should be stupid enough to try yelling for that miserable old shoemaker," the man continued. "I will kill both you and him."
"Well, why aren't you killing me now?" Graham asked, contemplating ducking under the table or throwing one of the wood molds at the mob leader. "Don't you have a robbery to plan with the rest of your men?"
"That can wait," the man said with a hideous grin. "I want to make this murder a special one. It's not every day that we get a visit from a man from the court of dear old Castle Monticore. I want this to be a memorable experience."
He suddenly swayed slightly on his feet and shook his head.
"First," he said unsteadily. "I'm going to...I'm going to cut out...your..."
He pitched forwards and tumbled to the floor, where he lay perfectly still. Graham at first thought that it was a trick to put him off his guard, but when he slowly walked to a nearby shelf, pulled a shoe off the shelf and threw it at the man's head, the mob leader didn't even flinch.
Graham was perplexed by this odd but fortunate turn of events until he heard a tiny voice coming from a shelf near the door. He approached the shelf, and there, standing between two black leather boots with a bow and arrow in his hands was Thomas, looking winded but triumphant.
"Spider venom," Thomas panted. "My arrows become pretty nasty if I put a little spider venom on their tips...and I was lucky enough to have a spider willing to part with it close at hand."
"Thomas," Graham whispered. "Why in the world did you do that?"
Thomas hesitated a moment before replying.
"If there's one thing my parents told me when I was a boy," he said solemnly, "It's to always repay good deeds. I never really thought much of that phrase for most of my life, since I usually relied on my own luck and skills to get by...but I don't think I've ever been on the receiving end of a deed as noble as the two you've done for me tonight."
Graham nodded silently.
"I think I came to this realization shortly after you saved me from that spider," Thomas continued. "As I was dipping my arrows, I noticed the leader of the robbers and the oaf at the door talking, so I ran over to them, and sure enough, they were talking about you. I realized that you were probably going to run into some trouble, so I hopped onto the leader's boot, and he took me to the shoemaker's shop. He must have waited outside because he didn't want to kill you with the shoemaker present. When he finally went inside and I saw you, I hopped off his boot, made my way up here..."
Here he pointed to an arrow with a length of thread tied to it protruding from the side of the shelf, which he had undoubtedly used to reach the shelf.
"...and took care of him."
"Is he dead?" Graham asked.
"No," Thomas said. "This much venom should put a man or a large animal to sleep for several hours, but it won't kill them."
"Well..." Graham said, "You have my thanks, Thomas."
"And you have mine," Thomas said with a nod. "I'd better be going now, but before I leave, I want to give you something."
He reached into his quiver and removed one of the arrows, which seemed no bigger than a sliver of wood.
"Be careful you don't prick yourself with it," Thomas warned. It may look small to you, but there's enough poison on it to knock you out for the rest of the night."
Graham started to reach for the arrow, then wondered how he was going to carry it without breaking it. Then he glanced over at the shoemaker's table, which had several scraps of leather on it. He picked up the smallest, thinnest piece he could find, then took the arrow from Thomas and rolled it up in the leather, which he tied closed with a small piece of thread.
"You are certainly a resourceful fellow," Thomas said approvingly. "I doubt we'll ever see each other again, but I'm glad I had the pleasure of meeting you just this once."
"Well, thank you again, Thomas," Graham said, carefully stowing the wrapped arrow in one of his pockets.
Thomas smiled and nodded, then descended the long thread hanging from the shelf, walked across the floor and walked through the shoemaker's door, pausing to make the daunting three-inch jump from the threshold to the ground outside.
The shoemaker came back into the room a few minutes after Graham had dragged the mob leader's body outside, shut the door and put the thrown shoe back in its proper place.
"I thought I heard some noise out here," the shoemaker muttered. "What was going on?"
"Nothing you need to concern yourself with at the moment," Graham said.
"Very well," the shoemaker said. He held up two roughly shoe-shaped metal frames with several thick spikes protruding from their bases.
"These are what you asked for," he said. "I call them grips. I designed them myself, but the local smith helped make them, so I can't really take full credit for them. My daughter wants to use them to climb some of the mountains nearby...I told you about my daughter, didn't I?"
"Yes," Graham said quickly. "And I simply tie these 'grips' to my boots?"
"Exactly," the shoemaker said, indicating some straps attached to the devices. "Now, if you would please take these grips and leave, I would much appreciate it. I have a lot of work left to do."
"Thank you," Graham said, taking the grips from the shoemaker. "How much money do these things cost?"
"Oh yes, I almost forgot: one gold coin per grip, so two gold coins."
Graham handed the two coins that Joringel had given him to the shoemaker, who nodded and pointed towards the door.
"Thank you again, sir," Graham said over his shoulder as he was leaving. "Oh, and incidentally, I've seen a fairly ill-tempered man lurking around here, so you might want to lock the shop's door after I leave."
"Very well, I will," the shoemaker mumbled. "Just don't let in any more cold air when you leave."
There was a sudden sound from the shop's back room. Graham glanced at the door to the back room just in time to see a small stag with a modest pair of antlers poke its head through it and stare at the shoemaker.
"I told you that noise was nothing to worry about, Bernard," the shoemaker said dully. "Try to go back to sleep."
Graham left the village and began walking along the road that led to Stefan and Marushka's house. Instead of heading toward their house this time, he left the path and made his way through the thick trees that stood between him and the lone mountain where the twelve months of the year dwelt.
When he reached the foot of the mountain, he found it covered by rocks and boulders piled up so steeply that there didn't seem to be any way he could climb them, even with the help of the shoemaker's grips. He slowly circled the mountain, searching for a gap in the obstructing heaps. He finally found a section of boulders that seemed safe enough to climb, but digging at the base of a shrub directly in front of it was a large wild boar. Fortunately for Graham, the boar didn't notice him, but it was clear that the king wouldn't be able to climb the boulders with that animal in the way, and he didn't know how long the boar would be busy digging up the shrub.
Though the miniscule poisoned arrow Thomas had given Graham seemed like the quickest way to deal with the boar, the king had no way of shooting the boar with the arrow from a safe distance. He retraced his steps, hoping an idea would come to him. He soon reached the stream that flowed by Marushka's house and noticed the thin, hollow reeds growing along its banks. As soon as Graham saw them, he knew he had found the answer to his problem.
He broke off a short section of one of the reeds and hurried back to where he had seen the boar. Slowly and silently, he drew as close as he could to the animal. Dropping to his knees, he removed Thomas' arrow from the leather it was wrapped in and carefully inserted it into the end of the reed, which the arrow fit perfectly. Then, making certain that the arrow's tip was pointing away from him, he aimed the reed at the boar's flank, inhaled deeply, put the near end of the reed to his lips and blew into it as hard as he could.
The boar twitched and snorted loudly, and Graham remained still, hoping that the beast wouldn't notice him. After glancing left and right, the boar returned to his rooting. Graham wasn't sure whether the arrow had penetrated the animal's hide at first, but within a minute, the boar's movements began to grow slow and lethargic. It swayed slightly for a few moments and then collapsed.
Relieved that his plan had worked, Graham approached the heap of boulders, took the shoemaker's grips out of his knapsack and tied them onto his boots. He tried taking a few practice steps, and found that the grips fit snugly and securely. He then cautiously began to make his way up the massive pile of stones. The grips more than lived up to their name; biting into the rock wherever Graham set his foot down, ensuring that he wouldn't slip. As he became used to the grips, his confidence and pace quickly grew, and though it was fairly dark, the moon provided plenty of light to see the boulders by.
After climbing for roughly a quarter of an hour, the rocks began to grow smaller and less numerous, and soon, Graham wasn't stepping from rock to rock at all, but walking on the ground. Since this meant that the grips were of no further use now, he removed them and tucked them away, then continued walking.
There were many trees growing on the sides of the mountain, which fortunately weren't nearly as steep as they had appeared from below. Climbing the mountain wasn't as difficult as Graham had feared it would be, for he would often encounter small paths winding their way up the slope, like the ones left by animals. Perhaps these were the paths that Marushka had taken.
As Graham climbed higher, he could see more and more of the kingdom of Monticore spread out below him. There were many more mountains in this realm than there were in Daventry, and Graham was certain that it was colder in the winter as well.
After almost an hour, the fatigue of climbing combined with Graham's lack of sleep began to slow him down. However, his determination to get to the top of the mountain was strong, and he pushed himself forward, refusing to stop when he was so close to completing Death's task.
When he finally reached the peak of the mountain, he found himself standing at the edge of a grassy field surrounded by trees and shrubs of numerous shapes and sizes. In the center of the field was a brightly glowing fire surrounded by several robed figures, and as Graham drew closer, he could see that there were twelve of them.
Before he could get close enough to the fire to be heard by the twelve individuals, however, something came brazenly flapping out of the night. Graham thought it was a small owl at first, but by the light of the fire, he could see that the creature had four legs, a long, tufted tail, and an eagle's head.
"Scrimshaw?" Graham exclaimed.
The correctly identified pygmy griffin squawked eagerly and landed awkwardly on Graham's shoulder.
"What in the world are you doing here?" Graham asked. Edgar's pet was rarely far from his master's side for very long, which made his presence in the far-off kingdom of Monticore very peculiar.
The griffin took off from Graham's shoulder and flapped in place in front of him, frantically shaking its right foreleg. There was a small pouch tied to it, and it appeared to have something inside it.
Graham cautiously extended his arm for Scrimshaw to perch on, but fortunately, the little beast didn't grip it hard enough to puncture Graham's skin. The king reached into the small pouch and withdrew a folded piece of paper. Upon unfolding the paper, he discovered that it was a letter -- written in Rosella's hand. There was just enough light from the nearby fire to read it:
I pray that this message has reached you safely. Though Edgar seemed confident that it would, Mama and I still remain slightly skeptical.
I suppose I should explain: Edgar came up with the idea of using Scrimshaw to send messages to you, inspired by the way some captive birds are trained to do such a thing. I was doubtful at first, but Edgar insists that Scrimshaw is an intelligent creature, and that he is skilled at locating people (which he proved during Edgar's recent adventure; as you know, Scrimshaw would always find Edgar if they became separated from each other).
We tried instructing Scrimshaw to send messages to some of the castle servants, then to some of the people in the surrounding town. He has succeeded in every mission we've sent him on, and Edgar is sure he will find you. It was difficult persuading Scrimshaw to leave, however, since he appears to have become quite concerned about Edgar as of late, and is reluctant to leave his master's side.
As for Edgar himself, he is in good spirits, but his body continues to weaken. We've had a cane carved for him, which he protested the use of at first, but eventually he gave in, though not without much reluctance.
If you do receive this message, please send back some sign confirming the act. I wish you success in your travels and hope your return will be soon and triumphant.
Graham smiled, even though his heart ached. Edgar's promise to do whatever he could to aid Graham hadn't been an idle one. Despite his unusual ailment, he had devised a way that would ensure that Graham wouldn't be completely separated from his family during his journey. The boy certainly had a good head on his shoulders, but his time was still running short.
Graham reread the last paragraph of the letter and wondered what he could send back to Daventry with Scrimshaw. If there were any flowers growing on the mountaintop, he would have sent one of them back with the little griffin, but the only nearby plants that weren't completely brown were several delicate ferns growing at the bases of the trees. Graham picked the greenest sprig he could find and tucked it securely into Scrimshaw's pouch.
"Fly carefully, little friend," he told the griffin. "May your journey home be as successful as your journey here."
Scrimshaw bobbed his head and took off, sailing just over the tops of the trees and soon becoming lost in the dark veil of the night sky. Graham stared after him for a moment, tucked Rosella's letter carefully away, then turned and slowly approached the fire in the center of the meadow.
The robed men facing Graham looked up at him as he drew near to them, and the men who had their backs to him turned to see what had caught their fellows' attention. The men were of varying ages; some were scarcely more than boys, some seemed to be Graham's age, and some were downright ancient. A middle-aged man sat on a stone that was slightly higher than the rest, holding a gnarled wooden staff in his hand.
"Good evening, sirs," Graham said. "If it's not too much trouble, may I please speak with you?"
"You may, traveler," said the most ancient of the men, whose hair and long, flowing beard were as white as snow. His voice seemed to make the air even colder than it already was. "Come closer so that we might get a better look at you."
Graham slowly drew closer to the fire, gratefully warming his numb fingers.
"Judging by your question, you must have deliberately sought us out," the oldest man said. "I presume that you know who we are, traveler?"
"You are the twelve months of the year, aren't you?"
"Indeed we are," the oldest man replied. "I am January, and I'm certain you know the names of my Brothers. The one who currently occupies the high seat is Brother October. Why have you come to us, son of Man?"
"I seek your help," Graham said, bowing his head. "My son-in-law is dying, and the only way he can be saved is if I carry out a series of tasks for Death. This first task he has given me is to bring him a snowdrop, even though it is autumn at the moment. A woman named Marushka told me about you, and I came here hoping that you could see it in your hearts to..."
"Say no more," January said. "You have come to us not out of greed but for the sake of another, and we will always help a person with a heart as compassionate as yours."
January turned to October.
"Do you agree to temporarily relinquish your position, Brother?"
"I do," Brother October nodded.
January then turned to the month sitting on his left, an elderly man with gray hair tinged with white.
"Brother February," January said, "Take the high seat."
February approached the place where October was sitting, and October handed him the staff he was holding. February stood before the high seat and waved the staff over the fire. Instantly, the night grew freezing and blustery, and Graham wrapped his cloak tightly around himself. The dead leaves blew off the trees, clouds filled the night sky and snow began to fall and blanket the ground, rapidly swallowing up the dead ferns and grasses. Within moments, Graham was standing in snow that covered the tops of his boots. Though the mountaintop was mostly white now, there were several uncovered patches where the brown soil could be seen, and in several of these patches grew a number of petite, down-turned white flowers on slender green stalks.
"I may be the briefest of the months," February said, smiling proudly, "But I am the one that calls forth the first flowers of spring."
"Thank you," Graham said, gently plucking one of the flowers from the earth. "Thank you all. I don't know how I could have accomplished this with without you."
"It was our pleasure," said January. "We are rarely visited by men and women with problems such as yours, and it brings us great satisfaction to aid those worthy of our assistance."
Graham thanked the months again, warmed his hands before the fire a final time, then left the twelve men, trudging back across the now snow-covered field. He wondered how long it would take for Death to bring him back to his domain now that he had completed the task, and more importantly, how much longer it was going to remain February atop the mountain.
Graham paused and looked out over the Monticore countryside, where it was still October. He smiled and imagined that Eskel was watching the peak right now and wondering why it was changing again after all this time, although he was probably in bed by this time. The night seemed to be nearly half over, and naturally, Graham had grown quite tired, but it was too cold and too dangerous to doze off on top of a mountain. He braced himself against the side of a tree and fought to stay awake. Finally, a vaguely familiar mist began to obscure Graham's vision, and when it cleared, he was standing in Death's central chamber, leaning against one of its walls.
"I hope I was not too late in returning you here," said Death, who was standing next to Graham.
"You weren't," Graham replied wearily.
"May I have what I sent you for?" Death asked, holding out a bony hand.
Graham handed the snowdrop to Death, who held it delicately, running a finger around its various contours and touching its delicate white petals.
"I've always found these flowers oddly fascinating," he said gently. "It is so strange, the way they choose to live while the rest of their world is dead, smothered by snow, deprived of warmth and light. While all other plants lie withered and dormant, snowdrops stand tall and proud, defying the winter that has slaughtered and staunched all other life."
Death carefully closed his hands around the fragile bloom, and when he opened them, the snowdrop was gone.
"You have done excellently, King Graham," he said. "You may rest now, and when you awaken, I will describe your second task to you."
He motioned towards a stone slab that had appeared in the center of the chamber, replacing the two chairs that had been there earlier. A thick gray sheet covered the slab, the only thing that made it resemble a bed. Nevertheless, Graham was too exhausted to care, and he gratefully removed his hat, cloak and knapsack and lay down on the slab, too tired to wonder about what the next task was or how many more tasks he would have to complete before Death was satisfied. He was too weary to wonder if Thomas had successfully stopped the robbery or not, if Joringel had learned of a way to rescue his fiancée, if it was still February on top of the months' mountain, or if the family of Monticore's unfortunate former king would ever be at peace. He was even too tired to even think about Valanice, Rosella and Edgar.
Graham was not certain how long he slept, and when he finally awoke, the sky showing through the open ceiling of Death's cave-like home was the same misty gray it had been when he had first arrived.
"You are awake?" said Death's monotonous voice. Graham turned to see the gaunt figure standing beside the slab, gazing down at him.
"Yes, I am," Graham replied, letting his legs hang off the edge of the slab as he sat and rubbed his eyes. His hat was lying on the floor beside him, and he picked it up as soon as he noticed it.
"I'm afraid I have some unfortunate news for you," Death said.
Graham's heart pounded wildly.
"What is it?" he asked quietly.
"The mortal whom you are trying to help is still alive," Death said, almost as if he had read Graham's thoughts. "And your family and kingdom are in no danger that I know of."
Graham sighed with relief but still remained slightly tense.
"So what's wrong?"
"Time as you mortals perceive it moves differently in my realm," Death said. "Compared to your world, time normally passes very quickly within my domain, which makes it easier for me to keep track of mortals' lives, since your world moves so much more sluggishly. However, when you arrived, I thought it would be a good idea to increase the speed at which time passes here so that my realm moves at the same rate as yours does."
Graham nodded slowly, the idea of adjusting the speed of a world as foreign to him as the concept of a person's life being displaced from his body while the person remained alive. He gripped the sides of his hat worriedly.
"Unfortunately, I fear that I increased its speed too much," Death sighed. "And by the time I had realized what I'd done, it was too late."
"Increased its speed too much?" Graham repeated. "What do you mean, Death?"
Death sighed again and shook his hooded head.
"Since your arrival to my world, thirteen days have passed in your world," he explained. "Two days passed before I sent you on your first task, and another eleven days passed while you slumbered."
Graham gaped at Death, not knowing what to say. It would do good to get angry at Death, and at least Edgar was still alive...but for how much longer?
"I have tried my best to return the flow of time here to its original rate," Death continued, "But I'm afraid you will have to complete your remaining tasks quickly. Even I'm not certain how much longer the one whose life you are trying to restore will last. He is strong, but he is still fading fast."
Graham put his hat and cloak on, shouldered his knapsack and rose to his feet.
"He won't die if I get all your tasks done fast enough," he said determinedly. "What do you want me to do now, Death?"
"Your next mission will be much quicker, but a bit more dangerous," Death said. "Deep in the forests of the northeast region of your world dwells a witch. For many years, she has caused much suffering for those foolish enough to stray to close to her lair. Your task is to find and defeat this witch and bring me back a mirror that she keeps in one of the castle's rooms."
"And how am I to defeat this witch?" Graham asked. "I don't know anything about her, and I have no weapons I could use against her either."
Death smiled almost imperceptibly.
"You will find a way," he said. "You have my word."
The mist swirled around Graham, and when it evaporated, he found himself standing on a narrow path winding its way through a thick, cool forest. The sun was up, and several thick clouds kept it from beating down too harshly. However, there was no sign of a witch's dwelling nearby, nor where there any houses along the path where he could ask where he might look for the witch.
Graham began cautiously walking down the path, occasionally glancing from side to side. He had dealt with witches several times before, and he hoped that the witch that lived in this forest wasn't watching him from nearby, planning to capture, enchant or kill him.
The first witch he had encountered lived in a gingerbread house in Daventry. He had barely escaped from her when she was flying low over the land on her broomstick, and was later able to destroy her by pushing her into her own oven. The dame Hagatha in Kolyma was a gruesome creature that ate human flesh, and Graham considered himself lucky just to survive his adventure in that land without getting caught by her. There was a third witch in a dark forest in Serenia that he had been able to get rid of, but if it weren't for the protective amulet Graham had been wearing when he encountered her, there was no telling what she might have done to him. After all, she had stolen the heart of a young princess and turned her into a willow tree when her fiancée refused to marry the witch. Graham wondered how the witch Death had sent him to find would compare to the previous three, and how on earth he was going to conquer her with hardly anything in his possession.
All at once, a strange, glowing ball of light appeared before him. Graham froze, fearing that it was the witch. The ball hung suspended in midair for a moment, then burst into a brilliant blaze of color and sparkling light. This spectacle faded as quickly as it had come, and standing where the ball of light had been a moment ago was a tall woman with long golden hair. She was wearing a shimmering gown that was mostly violet and royal blue, but there was an iridescent quality to her garments that made them shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow, and she held a silver wand in her hand.
Though Graham had only seen this woman once more than twenty years ago, he recognized her immediately, and he stared at her just as stunned as he had been the first time he had seen her.
"Aren't...aren't you my..."
The woman smiled.
"I am glad that you have not forgotten your fairy godmother, King Graham," she said gently.
"But what are you doing here?" Graham exclaimed. "I haven't seen you since I was a knight!"
"A fairy godmother's mission is to help her godchild succeed in a mission of his own undertaking when no other powers can aid him," the woman said. "Hence, after I helped you on your journey to win the throne, you had no further need of me. Now, however, your situation is dire enough to require my assistance again."
"Oh?" Graham asked.
"Indeed," his fairy godmother replied. She turned and pointed to the north.
"The witch's castle is close, but this path will not lead you to it. You must proceed through the woods this way to reach it."
"Is there any chance of your placing a protective spell on me?" Graham asked, remembering his fairy godmother performing a similar action when he last encountered her.
"Alas, no," the fairy godmother said sadly. "This witch is far more powerful than I, and there is but one way that her charms can be thwarted."
"And what way is that?" Graham asked.
The golden-haired woman smiled enigmatically.
"You shall see," she said. "For now, go the way that I have pointed out to you, and quickly."
Graham began to head in the direction his fairy godmother had indicated, but he had not taken more than a single step before he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was his fairy godmother's, and it felt peculiarly warm and light.
"There is one last thing I must tell you before you leave," she said softly. "The promise you made to the wizard Manannan must be kept. He must be returned to his original form."
"What?" Graham yelled.
"I know it sounds like a bleak prospect to you now, but it must be done."
"But why?" Graham protested.
"I'm afraid I cannot answer that," his fairy godmother said. "But fear not. Though the future may seem to be dark now, it will be bright when it becomes the present. Farewell, King Graham."
With that, her body became enveloped by a bright, blazing light, which became a glowing ball again and vanished. Graham groaned in frustration, then left the path and began walking into the woods. He pulled a piece of bread from his knapsack and gnawed aggressively at it as he stomped through the underbrush. How in the world was he going to change Manannan back? Alexander couldn't do it, and he was the one who was responsible for changing him into a cat in the first place. And how could a future in which Manannan was once again free to live out his wicked life as a wizard be a bright one?
As Graham continued stumbling on through the thick woods, he became aware of something approaching him through the trees. He froze and listened, and sure enough, something was drawing closer to him, and by the sound its feet made, it sounded very much like a human.
"Hello?" Graham called out cautiously. "Who's there?"
The approaching footsteps stopped abruptly.
"What?" a male voice called back. "Who spoke? Is that you, foul hag?"
"I'm no foul hag," Graham said.
"Then who are you?"
"A traveler," Graham replied. "I am on a mission to get rid of the witch that lives in this forest."
The stranger began moving towards Graham again.
"You are?" the voice continued as its owner came closer. "Why, so am I!"
"Oh?" Graham asked.
"Yes," the stranger said. By this time, Graham could make out someone pushing his way through the thick bushes barely thirty feet away from him. It was a young man with dark hair. "I have something which will protect me from her spells, but perhaps if the two of us faced her together, we -- "
The young man stopped abruptly and stared at Graham, who stared back in utter bewilderment.
"Joringel?" Graham asked.
"Hey, it's you!" Joringel cried. "The man who gave me that potion...what did you say your name was? Graham?"
Joringel crowed with laughter.
"I don't believe it! I never thought I'd see you again!"
"Neither did I," Graham chuckled. Joringel was barely recognizable as the sullen, haggard, gloomy man that Graham had met in The Cockerel's Spur. The dark circles had vanished completely from beneath his eyes, and there was a lively look on his face that made Graham think back to his own days as a young (and slightly foolish) adventurer.
"Graham, if I'd known how much that potion of yours was going to help me, I'd have given you a hundred pieces of gold," Joringel said.
"So it worked?"
"Worked?" Joringel cried. "Not only did I sleep better than I've ever slept in my life, but I had a dream about not only where I could find the castle of the witch who changed my Jorinda into a bird, but where I could find this!"
He held up a large, blood red flower with five large, pointed petals. In the center of the flower was a large, glistening pearl.
"My dream told me that anything I touch this flower will be released from the curse of the witch, and it will protect me from her magic as long as I possess it. I searched days for it and finally found it, and the witch's castle is only a short distance away, through these trees. I had no idea that you were seeking this witch too, Graham, but perhaps that's just as well."
"What do you mean?"
"We'll stand a much better chance together," Joringel explained. "Especially if the witch has any accomplices. This flower may protect me from her magic, but if one of them were to take the flower away from me..."
"I see what you mean," Graham nodded. "And that flower of yours looks like the only way the witch can be defeated, so I suppose I had better come with you."
"Oh, thank you, Graham," Joringel said eagerly. "The witch's castle is this way. Come with me and keep close."
Graham followed the young man through the forest for several minutes. Gradually, the trees began to thin, and soon, Graham could make out a large shape looming in the distance. Finally, when there were no more trees between them and the shape, Graham could see that it was the castle.
It was small and almost completely covered by ivy, making it blend in with the surrounding trees. The windows peered out of the ivy like eyes spying on them, and the only part of the castle not covered by ivy was the pair of double doors leading into it. Joringel cautiously approached the door, with Graham close behind him.
"Do you think she knows we're here?" the king asked.
"I don't know," Joringel said. "But even if she does know, she can't hurt us. Not as long as I have this flower."
"Wait a moment," Graham said. "How do you know that flower will protect me as well as you? Does it protect anyone who is near it or just the person who holds it?"
"Eh..." Joringel muttered sheepishly, his face and ears turning pink. "I don't know that either. But don't worry, Graham. If she should freeze you where you stand, I can easily undo it."
"I hope so," Graham said as they slowly approached the castle through the thick brush that surrounded it. "But how will we know where to go once we're inside the castle? If we start blindly searching every single room, we might run into that witch."
"I was thinking about that too," Joringel said. "I think the best thing to do would be -- "
He fell silent and halted in his tracks. Graham stopped too. He didn't have to ask Joringel why he had stopped, for now that they were close to the castle, the air was filled with the slightly muffled sound of hundreds of birds all singing at once. They had to be the enchanted maidens that the witch held prisoner.
"That's our answer," Joringel said. "Once we've gotten in, we'll simply follow the sound of the birds until we find them."
"And hope we don't find the witch on the way," Graham said.
When they reached the castle's double doors, Joringel tried pushing them open, but despite his hardest efforts, they didn't even rattle. Graham tried to open them, but was no more successful than Joringel.
"Odd," Joringel said. "They don't feel locked, but they still won't budge...what's going on?"
"Perhaps they're sealed by magic," Graham said. "This is a witch's castle, after all."
Joringel's face lit up.
"Of course!" he said triumphantly. "Why didn't I think of that before?"
He lifted the flower and gently touched the doors with it. Instantly, the doors shuddered and slowly swung open.
"That's certainly an impressive plant," Graham remarked.
"Don't forget," said Joringel, "You were the one who helped me find it."
They cautiously stepped through the doorway and into a gloomy main hall, sparsely decorated with cobwebbed furniture, ratty rugs and faded tapestries. Two doors led off of it and a stone staircase led up to a second floor. The bird songs were somewhat louder now that the two men were inside, but they seemed to be coming from somewhere above them.
"Let's try the staircase," Joringel whispered
"All right," Graham hissed back, "But be careful."
They silently crossed the hall and ascended the stairs, which led them to a much narrower hall. This one had more than three times as many doors and several ivy-obscured windows letting in thin slivers of light. The singing was even louder, but it still seemed to be coming from above Graham and Joringel. The pair made their way down the hallway, which turned sharply to the right and continued until it reached the base of a spiral staircase.
"They have to be up there," Joringel said once they had reached the staircase, pointing heavenward. "They're louder than ever here."
He bounded up the stairs, with Graham trying his best to keep up with him. They were both out of breath when they finally reached the top of the staircase. Before them was an oak door, which was also tightly secured, but when Joringel touched it with his flower, it sprang open.
Behind the door was a room filled with birdcages. They lined the walls, dangled from the ceiling, rested on the floor or stood on pedestals, and every single cage was occupied by a bird. There were birds of every shape and color (though they all appeared to be songbirds) and they were all singing, creating a deafening din in the crowded room. Graham suddenly realized that their songs weren't as cheery as they had first sounded: there was an anguished, plaintive tone to their voices, as if they were trying their best to sing but were still unable to hide their sorrow.
"Looks like we've found them," Graham said over the cacophony, "How will you be able to tell which one of them is Jorinda?"
"I'm not sure," Joringel faltered as he and Graham walked through the room. Judging by the view through the room's wide windows (which, remarkably, were not covered by ivy), they were at the top of a very high tower.
"It looks like I might have to try touching each cage," Joringel continued. "Unless I -- "
"Well, well, well," came a shrill voice from behind the two men. "What have we here?"
Graham and Joringel spun around to see just what Graham had feared they would encounter: the witch. She was hunchbacked and shriveled, with frizzled gray hair and large bulging eyes, grinning sickeningly at the two men as she stood in the doorway.
Beside her was a tall, scrawny individual. Though he had the body of a young man, his thin blond hair was mostly gray, there were thick lines around his dark eyes and his cheeks were sunken.
"So," the witch said, rubbing her hands together. "You've managed to get into my castle. Congratulations. Many young men have tried to get in before, and all of them have failed...but I'm afraid the only award you two will get for your accomplishment is being changed into birds!"
She shrieked mirthfully, and Graham cautiously stepped a little closer to Joringel.
"You," the witch said, pointing a clawed finger at Joringel, "Will be a little brown sparrow. And you," she said, turning to Graham, "Will be an old, shaggy jackdaw."
She grinned widely, exposing several sharp white teeth.
"The only enchantment I've used on men is the one where I immobilize them," she laughed. "I've never -- SILENCE!"
Her last word had been shrieked out at the hundreds of caged birds, who immediately became quiet, except for a few that were bold enough to twitter nervously.
"I've never changed men into birds before," the witch began again, "But I'm sure you two shouldn't be a problem."
With that she raised her arms and there was a low thundering sound. Graham's breath caught in his throat. There was a brief tingle in the air, but then there was nothing. The witch lowered her hands, glaring suspiciously at Graham and Joringel.
"Why didn't you change?" she snarled. "I've never failed with that spell before...at least not with maidens."
"Your powers will no longer work on me or my friend," Joringel said proudly, brandishing his flower in front of him like a dagger. "This flower will break all your enchantments, and anyone near it cannot be touched by your magic either!"
"Joringel!" Graham hissed in alarm. The young man was certainly not as wise as he was brave. The witch eyed the flower furiously, then turned to the gaunt man beside her.
"Zachiel, take that accursed thing away from the intruder and throw it out of the window!"
Zachiel swiftly sprang towards Joringel, but with equal speed, Graham leapt at the scrawny man and pushed him aside. He tried to knock Zachiel down, but the man was strong despite his lean build. It was all Graham could do to restrain him, holding his arms to his sides and standing close enough to Zachiel so that he couldn't kick him. However, Graham knew that he couldn't keep the man from getting at Joringel for much longer.
"Hmph!" the witch huffed. "Your friend is rather strong for such an old man...but no matter. I'll take care of you myself!"
"Your spells can't harm me," Joringel said valiantly. "Have you forgotten that already?"
"No, I haven't," the witch replied. "But tell me this, young man: can that little posy protect you from my scratching your eyes out?"
There was a horrible scream from behind Graham, who glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the witch lunge towards Joringel with her hands held out, her fingers curled like claws. Joringel jumped back, but the witch leapt at him again, all the time keeping her distance from the flower. To his horror, Graham noticed that the witch was forcing Joringel across the room towards one of the tower windows, and he was too busy keeping his eye on the witch to notice. If Graham kept on clutching Zachiel, Joringel would fall to his death, leaving Graham with no way to defend himself against the witch. If he let Zachiel go in order to run to Joringel's aid, Zachiel would probably grab the flower from Joringel before Graham could help him.
Then an idea stuck him. He remembered what Joringel had said about the spell that the witch had cast on him, and what the witch had said a few minutes ago...it was a risky idea, but unless he tried it, he was either going to die or spend the rest of his life as a jackdaw.
In one swift movement, Graham wrapped his arms around Zachiel, squeezing him as hard as he could. Then he yelled out:
"Hey, witch! Over here!"
The witch whirled angrily in Graham's direction. She raised her hand and thrust it at him with the digits outspread. Instantly, Graham felt his limbs begin to stiffen, then his entire body began to grow rigid...and since his arms were locked around Zachiel's torso, Zachiel quickly became utterly unable to free himself.
Fortunately, Joringel had had the sense to take advantage of the brief diversion that Graham had provided him with. As soon as the witch had turned away from him, he prepared to strike her with the flower, the only option available to him. Unfortunately, the witch saw what he was doing a split second too soon, and vanished with a screech in a puff of black smoke. However, the moment she vanished, Graham saw a small gray owl appear in one of the windows.
"Joringel!" he hissed, grateful that the witch's spell hadn't hindered his ability to speak. "The window!"
Joringel spotted the owl perched in the window and dashed towards it. Apparently stunned by her impromptu transformation, the witch turned and awkwardly started to fly away, but by then Joringel had reached the window. He thrust out the flower and just managed to touch the tail feathers of the retreating owl. There was a flash of light from outside the window, then a ghastly cry as the witch, restored to her original form, fell to her death at the base of the tower.
Joringel remained motionless at the window for several moments, then, running a shaking hand through his hair, he turned to Graham, flustered and trembling, but triumphant.
"Looks like we won," he said quietly. "That witch won't be enchanting any more maidens and adding them to her collection."
He paused and stared up at the many cages above his head.
"Odd," he remarked. "I'd think all these birds would change back into maidens now that the witch is dead."
"Perhaps the spells are strong enough to last after the caster has died," Graham mused. "And, speaking of spells, Joringel...could you please break the one that's on me?"
Graham was still standing frozen with his rigid arms imprisoning the squirming Zachiel. Apologizing and turning pink again, Joringel walked over to the king and touched his shoulder with the red flower. Instantly, Graham was able to move again. He removed his arms from around Zachiel, who sprinted from the tower as fast as his bony legs would allow.
"Do you think we should go after him?" Joringel asked nervously.
"I think that poor fellow was only a servant of the witch, and nothing more," Graham said. "There's not much for him left to do now that his mistress is gone for good."
"I suppose not," Joringel agreed. "Now I'd better start trying to find Jorinda..."
He paused. Though the birds were still fairly quiet after the witch's command for them to be silent, they were slowly beginning to grow loud again. However, one bird's song was much louder than the others, calling out more boldly and plaintively than any of the other birds.
Joringel and Graham looked at each other, and each immediately knew what the other was thinking. They began searching the tower, and it wasn't long before they found the bird that was singing the loudest: a nightingale perched in a cage on a small marble pedestal. Joringel touched the cage with the flower, and the bird and the cage both vanished, leaving a fair-skinned, brown-haired maiden standing in front of the pedestal. The instant she saw Joringel, she cried out with joy and threw her arms around him as Joringel did the same with her. For a moment, the reunited couple did nothing but laugh and hold each other close, then Joringel turned to Graham.
"Graham, I want you to meet my love, Jorinda," he said. "Jorinda, this is Graham of Daventry. If it weren't for his help, I would never have found you."
"Why...thank you, Graham," said Jorinda delicately. "I don't know how you or Joringel found me, but I'm deeply grateful to you both."
She turned back to Joringel, but instead of smiling at him, she glared at him.
"Why didn't you tell me that we were getting too close to the witch's home?" she demanded. "If you had, all this wouldn't have happened!"
"I had no idea that we were getting too close," Joringel stammered. "But don't worry -- now that she's dead, this will never happen again."
"I certainly hope not," Jorinda said.
She paused and stared at the many birdcages that lined the room.
"What are you going to do about them?" she asked.
"We'll free them just as we freed you," Graham said.
"And how did you do that?" Jorinda asked.
"Like this," Joringel said, touching a cage containing a small blackbird with the red flower. Instantly, the bird and cage vanished, leaving a raven-haired woman in their place, who stared speechlessly at her liberators.
"I suppose I have a lot of work to do here before I take you home," Joringel muttered. "But when I'm done, at least all these poor women will be free...and they would all still be singing for that witch if she hadn't enchanted you."
Jorinda folded her arms and sneered at Joringel, but after a couple of seconds, she couldn't help laughing at her fiancée's humor.
"Well, you'd better get started," she grinned, pointing to a wooden ladder propped up against the wall. "I'll bring you down some of the cages that are hanging near the ceiling."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Graham asked.
"Oh no," Joringel said. "You've done more than your fair share of help for me and my love. If I were you, I'd head back home, unless you want to look around this gloomy place some more for whatever reason."
Graham suddenly remembered the second part of Death's task, which was to bring back a mirror belonging to the witch.
"In that case, I'll say good-bye to you now..." Graham began. However, his words were cut short as Joringel touched a cage containing mournfully trilling goldfinch and a girl with large blue eyes, rosy cheeks and golden hair appeared.
"Herbert?" she cried in a voice that seemed strangely familiar to Graham. She turned to look at Joringel.
"You're not Herbert!" she said indignantly. "Where in the world is he? Herbert!"
"Princess Alicia?" Graham exclaimed, suddenly remembering where he had heard her voice before.
The woman glared coldly at him.
"That is my name," she replied. "But where is my prince? We were walking together in the woods, and that's the last I remember! Herbert!"
"Um...it may be some time before we find this Herbert of yours," Joringel said. "In the meantime, I suggest you wait here. This castle is quite a distance from the nearest town."
Alicia sniffed angrily, strode across the room and sat down on one of the lower rungs of the ladder.
"Er," Jorinda said quietly, "You know this woman?"
"It's a long story," Graham sighed. "I'll just bid you and Joringel farewell and let you free the rest of the women now. I must be on my way."
"Certainly," Jorinda said. "Good-bye, sir, and thank you again."
"Yes, good-bye, Graham," Joringel said.
Graham left the room at the top of the tower, the unexpected reappearance of that golden-haired woman almost as flabbergasting as the brief return of his fairy godmother. Princess Alicia was the girl that the witch in Serenia had changed into a willow, and when her fiancée Prince Herbert had done nothing to free her, Graham had done so himself, and Alicia had been no more grateful to Graham then than she was now. It seemed like that poor girl was developing a habit of getting separated from her beloved and becoming enchanted by wicked witches, and Graham couldn't help but wonder if she was somehow related to the former king of Monticore.
As Graham walked through the halls of the castle's upper floor, he shakily reflected on his encounter with the witch. That had to be the first time he had ever willingly asked to be enchanted by a malevolent worker of magic, and hopefully, it would be the only time. He hadn't liked being frozen in place one little bit. It reminded him of an encounter he had had with a sorcerer in the Daventry countryside on his quest for the three treasures. The sorcerer had cast a spell on him that paralyzed his body from head to toe for nearly a half hour, and it was a miracle that Graham hadn't been noticed by any of the more vicious creatures roaming the land's woods during that time.
As that unpleasant memory replayed in Graham's mind, he kept trying to open the various doors leading off the hallway, but all of them seemed locked, and he didn't want to bother Joringel for his flower, since he and Jorinda were probably still busy freeing the imprisoned maidens from the tower.
Finally, Graham found a door that was not only unlocked, but also ajar. He peered through it to see a small, dimly lit room with a round polished table in the center. He entered the room and saw that the table was covered with dozens of small, precious items. There were jeweled combs, bracelets, rings, brooches, headdresses, necklaces, and many similar ornaments, glittering faintly in the light that came in from the room's single ivy-covered window.
They were all items one would expect to see being worn by a young, wealthy woman, and Graham suddenly suspected that these trinkets once belonged to the maidens in the tower. Perhaps the witch had taken the trinkets from the maidens before she enchanted them...but why would she do a thing like that? Did she sell the trinkets once she had accumulated enough or free the maidens from their avian form and allow them to wear their jewelry once in a while?
Unable to come up with an answer to these questions, Graham examined the table until he noticed one item different than the others: a large hand mirror with the frame and handle made out of ebony carved into ominous, distorted shapes. Graham slowly reached towards it, then quickly touched it, expecting just about anything to happen. When nothing did, he gently grasped the handle and held it up. Throwing caution to the wind for a moment, he glanced into its slightly warped face, but saw nothing except his own weathered features.
Confident that this was the mirror that Death had sent him to find, Graham left the room and found the stairs leading to the ground floor of the decrepit castle. In a few moments, he was standing outside, beneath the pleasant warmth of the midday sun. Having no idea when Death was going to bring him back to his domain, Graham sat down on the short grass growing around the witch's castle and began eating an apple from his knapsack. As he ate, he wondered what had happened during the time he had slept in Death's home. All he knew from Death was that the cat's life Edgar was living on hadn't expired yet; how Rosella and Valanice were faring, he had no clue.
Then, as if in answer to his thoughts, a small winged creature came diving towards him out of the sky. It was Scrimshaw. Graham called out his name and the tiny beast let out an acknowledging screech, and then landed on a mound of earth near Graham's left boot.
"Hello again," Graham said happily. "Fancy meeting you here. How are things in Daventry?"
Scrimshaw bowed his head and raised the foreleg that had a pouch tied to it. Graham nervously opened the pouch and unfolded the letter that he found inside. This letter was written not in Rosella's hand, but Valanice's:
My Dearest Husband:
Rosella and Edgar were overjoyed when his little griffin returned with your token last evening. Though I had no way of knowing where in the world you were when Scrimshaw delivered Rosella's letter, he was able to leave Daventry, find you and return in scarcely two days. I certainly underestimated the little beast's ability to act as a messenger. I am sending this letter out with him soon, in the hopes that he will be able to find you again with equal or greater swiftness.
I fear that our son-in-law's condition has not improved since Rosella wrote to you. Though he still appears young in spirit, in body he seems nearly as old as you. He spends more and more time abed, and he talks and eats less as well. He tries his best to make light of his unusual malady, but it is hard for us to laugh at his humor. He recently complained that it was unfair for him to be growing old, but not wise.
We have yet to inform Edgar's parents of their son's condition, but I fear they will find out about it regardless of whether we tell them or not. I'm afraid that poor Rosella is still blaming herself for what has befallen her husband, and she refuses to let me console her. This business with Manannan has been troubling me to no end. I consulted the Magic Mirror in the hopes that it would show me what will eventually become of him, but it has only shown me images of you traveling through an unnamed country. I can only hope that the future is too unclear for the mirror to make an accurate prediction at the moment.
I wish there were some way I could aid you in your quest, Graham. As difficult as keeping this kingdom in order has been without you, I would do twice as much work as I do at present if I knew that you would benefit from it.
However, I'm afraid all that I can do is to ask you to please be careful, keep your family and your kingdom in your heart, and return home as quickly as you can once you are successful.
Your Loving Wife,
Graham gripped the letter so tightly that it nearly tore. Thank goodness his wife and daughter were still well, but what a burden he had placed upon them by leaving them alone. Part of him was grateful to Scrimshaw for bringing these letters to him, but at the same time, part of him wished that the pygmy griffin wouldn't keep reminding him of what his family was going through in his absence.
Sighing, Graham forced himself to read through the letter again. The letter was written the day after Scrimshaw returned to Daventry, but there was no way of telling how long ago that was. Graham stared at Scrimshaw, wondering how many days the creature had searched for him while Graham was in Death's home. If only Scrimshaw could answer all the questions Graham had for him -- though Graham was sure that there were many questions Valanice, Edgar and Rosella had for the griffin as well.
Remembering the request Rosella had made at the end of her letter, Graham decided to send something back with Scrimshaw to reassure his family that he had received their latest letter as well. He looked around the large clearing, wondering what he could put in Scrimshaw's pouch this time. All he had in his possession was his cloak, his knapsack, a supply of food, the Mortis charm, the witch's mirror, the shoemaker's grips, Rosella and Valanice's letters and the spool of thread that the woodcutter's son had given him, and none of these things seemed appropriate to give Scrimshaw.
After a cursory glance at his surroundings revealed nothing, Graham got to his feet, told Scrimshaw to stay put, and started walking around the castle, hoping that he would find something. What he eventually found was a pure white feather partially hidden in the grass. Despite its small size, it caught his eye instantly. As Graham picked the feather up, he wondered whether it might have come from one of the birds in the tower. If that were the case, the maiden that the feather belonged to would certainly not miss it.
He hurried back to Scrimshaw and tucked the feather securely in the leather pouch.
"I don't suppose there's much point in telling you this," Graham said to Scrimshaw, "But if you can, please let them know that I am well, and that I should be coming home soon."
The pygmy griffin sat motionless for a minute, then shrugged its shoulders and nodded his head. To Graham, it looked almost as if he were trying to say, "I may not be able to, but I'll do my best." Then the creature turned and took off with a brisk flapping of his gray wings. Graham rose to his feet and watched Scrimshaw dwindle to a tiny speck in the sky before vanishing altogether.
The king didn't have to linger outside the witch's castle for much longer. Within minutes, the familiar mist had appeared around him, and he soon found himself in Death's home once again, with Death himself standing expectantly in front of him.
"According to this," Death said, holding out a squat, shriveled candle that looked as if it had been recently extinguished, "You were successful in your encounter with the witch."
"Yes, I was," Graham replied. "Is that her life?"
"It was," Death said as the candle disappeared. "May I have the mirror that you appropriated from her home?"
Graham held out the ebony hand mirror. Death delicately took it from him and held it up before his gaunt face.
"What purpose did that mirror serve?" Graham asked. "I didn't see anything unusual about it."
"From what I gathered, this mirror alters the visage of whoever looks into it according to their own desires," Death said. "When the witch would look into it, she would see herself as a young, lovely maiden rather than a wrinkled old crone, wearing the jewelry of the young maidens she captured to make her image even more beautiful. She tried to make her existence less miserable by surrounding herself with beauty, but such activities eventually led to her downfall. She might have been pitied by others were she not so malicious."
He continued to stare silently into the mirror, occasionally tilting it one way or the other. After a moment, Graham spoke again:
"Please don't think me forward, Death...but what do you see yourself as?"
Death slowly looked up.
"I don't see myself as anything," he said dully. "I have no desires. I merely exist to carry out my duties."
Death lowered the mirror and gently cradled it in his hands.
"Your next task shall be your last," he said to Graham.
"And if I succeed in it, you will help me?" Graham asked.
"You have my word," Death said with a bow of his head.
"What must I do now?"
"You must obtain a certain item from a sorcerer that dwells within your kingdom," Death said. "He lives on an island in the middle of a river, inside a small tower that from the outside resembles nothing more than a mere shack..."
Graham blinked in surprise.
"That sorcerer is the very man who helped me gain access to your realm, Death," he gasped.
"How fortunate," Death said, drumming his fingers on the back of the mirror. "If you are on friendly terms with him, then perhaps he might not be as reluctant to part with this item...which he does value dearly, I should tell you."
"What is this item?" Graham asked.
"It is a cage made out of glass," Death said. "Slightly larger than your head and unmistakable. You will know it when you see it, and I'm certain you will find a way to convince the sorcerer to give it to you. Bring that cage to me, and I will help you."
An unpleasant thought suddenly crossed Graham's mind.
"Death, to find a way to your realm I had to make a bargain with a dark wizard who has been changed into a cat. In exchange for telling me how to find your domain, I promised to find a way to restore him to his true form, even though I have learned that this is impossible. It was an irrational thing to do, but it was the only way I could get the information out of him...and recently, I was told that he had to be changed back, but that monster will surely wreak havoc in the world should such a thing happen..."
Death thoughtfully stroked his chin.
"This does add more pieces to the puzzle," he remarked. "But I might be able to help you solve it just the same, King Graham. I just need some time to think about it first."
"Thank you, Death," Graham said gratefully.
"Certainly," Death said. "In the meantime, you will return to your kingdom and complete your last task: find the glass cage belonging to the sorcerer and bring it to me."
"I will," Graham said.
He prepared to be enveloped in the mist, but strangely, it didn't come. When he quietly asked why Death hadn't sent him to Daventry, Death shook his head, as if he had been lost in a daydream.
"My apologies," he mumbled. "I was just thinking how odd it is."
"How odd what is?" Graham inquired.
"A cat's life in the body of a man and a man's life in the body of a cat," Death said. "It all seems quite odd to me."
"I suppose it is," Graham shrugged.
"I'll send you on your way now," Death said. "But I'm afraid you should hurry: since you arrived here, another day has passed in your world."
When the mist cleared, Graham found himself standing near the banks of the Raging River, beneath a mid-afternoon sun. Barely a stone's throw away was the bridge leading to the sorcerer's island, and Graham quickly set out towards it. His eyes were so focused on the sorcerer's ramshackle hut that he almost forgot about the place's lone guardian...
"Halt! Who goes there?"
Graham slowly turned to face the talking reptilian statue sitting atop one of the stakes supporting the bridge.
"Graham of Daventry," the king said.
"And what is your business here?" the stone beast squawked.
"I'm here to see the sorcerer," Graham sighed. "Don't you remember me? I've been here twice already."
The beast squinted skeptically at him and mumbled to itself.
"Hmm...so you have," it growled. "But your last visit was more than thirteen days ago."
"That shouldn't make any difference," Graham objected.
"I suppose not," the beast muttered sullenly. "Very well, you may pass. However, I should warn you that my master wishes to be alone at the moment."
"Where is he?" Graham demanded.
"He's on the top floor, but there's no way you can reach him, so don't even try," the creature said. "Nonetheless, if you want to wait for my master inside, that's fine by me."
Glaring sourly at the insufferable stone beast, Graham crossed the rickety wooden bridge over the churning rapids and opened the hut's crooked door. Inside, the first floor of the disguised tower was just as crowded and chaotic as it had been before. The gold symbols inlaid on the floor glowed gently, and the many shiny objects in the room reflected the light, making them appear almost alive.
Graham looked around the room, but saw nothing that even roughly resembled a glass cage. However, when he climbed the stairs to the second floor, he saw what he was looking for almost immediately. It was in the large alcove, hanging above the two cushioned chairs by a thin strand of wire.
Death's description hadn't done the cage justice. It was an intricate web of glass spun into a tapered, twisting figure, and there were a variety of subtle hues and sparkling, metallic particles in the glass, making Graham imagine that it looked even more breathtaking in direct sunlight.
Even though the cage was within his reach, Graham hesitated. After all that the sorcerer had done for him, how could Graham betray his trust by stealing one of his possessions? What sort of gratitude was that? After all, if the sorcerer found out about the theft -- and Graham was certain that he would -- who could say what a man with his abilities would do to get back at Graham for such an act. Stealing from someone well versed in magic was risky, no matter how good-natured and helpful that someone was. Graham had to speak to the sorcerer and convince him to give up the cage...if only he could get to the sorcerer.
Graham climbed the tower's spiral staircase until he reached the trapdoor leading to the third floor. He rapped loudly on the door, and when he received no response, he tried calling out to the sorcerer. When this failed as well, he tried to figure out some way he could open the trapdoor, but there were no obvious means of doing so. Judging by the way the bars had dissolved into thin air the last two times Graham had called on the sorcerer, there was undoubtedly some magic involved. Perhaps there was a word or phrase that would make the bars vanish, or possibly there was some sort of charm that did the trick.
Graham was confident that there was a way to open the trapdoor, and there was only one individual he knew of that might tell him how...if he was persistent enough. He descended the steps to the first floor, left the tower, slowly walked back across the bridge and addressed the stone beast at the other side:
"Listen, creature, I must speak to your master now. It is imperative that you tell me how I can open the door to the third floor."
The impish statue shook its head quickly.
"No, no, no. My master is not accepting visitors at this time, no matter how desperately they want to see him. Come back in an hour or two, and he might speak with you then."
"I'm sorry, but I can't afford to wait that long," Graham protested. "A man's life depends on my speaking with your master."
"My apologies, but my master simply does not wish to see anyone at this time," the creature said stiffly. "And I must respect his wishes."
Frustrated and angry, Graham tried to think of a way to reason with the creature, but couldn't think of any. Then he noticed a large, rounded rock sitting near the edge of the cliff. He bent down, picked it up and eyed the creature carefully.
"What are you doing?" the stone beast demanded.
"I'm trying to figure out how hard I'd need to throw this in order to knock you off your perch and into the river," Graham replied.
The beast's eyes grew wide.
"You wouldn't dare!" it gasped.
"Keep refusing to help me and I will," Graham said coldly. "I doubt that this stone would hurt you since you're just a statue, but being at the bottom of the river for a few years might be an unpleasant experience for you."
"My master will hear of this," the creature yelled, starting to tremble fiercely. "He will surely curse you if you do such a thing!"
"Tell me how to open the trapdoor and I promise that I won't so much as insult you," Graham said. "Otherwise I'll knock you into the river, regardless of the consequences. I'll give you five seconds to decide. One...two..."
"All right, all right!" the creature wailed hysterically. "Quicksilver!"
"I beg your pardon?" Graham asked, still gripping the rock firmly in his right hand.
"Quicksilver!" the beast repeated. "Quicksilver is the key!"
It went into a low crouch and hid its face, shaking and whimpering softly. Graham almost regretted threatening it so much, but he was growing desperate. He had no idea how much more time Edgar had, and he wasn't going to spend several hours of it standing idly about, waiting for that sorcerer to speak with him.
Unable to get anything more out of the sorcerer's stone guardian, Graham tossed the rock aside, hurried back to the island and stepped inside the tower, wondering what the creature had meant by quicksilver being the key. "The key" had to mean the key to the trapdoor, but there were no locks on the door, and Graham didn't see how a key fashioned out of quicksilver was at all possible.
Graham slowly walked up to the second floor, idly observing the various magical implements that lined the bookshelves, hung on the walls or lay scattered on the floor. When he reached the second floor, he noticed the tables that sat beneath the room's twin windows. He approached one of them and found it covered with a variety of peculiar apparatus that he could only guess the use of, though they all seemed to be alchemical implements. There were also a number of items that had oddly familiar symbols on them. Among these items were a vial of water, an unlit candle, a corked tube containing something crumbly and yellow that resembled sulfur, a small pouch that turned out to have several lumps of gold in it, another pouch containing silver, and a carefully sealed glass vial containing a material that glistened like metal, yet resembled a liquid: quicksilver. Graham cautiously picked up the vial and watched the curious substance languidly shift inside it.
Now that he possessed quicksilver, what was he supposed to do with it? Graham tried climbing the stairs to the trapdoor and touching the metal bars with the vial. Nothing happened. Puzzled, he returned to the second floor and stared at the other items on the table he had gotten the quicksilver from. As his eyes slowly moved from one substance to the next, he suddenly remembered where he had seen those symbols before. Setting the vial of quicksilver back where he had found it, he hurried partway down the steps to the first level of the tower and stared at the golden patterns circling the stone floor. Sure enough, the six symbols inlaid in the floor matched the ones he had seen on the items on the table exactly.
The downward-pointing triangle was engraved on the vial of water:
The crescent moon was sewn onto the pouch that had contained silver:
The circle with the dot in its center was on the pouch with the gold inside it:
The upwards-pointing triangle was carved into the wax of the candle:
The cross topped by the triangle was burned onto the cork of the vial containing the crumbly yellow substance:
And the last symbol -- the most complex one of the six -- was on a tag attached to the bottle of quicksilver:
Graham started to realize what the stone creature must have meant. When he said "quicksilver is the key", he didn't mean the actual substance -- he meant the symbol that represented it. After all, magic relied heavily upon the meaning of symbols and words.
Graham hurried down the steps and approached the symbol for quicksilver. Then he knelt down and touched it. Nothing happened to the softly pulsating symbol, and when Graham journeyed back up the stairs to the trapdoor, he found that it was still locked. Confused, he returned to the first floor and stared at the symbol. What was he supposed to do with it in order to open the door? Pour the quicksilver onto it? Touch it with something other than his hand?
A brilliant thought suddenly struck him. Since this was a sorcerer's home, shouldn't there be a magic wand somewhere? Perhaps touching the symbol with a wand was what it took to open the trapdoor. Graham glanced around the room until his eyes lit upon a large, wooden staff leaning against one of the bookcases, topped by a dark blue glass sphere encaged by loops of silver. If it wasn't a magic staff, Graham wasn't sure what was.
He walked over to it and cautiously touched it. When nothing happened, he picked it up as gently as he could. Fortunately, the staff was much lighter than it appeared. He carried the staff over to the quicksilver symbol and carefully lowered the staff's head until the sphere touched the symbol.
Immediately, the symbol glowed brightly and the air's scent seemed to change for a moment. Replacing the staff just as carefully as he had removed it, Graham walked up the stairs, and smiled triumphantly to see that the trapdoor's metal bars were gone. Hoping that the sorcerer wouldn't be too angered at being disturbed, Graham pushed open the trapdoor and climbed the remaining stairs to the tower's topmost floor.
The sorcerer, still clad in his black, star-covered robe and hat, was standing with his back to Graham, staring at a familiar iron cage that rested on the floor. Lying inside the cage was Manannan the cat, looking just as weak as he had been when Graham left the sorcerer's home, yet not quite as lean and mangy. The sorcerer slowly turned as Graham approached him, his dark eyes staring calmly into Graham's.
"Ah, Graham," he said quietly. "So you've finally returned to Daventry. You've also managed to get past the spell protecting the trapdoor. I suppose you persuaded the guardian to tell you how to break it?"
"I did," Graham said.
"And was your journey a successful one?"
"It has been successful so far, but it is not yet complete," Graham replied. "I'm sorry to intrude, sorcerer, but my son-in-law is still in danger, and in order to save him, I must have something that you possess."
"Oh? And what is that?" the sorcerer asked.
"The glass cage hanging above the alcove on the second floor."
The sorcerer's eyes grew wide, and a small snarl pulled one side of his wrinkled lip up.
"The glass cage?" he hissed. "Why on earth do you want such a thing?"
"I must confess that I don't know," Graham said. "All I know is that I must have it."
"Out of the question!" the sorcerer stormed, looking angrier than Graham had ever seen him. "This cage is mine and mine alone, and no amount of money will convince me to give it up."
"Please, sorcerer," Graham begged. "I know I've already asked a lot of you, but you must give me this cage, otherwise Edgar is going to die and leave this kingdom heirless."
"No," the sorcerer huffed. "That cage is worth nothing to you, and there are many other items in my home that are of much greater value. Take any one of them, but not the cage."
Graham paused for a moment before replying:
"I do not want the cage for myself," he said coolly. "I was commanded to retrieve it and give it to someone else."
"Oh?" the sorcerer said scornfully. "Whom may I ask is that?"
"Death," Graham said simply.
The sorcerer's demeanor changed instantly. His eyes became wide, he bent over slightly and he began rubbing his hands together nervously.
"I..." he said quietly, running the tip of his tongue along his dry lips. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize that you were running an errand for him...did he truly tell you to bring him...my cage?"
"Yes," Graham replied. "And in return, he will help my son-in-law."
"I see," the sorcerer whispered. "In that case...you may have the cage. Just be careful with it, it's quite fragile, as you might have noticed. In fact...let me help you get it down."
He shuffled down the steps to the second floor, with Graham close behind him. The sorcerer reached up and grasped the suspended glass cage. Then he muttered a peculiar phrase and the wire connecting the cage to the ceiling vanished.
"Here you are," he said, handing the cage to Graham.
"Thank you very much," Graham said. "Death told me that you would be reluctant to give this up, but I'm very grateful that you did. If there's anything I can do to repay you..."
"Think nothing of it," the sorcerer muttered, trying to sound cheerful but failing. "By the way, that wizard-cat's leg has finally healed."
"Yes. I've also been talking to him a lot. It seems as if his life as a cat in an abandoned castle has changed him considerably. He has lost everything -- his power, his influence, his only brother, his pride...I'm inclined to believe that he has grown too weak to even hate anymore. The nasty way he behaved towards you when you brought him here was only an attempt to drive you away so that he could suffer in peace."
"I don't believe that," Graham said. "His evil may have been diminished after his years of hardship, but I'm certain that it's still there."
"But didn't he tell you how to reach Death's realm?" the sorcerer asked.
"Yes, but I suspect that he helped me in the hopes that I'll find a way to change him back," Graham muttered.
"So you haven't found a way to accomplish that yet?"
"No...but I was told that I have to, regardless of the consequences."
The sorcerer sighed and shook his head.
"I've been doing some reading on spells similar to the one your son cast on that wizard," he said, "And I haven't found any instructions on how to change such an enchanted individual back."
Graham sighed. Still, there was nothing that he could do about this predicament now except return the glass cage to Death and hope that he could somehow solve the problem of Manannan.
"I'd better be leaving now," Graham told the sorcerer, shaking his hand and heading for the spiral staircase. "Thank you again for the cage."
"Yes, yes, of course," the sorcerer said. "Good...good luck."
Something in the sorcerer's tone made Graham pause suspiciously. He turned to look at the sorcerer, but he was already heading back up the staircase to the top floor, and the king couldn't make out the expression on his face. Graham shrugged and continued making his way to the ground floor.
As Graham stepped out of the sorcerer's home, he was surprised to see a creature perched on one of the stakes of the island end of the bridge. However, it wasn't a creature carved out of stone like the one on the opposite bank -- it was a living being slightly larger than a kitten, with the shaggy brown ears of a dog, the head, wings and forelegs of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a lion. It squawked excitedly when it spotted Graham, and eagerly flapped over to him, landing awkwardly on his shoulder and nuzzling the side of his head.
"Scrimshaw, how in the world are you able to find me so quickly?" Graham laughed, trying to pet the pygmy griffin and promptly getting his finger nipped by the creature's hooked beak.
"Just as friendly as usual, I see," Graham smirked. Then he remembered the purpose of Scrimshaw's visit and spoke to him in a more serious voice:
"Do you have a letter for me again?"
Scrimshaw bounced agitatedly and held out the leg that had the leather pouch tied to it. Tucking the glass cage under one arm, Graham opened the pouch and pulled out a small, unevenly folded piece of paper. Unfolding it, he found that it was in Rosella's handwriting, but written hurriedly, with numerous ink spots and smudges, making it difficult to make out:
Mother and I were considerably nervous when we didn't hear from you for the last few days. Much to our relief, Scrimshaw returned late this morning, and I am sending out this letter as soon as I finish it.
Father -- Alexander is here! His genie was aware of our trouble, and Alexander requested to be sent to Daventry. Cassima couldn't come because Alexander says that she is confined to her bed. Apparently the news that the heir to his homeland's throne was gravely ill was enough to tear him from his own kingdom, if for just a short while.
Edgar's mother and father are also here. They were horrified to see Edgar looking like he does at first, but when we informed them that you were out seeking a way to restore his youth, they seemed to grow calmer.
As for Edgar -- Oh, Father, I do hope you can help him soon! He cannot leave his bed anymore, has grown as wrinkled and thin as a shriveled husk and his hair has turned completely white. He hasn't eaten in days and hardly ever speaks now, but he still tries to smile whenever anyone enters the room.
I know writing such things won't do much good, but all the same, please, please, please hurry home as quickly as you can! We can scarcely endure waiting for you much longer.
Graham shakily tucked the letter away, feeling as if he were falling through the earth into the deepest caverns of the underworld. So much was happening at once that he could barely comprehend it all...Alexander returning to Daventry, the Lord and Lady of Etheria visiting, Edgar unable to walk any longer...these thoughts began chasing each other through his mind as he began to cross the bridge leading to the mainland, and he was so caught up in them that he barely noticed Scrimshaw flapping wildly around his head, screeching loudly and tugging at his clothing and his knapsack.
"Stop it," he finally growled angrily, waving his free arm in Scrimshaw's general direction. Still, Scrimshaw continued to screech and swat at Graham's head with his wings, finally lunging at him and biting into his ear. Graham yelped in pain and rounded furiously on Scrimshaw. As he was contemplating whether giving the griffin a good swat would make him leave him alone, he suddenly felt the bridge wobble beneath him and heard a strange ripping sound over the rushing of the river. He slowly turned to see the ropes securing the other end of the bridge to the stakes starting to break. One of the ropes had snapped already, and the others were fast on their way to breaking as well, as if they were being gnawed on by invisible rats. Even as he looked, another rope broke and the bridge lurched again.
Graham didn't need any more warnings from Scrimshaw. He dashed across the bridge as fast as his legs would carry him, and just as he was about to set foot on dry land, the two remaining ropes securing the bridge gave way. The far end of the bridge collapsed into the Raging River just as Graham leapt forward with all his might, landing safely in the dry grass. Unfortunately, as he leapt, he had let go of the glass cage, which had gone flying through the air before getting smashed to pieces on a large boulder.
Still trembling, Graham rose to his feet and stared in horror at the shattered cage. His only hope of saving Edgar was lying in fragments on the ground. Now what was he going to do?
After Scrimshaw recovered from the near disaster with the bridge, he fluttered happily over to Graham, but when he saw the broken cage, he cooed worriedly.
"Don't worry, Scrimshaw," Graham muttered. "It wasn't your fault. If it weren't for you, I would be getting dashed to pieces on the rocks in the Raging River right now. I just wish this cage hadn't been dashed to bits instead."
He knelt down beside the shattered object, removed his knapsack, took off his cloak and started gathering the pieces of the cage and placing them on the cloak. Fortunately, the cage was in fewer than a dozen pieces, and the smallest one was almost as large as Graham's palm. Scrimshaw carried some of the fragments that were out of the king's reach over to him, and in no time, Graham had all the cage's pieces bundled up in his cloak.
Should he carry the pieces to Death and hope that the entity wouldn't be angry with him or try to find a way to repair the cage? The second option seemed like the better one, but at the same time it seemed like the more impossible of the two. This object wasn't a mere broken bottle that a glassblower could easily repair -- he was certain that magic had been involved in its creation, and magic would be required to fix it properly.
He stared at the sharp-edged pieces, wondering who could possibly repair such a delicate, enchanted artifact. He couldn't return to the sorcerer for help, and had no desire to either. What happened to the bridge couldn't have been an accident. The sorcerer must have changed his mind about giving Graham the cage at the last minute, and for some reason, decided to kill him instead of merely going after him.
Why in the world had the man done such a thing? He had appeared to be such an amiable fellow at first. Perhaps Graham should have heeded his initial anxieties after all: there was much more to that sorcerer than met the eye.
Turning his attention back towards the broken cage, Graham continued pondering over whom in Daventry could possibly fix it. Then all at once, he knew exactly who could do it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the spool of thread that the woodcutter's son had given him -- the man who claimed that he was in possession of a needle that could sew anything together.
Recalling the young man's words, Graham dropped the spool to the ground. Instantly, the spool began to swiftly roll forward, leaving a trail of thick black thread behind it. Soon, it had disappeared between the trees. Graham shouldered his knapsack, rose to his feet and prepared to follow the route made by the thread to the tailor's home, but hesitated as he remembered Scrimshaw, who sat patiently on a nearby boulder.
"I'm afraid I don't have anything to give you this time, friend," the king said. "But with luck, my journey should be over very soon. If there is any way you can tell that to Valanice, Rosella and Edgar, I would be deeply grateful."
Graham imagined that he looked a little silly speaking so reverently to such a scruffy little creature, but the king felt that Scrimshaw deserved all the respect he could be given. An animal capable of finding a lone traveler in such a short time after being sent out and finding his way home again with equal speed couldn't be considered a mere pet.
Scrimshaw bowed his head and took off, soon disappearing over the brown, gold and orange tops of the trees. Graham waved to the pygmy griffin as he departed, then picked up his cloak and began to follow the meandering trail left by the spool of thread, pausing only to turn and glare coldly at the sorcerer's island, what was left of the bridge that led to it, and the stone creature perched on one of the two stakes that used to support the bridge.
"Hey, that wasn't my fault," the creature barked defensively. "I admit that you did make me pretty angry at you, but take my word for it, I did not do that."
The black thread led Graham west, through many open fields and small groves of trees. Soon, he could see a small cottage ahead of him, nestled in between two large oaks. The thread led directly to the cottage's front door, and there he found the spool lying near the door's threshold, still far from empty. When Graham knelt to pick the spool up, it spun wildly, and the numerous yards of thread trailing behind it were rewound, and within seconds, all the thread was entwined around the spool once more. Shaking his head in astonishment, Graham picked up the spool and knocked on the cottage's door. After a few moments, it opened and the tailor appeared in the doorway. His blue eyes grew wide as soon as he saw the king.
"Your Majesty!" he cried. "I'm so glad you decided to pay me a visit. I had no idea that you would be seeking me out so soon."
"And I'm glad that you invited me to see you," Graham said. "I've recently run into some trouble that I'm certain you can help me with."
The tailor beckoned Graham inside. From the looks of things, the tailor both lived and worked in the cottage. The room that Graham stepped into had garments in various stages of completion covering the walls and spread out on tables, their bright colors making the small room much cheerier than it might have looked otherwise. Bolts of cloth leaned against the walls, a large basket of sewing supplies sat on the largest table, and a large cupboard doubtlessly full of such supplies as well hung in the corner. A door in the right wall led to what seemed to be the tailor's private quarters.
The tailor pulled a stool up to the largest table, pushed aside as much of the clutter on it that he could and invited Graham to take a seat, which Graham gratefully did.
"Now, then," the tailor said, finding another stool and sitting down himself, "What is this trouble you spoke of?"
Graham gently placed the cloak with the pieces of the glass cage in it on the table and explained how he had convinced a sorcerer to give the cage to him, and how the sorcerer had tried to kill him shortly afterwards, but only succeeded in causing the destruction of the cage.
"Hmm," muttered the tailor, who had been eyeing the broken cage during most of Graham's story. "That's one reason why I try not to deal with sorcerers if I can help it. If someone possesses a few magic trinkets, he's fairly safe, but if his entire life revolves around magic, I don't want to so much as strike up a conversation with him."
"There are good sorcerers in this world," Graham said. "They just tend to be eclipsed by the malevolent ones most of the time."
"I suppose I can't argue with that," the tailor said. "So you want this cage repaired, Sire?"
"Yes, I do," Graham said. "If it's at all possible."
"I'm certain that it is," the tailor said. "Just a moment, Your Majesty."
He rose from his seat and walked over to the cupboard in the corner. He opened it and pulled out something, then returned to the table. Sitting down, he placed a small gold box on the table, and from it, he removed a tiny silver needle. He swiftly threaded the needle with a piece of fine white thread, pulled the cloak with the cage's pieces on it closer to him, then picked up two of the pieces and touched the ragged edge of one of the pieces with the tip of the needle.
To Graham's surprise, the needle sunk through the glass as if it were nothing more than soft bread. The tailor pushed the needle through the other piece and carefully pulled them together. He continued sewing the two pieces together with remarkable speed, and when he was finished, the pieces were joined together without a single crack showing between them. The only sign that they had been broken was a thin white line that ran along where they had separated.
"Everything I sew together with this thread always leaves a line like that where the tear originally was," the tailor explained, picking up two more of the cage's fragments and beginning to stitch them together. "No stitches, just a line. I don't know why."
Graham watched in amazement as the tailor quickly pieced together the cage, section by section. His young face become hardened with concentration, his needle flashed in the dim light and the white thread jumped and writhed wildly as he worked.
After barely a quarter of an hour, the tailor sewed the last remaining fissure in the cage shut. As soon as he did, the cage glowed gently and the colors within it shifted slightly. Smiling with satisfaction, the tailor tucked his precious needle into its box and returned it to the cupboard. Graham stared at the cage, then gently stroked it with his hand. He couldn't feel so much as a scratch on it, and save for the thin white lines that crisscrossed it, the cage looked just as intact as it had been when the sorcerer had given it to him.
"This is remarkable, tailor," Graham said. "A man with a gift such as yours shouldn't have to live in such a tiny house out in the woods."
"Many people have told me the same thing," the tailor said, returning to his seat at the table. "But I like living out here. It's where I grew up, and it's the place I feel most at home in. I do occasionally go into town, but it's simply too noisy and crowded there."
Graham nodded in agreement. In his boyhood days, he had often disliked the town for the same reasons as the tailor, and would frequently retreat to the surrounding countryside, looking for trees to climb or ponds to swim in -- any place where he could be alone.
"I do make plenty of money as well," the tailor continued. "I've told a few of my customers about my special needle, and word about me got around quickly. I do get a few people coming to me asking me to repair their goat's broken leg or their shattered pitcher, but mostly I just make clothing, which I'm happy doing. A tailor is all that I wanted to be, after all."
Graham gazed silently at the tailor. How odd that so many years after saving the woodcutter and his wife from starvation, Graham would have his kindness repaid by that couple's son. Though the young tailor didn't know it, he was not only assisting Graham, but he was also helping to save the life of the future king. Graham reminded himself to reveal this truth to the tailor after the end of his mission, which hopefully wasn't too far away.
"Thank you," Graham said, picking up the cage and his cloak and rising to his feet. "You have aided me immensely. I don't know what I would have done without your help, tailor."
"Anything to pay you back for saving my parents," the tailor said with a nod. "By the way: my name is Jacob, Sire."
"Well, it's been a pleasure knowing you, Jacob," Graham said, extending a hand that the tailor nervously shook.
"Certainly," Jacob replied, trying his best to smile without appearing overly nervous. "Farewell, Your Highness."
As Graham left the tailor's house and put on his cloak, his cheerful mood began to turn gloomy again. How were Valanice and Rosella faring? How many more days, hours or minutes did Edgar have left, and how could Graham possibly honor his promise to Manannan? The king's fairy godmother had told him that nothing bad would happen once Manannan had become a wizard again, but Graham found this promise nearly impossible to believe.
As he trudged through the long shadows cast by the trees, a tall, robed figure suddenly materialized before him. Graham stopped abruptly, but grew calmer when he saw that it was Death. He nervously wondered whether this was a healthy way to react upon seeing such an entity.
"Hello, King Graham," said Death.
"Hello," Graham replied politely.
"I was going to bring you back to my domain, but I didn't want to risk keeping you there for too long," Death explained. "Besides, there are several people in this region that I must attend to -- not counting the one you wish to help."
"I see," Graham said. "Here is the item you wanted me to retrieve."
He handed the peculiar glass cage to Death, who examined it in the same way he had examined the previous two objects Graham had brought him and shook his head slowly.
"Some mortals simply have no respect for the higher powers whatsoever," he sighed.
"Greater powers?" Graham repeated. "What do you mean?"
Death turned to Graham with his mouth set in a displeased curve.
"You deserve to know about this cage more than any other mortal," he said, drumming his sticklike fingers on the cage's bars. "As you may know, the sorcerer you took this cage from wandered about your kingdom's villages, posing as a traveling healer. He would invariably stop at houses where one of the occupants was near death, then heal that individual instantly."
"Yes, I know about that," Graham replied. "In fact, knowing about his activities helped lead me to him."
"I see," Death replied. "I'm afraid that this sorcerer is not the miracle-worker that those he has helped see him as, however. Those mortals he aided hadn't fallen prey to a malicious disease or curse, King Graham. It was he that made them supposedly ill."
"What?" Graham gasped in disbelief, his mind reeling.
"The sorcerer would single out one mortal and steal his life from his body," Death explained. "And keep that life imprisoned in this cage -- which, unsurprisingly, he calls a lifecage."
He tapped on the glass of the cage with one finger.
"The mortal would remain in a state in between life and death. His life would be near him, but not part of him, and if an individual is separated from his life for too long, his soul soon departs and he is among the dead. This sorcerer would wait for a few days before calling on the 'ill' mortal's family with the lifecage with him, then reunite the mortal's life with his body, miraculously 'curing' the poor individual. Then he would take his pay and depart, waiting for an opportunity to strike again."
"That scoundrel!" Graham snarled. "And I thought he was merely robbing the townsfolk blind!"
"Apparently this fellow was much more malevolent some time ago," Death said, "But something made him change his ways. However, as you mortals say, a crooked tree cannot be made to grow straight again, so he soon began resorting to trickery to make a living, secretly causing mortals uncalled-for suffering, then emerging in the guise of a benevolent magician to wring a vast sum of money out of them in exchange for his aid."
"So did you send me after the lifecage merely to put an end to his tricks?" Graham asked in confusion.
"Yes," Death said coldly, "But that is only part of my reason for wanting this cage out of his hands: I do not like it when mortals so brazenly play with the lives of others in this way. This sorcerer has been taking and replacing mortal's lives like this for some time, and I was quite cross when I finally found out about it. Stealing a life while leaving the soul trapped in an empty body is cruel and unnatural, and these mortals who dabble with such deep magic should know better than to do such a thing."
Uncertain what to say in response, Graham simply nodded.
"As for why I sent you to get the lifecage rather than getting it myself," Death continued in a less menacing voice, "As I have told you before, I do not wish to interfere with the affairs of mortals, and I find the concept of popping into a mortal's home, snatching one of their possessions and popping back out again quite undignified."
"Yes," Graham agreed. "Such a thing seems quite below one such as you."
Death nodded silently.
"Now, King Graham, since you have completed all three of my tasks successfully, you have proven yourself worthy of my aid. Therefore, I will help restore your son-in-law's life. I wish you to be present with him when I arrive, so you may now return to your home. Do you still have the charm that you used to enter my realm with you?"
Graham felt in his pocket for the Mortis charm, and found it tucked safely in the bottom of his pocket.
"Then wear it when you wish me to come and help you, and I shall arrive with your son-in-law's life. Good-bye, mortal king."
With that, Death dissolved into a thin gray mist and vanished. Not wanting to waste another minute, Graham turned north and headed in the direction of Castle Daventry as quickly as he could.
In his hurry to get back to the castle, Graham forgot to hide his face with his hood before he entered the town. Most of the townspeople were busy with their day-to-day activities, so most of them didn't notice him, but he was certain that several people have glimpsed him clearly, and all sorts of rumors about what he could possibly be doing traveling through the town all alone would doubtlessly by flying about the taverns come nightfall. This didn't matter to Graham. All that concerned him at the moment was seeing his wife, daughter and son-in-law again.
Soon, he was clear of the town and had reached the towering castle. As he crossed one of the bridges spanning the castle's treacherous moat, the guards spotted him and yelled to the guards stationed inside the courtyard:
"Hear ye, hear ye! His Royal Majesty, King Graham, has returned! Raise the portcullis!"
After all these years as a king, Graham still hadn't grown accustomed to his presence being announced in such a way. Still, he refrained from gritting his teeth in annoyance and nodded to the guards as they bowed before him. When the heavy portcullis had been raised, Graham strode into the courtyard, where the many guards and servants present there also bowed to him. Finally, he reached the castle's heavy double doors, which the two guards standing before them opened for him.
"Good day, Your Majesty," said the first servant that Graham encountered as he entered the castle's main hall. "Was your journey successful?"
"It was," Graham replied. "Where are my wife and daughter?"
"Both the queen and the princess are in the chambers of the princess's husband," the servant replied solemnly.
Graham nodded his thanks and hurried down the main hall until he found one of the staircases that led to the second floor. Despite his growing weariness, he almost ran up the steps and didn't slow down until he had reached the door to Rosella and Edgar's room. There, he removed his knapsack and cloak, then put his ear to the door and listened. He could hear Rosella and Valanice's hushed voices from behind the door, and for a moment, he was almost afraid to knock. When he finally gathered enough courage to do so he rapped as delicately as he was able, as if the door were made of a thin sheet of glass. The voices fell silent for a moment, then Graham heard Rosella's voice:
"Father? Is that you?"
"Yes, it is," Graham replied quietly.
There was a sound of running footsteps and the door flew open to reveal Rosella, her golden hair looking slightly more unkempt than usual, and her azure eyes looking wide with concern.
"Oh, Father, thank goodness you've returned!" she cried, throwing her arms around Graham's neck. "Mama and I have missed you so much!"
"I can't tell you how much I've missed you," Graham said, firmly returning his daughter's embrace. Presently, Valanice came walking towards him, and Rosella stepped back to let her welcome Graham home as well. She firmly hugged him, the familiar smell of her perfume caressing Graham's nose.
"Did you truly receive our letters?" the queen asked.
"I received three of them," Graham replied.
"That's all that we sent," Valanice smiled, tears filling her eyes.
"And you received the two things I sent back with Scrimshaw?"
Valanice pulled a dry fern sprig and a pure white feather from the folds of her dress.
"I still can't believe that that little creature was able to find you and return home so easily," she said.
"Neither can I," Graham agreed.
For a moment, no one said anything, and it was Graham who finally broke the silence with the question he dreaded asking, though he knew that he had to ask it:
"So, how is Edgar?"
Rosella stared at the floor, and Valanice slowly drew away from him, sighing deeply. Without a word, she led him into the room and pointed towards a small bed standing against one of the walls. On this bed, covered by a blanket, lay a thin, frail man with pure white hair. Hundreds of wrinkles crisscrossed his gaunt face, and Graham could scarcely believe that this was the same man that his daughter had married.
Edgar was sleeping on his back and breathing shallowly. On his chest was Scrimshaw, also asleep and curled up like a cat. One of Edgar's shriveled, sinewy hands rested gently on the creature's back. A golden square of light from a nearby window fell across the prince's body.
"The physician advised moving him to another room, but Rosella didn't want to be separated from him," Valanice whispered sadly. "Eventually we compromised and brought this bed in here for him."
"Where are his parents?" Graham asked.
"I'm not certain," Valanice said. "They're probably still in the chambers that we furnished for them."
"What about Alexander?"
"I think he is somewhere on the grounds, I just don't know where."
Graham nodded. He slowly approached the young man who looked decades older than him and gently spoke his name. When Edgar didn't awaken, Graham spoke to him again in a louder voice. When he tried addressing him a third time, Edgar stirred slightly, furrowed his brow, then slowly opened his dark brown eyes.
"Your...Majesty?" he said slowly in a voice much deeper than Graham remembered him having.
"Yes, Edgar," Graham replied. "I've returned."
"Any...luck?" Edgar asked wearily.
"I believe so."
Edgar managed a small smile.
"How do you feel?" Graham asked.
"Very...very tired," Edgar said.
"Well, don't worry," Graham said. "You won't be tired for much longer. I've found a way to get your original life back."
Edgar's smile widened.
"I...knew you...would. How are...how are you going to get it?"
"It's somewhat difficult to explain," Graham said, "But I've -- "
He was interrupted by a pounding of footsteps and a man's voice at the door. He looked up to see a young man with black hair and blue eyes standing on the threshold to Rosella's room, breathing heavily. It was Alexander.
"The guards told me you were here," he panted, staring into his father's eyes. "How is Edgar?"
"He hasn't changed since you last spoke with him," Valanice said. "But Graham was just telling us how he plans to help him."
Alexander calmed slightly at this, walked over to his father and warmly greeted him. It had been some time since the two kings had last met.
"I'm sorry if I interrupted you," Alexander said. "Continue whatever it was you were saying before I arrived."
Graham nodded and turned back to Edgar.
"I have found and made a deal with the being that watches over the lives of all mortals," the king explained. "To many, he is known as Father Death, or merely Death."
Valanice gasped, and Rosella and Alexander looked worriedly at their father.
"I was afraid of him too at first," Graham said, "But he isn't nearly as dark and ultimate as many see him. After carrying out several tasks for him, he has agreed to help me. Edgar's life is still intact, but it is in Death's possession. When I say the word, he will come here and replace the cat's life with Edgar's life."
"So he can be helped after all," Rosella cried. "But Father...you've been visiting Death?"
"I'm afraid I have," Graham replied. "As odd as it sounds, he is the only one that can save Edgar. Are all of you ready for me to summon him?"
Rosella and her mother exchanged nervous glances, then nodded. Alexander inclined his head as well, and when Graham turned to Edgar, the prince sighed heavily and said:
"Yes. I'm...I'm more than ready...to stop...being old."
Graham pulled the Mortis charm out of his pocket and placed it around his neck.
For a moment, nothing happened, then Rosella jumped and pointed to something behind Graham, who turned to see a small plume of mist forming roughly three feet off the floor. The mist became larger, darker and thicker until it resolved itself into the familiar bony, robed figure of Death.
Valanice took a nervous step backwards. Rosella and Alexander stiffened, but couldn't tear their eyes away from the strange being. Graham turned to see Edgar's reaction, and was surprised to see the prince staring at Death, looking not fearful, but quizzical.
"That's...Death?" he asked.
"That is the name that most know me by," Death said in his usual monotonous voice. "I assume you are the one called Edgar?"
"Yes. Yes, I am," Edgar replied. Scrimshaw woke up, noticed the robed figure in the center of the room and glared at it, as if he saw Death as an intruder and would attack him if he didn't leave the room.
"Good," Death replied. "I will tend to you in a moment, but first, there is something I need to tell King Graham."
He turned to Graham, who suddenly noticed that Death was carrying under his arm. It was almost two feet across, roughly square-shaped and covered by a gray cloth.
"While you were journeying here," Death said, "I made a brief visit to the home of the sorcerer. I wanted to talk with him about the mischief he was causing with his lifecage, and I was also a little irritated with him for attempting to kill you, especially after you told him that I sent you to take the lifecage from him."
"How did you know that I mentioned your name to him?" Graham asked.
"He blurted out a lot of things as I was trying to have a civil conversation with him," Death said. "The poor wretch simply wouldn't stop blithering madly or screaming at me to return to the dark pit that had spawned me, or some rubbish like that."
Death leaned closer to Graham and lowered his voice.
"Incidentally, as the sorcerer was raving at me, he revealed something that even I didn't know about him: your first meeting with him in his home was not the first time that the two of you have encountered each other."
"What do you mean?"
"As I told you during our last meeting, many years ago, he caused much more trouble than he did up until recently," Death explained. "During my talk with him, I learned that he would roam the countryside, looking for opportunities to cast spells on unsuspecting passersby...and one of his favorite spells was one that would temporarily paralyze a mortal from head to foot, leaving him at the mercy of the wild creatures that populated the land."
Graham stood motionless, as if the very mention of the spell had affected him. That sorcerer was the same sorcerer that he had encountered on his mission to find Daventry's three lost treasures. He had the same white beard, the same dark eyes, and even his garments were similar to the ones he had worn when he had found Graham wandering through Daventry's woods and frozen him.
"Apparently, after he found out that the young knight he had placed under this spell had become the ruler of Daventry, he went into hiding, fearing that that man would find him and banish him...or worse. He tried using only benevolent magic for a time, but soon, he began to use black magic again. He helped you only to avoid being found out by you and facing your wrath, but after you took the lifecage from him, he couldn't keep his true nature to himself any longer. However, just like all mortals, sorcerers fear death as well, and after the talk I had with him, I am confident that he will not cause you or your kingdom any more trouble."
"Well, thank you, Death," Graham said. "Though you didn't need to do that on my account."
"It was a little impulsive of me," Death admitted, "But I also had to visit the sorcerer's home to retrieve this..."
With these words, he set the shrouded object under his arm down on the floor and pulled the cloth from it, which vanished as soon as he did, revealing a small iron cage containing a languid, scrawny black cat.
"Why did you bring him here?" Graham hissed.
"I have discussed his fate with my fellows, and we have come up with what we consider to be the ideal way of dealing with him," Death said softly. "I just wanted your family to be witness to this event so they will be reassured that he won't cause them any more trouble...after I take care of your son-in-law, of course."
"Father..." Alexander said in a voice tinged with agitation, "What is that cat doing here?"
"King Graham has informed me that that cat was once a dark wizard," Death said before Graham could speak, "And since the cat still retains his wizard's knowledge, King Graham made a bargain with him: in exchange for telling King Graham how to enter my realm, the cat will be restored to his original shape."
Alexander stared at Graham, his eyes wild.
"That isn't Manannan, is it?" he said in a trembling voice, pointing to the iron cage with a shaking finger.
Graham bowed his head.
"I'm afraid it is," he muttered.
Rosella and Valanice stared in horror at the mangy animal. Alexander strode up to Graham and glared furiously at him.
"How could you possibly have made such a bargain with that monster?" he snarled. "After all he's done to us?"
"It was the only way I could convince him to help me," Graham explained. "I was half-bluffing at the time, but then I was told that I had to keep my promise to him, no matter what."
"If that devil is changed back into a wizard, who knows what sort of evil he'll inflict not only on us, but the rest of the land as well!"
"I thought the exact same thing when it was suggested that I make that bargain with him," Graham said. "But I've slowly begun to realize that Manannan's time alone in Mordack's fortress has changed him, and that he's no longer the villain he once was."
"And once his original shape has been restored," Death said, "I plan to make sure that he can do no more harm for the rest of his days."
Alexander stared at Death suspiciously.
"You do?" he asked in a calmer voice.
"Yes," Death replied. "You have my word that he will never bring misfortune upon you or your kin ever again. Now, if you will excuse me, I wish to give Prince Edgar his life back before I deal with the wizard."
Alexander stepped back as Death hobbled over to Edgar's bed. Death held out both of his hands with the palms up, and a candle appeared in each of them: a tall, brightly burning candle appeared in his right hand, while a short, shriveled candle appeared in his left. As Graham looked at both candles, he could just perceive a faint glow surrounding the shorter candle, which was barely more than a shallow pool of wax with a feeble, spluttering flame glowing at the end of its blackened wick.
"Perhaps I should explain first," said Death, turning to Graham's wife and children. "It is my duty to watch over the lives of all mortals, and to come to them when their end is drawing near to ensure that their soul makes a clean break with their body. In my domain, these candles represent their lives; the taller and brighter a life is, the longer and healthier its owner is destined to live. This candle -- " here he held up the tall one in his right hand " -- is Prince Edgar's true life, while this one -- " here he indicated the softly glowing stub in his left hand " -- is the cat's life that is currently living on. Once I swap the cat's life for the prince's own life, he will return to his proper age."
He turned back to Edgar, who was staring unblinkingly at the two candles. Death slowly moved his hands towards Edgar's chest, causing Scrimshaw to nervously flutter away. When the candles were less than a few inches above Edgar's body, Death suddenly withdrew them and shook his head.
"What's the matter?" Graham asked worriedly.
"I cannot restore the mortal's life in a situation such as this," Death rumbled, stepping away from the prince's bed. Both of the candles he was holding vanished.
"A situation such as what?" Graham demanded.
"One in which so many emotions are radiating through the air," Death said. "Most of your emotions are foreign to me, and their presence confuses and distracts me, especially when they are so strong."
"Whose emotions?" Rosella asked.
"Many of them are shared by all of you," Death said, "But most of them are coming from that one."
He turned and pointed a bony finger directly at Alexander, who stared fearfully at Death for a moment then glanced nervously about the room. Graham looked at Alexander, then at the black cat lying in the iron cage, then immediately understood why Death had singled Alexander out: Manannan had stolen him from his family, raised him as a slave, kept him confined to a single house for most of his life, and even after Alexander thought he had finished the wizard off, he was the catalyst for Mordack's kidnapping Alexander as well as his mother and sister. Though all the members of Graham's family detested Manannan, none of them loathed him more than Alexander.
"Such dark, anguished feelings," Death remarked. "And so intense. I cannot save Prince Edgar in the presence of such emotions."
"Could you do it if I left the room?" Alexander asked.
"I'm afraid not," Death said. "The connection between you and the enchanted wizard are too strong, but though you have feelings of hate towards him, he has none towards you or your family. Not anymore."
Alexander stared confusedly at the caged cat, then turned back to Death.
"Then what must I do?"
"You must forgive him," Death said. "I know that such a thing may be difficult to do, but it is the only way I can successfully save this mortal."
Alexander glared at Death.
"You expect me to forgive that cold-hearted fiend?" he cried.
"There is no other way," Death said. "Once there is no more hate between you and the wizard, I can..."
"Never!" Alexander yelled, turning away. "After all that scoundrel has done to me and my family, you show up and say that you're going to change him back into a wizard? How will I be able to live in peace, knowing that Manannan is a human being once more -- if he ever was human!"
"Alexander, please," Graham said. "Can't you find it in you to put all that Manannan has done behind you? His days of evil are over now, and Death has promised that he won't let him hurt us ever again."
"Put his deeds behind me?" Alexander scowled. "That's easy for you to say."
He turned around to face Death.
"Can't you at least try to give Edgar's life back to him?" he asked. "If it doesn't work, then maybe I'll try to forgive that filthy, good-for-nothing..."
"I can only try once," Death said solemnly. "If I fail, then the mortal will die."
Alexander gritted his teeth. Rosella ran to his side.
"Please say that you forgive him," she pleaded. "You've got to. Edgar's life depends on it."
Alexander stared coldly at his sister and turned away from her without a word.
"Son, I know it seems hard to do, but you must do it," Valanice said. "We've all been hurt by that wizard, but we can't hold on to our hatred forever. Someone who keeps such hate within him eventually becomes completely hateful himself."
Alexander said nothing. Graham glanced over at Edgar to see that he had closed his eyes and was breathing so shallowly that it appeared almost as if he were dead.
"Alexander," Graham said firmly, "For nearly seventeen years, Daventry had no male heir to the throne. When you returned home, we were hopeful that you would be the next king, but after you departed to the Land of the Green Isles and became king of that land, we began to grow concerned because of our lack of any other heirs and Rosella's reluctance to marry. Fortunately, Edgar has agreed to rule when I am no longer able, but now he is near death. For the sake of your homeland, you have to forgive your former master."
Alexander didn't even react to Graham's words. It was as if he had suddenly lost his hearing.
"Please," Rosella begged. "I don't want him to die."
"You must," Valanice urged. "For Daventry's sake."
"Remember, Alexander," Graham said quietly, "If it weren't for Manannan, you might never have met Cassima."
The mention of his wife's name made Alexander turn his head slightly, but he still remained mute.
"It was just...the way...it was written," said a low, weak voice: Edgar's.
Graham stared at the small bed, but Edgar's eyes were still closed. The hand that had previously rested on Scrimshaw hung limply over the edge of the bed, and Scrimshaw was nestled beside Edgar's feet, whimpering anxiously.
Graham stared confusedly at the prince, then turned back to Alexander, and was startled to see that he was also staring at Edgar. The hardened look on the young king's face had changed, but when he noticed Graham looking at him, he turned away once more.
Graham was about to speak to his son again, but Alexander suddenly spoke in a voice barely higher than a whisper, but in the silence of the room, the words seemed as loud as iron bells.
"All right. I...I forgive him."
"What did you say, mortal?" Death asked.
"I FORGIVE HIM!" Alexander screamed.
The noise echoed in the large room and left the ears of everyone present ringing. Alexander stood for a moment with his eyes shut tight and his teeth clenched, then staggered over towards the nearest wall and braced himself against it with his arm. Graham slowly walked over to his son and stared in astonishment at his face, which was streaked with tears. Except for when Alexander was an infant, it was the first time that Graham had ever seen his son cry.
Without a word, Graham placed a comforting hand on Alexander's shoulder for a few moments, then turned back to Death.
"Very good, mortal," Death said approvingly. "There is no more hate between you and the wizard any longer. I had better take care of him now before anything else occurs. It will take but a moment."
As Graham, Valanice and Rosella watched, Death opened the iron cage, lifted the scrawny black cat out and placed him on the floor. He then stepped back from the cat and raised his spindly arms heavenward. There was a sound like the rumble of distant thunder, and a cold wind whipped through the room. Overcome by curiosity, Alexander turned to see what was going on.
The cat became enveloped in a cloud of dark smoke, which slowly began to grow until it was as wide and tall as a man. Death then lowered his arms and the black smoke disappeared, revealing a thin, pale, ancient man standing where the cat had been. His long white beard was tangled and stained, his thin hands trembled, and he shuffled uneasily, as if he was having difficulty standing. He was clothed in a plain brown robe, and he wore sandals on his feet. Death approached him and spoke to him in a voice as cold as ice and unforgiving as stone:
"Manannan, King Graham has kept his promise to you and you are once again human. However, I am going to send you to a far away land, where you will have to start your life over again if you wish to survive. You still have all the abilities you had as a wizard prior to your transformation, but heed my warning: if you try casting any sort of black magic or attempt to harm or bring misfortune to another mortal ever again, I shall personally end your life. Farewell."
Death waved his arm, and Manannan disappeared. All of the royal family save Edgar stood awestruck by what had just taken place, almost too frightened to breathe. Death turned to face Graham.
"Do you think I might have overdone it?" he asked.
"Er..." Graham faltered, unsure how to reply to Death's question. "No, no, I don't think so...but I thought you said that you didn't interfere with the lives of mortals."
"I usually don't," Death said with a grin, "But in cases like this, I'm willing to make an exception."
"Ah," Graham said uneasily. "I see. How in the world did you change him back, though?"
Death's grin widened.
"It would be difficult for me to explain to you," he said. "To make a long story short, I merely called upon the help of some of my fellows. They are far more powerful than I, and I supposed that this was an appropriate time for them to lend a hand, as you mortals put it. I wouldn't recommend you ever visiting their domains, though, King Graham. They are hardly as welcoming and kindly towards mortals as I am."
Even though his voice was as toneless as ever, his words still made Graham's skin crawl.
Death suddenly scoffed and shook his head.
"But I've talked enough," he muttered. "It's time for me to return your son-in-law's life."
Death held out his hands, and the tall candle and the short, gently glowing one appeared in them again. He shuffled towards Edgar, who still lay motionless on his bed with his eyes shut. The rest of the family also edged closer to him, especially Rosella, whose anxious blue eyes kept darting from Edgar's aged features to the candle that was Edgar's true life. Scrimshaw still sat at the foot of the bed, his eyes fixed on his master's face, not moving so much as a feather.
As before, Death stood by Edgar's bedside and slowly lowered the two candles over him. This time, however, the glow of the stubby candle grew more intense as it came closer to Edgar's body. Death continued lowering the candles until they were just touching the prince's chest. Death held them there for some time while the family watched, standing as still as statues.
Then both candles became enveloped in two spheres of white light, and when the light finally died down, it wasn't the short, barely existent candle in Death's left hand that had a faint glow surrounding it, but the tall one in his right. Nodding to himself, Death stepped back from Edgar's bed and both of the candles vanished from his hands once again.
At first, nothing seemed to have happened to the ancient-looking prince, but as Graham, Valanice, Rosella and Alexander watched, they began to notice that the dark blotches on the backs of Edgar's one exposed hand were starting to fade, and the wrinkles in his face were beginning to grow indistinct as well. Before the family knew it, Edgar's thin white hair was starting to turn brown again, and flesh began to cover to his frail, almost skeletal features. In a few minutes, he had become younger in appearance than Graham, and in a few more minutes, he looked almost exactly like the man that Rosella had fallen in love with.
Soon, every line in the prince's face and every visible gray hair had vanished. Edgar's eyes fluttered open and he stared at the people who stood around him with the look of someone just waking up from a deep, restful sleep. He looked at his hand, attempted to lift it, and looked astonished when he was able to do it so easily. He stared at it for a moment, then slowly touched his face with it.
Then he saw Rosella staring at him, looking so joyful that she was close to tears. A wide smile broke out on Edgar's face. He shoved back the blanket that covered him and pushed himself out of his bed.
"Er..." said Death quietly as Edgar leapt into Rosella's outstretched arms with a jubilant cry, "I wouldn't do that just yet..."
He had spoken too late. Edgar had apparently still not regained all his strength, for as he threw his arms around Rosella, his legs suddenly gave out, and if Rosella hadn't caught him just in time, he would have fallen to the floor. For a few seconds Rosella held Edgar to her chest as Edgar stared awkwardly up at her, then, with the princess's help, Edgar staggered back to his bed and sat down.
Death sighed and shook his head.
"You young mortals," he muttered with an amused smirk. "You never change, do you?"
"Are you all right, Edgar?" Rosella asked, paying no attention to Death's comment.
"I'm...I'm wonderful," Edgar gasped, almost delirious with happiness. "In fact...I can't remember when I last felt this good."
Graham smiled. Though he was overjoyed that his son-in-law had become his old self and now had many full years of life ahead of him, the king still felt a faint twinge of jealousy towards him. Edgar had returned to his youth after a brief but doubtlessly unpleasant time in his final years, and Graham was fairly certain that such a thing would never happen to him in his own old age.
Edgar noticed Graham looking at him and tried to stand up again, but much more slowly and cautiously this time. Rosella stood nervously at his side, expecting him to fall again, but this time, Edgar remained steady on his feet. He wobbled over towards Graham and clasped his father-in-law's hands with much more strength than Graham had anticipated.
"Your Highness..." he said breathlessly, "I just can't express my gratitude enough! To do what you did, and all for my sake...how can I possibly repay you for what you've done for me, Sire?"
"That's quite a question, my boy," Graham said after a pause, smiling broadly. "I honestly can't think of anything at the moment."
"There has to be something," Edgar insisted.
"I suppose," Graham agreed. "How about continuing to be a good husband to my daughter, putting up with my constant words of advice, and being a kind and just ruler of my kingdom when I become as old and feeble as you were a few minutes ago?"
Edgar grinned and bowed his head.
"If that's truly all you ask of me, I believe I can manage," he said confidently, letting go of Graham's hands. "Thank you again, My Liege."
"It's my duty to ensure that the future of my kingdom is secure," Graham said officially, "But to be honest, I am not the only one who has done so this time. My son deserves some of the credit as well."
He gestured towards Alexander as he said this, who nodded slowly. Edgar unsteadily walked up to the young king and shook his hand, thanking him for the part he played in the restoration of Edgar's life in a low, earnest voice. Alexander respectfully acknowledged the prince's thanks, but still remained sullen and quiet, and he barely even looked Edgar in the eyes.
"And what am I, a mere spectator?" asked a familiar dull voice.
"Oh, yes," Graham said, turning to Death, from whom the voice came. "You have our thanks most of all, Death. Without your help, everyone's efforts would be in vain."
Everyone solemnly thanked the tall, robed figure. Death waved a dismissive hand.
"Pshaw, think nothing of it," he said. "I haven't interacted directly with mortals in eons, and it certainly was comforting for me to know that there is still some good in the hearts of man."
He slowly turned, his thin robes rustling like dry leaves.
"I must leave now," he said. "There are a great many others in your world that I must attend to. May you all have many years ahead of you before I see you again."
Then he turned his hooded head towards Alexander.
"Young mortal, I have some good news that will undoubtedly be of importance to you."
"Do you?" Alexander asked, looking up cautiously. "What is it?"
"A new life is about to become part of my collection," Death said. "Its flame is vibrant and strong, and it will burn very slowly and brightly for many years."
The tall figure silently turned away, then began to slowly dissolve, his shape becoming as insubstantial as a cloud of dust. Soon, there was nothing left of him but a wisp of mist, which slowly faded into nothingness, leaving nothing behind but a slight chill in the room.
Alexander turned to his family, perplexed by Death's last words. Before he could ask them what they thought he meant, there was a puff of white smoke, and Shamir Shamazel, Alexander's genie, appeared in the center of the room.
"Master!" the creature yelped breathlessly. "You must return home! Immediately!"
"Return home?" Alexander repeated, fear filling his eyes. "Why? What's going on?"
"It's your wife!" Shamir cried. "Her child is coming!"
Alexander froze for a moment, the words of Death and the words of his genie slowly coming together in his head. Then he let out an ecstatic laugh, though there were tears in his eyes again when he turned back to the surrounding people.
"I'm sorry for having to leave so quickly," he gasped hurriedly, "But as you can see, I'm needed elsewhere. Good-bye, everyone!"
With that, he and Shamir vanished.
For a moment, the four remaining people in the room did nothing but stare at each other. Then Valanice ran towards Graham and fell into his arms, overcome with emotion.
"Our son!" she cried, trying to hold back her sobs. "Our son, a father!"
Graham said nothing as he held his wife, but felt tears coming to his eyes as well. His heart had been filled with worry and grief a short time ago, now it was overflowing with happiness. Thoughts of Manannan, the perils of his journey, the crooked sorcerer and Edgar's brush with death were all pushed aside by the revelation that Graham and Valanice were soon to become grandparents.
Rosella looked astonished for a moment, then she frowned.
"He didn't even let us congratulate him," she complained. "And we can't even go and visit him, not with Edgar's parents staying here!"
"Don't worry," Graham said. "As soon as I make certain that everything in this castle is in order, we'll be able to visit Alexander and Cassima...and their child."
Rosella nodded while Edgar put a hand on her shoulder and quietly congratulated her on becoming an aunt. She smiled and turned her eyes away from him. Then Edgar looked into Graham's eyes.
"You were right, Your Majesty," he said.
"About what?" Graham asked.
"About Death," Edgar said. "He really isn't as horrible as people say he is."
"I know," Graham said. "I'll tell you all about him later."
"Wait a moment," Valanice said, finally regaining her composure and stepping back from Graham. "We need to tell Oberon and Titania that their son is well again!"
"Of course," Edgar agreed. "In fact, I'll go tell them myself."
Rosella looked Edgar up and down, then stared quizzically at him.
"In those?" she asked.
Edgar looked down at himself. In the tension and excitement surrounding his return to his youth, everyone including the prince had overlooked the fact that he was dressed in nothing more than plain white nightclothes. Edgar grinned sheepishly, then said:
"I don't see why not. My parents have worried enough about me recently, and I don't think we should let them be worried a minute longer than they have to."
"If you insist," Rosella muttered, rolling her eyes. "Are you sure you can walk?"
"I think so," Edgar said. "But could you come with me just the same? You know where my parents' chambers are and I don't."
Rosella smiled again, took Edgar's arm in hers and began leading him towards the door. Scrimshaw, who was still perched at the foot of the bed, watched the pair walking away, then took off and flew not towards Edgar, but towards Graham. Graham extended his right arm, and the pygmy griffin landed on it, wobbling uncertainly for a moment and scratching the king's skin in several places.
"Well, little friend," Graham said quietly, "It looks like your work is done for the moment."
The tiny griffin shrugged his shoulders and blinked several times, as if to say, "So what now?"
"I suppose you can do whatever you want now," Graham said.
Scrimshaw shrugged again. "Like what?" Graham imagined him saying.
"How about going on a little adventure of your own without feeling obliged to ferry letters and tokens to and from here?" the king suggested.
The griffin brightened a little at this idea, then grew concerned once more and turned to look at Edgar, who was just about to leave the room with Rosella. Graham cleared his throat politely and spoke the name of the prince, who looked over his shoulder in Graham's direction, as did Rosella.
"Edgar, your pet wants to know if he can spend a bit of time on his own," Graham said.
The prince grinned.
"After all that he's done for us these past few days, he more than deserves it," he said. "Tell him that his master is grateful to him, and he is free do whatever he wants now."
Graham turned back to Scrimshaw.
"Did you hear that?" he asked the furry, feathery creature.
Scrimshaw nodded frantically.
"Then off you go," Graham said, walking to a nearby window and moving the arm Scrimshaw was perched on towards it.
With a wild screech, the tiny griffin launched itself off Graham's arm and went gliding majestically through the air, not bothering to flap its wings until he had started to dip towards the earth. The autumn sun was nearing the horizon, and in its dying light, the yellow fields of Daventry shone like warm gold. Graham silently watched tiny figure of Scrimshaw as he flew away, as well as the vast countryside that he flew over. Valanice walked up beside Graham, put an arm around his back and let her head rest on his shoulder, and for once in many weeks, the king truly felt at peace. Once again, the future of his kingdom was secure, and hopefully it would remain secure until the time when he could no longer watch over it.
Seeing that her parents' eyes were no longer on her, Rosella embraced Edgar and stole a quick but firm kiss from him. Then, arm in arm, she and the future king of Daventry quietly left the room.
Meanwhile, Scrimshaw the pygmy griffin, to whom heirs and kingdoms had little meaning, flew low over the countryside's many treetops, occasionally inciting the anger of a flock of birds trying to settle down for the night. He swooped low enough over wild, churning rivers to feel the spray of the water in his eyes, then zoomed up again, turning over in midair and sometimes even flying upside down.
Scrimshaw had no idea where he was going or how long he was going to be gone -- all he knew for certain was that he would return soon. Though, like his master, he had been born in another realm, Castle Daventry was his home now, for that was where his master had chosen to live. No matter where in this world he traveled, Daventry was the place that he would always return to.
Special Features | KQ9:IT4 | Back to Literature | Home
Onwards to KQ11:BITTS
© Akril 2007-2008
King’s Quest and Sierra On-Line are trademarks of Vivendi Universal Games