A sequel to the fan-made King's Quest IX: It Takes Two to Tangle and King's Quest X: Age Before Duty
(inspired by Sierra On-Line's King's Quest series)
"'...And the lad opened the magic door, and there, just the old man had said, was the entrance to the Realm of the Fairies! Many fairies wearing gossamer, colorful garments and glittering jewelry greeted him and invited him to celebrate with them, and the young lad did so. He danced to the enchanting music that they played all night, but he was careful to remember the old man's warning and refuse any food that the fairies offered him, otherwise he would be trapped in the realm forever.'"
"Cassima," Alexander smiled, "Don't you think that story is a bit too intense for a boy Devin's age?"
Cassima smiled back at her husband, then turned her emerald eyes to the book she held in her arms and the infant curled in her lap. She and her son Devin, who was barely eleven months old, were lying in the bed where she and Alexander, the Queen and King of the Land of the Green Isles, spent their nights. Alexander himself stood at the head of the bed, watching Cassima read their child a tale from a tattered old storybook. They were within their private chambers, which were within the walls of the Castle of the Crown, which stood on the kingdom's central island. Outside, the sun was sinking into the glittering sea, and a calm had descended over the land.
"He doesn't seem frightened by it," Cassima replied.
"Then how can you be certain that he even understands what you're reading him?" Alexander chuckled. "Isn't he a bit too young for storybooks?"
"Too young?" Cassima laughed. "No child is ever too young for stories!"
Devin made a soft babbling noise, then smiled and reached out towards one of the book's colorfully illustrated pages.
"See?" Cassima said smugly. "He wants me to keep reading. I think this one is his favorite."
"In that case, don't let me interrupt you again," Alexander said, gently placing a hand on his wife's shoulder.
Cassima nodded and began again:
"'But as the night moved on, the lad became hungrier and hungrier, and it was all he could do to refuse the food that the fairies offered to him. They offered him wine, and he shook his head. Then they offered him meat, and he shook his head. Then they offered him cakes, and as famished as he was, he still turned them down. By this time, the night was ending, and the lad slowly made his way back to the door that lead to the mortal realm...'"
Hours after Cassima had finished the story, she and Alexander slept peacefully in their bed while Devin slumbered in his cradle. The stars burned brightly, and the waning moon illuminated the island kingdom with a pallid light.
Suddenly, with a soft, thrumming sound, a figure appeared within the room. It paused for a moment, then slowly approached the baby's cradle. As the figure's shadow descended over Devin, he stirred and whimpered slightly in his sleep.
"'"I know you, and I know of your mission," the old man said to the lad. "I know how you can succeed in it, but you must do exactly as I say. At the next full moon, go to the small hill that grows at the edge of the forest. At midnight, a door will appear in this hill and it will open, revealing the entrance to the Realm of the Fairies."'"
Cassima paused, lowered the book and looked at Devin, who lay listlessly in his cradle, gazing at neither the book nor his mother, who sat in a low chair beside him. Sing Sing, Cassima's pet nightingale, perched on the edge of Devin's cradle and occasionally trilled softly, but even she failed to gain Devin's attention.
"I just don't understand it, Alexander," Cassima said. "It seems as if every day he's become more disinterested in this story."
"Perhaps he's just grown tired of it?" Alexander suggested, walking towards the cradle and looking down at his child. He lowered his hand into the cradle and wiggled his fingers, inviting Devin to grab one, but Devin barely even glanced at his father's hand. Sing Sing let out an almost melancholy warble.
"Do you suppose he's growing ill?" Cassima said worriedly. "Or perhaps we haven't been feeding him right..."
"Has he been eating well?" Alexander asked.
"Very," Cassima said. "In fact, he seems as healthy as can be in every way...I just don't know what's the matter with him."
Alexander sighed and stared at Devin. What sparse hair the boy had wasn't black like his parents' or his maternal grandparents', but auburn -- the same color hair that Alexander's mother Queen Valanice had. Devin's eyes, however, were the same bright green as Cassima's as well as her father's.
Still, his small, plump features now seemed ominously different than they had been a week ago. His arms seemed thinner, and his fingers seemed longer and almost bony. His eyes looked as if he were lost in a waking dream, his skin was pallid, and even his face seemed altered somehow.
Alexander couldn't comprehend what was happening to Devin, and neither could the physician that examined him, who confessed that except for Devin's appearance and behavior, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with the boy at all.
Cassima looked up at Alexander, her piercing eyes interrupting his thoughts.
"But there has to be a way to help him," she said determinedly, placing the book on the floor and rising to her feet. "There must be someone on these Isles who knows."
She glanced down at Devin again.
"There has to be a way," she repeated in a much quieter voice. "I...I just hope that this isn't...this isn't..."
Her voice cracked. Alexander embraced her tightly, mumbled a few words of reassurance, then left the room, wanting to be alone with his thoughts. He stood outside the door for a few moments, then started walking down the hall, with no destination in mind. He knew what Cassima had been about to say, and he had as little desire to hear her say it as she had to speak the words:
I just hope that this isn't my fault.
As much as it pained him to admit it, Cassima had every right to harbor such a frightening thought. More than a year ago, before she realized that she was with child, she had crossed mountains, oceans and deserts; faced fierce creatures and hostile individuals; barely escaped death a number of times; dabbled with several powerful forms of magic and numerous other activities an expectant mother would be advised against doing.
Though at first she had been immensely relieved to find that she had given birth to a child and not a wolf cub, she still worried about Devin from time to time. Now her worries were increasing tenfold, as were Alexander's. He wanted to tell her that what was happening to Devin wasn't her fault, but what if it were? What if something had happened to Cassima in her journey to find Shadrack, something that was only now manifesting itself in her child?
Not knowing what was happening to Devin or the reason behind his condition frustrated Alexander to tears. Helplessness and misery welled up within him, and try as he did to be hopeful that Devin would get better, his feelings were obscured by the horrible fear that he wouldn't, or that Cassima's quest to save Alexander's life somehow ended up destroying their son's.
As Alexander walked along the hallway with his head down, so many troubling thoughts were seething in his mind that he barely heard the deep, gruff voice calling his name or the heavy boots clumping in his direction.
"King Alexander? Your Highness?"
Alexander looked up to see an armored figure approaching him. Though the figure walked like a man and had hands and a voice like one, in every other aspect it was a large dog. There was nothing unusual about any of this, however. The Castle of the Crown was guarded by several individuals from a race of intelligent creatures that were half dog, half man. In fact, Alexander had recently learned that the Guard Dogs (the name given to the creatures who served the castle, while the colloquial name for species as a whole was "dogmen") were originally from a small island northwest of the main archipelago, where numerous other species of animals with humanlike traits still lived -- the "half-breeds".
The Guard Dog that happened to be walking Alexander's way at that moment was Saladin, the captain of the guard. His long muzzle and thick mane of brown and white fur gave him a noble, dignified appearance.
"Pardon me, Sire," Saladin said in his deep, rumbling voice. "But one of the guards discovered this just outside the main doors this morning."
He held out a folded piece of paper in his gloved hand. Alexander stared mutely at it, then at Saladin, still ensnared in the dark web of his worries about Devin.
"It's a letter addressed to you," Saladin explained.
"It concerns your son," he added in a much lower voice.
Alexander's breath caught in his throat. He slowly took the letter from Saladin and unfolded it even more slowly, unsure whether to feel hopeful or fearful about what it might say.
The letter was written in a large, sloppy hand, looking almost as if a child had written it, and the paper was dirty, torn and stained. Alexander held it tensely in both hands and read it:King Alex-
I know what has happened to your son and wish to help him. Meet me in the town square tonight at midnight. Bring your son and no one else if you wish me to aid you. Tell no one of your plans, not even your queen. Just meet me at midnight, and be sure to bring your son with you.
Alexander read the letter again, then looked up at Saladin.
"Have you read this?" the king asked.
"Yes," Saladin replied.
"What do you make of it?"
Saladin sniffed thoughtfully.
"I'm not quite sure, Your Highness. At first thought, I feared that the letter might be a scheme to assassinate you and your son, but the guards and I have examined it carefully, and none of us can smell the scent of one who attempts to harm you on it."
"Attempt to harm me?" Alexander echoed, puzzled.
"Whoever wrote this letter left a trace of his odor on it," Saladin said. "And if he had murder or other malicious motives in mind, we would have detected it."
Saladin tapped the side of his nose with a finger.
"Our noses don't lie. This letter was written by someone whose intentions are good, and for your son's sake as well as the queen's and your own, you should probably heed his words."
"So you think I should go to the town square tonight with Devin?" Alexander asked.
Saladin's brow furrowed in contemplation.
"In any other situation, I would say 'yes', but there are a few other pieces to this puzzle which make me think that you should arm yourself if you are going to do what this letter asks."
"What other pieces are those?" Alexander asked.
"None of the guards could pick up a trail leading from the spot where the letter had been deposited. It was as if whoever left it there simply materialized on that spot, then disappeared. Stranger still, we couldn't determine exactly who wrote the letter...but whoever it was, it wasn't one of our kind...and it wasn't human, either."
With a black cloak draped over his shoulders and a hood hiding his face, Alexander strode cautiously through the silent streets of the large town that surrounded the Castle of the Crown. He carried Devin in his arms, wrapped in a thick blanket. Devin seemed surprisingly light, which worried Alexander even more. He prayed that whoever wrote that perplexing letter was true to his or her or its word. This was the first real help that had been offered to him, and he would be a fool to refuse it.
Nonetheless, he was filled with trepidation as he approached the square, and hoped that he wasn't walking into a carefully concocted trap. He had a sword at his side, and though his dueling skills were mediocre at best, he was prepared to fight should the need arise.
As he reached the end of the street he was walking down, he could see the town square in the light of the moon. It was lined with numerous small shops and houses, their bright colors smothered by the darkness. A fountain in the middle of the square burbled merrily away, shattering the otherwise silent scene.
Alexander scanned the square from the shelter of the shadows cast by the buildings. He could see no one, but strongly suspected that whoever might be waiting for him was hiding in the same manner that he was. After a healthy moment of hesitation, Alexander stepped out of the shadows, and approached the center of the square, all the time furtively glancing right and left from under his hood.
When he was less than seven paces from the fountain, a small noise made him turn and clutch Devin tightly. The noise had come from the west side of the square. Alexander peered into the darkness and soon perceived something moving his way. At first it resembled a living pile of cloth, but closer examination revealed it to be an individual that, like him, was wearing a cloak. However, it stood scarcely higher than Alexander's waist, and the cloak it was garbed in was much too large for it. It dragged on the ground behind the individual and hung off of it in baggy folds.
The cloaked stranger shuffled towards Alexander, coming to a halt at his feet and peering up in an attempt to see his face. Since Alexander was still wearing his hood, he doubted that the stranger had any success.
"King Alexander?" the stranger said in a quavering voice that sounded like that of a nervous old man.
"Yes?" Alexander whispered.
"So you did come," the stranger said eagerly. "I was afraid you wouldn't...but I shouldn't waste time blabbering about such things out here. Please come with me, Your Highness."
Before Alexander could reply, the stranger had turned and started waddling back the way it had come. When the stranger realized that Alexander wasn't following him, he glanced back over his shoulder and beckoned fiercely. Still unsure whether he was acting wisely or not, Alexander began walking alongside the short stranger, who led him out of the square and up a small side street. They stopped before a tiny, ramshackle house that looked more like a large shed than a place where anyone would live. A faint light from within illuminated the windows and shone through the cracks in the walls.
The stranger surreptitiously glanced up and down the street, then opened the door, scampered inside the house and once again beckoned to Alexander, who obediently stepped through the doorway and into a squalid, sparsely furnished room. It had a dirt floor, there was a pile of books and various odds and ends against one wall, and the only furniture (if it could truly be called that) was a barrel sitting on its end in the middle of the floor with a small crate on either side of it. The light Alexander had seen came from a lamp that hung from the ceiling. The place looked even more like a shed from the inside.
The stranger quickly shut and bolted the door, then breathed a sigh of relief.
"Please sit, Sire," the stranger said, gesturing to one of the crates. After examining the crate and not noticing anything suspicious about it, Alexander once again did what the stranger asked. The stranger shuffled across the dusty floor, hopped up on the second crate and started to pull back his hood. As he did, Alexander felt a tremor of fear race through his body, for the stranger didn't have fingers, but huge, broad, thick claws.
Before the king could even gasp, the stranger had removed the hood completely, revealing the head of one of the oddest creatures Alexander had ever seen. Its skin was almost completely devoid of hair, it had a long snout reminiscent of a pig's, and its ears were like that of a rabbit's, only much larger and wider.
"Um..." Alexander faltered, his head swimming. "I...you...""I know, I know," the creature sighed exasperatedly, "But if you could kindly refrain from voicing your surprise, Your Highness, I would much appreciate it." "But...you're..." "What I am currently is of no consequence," the creature said. "It is what I was -- and to some extent, still am -- that is." "And...what is that?" Alexander asked, the shock of discovering who the letter's author was now somewhat diminished. "Someone who can help you," the creature replied. "As soon as I heard the news, I knew it would be traitorous to remain in hiding. After all you've done for the Isles, I feel that I owe you a debt of some sort...after all, it was a human that convinced our leader to end our period of isolation from the rest of the land...at least, I think it was. Anyway, I still possess some skill in the art of teleportation, so I..." "'Heard the news?'" Alexander repeated, beginning to feel completely confused again. "How on earth could you have known? I made it clear to every occupant of the castle that no word of my son's condition escape its walls!" "No human word escaped, My Liege," the creature said quietly. "One of the upsides of being like this -- " here he gestured to himself " -- is that you are fluent in all the languages of fauna. Your wife's nightingale passed the news onto another bird, and it wasn't long before both the bird and the news reached me. "Now, enough talk. I have two important things I must tell you before I get into the heavier items: The first is that your son is not dying. He isn't the slightest bit ill. In fact, he probably couldn't be any healthier."
A great weight seemed to disappear from Alexander's heart, yet something in the tone of the creature's voice still left a cold feeling in his chest."And the second?" he asked.
The creature hesitated and breathed deeply before speaking again in a much more somber tone."The second, sire...is that that being that you hold in your arms is not your son."
For a few moments, Alexander sat on the crate staring straight ahead, frozen in horrified silence. Then he slowly drew back the fold of blanket hiding the head of the child resting on his lap and looked at the baby's reddish hair and pale skin. He then quickly hid its head again and stared at the odd creature sitting across from him.
"What do you mean?" he demanded, unable to stifle the tremor in his voice.
"As I said," the creature replied gently, "Your son is alive and well, but he has been taken from you by an ancient race of fairies. There are very few of these fairies left in this world, which is just as well, for they are not as benevolent as the fairies most people are familiar with. They still engage in many practices that were abandoned or forgotten by most of their people, among which are ensnaring any unprotected human that strays near their domain, causing inconvenience or harm to humans and their property, and perhaps most disturbingly, stealing human infants.
"On rare occasions, they steal babies from their human parents and raise them as their own, leaving a fairy child in the baby's place. The human child is never harmed, but if it is not found and recovered soon, the false fairy baby -- the changeling -- will begin to assume its original fairy form, then slowly wither and die, and then there is no way for the true child to be returned to his rightful parents."
Alexander was so overwhelmed with this flood of new knowledge that he almost slumped backward, momentarily forgetting that he was sitting not in a chair, but on a crate. Fortunately, he was able to regain his balance as the creature continued:
"When I heard what was happening to your child, I knew that he had been swapped with a changeling. It has already started to revert back to its true shape, and within a matter of weeks, it will perish. You must find the fairies that have stolen your son and find a way to bring him home...and soon."
"But...but how do I find the fairies?" Alexander asked. "Where are they? What should I do?"
The creature raised a claw.
"First things first, Your Majesty. Before we do anything else, we must determine exactly which race of these ancient fairies has made off with your child. This shouldn't be difficult, since, as I said, there are very few of these races left. I will require your assistance, however."
The creature hopped off his crate, walked over to the pile of books, rifled through it and eventually found and picked up a large, leather-bound tome. He returned to his crate and laid the heavy book on top of the barrel with a thud. Alexander noticed that the book was held shut by a thick metal strip, though there didn't seem to be any way to remove it. However, there was a rectangular hollow in the strip on top of the book, and a small drawstring pouch hung from a cord attached to the top of the book's spine. Alexander wondered what purpose these odd features served.
"This." the creature said, finally replying to Alexander's question. "Most of the information on the ancient fairies can be found in this book. The knowledge contained between these covers is dangerous for some, so consequently, it is protected by two locks, both of them somewhat magical in nature. The second lock can be broken merely by saying a certain phrase, but I need you to take care of the first."
"Why me?" Alexander asked. "I'm hardly a qualified sorcerer."
The creature poked a claw into the pouch attached to the book and pulled it open. Then he emptied the contents of the pouch onto the top of the barrel, which appeared to be about twenty-five flat, irregularly shaped pieces of pottery, dyed a light blue.
"It's as easy as counting to ten, sire. All you need to do is arrange these shards in the hollow spot on the book's cover. Once upon a time, I could have done this myself, but...even though a person can conquer this first lock without knowing a scrap of magic..."
The creature paused, held out his forepaws and glanced down at them with a shake of his head.
"...They need thumbs to do it. I simply can't manipulate those little pieces with these great clumsy claws. So...if you would?"
Still feeling a little lightheaded, Alexander pulled the book and the blue shards towards him with his right hand, still holding the being that so closely resembled his son close to him with his left. For several minutes he attempted to fit the shards into the space in the book's metal strip, with the creature quietly encouraging him. He found the small, fragile pieces difficult to handle, and he could only imagine how much more problematic it would be if he had digits like the creature's. However, he had to admit that it was easy, though perhaps not as easy as the creature claimed it was.
After much trial and error, Alexander finally fit the last shard into place. As soon as he had done so, the blue rectangle he had created started to glow brightly. The creature grinned and eagerly pulled the book towards him, then bent over the cover and said something that was incomprehensible to Alexander. Immediately, the room felt slightly warmer and there was momentarily a strange taste in Alexander's mouth. The rectangle on the book's cover then promptly stopped glowing, and the section of metal protecting the book's pages vanished.
"There! It's open now," the creature said, carefully easing the book open and starting to leaf through it. Oddly, the blue pieces didn't spill out when he opened the tome. He ran the tip of his claw down one of the pages, then glanced up at Alexander.
"Er, if it's not too much trouble, could I please see the changeling, Sire?"
Alexander nodded solemnly and partially unwrapped Devin's sickly-looking double, exposing his head and one of his arms. The creature squinted at the changeling, then squinted at his book, made some clicking noises with his tongue, turned a few pages, then looked at the changeling again. He repeated these gestures in no particular order several times over, and finally looked up with an accomplished expression on his oblong face.
"Just as I suspected," he said. "This changeling is part of is a race of fairies that is very different from most other ancient races."
"They dwell beneath the ocean," the creature said. "Look at the changeling's hands."
Alexander said, and with a shocked fascination, saw that there was translucent webbing between each of the changeling's fingers. Even though the webbing didn't even reach the first knuckle, it was still obvious from a close distance.
"He is one of the Sea Fairies," said the creature. "His kind do not fly through the air, but swim in the sea. Not surprisingly, their realm has remained quite untouched throughout the ages."
"But why have they taken Devin?" Alexander asked.
"That I cannot say. The ancient fairies seldom interact with humans, though they watch them constantly from afar. Though their more harmless acts of malice are fairly common, something as extreme as stealing an infant is something that could only be an act of revenge."
"Revenge for what?"
"Again, I cannot say, Sire," the creature said. "These fairies are an odd sort, and they easily take offense at the oddest things. When you find these people and your child, you must also find out exactly what made them take him from you. Once you do, you will have to find a way to put yourself as well as whoever has driven them to rob you of your son in their good graces."
Alexander sighed deeply, rubbing his forehead. Devin taken by an ancient race of ocean-dwelling fairies for no reason that Alexander could think of. What had he or Cassima done to the Sea Fairies to make them angry enough to steal their son? Would the fairies even return Devin if Alexander managed to placate them? How was he going to find the fairies? Where could he go? Who could he ask for help?
The creature reached across the barrel with its paw and gently patted Alexander on the arm.
"I know it all seems a bit much," he said, "But don't lose hope just yet, Your Highness. We've got a plan worked out that should help your journey start off on the right foot."
"'We've?'" Alexander repeated, puzzled.
"I'll explain later," the creature said. "Now, here's what you need to do..."
For more than an hour, Alexander sat in the filthy little shack, listening to the creature as he described in exacting detail what the king was to do over the next twenty-four hours. He was to return to the Castle of the Crown and have a servant order enough food and water for a crew of six men on a three-day voyage and have it delivered to the docks. Alexander himself was to pack whatever personal items he required for himself, and though he didn't need to keep his impending departure a secret, he could not, under any circumstances, reveal the true purpose of his journey to anyone, not even to Cassima.
When Alexander asked the creature why he couldn't do this, the creature explained that if Cassima knew about the changeling, out of sheer revulsion she would probably stop caring for it and even let it starve, and the changeling had to be treated with as much care and devotion as a human child, otherwise it would sicken and die very quickly, leaving the human child trapped in the fairy realm.
With this in mind, hours after telling one of the servants to have the required supplies delivered to the docks and making a few minor preparations of his own the next day, Alexander told Cassima that he was leaving the kingdom in search of a cure for Devin. Even though it wasn't a complete lie, his heart still ached for having to keep the truth from the woman that he loved more than anyone else in his life, save for his family and his son. He also told her that she could rest assured that her harrowing escapades before Devin's birth were in no way responsible for the child's condition. Though she was noticeably relieved to hear this, anxiety still quivered in her eyes.
"Where are you going?" she demanded. "How long will you be gone?"
"I can't say," said Alexander sadly, which was certainly true, since the creature had declined to reveal either detail to him the previous night. "But I promise you that I will return. You must stay here and help Saladin keep the kingdom in order while I'm away...Devin needs you too."
He glanced at the pale creature lying in his son's cradle and felt a shiver of disgust rise within him. Cassima almost laughed.
"Stay here while you are off risking your neck in a place that you won't even tell me the name of?" she cried. "I'd probably die of worry before you return!"
Alexander tried to put his arms around Cassima and reassure her that he would return safely, but she backed away and stood oblique to him, looking at the floor with her arms crossed. Alexander stared at her, afraid to say anything more.
"I suppose I deserve this," she muttered after a long, heavy pause.
"Why?" Alexander asked. "What do you mean?"
There was another pause, then she slowly looked up at him, all the anger gone from her face.
"When I left you that night to find Shadrack," she said softly, "I said good-bye to you...but I never let you say good-bye to me."
Alexander said nothing. He only looked into Cassima's eyes and sighed, wondering how she could ever forgive him for putting her through this, when and if his journey was successful. As Cassima slowly wrapped her arms around him and let her head rest on his shoulder, the king found himself wishing that he didn't have to say good-bye to her.
That night, Alexander got little sleep. However, it was probably just as well that he didn't, for the second phase of the long-nosed creature's plan involved him coming to the docks at midnight, where the rest of the details of the king's mission would be revealed to him. When midnight drew near, Alexander rose from his bed, then bent down, reached beneath the bed and pulled out a small bundle of clothing: a red vest embroidered with gold thread, a long-sleeved white tunic, a belt with a small gold buckle, a pair of blue trousers and two brown leather boots. The garments were plain and simple, just the sort Alexander felt he would need to wear on his journey.
Alexander quietly changed into the outfit, then reached beneath the bed again and withdrew something long, flat and narrow: his sword, sheathed within its scabbard. It was a lightweight blade with scarcely any designs, save for the crest of the Land of the Green Isles on the hilt. The only other decoration the weapon had was a large emerald in the pommel. Alexander hoped he would only have to carry the sword to deter any villains from attacking him, since he truly had had very little practice wielding the thing. He was also taking this particular sword because the color and luster of the emerald reminded him of Cassima's eyes...Devin's too.
Alexander rose to his feet and fastened the sword's scabbard onto his belt. The weapon and the clothes he wore were all he was leaving the castle with. Though he was hardly the picture of preparedness, over the years Alexander had found that during the travels of both himself and his family, the items necessary to succeed in their missions often turned up along the way, and it was just a matter of knowing when and where to look for them. He had confidence that this was the way things would turn out for him during this new adventure.
Before leaving the room, he walked over to the writing desk that stood against the wall opposite the bed and penned a brief note telling Cassima that he had left and that he promised to return soon. He left the note on Cassima's bedside table and kissed her good-bye as gently as he could, hoping that she wouldn't awaken. Then he turned and left the room, tiptoeing down the carpeted hallway, down the stairs that led to the entrance hall and out through the main gates of the palace. The lone Guard Dog on duty outside the gates had been informed of Alexander's departure, and he nodded respectfully as the king walked passed him.
"Good luck, M'lud," he growled quietly. "May you return to us soon and in triumph."
Alexander nodded his thanks and continued down the long dirt path that led through a small village on the west side of the island and the docks.
The night felt colder than it usually did in the Land of Green Isles. The weather in the archipelago was typically pleasantly warm nearly all year round, quite a change from the blazing summers and frigid winters of Daventry, Alexander's homeland. The weather in Llewdor, the land where Alexander had spent a good seventeen years of his life, had been like that as well. Perhaps that was what made him appreciate the climate of the Isles so much -- since the seasons here were so different than they were in Llewdor, it made the unpleasant recollections of his time there faint in his mind. Even though that period of his life was well behind him, he still carried the memory of it with him, tucked in the back of his mind.
As Alexander continued down the path through the village, he noticed something ahead of him that made him quicken his pace. He had almost reached a run by the time he had arrived at the docks. When he felt the familiar hollowness of the wooden planks beneath his feet, he halted abruptly and gaped up at the sight that had drawn him to the spot so quickly.
It was a ship, middling in size with only two masts, lacking any astounding colors or designs carved into it. It would have been a completely ordinary ship if it hadn't been for the fact that it wasn't constructed in the conventional way: The curved sides of the craft, the broad keel, both masts, every visible part of the ship...
...was made up of trees.
Long, bare trees lined the ship from stem to stern, their branches linking together, making the body of the vessel look like a gigantic basket. A larger tree seemed to start at the stern, grow along the bottom of the boat and curve upward at the bow, branching out in a display of delicate leaves where the ship's prow would be. The masts -- which were strangely devoid of sails -- looked more like conventional trees, only much taller, with very few leaves or branches, save at the very top.
Alexander stared at the craft in astonishment. A living ship. He had never seen, let alone dreamed of such a bizarre wonder. It had to have been constructed magically...but by whom?
"Lovely, isn't she?"
Alexander turned abruptly. In his astonishment, he had failed to notice that standing beside the ship upon the adjacent pier was not only the cloaked creature he had encountered the night before, but also a much taller creature that had to be a dogman...but not one that Alexander recognized. Even though the face had seemed faintly familiar to him, he didn't know any dogmen that dressed so sparingly in...what was that beast wearing? Some sort of skin?
"I'd say I did a pretty good job with her," said the cloaked creature, the one who had spoken first. "She should serve you well in your journey."
Alexander stared at the creature, then back at the fantastic ship moored at the pier.
"You mean...I'm going to be traveling in this ship?" he gasped, thunderstruck.
"Of course," the creature said. "As you might be able to tell, this ship was created using magic. I started getting ahead of myself, since I started work on it before I started working on my teleportation skills -- haven't dabbled in teleportation since that map I made all those years ago -- but it looks like everything worked out in the end. All you need to do is tell the ship where you want to go and it will sail there right away, provided you know the approximate location of your goal. No need to navigate, and it can take care of itself should the seas get rough. It'll even steer itself around anything that can damage it ..."
"Excuse me," said the taller beast that stood next to the cloaked creature in a cold, slightly irritated voice. "Might I get a word in edgewise, Vark?"
The creature twitched his large ears nervously, then nodded rapidly, shuffling back several paces as his companion stepped closer to Alexander. It was not a dogman as Alexander had thought at first, but a dogwoman. She was wearing an odd, pale, wrinkled skin like a cloak, and nothing else. She was covered in long dark fur, a white-tipped plume of a tail trailed behind her, and her elongated, white-striped face was surrounded by a thick ruff of fur. Her eyes resembled two orbs of obsidian in the blackness of the night.
"I'm afraid that old Vark tends to let his tongue run away at times, especially when he's talking about one of his favorite subjects," the dogwoman said in a voice that was kind, yet at the same time like cold iron. "Before he starts talking your ear off again, I would like to introduce myself and explain why we are here."
"Well, thank you," said Alexander uncertainly.
"My name," said the dogwoman, placing one hand to her chest, "Is Suhad. I am the ruler of the Isle of Wisdom. I presume you've heard of it as well as myself?"
Alexander nodded slowly. Yes, he had heard of Suhad and the Isle of Wisdom, but for some time, he had difficulty believing that either of them were real. Months ago, when his brother-in-law Edgar had been telling him about the places and individuals he had encountered on his recent journey, he had mentioned visiting an uncharted island in the Land of the Green Isles inhabited entirely by animals, some with humanlike features. Edgar also told Alexander that their leader -- who had turned out to be the estranged sister of Saladin -- had told Edgar that the inhabitants of the Isle would reveal themselves to the rest of the Isles after Cassima had a child.
Alexander forgot about this strange tale for some time, but shortly after Devin was born, something quite unexpected happened one day: an eagle had entered the castle through an open window and soared into the throne room, carrying a large squirrel on its back. The eagle had landed before the thrones, then the squirrel dismounted it and informed Alexander and Cassima that it was a messenger from the remote island from which the half-breeds originated: the Isle of Wisdom.
The squirrel then explained that he had been sent by their ruler Suhad to inform the rulers of every other island that the Isle of Wisdom's time of isolation, which had started more than twenty years ago, had finally ended. He then requested that Isle's inhabitants could visit the Isle of the Crown without fear of being attacked, just as the Isle of Wisdom was allowing the people of the other islands permission visit it, provided that they respected all those who resided there.
Alexander, mute with surprise for a moment or two, politely informed the squirrel that he would do whatever he could to ensure that any visitors from the Isle of Wisdom were treated fairly. The squirrel had then thanked him, bowed, and mounted the eagle, which took wing and departed the same way it had arrived. Most of the people who had been in the throne room when this happened thought that the whole spectacle was merely been a magically induced vision, and others simply denied having seen it. Alexander, however, remembered Edgar's story and realized that Saladin's sister had been true to her word.
As for being true to his own word, Alexander had a proclamation posted in the town informing the public of the potential newcomers from the recently revealed sixth Isle and its inhabitants, which were unusual in appearance but harmless, and not to be harmed either. However, there had been virtually no mention of the Isle of Wisdom from anyone since then, and Alexander had never seen even one of the humanlike animals Edgar described.
"You have probably noticed that we have had little contact with your people these past few months," Suhad continued, "Despite the announcement that we have ended our self-imposed isolation."
"I have," Alexander confirmed.
"This is because we have had no reason to interact with you until recently, when we heard of your misfortune. The relationship between the Isle of Wisdom and the rest of the Isles is rather uneasy at the moment, and we decided it would benefit everyone if we helped you locate your son. Not only that, but we have heard of how you overthrew the tyrant that was attempting to break the kingdom apart, and we felt that we should repay you in any way we can."
Alexander nodded, interested by this sudden turn of events. Suhad turned and indicated the cloaked creature standing beside her, who was staring nonchalantly at the boards of the pier.
"Luckily for us, Vark had not only the desire, but the wisdom and skills necessary to aid you. His years of experience as a wizard certainly haven't failed him."
Alexander stared at Vark. Something about that creature's name as well as a few other things that he and Suhad had said made something stir faintly in the king's memory.
"Your name is 'Vark?'" Alexander asked.
"Well...not exactly," he muttered.
"Then why does Suhad call you 'Vark?'"
Vark sighed again.
"Er...the story behind my name is not one that I delight in retelling, but...well, you are the king of the Green Isles. If anyone deserves to know the truth about me, it's you. I used to be human, you see, but had a little...accident some time ago, and it not only transformed me but caused me to forget my real name as well. Suhad and her subjects started calling me 'Vark', since it's short for 'Aardvark'...which is what I am."
"Do you mean to tell me that you are the last wizard these islands have known?" he exclaimed. "I found your spell book and your magic map! I was told that you changed yourself into an aardvark and either died or vanished completely."
"All of that is true, except for the part about me dying," Vark grumbled. "To make a long story short, I was too ashamed to remain on the Isle of the Crown after what happened to me, and I eventually found my way to the Isle of Wisdom, which I found to be the perfect refuge for me. I would have stayed there for the rest of my days if it weren't for what happened to your child. As I told you last night, I couldn't remain in hiding knowing that I could help you."
"Well, you have my deepest gratitude, Vark," Alexander said, still amazed to have discovered the individual who had played a small, but crucial role in his quest to save both the kingdom and Cassima several years prior. It looked as if history was going to repeat itself.
"Now, as I was saying," the sorcerer-turned-aardvark continued, "I created this ship so it could function without the need of a crew. You just need to instruct the ship what to do, and it will obey you and only you."
"Without the need of a crew?" Alexander repeated in surprise, for the first time noticing a pile of sacks, crates and barrels further down the pier -- the supplies for a six-person, three-day journey that he had had asked to be delivered.
"I'm afraid that was a bit of deception on my part," Vark confessed. "You see, what this voyage truly requires is enough food and water to sustain two individuals over the course of a week. I deduced that such an atypical request might arouse suspicion, since I doubt that any normal ship could survive on the open seas with crew of only two men."
"So who is this other man?"
"My mistake," Vark said sheepishly. "He isn't a man, at least by your definition, but one of the inhabitants of the Isle of Wisdom."
"One of your people? But why not yourself, Vark? This is your creation, so wouldn't you be the most ideal one to be with it on its maiden voyage?"
Vark snorted amusedly.
"Sire, I may not look old, but believe me, I am. I haven't been at sea for decades, and I fear that these ancient bones wouldn't last the whole way."
"So...who is going to be traveling with me?"
Vark's answer was interrupted by a shout from Suhad, directed at a short, dark figure that had appeared at the top of the ship's gangplank, which, like the rest of the craft, was made out of living trees. The branches of two of the saplings that formed the boat's railing sloped downwards onto the pier, with several smaller branches along their length sprouting out inwards at right angles, making it look more like a leafy ladder than a gangplank.
"What's taking you so long?" Suhad barked to the figure. "Everything should have been aboard by now!"
With a sweep of her hand, she indicated the pile of supplies.
"We're goin' as fast as we can," the figure yelled back in a thickly accented voice. "But that stupid slecher spilled a sack a' potatoes all over the storeroom an' refused to pick 'em up, even when I told 'im to! "
"He can pick them up later," Suhad replied. "Right now I want you to get the rest of this cargo loaded while Vark and I explain the particulars of this voyage to the king, do you understand?"
"Aye, Lassie," the figure replied, starting to walk down the gangplank. Suhad snarled quietly, but otherwise didn't reply. As the figure drew closer, Alexander could see that it was a shaggy black dogman. He trotted over to the pile of supplies and lifted a small crate.
"Er...are you the one who is going to be traveling with me?" Alexander asked as the dogman turned and started walking back to the gangplank.
"I?" the dogman with a chuckle. "Naw, Sire, not I, but rather the gowk I be workin' with."
"And...who is that?" Alexander inquired cautiously.
"I'll bring 'im down here an' let 'im greet you hisself," the dogman said gruffly, beginning to trudge up the gangplank and onto the deck of the ship before Alexander could ask anything more.
"You'll have to excuse his behavior, Your Highness," Suhad said softly when the dogman was out of earshot. "He may be ill-tempered at times, but he is still a very loyal subject. Shappa too has his faults, but I feel that he will be a worthy companion to you during your voyage."
Before Alexander could query as to who Shappa was, another figure appeared at the top of the gangplank and began walking down it at a quick gait. Like Suhad, it stood as tall as a man and from a distance resembled one as well, but this creature was not part dog, but part cat. Its body was lithe and slender, its fur was striped, and its eyes were large and luminous. It wore a plain brown loincloth and had a large piece of fabric draped over its chest, back and shoulders, with its head sticking through a hole in the center.
"King Alexander," Suhad said, "This is Shappa. Shappa, this is King Alexander."
The cat gazed at Alexander out of its round, amber eyes and inclined his head respectfully. Alexander, not sure whether Shappa was familiar with the custom of shaking hands or not, mimicked the cat's gesture.
"I am sorry that the two of you don't have more time to become acquainted," Suhad said, "But we have to make use out of what little time we have. The sooner you set sail, the closer you are to finding your child. So hurry up and get the rest of the supplies loaded, Shappa."
This last sentence was barked at Shappa, who recoiled slightly and flicked an ear apprehensively. Still, he obeyed Suhad's order and picked up two bulging sacks and started back up the gangplank. Alexander stared dubiously after him.
"I know that he doesn't exactly seem the best choice for such a perilous undertaking," Vark piped up, "And he has a few eccentricities, as well as some traits that may be difficult for you to acclimate to at first..."
"Then why was he chosen to accompany me?" Alexander asked, trying to hide the unease in his voice.
"He wasn't chosen," Suhad interjected. "He volunteered. In fact, he was the only one who did."
Alexander scratched his head in bewilderment.
"I don't know. He never told me or anybody else why he wanted to join you," Suhad said. "Although I suspect wanting to do that might just be in his nature."
"Yes...he and his kind have always been extremely curious. They are cats, after all."
"Looks as if we're almost set," said Vark some time later, when nearly all the supplies had been taken aboard. "You and Shappa should be ready to depart very soon."
"But once we depart, where do we go, Vark?" Alexander asked helplessly. "You've never even told me where the realm of these Sea Fairies is!"
"That," Vark replied, "Is because I don't know, and since you don't either, you can't tell your ship to go there...but I do know a place where you can find out where the fairies' kingdom is."
"What place is that?"
"Glaucus," Vark said. "It is a tiny coastal town built next to the Southern Sea, and with this ship, you should reach it within three days. The lands of Daventry and Serenia are east and north of Glaucus, but because of the town's remote location, few people know about it except travelers or sailors who accidentally discover it. The inhabitants of Glaucus are intimately familiar with the sea and its many inhabitants, many of which are rarely seen by mortal eyes. However, it is also a place that seems to attract unusual entities and phenomena like a lamp attracts moths by night. One saying regarding Glaucus is, 'Where the sea meets the shore, the mundane meets the miraculous.'"
"I see," Alexander remarked. "And you think that the people of Glaucus might know where the Sea Fairies live?"
"Indeed," Vark confirmed. "However, finding the realm is one problem. Entering it is another."
Alexander's heart sank. How on earth could he gain access to a kingdom situated at the bottom of the sea?
"Don't despair, though," Vark said kindly, noticing the hopeless expression on the king's face. "Though I myself know not how you can reach the realm, there is a benevolent wizard in the town of Glaucus whom I am certain does know."
"Yes," Vark nodded. "We practitioners of magic need to keep in touch with each other, you know. Unfortunately, I do not know his name, and I haven't heard from him since I left the Isle of the Crown. He is, however, skilled beyond compare in magic pertaining to the sea. If he wished, he could make the tides reverse or change a whale into a minnow. If anybody in Glaucus can help you enter the Sea Fairies' kingdom, it is he."
Alexander felt his spirits lift at the mention of such a powerful wizard, though the mention of magic made him recall something else.
"Wouldn't I be safer if I brought my genie Shamir on this voyage, Vark? He could protect us against any malevolent magic we might encounter."
"I'm afraid you wouldn't be any safer, Sire," Vark said with a shake of his head. "I've studied genies and learned virtually all there is to know about them, and I know that a typical genie taken from his place of origin will find his magic depleted for some time, and it can sometimes take years for his power to reaccumulate. Even if this weren't the case, Shamir would be of little use to you in dealing with the magic of the Sea Fairies. He is a spirit of the air, while the fairies are connected to the element of water. He would be powerless against them, in their own realm."
"I see," Alexander said soberly. He paused and stared at the living ship and the waves that gently lapped against its hull. After a few moments, the black dogman came scampering down the gangplank.
"Ever'thing be onboard, m'Liege!" he panted to Suhad.
"Good," Suhad said. She turned to Alexander.
"Well, it looks as if you are ready to leave," she said. "I wish you the best of luck. Remember: Shappa may be aloof at times or refuse to obey your words, but you must be patient with him, for is only the way of his kind. Give him enough time and he will learn how to coexist peacefully with you, just as you will certainly discover what a useful companion a half-breed can be."
"I hope so," Alexander muttered under his breath.
"Varkie, when're ye gonna take us home?" the black dogman crossly barked to the aardvark. "I thought we were done here."
"We are," Vark said with strained patience, "But I don't want to teleport the three of us back until we've answered every question that Alexander might have for us as well as bid him farewell."
He turned to Alexander, who stared back at Vark and shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm certain that there are a lot more questions I ought to ask you," he sighed, "But I can't think of any more at the moment."
"Don't fear," Vark replied. "I've told Shappa everything there is to know about this ship, and of course, he is well aware of your son's predicament and the urgency of your mission. He should be able to help and advise you in any way possible."
Alexander nodded apprehensively and glanced up at the ship. Shappa was standing on the deck with his furry hands on the gnarled railing, silently watching him. Alexander turned and looked at Vark, who stood fidgeting on the pier, then at Suhad and her short, shaggy subject. He then turned east, looking through the ship's twin masts at the Castle of the Crown, which was barely visible over the tops of the trees and the buildings of the village. Finally, he turned to face the sea, its dark surface shattering the light of the stars and slowly shifting in a mesmerizing manner. Beneath that surface was a world that Man knew very little about, filled with plants, animals and other beings never seen by the eyes of mortals...and somewhere in that world was Devin.
"I think I'm ready," Alexander finally said. He approached the ship and began making his way up the branch-comprised gangplank. When he reached the deck, he turned and waved to the trio standing below.
"Remember, it's the town of Glaucus," Vark called, waving back at the king. "And when you find him, be sure to speak to the wizard about a way of entering the Sea Fairies' realm!"
"I will," Alexander replied. "And thank you, Vark. You too, Suhad."
Suhad nodded solemnly.
"Good luck, King Alexander," she said coolly.
Alexander turned to examine the ship from his new vantage point aboard it. The deck was made up of straight, narrow saplings growing so close together that he couldn't see any gaps between them. There was an opening between the so-called masts that resembled a hatch, but it was covered by a thick cloth rather than a trapdoor. Other than that and the masts, the deck was completely bare. There wasn't even a wheel at the stern. Alexander glanced at Shappa, who was still standing at the railing, looking bored.
"So," Alexander said, trying to recall Vark's words, "I just tell the ship where to go and it will set out for that location on its own?"
"Is there anywhere I should stand when I address the ship, or any particular manner I should speak to it in?"
"Just give it the name of the town," Shappa said tersely.
Trying to mask his irritation at the half-breed's response to him, Alexander faced the bow of the ship and slowly spoke the word "Glaucus."
There was a loud creaking and rustling noise to his right. Alexander spun around to see the ship's gangplank splitting apart, the branches that formed the steps flattening themselves against their respective limbs, while the main branches folded themselves against the gap in the ship's railing. In a matter of seconds, the branches had flattened themselves against the side of the ship, making it appear as if there had never been a gangplank there at all.
As Alexander was marveling at this, there was a sudden lurch beneath his feet. The ship had begun to move forward, and at an impossibly swift speed. Within seconds, it was clear of the docks, and heading towards the open ocean. How this could possibly be happening with no sails was beyond Alexander's comprehension, but this was magic, after all. It was as if the ship had an intelligence of its own, or was possessed by a benevolent force or spirit.
In spite of the excitement of the moment, one last simple question suddenly popped into Alexander's mind. He ran to the stern and called out to Vark, who was still standing on the pier with the two dogpeople.
"Does this vessel have a name?" the king hollered.
"Why, yes," Vark called back. "The Dryad!"
Alexander thanked the aardvark yet again, then turned his attention back to his ship. As the unusual craft sailed away from the Isle of the Crown and towards its distant destination, Vark gazed silently after it. After a long while, he sniffed disdainfully, an action greatly amplified by his large nose.
"I still say I should have used willows," he remarked to no one in particular.
Alexander walked up the length of the ship and approached at the railing on the port side. He looked down at the black water, which was being churned into a thick froth by the Dryad's prow. Behind him, the Land of the Green Isles was quickly receding. This was the first time he had been outside the kingdom's boundaries on a boat since he had first sailed to the Isles -- all the other times he been outside the kingdom, he had departed with the aid of the genie Shamir's magic.
Alexander considered himself lucky to be able to travel in such a way, since the waters around the Isles were so treacherous that only the most experienced crews would be able to enter and leave the archipelago by ship. It seemed as if magic was the only safe way in and out.
The Dryad seemed to be further proof of this, the way it steered itself through the hazardous reefs and jagged rocks that lurked beneath the ocean's surface as if it could somehow see them. It looked as if Alexander's apprehensions about sailing on a magic ship accompanied by a nonhuman stranger were quite unwarranted. He only hoped that things would continue to go as smoothly as this throughout his journey.
As Alexander continued to stare over the railing, he suddenly yawned deeply. Now that the chaos of preparing for his journey had died down, he realized just how tired he actually was. He felt as if he hadn't slept in two days -- which probably wasn't that far from the truth.
"Shappa?" he asked his sole crewmate. "Where are we sleeping tonight?"
"The room ahead of you and to your left as you descend the steps that lead down from there," Shappa said, pointing towards the cloth-covered "hatch" between the masts. "There are two hammocks there. The one on the right is mine."
Alexander mumbled his thanks and trudged towards the opening, where he found that the square cloth on top of it had one of its sides bound to the edge of the hatch, while its two free corners had holes in them and were stretched over two stubby vertical twigs on the opposite edge of the hatch, forming a taut covering and greatly minimizing the risk of someone accidentally falling into the opening. Before unfastening the cloth from the pegs, Alexander looked over his shoulder at Shappa.
"Are you going to be staying up here?" he asked.
"I believe so," Shappa replied. "Sleep well, Lex."
The last word of the half-breed's sentence confused Alexander, and for a moment, he knelt staring dazedly at the hatch, trying to figure out why Shappa had called him that. However, fatigue soon made him give up and concentrate on the task of finding a place to rest. Pulling the cloth from the pegs and flipping it back revealed a row of gnarled stairs similar to those of the gangplank. Alexander descended these stairs and found himself on a lower deck that seemed to be the only other one that the Dryad had.
There were two doorways before and behind him, but Alexander was in no mood to enter any of them except the one Shappa had directed him to. He stepped through the doorway in question and into a small room that was sparsely furnished and had two hammocks spanning it, one on either side of the entrance.
Gratefully, Alexander removed his boots, belt and sword and climbed into the left hammock. The gentle rocking of the ship calmed him, and too tired to worry anymore, he soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Alexander awoke late the following morning, he didn't recognize where he was at first. Then he remembered Vark, Suhad, the Dryad and Shappa, and his voyage to the town of Glaucus to find a way to gain access to the kingdom of the Sea Fairies and rescue his son. He slowly eased himself out of his hammock, pulled on his boots and refastened his belt around his waist.
He didn't see Shappa in the hammock adjacent to him, so he decided to search for the half-breed and explore the rest of the ship as well. Stepping through the doorway to the sleeping quarters, Alexander could see the stairs leading to the top deck, as well as two doorways near the opposite end of the boat. He approached these doorways and decided to see what was through the one on the right.
As it turned out, it was the storeroom for he and Shappa's food and water, and it looked as if Shappa had cleaned up the potatoes that the black dogman claimed he had spilled there. Feeling a little hungry after the long, exhilarating night, Alexander removed the lid from one of the barrels nearest to the door and discovered that it was full of apples. He removed one of the firm red fruits, replaced the barrel's lid and walked into the adjacent room. This room was nearly bare except for a large bare branch protruding from the wall at a 90-degree angle.
The branch's dimensions were very odd: it was barely an inch thick, yet almost three feet wide and four feet long, looking as if it had been stepped on by a giant. In fact, the branch almost resembled a desk, and Alexander realized that with the vial of ink, the quills and numerous sheets of paper on it, it was difficult to mistake it for anything else. Since there were no chairs in the room, he would probably have to use one of the smaller crates from the storeroom as one.
Munching away at his apple, Alexander headed towards the one remaining room next to the sleeping quarters and found that it contained a variety of miscellaneous items: some large rags, several coils of rope, one or two blankets, and a few unlabeled crates. Alexander marveled at the way Vark had constructed and loaded the ship, but he couldn't help but wonder exactly where and how the aardvark had gotten some of these items.
With the entire deck explored and no sign of Shappa, Alexander made his way up the stairs to the deck above. The cloth over the hatch was stretched over the pegs, but a little persistent pushing unfastened it in moments.
The sun was bright in the sky, and the sea beneath the Dryad was blue and calm. The tiny leaves sprouting from the ship fluttered gently in the breeze while the craft plowed resolutely forward. Alexander noticed Shappa standing at the railing on the Dryad's starboard side, and he slowly approached the half-breed, who spun around quickly as he drew near, but calmed slightly as he recognized the king.
"Good morning," Alexander said.
Shappa nodded silently. Now that it was daylight, Alexander could see the creature's colors much more clearly. His short fur was a brilliant orange with stripes that seemed almost crimson, while his eyes, which gazed piercingly at Alexander, were a warm amber.
"Things seem good so far, don't they?" Alexander asked. "The ship seems to be holding up, and the weather looks friendly."
"Did you sleep well last night?" Alexander inquired.
Shappa shrugged again. Alexander began to become slightly impatient with the half-breed.
"Is there anything I can say to you that will make you say something in return?"
Shappa's eyes narrowed slightly.
"I will speak to you only if I want to," he said coldly. "I don't see the point in wasting my words on such pointless talk."
Alexander paused, taken aback by Shappa's indignation.
"I was only trying to make conversation," he said crossly.
When Shappa didn't respond, Alexander turned away from him for a moment, looking around the deck of the ship. Vark and Suhad were right about Shappa being difficult to get along with, but since he was the only crewmate Alexander had on this journey, he would have to find some way to get Shappa to see eye-to-eye with him.
As Alexander examined the ship, he suddenly had an idea. After a moment of contemplation, he turned back to the half-breed.
Shappa slowly turned to face him, with a look of indifference in his eyes.
"Why did Vark build this ship out of trees rather than constructing it in the conventional way out of planks?"
Shappa's expression quickly changed. For a moment, he looked up with the expression of one deep in thought, and then he glanced down, his brow furrowed.
"I believe that making a ship like this was simply easier for him," he finally said. "Vark knows nothing about building ships out of wood and nails, and though he never built a living ship out of saplings before, with his knowledge of magic it only took him a few days to think up and create. I'm surprised he still puts so much faith in magic ever since that mishap of his, but I suppose old habits die hard, as you humans say."
That was the most Alexander had heard Shappa say at one stretch. He tried another question:
"Is there any particular reason why he used living trees to make the Dryad instead of, say, magically stitching planks together?"
"There's a very good reason," Shappa said, his enthusiasm growing by the second. "You humans make vessels out of dead wood, which can get smashed to pieces if something hits it -- but watch this."
Shappa held out his hand, and out of the tip of each finger shot a small, sharp claw. He then turned towards the railing and raked his claws over one of its thicker branches, leaving four thin gashes. Before Alexander's eyes, the gashes slowly became smaller and less distinct until all was left on the branch was a slightly mottled area that looked like a patch of scar tissue.
"Since this ship is alive, it can heal itself," Shappa said. "And much faster than any normal tree as well. Even if it were to hit a rock or a reef, it would repair itself so quickly that it couldn't even begin to sink."
"Amazing," Alexander said with genuine astonishment, not only at the description of the ship, but also at the change that had come over Shappa. Though the half-breed had refused to strike up a casual conversation with Alexander, he had spoken at great length when Alexander asked him to talk about a subject he was familiar with. Perhaps speaking about such a thing gave him a feeling of superiority over Alexander and made him see the king as a harmless individual rather than a potential rival. Cats were certainly proud, self-obsessed animals, and Shappa, it seemed, was no exception. Alexander hoped that if he continued letting the half-breed feel this way, he would eventually start speaking to him as an equal.
"What about these masts?" Alexander asked, pointing upwards. "This boat doesn't have any sails or any need of them, so why did Vark give it masts?"
"I think every ship he's seen in the past has had masts, so he included them out of habit," Shappa said. "I think it also makes the Dryad appear more like an ordinary ship, at least from a distance. I could also climb up one of those masts if I needed to get a better look at something."
"It seems as if you're the only one that can do that," Alexander observed, glancing down at Shappa's shoeless feet, which undoubtedly each hid a set of claws just as sharp as those in his hands.
"Yes," Shappa said reflectively, "I suppose I am, Lex."
There was that word again. Alexander stared quizzically at Shappa, and then suddenly realized that "Lex" wasn't a meaningless word at all, but the second syllable of his name.
"Shappa, why are you calling me that?"
Shappa's features promptly wilted into a look of cold indifference.
"You probably wouldn't be interested by my explanation."
"Perhaps not, but I'd still like to know why."
"Perhaps later," Shappa said coolly. "If it's not too much trouble, I would like to be alone now."
Alexander started to work up a retort to this, but thought better of it. It seemed that he had said the wrong thing, and he didn't want to annoy Shappa any more than he already had. Instead, he turned and walked towards the stairs to the lower deck.
Alexander walked into the ship's sleeping quarters and flung himself into his hammock, frustration and anger overwhelming him. He could barely believe that Shappa's becoming his crewmate was an act of diplomacy from the Isle of Wisdom. It was as if Suhad had deliberately chosen the most incorrigible creature on her island to accompany him. Though Alexander had had some very unpleasant experiences with cats in his past, he was just open-minded enough to accept Shappa as a companion at first, but now it seemed like that stupid animal was just as bad as the ones he had had the misfortune to encounter before.
The voyage had started out smoothly, but already it seemed to be spiraling out of control. How could Alexander succeed in his quest if he couldn't even get along with that insufferable half-breed, and even if he could locate and enter the realm of the Sea Fairies, would he even be able to rescue Devin? What if the fairies refused to give him up? What if there was no way to earn their sympathy? Then there was Cassima...why did he have to lie to her? If his journey were a success, would she ever forgive him, making her stay in the Isles, unknowingly looking after that distorted facsimile of her son? What would her parents think...
No, Alexander suddenly thought firmly. No. Stop it.
With a mighty effort, he pushed the thoughts away from him. He couldn't let his worries tear him apart. Not now. It would do him absolutely no good to fret about the future. He was in the present, and that was where he had to stay. He would worry about those hurdles when it was time to jump them. For now, all he could do was battle with the problems at hand.
Alexander rolled over in the hammock, causing it to swing sharply for a moment. Now that his mind had calmed down, he tried to think about his current situation more clearly: perhaps he had simply started off on the wrong foot with Shappa. Maybe addressing him directly wasn't the right way, and maybe Shappa himself wasn't sure how to communicate with the king. Alexander tried to figure out what approaches he could try, and after a few minutes of staring at the branch-lined ceiling, an idea finally came to him.
For the rest of the day, Alexander paid little attention to the half-breed. He would occasionally encounter Shappa on the deck or in their sleeping quarters, but the king would pretend to ignore his presence completely, not even mumbling a greeting whenever they happened to pass each other.
He continued this act into the next day as well, and by that time, Alexander thought he could discern a slight change in Shappa's demeanor. The half-breed had become strangely interested in Alexander, and Alexander would often turn and find Shappa staring at him intensely. Still, Alexander refused to speak to Shappa or interact with him in any way. Later that same day, however, his efforts finally paid off.
He and Shappa were standing on the top deck in the early afternoon, Alexander at the bow while Shappa was leaning against one of the masts. Alexander was so deep in thought that the sound of the half-breed's voice made him jump:
"You don't trust me, do you?"
Alexander turned to face Shappa, who was staring earnestly at him.
"I only met you night before last," he replied. "I'd say it's too early for me to decide whether I trust you or not."
Shappa's expression remained unaltered.
"But you still distrust me, do you not?" he asked.
"To some extent, yes."
Shappa nodded slowly.
"I thought so. I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I don't trust you entirely either."
"Considering that you've only known me a little more than a day, I don't blame you."
It seemed as if Alexander's plan had worked. Shappa's innate curiosity had finally overcome his aloof indifference towards Alexander, but only when Alexander had started behaving the same way that Shappa behaved towards him: like a cat.
"Your point is well made, Lex," Shappa said. "I suppose that we're...'both on the same ship?'"
"Both in the same boat," Alexander said. "And yes, we are -- "
He was interrupted by a sudden puff of smoke that erupted between them and a sound like a thunderclap. Shappa jumped backwards in surprise, and Alexander would have done the same, had he not been standing against the railing. The smoke cleared as quickly as it had appeared, revealing a creature that looked just as startled as the king and the half-breed were. It had pinkish skin, a long snout, large rounded ears, huge claws and a thick tail, and was standing on its hind legs and looking around dazedly.
"Vark??" Alexander and Shappa exclaimed at exactly the same time.
"Good gracious me," the correctly identified Vark cried, blinking nervously. "I'm so terribly sorry, I don't know what happened. I was going back to the Isle of the Crown to see how things were, but...oh, skip it. Again, I'm sorry for popping in like this, and I promise it won't happen again. Good travels to you, Sire. You too, Shappa."
With that, the aardvark vanished in a second puff of smoke similar in every way to the first.
"What the blazes..." Alexander muttered, staring at the spot where Vark had been standing a moment ago.
"Earth's wounds," Shappa breathed.
The two crewmates simultaneously looked up at each other.
"What in the world was that about?" Alexander wondered.
"I have no idea," Shappa shrugged. "Perhaps he made a mistake while he was teleporting...I don't know how he could have ended up here when he was aiming for the Isle of the Crown..."
"I suppose we can ask him about it when we return," Alexander mused.
There was a pause. The man and the half-breed stared at each other for a short while, then the former spoke again:
"What were we talking about before Vark showed up?"
"We were talking about how we're both in the same boat," Shappa recalled.
"Oh, yes," Alexander said. He hesitated, carefully formulating what he was going to say next.
"Shappa, I know I'm not like you, and that's probably one of the reasons why you distrust me. Still, please understand that I'm trying my best to treat you fairly, despite my knowing little about you or your kind. All I want is for us to get along together, and if you could try to behave towards me the same way that I have tried to behave towards you, I'm certain that this journey will be much easier for both of us. Do you understand?"
Shappa was silent. For a few moments, the only noise was the waves rustling by the Dryad's prow. Then the half-breed blinked slowly and addressed Alexander without a shred of contempt:
"I believe I do, Lex."
Alexander nodded solemnly, but he couldn't keep his curiosity to himself any longer.
"Thank you...but if it's not too much trouble, Shappa, would you please explain why you keep calling me 'Lex' now?"
Shappa stiffened slightly, but then quickly relented.
"Very well, I'll tell you. You humans attach much importance to naming things. A human child is given a name shortly after his birth, the seed planted without any thought as to what sort of plant will grow. Those born into royalty immediately have 'Prince' or 'Princess' placed before their names, and because of that, they are looked upon with respect from the moment those names are bestowed upon them. With my kind, however, we are not given names until we become individuals. You see, we earn our names, ones that embody our traits, our appearances, our very souls."
"That's fascinating," said Alexander, "But what does that have to do with the name you've given me?"
"When we truly know what the mind of a young half-breed is like," Shappa continued, "Be he cunning, cowardly, wise or ambitious, then he earns his name. It is usually a short, simple one, despite the vastness of what it symbolizes, although some half-breeds may chose a different, longer name if they feel they have 'outgrown' their first, and if the others feel he has earned a longer name, then they call him by that name."
Alexander was starting to suspect what Shappa was leading up to.
"So," he said slowly, "Since you don't know me completely yet, you're going to call me by a shortened version of my name until...until you know me and respect me well enough for me to earn my much longer full name from you?"
The corners of Shappa's mouth turned up in a convincing imitation of a human smile.
"Correct in every way, Lex," he said.
Alexander wasn't sure whether Shappa's "naming" him was an act of reverence or mockery, but he didn't want to press the half-breed anymore. The king had to admit that Shappa was right about humans attaching so much meaning to names. For nearly seventeen years, his name was Gwydion, and for much of that time he never thought that he would be anything but Gwydion the slave boy. Finding out that he was in fact Prince Alexander of Daventry had been the surprise of his life, and in retrospect, though it had taken some time to "grow into" his new name, once he had grown accustomed to it, it seemed as if he had acquired a new life as well. Perhaps there was some truth to the unusual beliefs of Shappa's kind.
Shappa had been true to his word. He spoke politely whenever Alexander addressed him, and Alexander tried to be less forward than he had been before. During the various conversations they had that day, Alexander learned that Shappa was by no means enamored with the ocean. Like all cats, he detested water, and was embarking on this voyage just to do his part in improving relations between his Isle and the Isle of the Crown. Alexander also found out that the sparse garments that Shappa was wearing were Suhad's idea:
"She said I would be more presentable to you if I were to wear some sort of clothing," the half-breed said irritably, flinching a little. "I can't stand the things, though. They make me feel like I'm being smothered."
"Then why do you keep on wearing them?" Alexander asked.
"I'm trying to remain faithful to our leader's orders," Shappa said adamantly. "Besides, in these rags, I'm less likely to be mistaken for a tiger and get skinned."
Toward the end of their third day at sea, after Alexander and Shappa had eaten and were standing on the deck, watching the sun sink into the glittering sea, Shappa quietly remarked:
"We might be spotting land soon. Perhaps tonight. We'll surely reach Glaucus come the morrow."
"What makes you so certain?" Alexander asked.
"The air is different," Shappa said, sniffing deeply. "Yesterday and the day before, there was nothing but salt and spray on the wind. Now, it carries a different smell -- the smell of land, a lot of land. More land than I've ever known before."
Alexander nodded and thanked Shappa, while silently reflecting on something he hadn't realized before: not only did Shappa resemble and act like a cat, but he also had the heightened senses of one as well. His nose and ears were much keener than those of a man, and if his vision was truly as sharp as a true cat's, then he could see clearly even in near-complete darkness. Alexander was finally starting to see why Suhad had spoken so highly of Shappa.
The next morning, Alexander was awakened by something soft prodding at his shoulder. He slowly turned to see Shappa's huge amber eyes gazing down at him. The king winced in surprise.
"My apologizes, Lex," Shappa said, "I wanted to tell you that the town of Glaucus is ahead of us, and we should be docking within the hour."
Still groggy but eager to see the town for himself, Alexander hoisted himself out of his hammock and pulled on his boots. He followed Shappa up the steps to the top deck and walked slowly towards the bow. From there, he stared in wonder at the sight that lay before them.
Barely three arrow-shots away, land was visible. Sandy cliffs jutted abruptly from the sea, topped by small, wind-warped trees. One section of the land stretched out into the sea in a wide peninsula, but what was on this peninsula was impossible to see, for at the end of the peninsula, a vast, whale-gray rock face loomed, almost completely obscuring everything beyond it. It seemed to be almost a hundred feet high, and almost the same distance across, yet it seemed to be only a few dozen feet thick. It was split in the middle, forming a narrow channel through which the tide gently flowed, and several scrubby plants sprouted on top of its highest peaks. Its rough surface was pockmarked with large holes bored by eons of wind and water, some of which were large enough to be called caves.
Though the rock face itself was astonishing, what Alexander found even more astonishing was what was constructed on and around it: it was the town of Glaucus. The town wasn't built on the ground, but up the steep slopes of the cliff. The houses were all made out of wood, some appeared to have been created out of wrecked boats, and a myriad of rope-and-plank bridges, carved footholds and wooden walkways connected the various structures. Some of the houses were near the waterline while others were nearly at the top of the cliffs. A semicircular pier spanned nearly the entire cliff, resembling a fence protecting the tiny town, but between Alexander's ship and the pier was a veritable forest of protruding rocks, all of them resembling tinier versions of the cliff that Glaucus was constructed upon.
"So that is Glaucus," Shappa remarked. "It does look like the sort of place where one would be likely to have an encounter with the unusual."
"It does indeed," agreed Alexander. "But...what about these rocks?"
"Don't you remember that the Dryad instinctively avoids rocks?" Shappa said.
"Oh, yes," Alexander muttered.
The pair watched in silence as their ship drew closer and closer to Glaucus, weaving through the maze of boulders with uncanny agility. The town was certainly well protected from invasion from the sea, though Alexander couldn't help but wonder how it fared during storms.
Soon, they had reached Glaucus's curved pier, where Alexander observed that aside from two other small ships moored near the its left side, the Dryad was the only one there. As soon as the Dryad had come to a complete stop alongside the worn pilings, its gangplank began to unfurl and extend downwards, swiftly forming the same leafy steps that Alexander had seen when he had first encountered the Dryad.
The young king had successfully reached his first destination. Now he had to find somebody in the town who knew the whereabouts of the kingdom of the Sea Fairies, as well as seek out the wizard that Vark claimed could help him enter it. Without wasting any more time worrying about whether he could accomplish either, Alexander strode down the gangplank, then turned and waved back at Shappa.
"I'm going to explore the town," he said. "Are you going to stay here with the ship?"
"Yes, Lex," Shappa replied. "As accepting of the bizarre as Vark claims these Glaucans are, I'd rather not take my chances with them."
Alexander nodded and began making his way towards the strange, charming locale that lay before him, which was hopefully was the key to his son's rescue.
There weren't many people on the streets of Glaucus -- if the various bridges, walkways and ledges stretching throughout the town could truly be called "streets". The people appeared no more unusual than any other villagers, but as Alexander knew, appearances could very often be misleading.
Most of the smaller buildings affixed to the rock face like swallows' nests seemed to be private residences, but some of the structures looked more like shops or storehouses. One particularly large building on the left side of the gap that split the cliff in two caught Alexander's eye, and he decided to examine it more closely. He made his way along a wooden walkway, crossed a narrow rope bridge, then cautiously walked across another walkway, which had no railing of any sort to prevent people from tumbling into the sea.
He stopped before the door of the rickety-looking building. There was no sign to indicate what purpose the structure served, no discernable noise came from within, and the windows were too encrusted with salt for Alexander to make out anything inside. With nothing more to gain from speculation and observation, Alexander pulled the heavy door open and stepped inside.
He found himself in a spacious room. This building wasn't nearly as rickety inside as it appeared from the outside. There was a solid wood floor underfoot, and the planks that lined the walls were a marked improvement over the salt-stained ones that lined the outer walls, though the windows were just as crusty from the inside.
There were several tables and chairs positioned around the room. These echoed the rustic look of the place's exterior, since some of them were partially constructed out of pale driftwood. Only a few of the chairs were occupied, some by sailors, some by people who had probably arrived by land, and one by an elderly man who sat alone in a corner with a distant look in his eyes, as if he were lost in a dream.
Towards the rear of the room was a wooden counter, with several shelves lining the wall behind it. Behind the counter, facing away from Alexander, was a woman with a slightly plump figure, with brown hair pulled into a tight bun. There was also small door behind the counter, and another larger door to the right of the counter.
Taking all that he saw into consideration, Alexander decided that he had found a tavern, or possibly an inn. In either case, it was a place that attracted many people, and thus a place where he could seek advice on where to find the realm of the Sea Fairies.
He walked towards the counter at the back of the room. Supposing that the woman behind the counter owned or at the very least worked at the tavern, Alexander approached her and cleared his throat politely.
"Pardon me, my lady?" he asked.
The woman turned his way as he spoke, and at the sight of her face, Alexander tried not to cry out, though a startled gasp managed to escape him. The woman had only one dull blue eye set in her forehead, with a single downy eyebrow arching over it. She smiled graciously at Alexander, who tried to regain his composure as he spoke again:
"Good day," he said. "My name is Alexander, and I am new to this village."
The woman grinned, exposing several long, slightly yellowed teeth.
"So you are," she said in an unmelodious, yet kindly voice. "Welcome to our inn and welcome to Glaucus, young man. My name is..."She was interrupted by the slam of the door behind the counter. A second woman had entered the room. She was slightly taller than the one Alexander had been speaking to, with a gangly frame, a long, horse-like face with a large mole on one cheek, and thin black hair. A large kerchief was wrapped around her head, arranged so that one corner hung draped over her forehead. Like the other woman, she was no beauty, but she wasn't terribly hideous either, and at least she had two blue eyes instead of one.
The one-eyed woman narrowed her single eye in anger and glared at the black-haired intruder.
"I told you not to slam that door!" she snapped. "No wonder business has been slow lately! No one wants to stay here with that sort of noise going on all day!"
Before the black-haired woman could respond, the one-eyed woman turned back to Alexander, her furious glare replaced by a wide smile.
"I'm sorry about that, good sir," she said sweetly. "Now where were we...Ah, yes: my name is One-Eye, Alexander, and this is my sister Three-Eyes. Three-Eyes, this is Alexander."
Alexander stared at the woman that the aptly named One-Eye had called Three-Eyes. With a shiver of fright, he looked at the section of the kerchief that covered the woman's forehead.
"Um..." he said. "Hello...Three-Eyes?"
Three-Eyes grinned and flicked back the kerchief's corner with a sinewy hand, revealing just what Alexander had dreaded seeing: a third eye above and between her two conventionally positioned eyes. Three-Eyes seemed to notice his uneasiness, but she hardly seemed hurt because of it. In fact, she threw back her head and laughed as he gaped at her.
"Yes...All the better to see you with!" she guffawed.
"But don't worry," One-Eye said gently. "She's perfectly harmless, and so am I. Don't judge a book by its cover, dear."
"Of course," said Alexander hastily. "I apologize if I..."
"You did nothing that offended us," declared One-Eye with a wave of her hand. "In fact, you're one of the most polite visitors we've had in a long time."
Alexander smiled and nodded his thanks, then paused to think for a moment. If these strange sisters owned this inn, they probably overheard a good deal of talk from their customers, and they seemed like the sort that would cling to every word they overheard and gossip about them afterwards. As eccentric as they were, they seemed to be the best people to ask about the land that Alexander was seeking.
"Ladies, do you know anything about the realm of the Sea Fairies?"
"Sea Fairies?" Three-Eyes said with a sneer. "What in blazes are they?"
"Fairies that live in the sea," Alexander said frankly. "Not many people know about them, but I was told that this town possesses a wealth of knowledge of the sea, and..."
"Try that old gent over there," One-Eye said, pointing over Alexander's shoulder. "He's been around a lot, and was quite an adventurer in his day, or so he says. If anyone knows where these Sea Fairies of yours are, it's that fellow."
Alexander looked in the direction One-Eye was pointing to see the elderly man he had noticed upon his arrival.
"Very well, I'll speak to him right away. Thank you again, ladies."
Alexander turned and began walking towards the man One-Eye had indicated. As he did, he heard the voice of Thee-Eyes whispering mischievously behind him:
"He's a handsome one, isn't he?"
"Indeed," One-Eye replied.
"I think he likes me."
"You? After you showed him your third eye like that? I think not! I think he likes me."
"You little worm! I suppose he didn't jump at all when he first saw your face!"
"Oh, shut up! I can't wear that silly hood every day, you know!"
"More like you won't wear it every day!"
"Fine! I still say he likes me, though."
"He does not!"
Their voices grew louder and shriller, and several of the guests seated around the inn's tavern started staring at the two women. Alexander tried his best to ignore the noise as he neared the table where the alleged adventurer sat.
The old man sitting alone at the table in the corner wasn't as feeble as he had appeared to Alexander at first glance. His arms looked as if they had once had muscles as hard as rocks, and though he appeared to be lost in his own thoughts, a spark of alertness lit up his eyes when he turned to look at Alexander. Even though his hair was a downy white and there was pale gray stubble on his shriveled chin, this man must have been quite a fighter in his youth.
"Pardon me, sir," Alexander said courteously, "May I ask you something?"
The old man sighed wearily and beckoned Alexander to one of the empty seats. The king sat down in one of the ornate yet slightly uncomfortable driftwood chairs.
"What is it you want?" the man asked.
"I was told that you traveled much in your younger days," Alexander said respectfully.
"Ah yes," the man said sadly with another deep sigh. "I traveled all over the world when I was a lad like you, boy. I would encounter fierce monsters and diabolical individuals, travel to foreign realms, sail uncharted seas, uncover lost treasures, free maidens destined to be sacrificed to dragons...every day I faced danger, and somehow, I would almost always come out triumphant."
"Remarkable," Alexander said, "But why do you speak of your accomplishments so gloomily?"
"When I woke up one day and found that my hair was completely gray, I suddenly realized that while I had been doing great deeds for others, I had done nothing at all for myself. I was so busy adventuring that I felt that I could never live a life like everybody else. I had never taken a wife or stayed in one place for more than a month, and the only way I survived was by trading the wealth I discovered for food and shelter.
"In what seemed like only a few years, my bones became too weak to support me for another journey, and since adventuring is the only trade I know, I had no means of making money any longer. Now I have nothing save the clothes I wear and this old knapsack, -- " here he gestured towards a large leather bag leaning against his chair " -- my whole life wasted on nothing but foolish pursuits while my best years passed me by, with nothing to show for it but a head full of memories and a few old scars. In fact, I can't even remember my own name after all these years, and people have taken to simply calling me 'the adventurer.'"
He fell silent. The room seemed to have grown colder from the old adventurer's tale, and in his pity for the poor man Alexander almost forgot what he wanted to ask him.
"I'm deeply sorry for your misfortune, sir," the king said, "But will you please let me ask something of you?"
"Certainly," the adventurer replied.
"I'm looking for the realm of the Sea Fairies," Alexander said. "Do you know where it is?"
The adventurer sighed yet again. However, it was not a sigh of weariness or grief this time, but one of fond remembrance and longing. The old man's eyes grew misty, and a faint smile crept onto his face as he spoke again:
"Ah yes," he breathed. "The kingdom of the Sea Fae...though I was only there for a short time, it was as if I spent all my life there. It is a fantastic place, and even though it sits on the bottom of the sea, it is always as bright as a summer day there. It is the home of all the fairies that dwell beneath the sea, creatures that are close kin to mermaids and tritons, but are very rarely seen by man. There is a great city in the center of the realm, and within this city is a great palace, wherein the Lord and Lady of the Sea Fairies dwell. Alas, I wasn't able to gain access to that palace, but merely seeing the kingdom itself was more than any mortal could ask for."
"So you do know where this land lies?" Alexander asked hopefully.
"Indeed I do," the adventurer nodded. "Somewhere in my knapsack is a map that shows precisely how to locate the fairies' realm, and it served me well in my quest to find that elusive kingdom."
"I see," Alexander said. "Friend, I know this may sound foolish to you, but I need to get to the realm of the Sea Fairies as quickly as possible. Could you please let me have this map?"
The adventurer looked slightly offended.
"My boy, I went to a good deal of trouble to find this map! It was once torn in two, and I had to look all over this land to find both halves, then I needed to sail to the western continent just to find a wizard capable of repairing it!"
"Then could I make a copy of it?" Alexander suggested.
"This map is no mere scrap of parchment, lad," said the adventurer. "It is an enchanted map."
"Enchanted?" Alexander repeated. He had certainly had experience with such maps before.
"Indeed. It is nearly impossible to locate the Sea Fairies' kingdom because the fairies hide it from mortal eyes. If a ship is nearing their realm, they may create the illusion of a storm or some rough waves to make the ship turn away from them, or even disorient the crew to make them think that the ship is going the wrong way. My map is the only way around these tricks, for it shows you exactly which direction you need to head in order to successfully reach the area of the ocean that is directly above the Sea Fairies' domain."
Alexander was silent for a moment. Although he had found a means of locating the realm of the Sea Fairies, he had no means of acquiring it for himself.
"Is there anything I can do for you to in exchange for that map, sir?" he pleaded.
The adventurer put a hand to his stubbly chin and furrowed his brow.
"At this moment, the only thing I want now is money," he finally replied. "I've had to resort to doing menial chores at this inn in exchange for food and a place to sleep, but I cannot go on living like this, and I refuse to end my days begging for coins. My boy...if, by some incredible stroke of luck, you happen upon enough gold to buy a house with and give that gold to me, perhaps then I would be willing to part with my map."
"It's that precious to you?" Alexander asked.
"It is," said the adventurer coolly. "Though I would like to help you in your travels, son, I still wish to hold on to what little I have left from my younger days."
"I see," Alexander said, rising from his seat. "Thank you for your help, sir."
"The pleasure is mine, lad," the old man said, "But please, just call me 'Adventurer.' It's the only name I have now."
"If you say so, Adventurer," the king replied. "My name is Alexander, by the way."
"Ah. Well then, good luck on your journey, Alexander," said the adventurer.
As Alexander was slowly walking towards the door, his mind bubbling with questions as to what he should do next, he suddenly remembered the second reason for visiting Glaucus. He turned and headed back to the adventurer's table.
"Pardon me once more, Adventurer," he said, "But there was one other thing about the Sea Fairies I forgot to ask you."
"And what is that?" asked the adventurer.
"How am I to enter the Sea Fairies' kingdom?"
"That," the adventurer muttered, "May be much more problematic than finding it. I myself was able to capture and train a small sea serpent and ride it through the kingdom, but I was only able to remain underwater for a few minutes -- I could only hold my breath for so long."
"I may need to be there longer for a few minutes," Alexander said. "And I don't think I have the time to find and catch a sea serpent."
"In that case, the only way to enter the realm is with magic," the adventurer said. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid I know very little about magic."
"Do you know of anyone in this town who does?" Alexander asked. "I was told that a wizard skilled in magic involving the sea lives here."
The adventurer frowned.
"I don't know of any wizards here," he said, "But I have heard that there is a reclusive man that lives on the top of West Wedge who apparently is in possession of a good deal of magical knowledge. He is probably the only one in this town who could tell you how to enter the realm of the Sea Fairies...but of course, I'm not that acquainted with the people of Glaucus..."
"Thank you, Adventurer," Alexander said. "That's just what I wanted to know. Where did you say this man lived?"
"On top of West Wedge," the adventurer repeated. "That's the name of the cliff this tavern is on. The one on the other side of the gap is East Wedge. They're just names the townsfolk gave the two halves of this rock face to make it easier to get around. Just keep heading west and you should find some stone steps that lead up to his house."
"I see -- and this man, does he have a name?"
"If he does, I've never heard of it," the adventurer said. "I've heard most of the people who speak of him simply call him 'the recluse'...a little like my own name, now that I think about it..."
"Thank you again," Alexander said, extending his hand. "And if I should come into the possession of a vast amount of money, I'll be sure to give it to you in exchange for that map."
"Fair travels to you, lad," the adventurer said, shaking Alexander's hand with a surprisingly strong grip. "May you find all that you seek and avoid that which you do not."
Alexander stepped out of the inn and into the cool, salty air. To his right, the wooden walkway continued along the side of the rock face and eventually disappeared around the side of the cliff. Alexander followed the walkway, past a rope ladder leading to a walkway above him, and past several small houses. Once a townsman passed him, but fortunately, the walkway was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Nonetheless, Alexander felt obliged to flatten himself against the rock face as the man approached, not wanting to take his chances walking along the side nearest to the fifteen-foot drop to the ocean.
When Alexander reached the end of the walkway, he discovered a flight of steps sloping steeply upward, carved out of the Wedge itself. The steps seemed to continue up to the very top of the cliff, and Alexander wasn't sure whether climbing them was a wise idea; a strong wind could easily knock him off. Still, he had to admit that they looked much easier to ascend than the Cliffs of Logic on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain.
With that thought in mind, he began to make his way up the steps. After only a few minutes of climbing, his breathing began to grow labored. It seemed as if the steps were constantly growing steeper, and there were still so many of them left to climb. After a few more minutes, Alexander could see a ramshackle, oddly shaped building perched precariously on the cliff above him. It looked as if several random parts of various houses had been pushed together to create it. He was tempted to look down to see how high he was, but didn't want to risk growing dizzy and falling.
The stone steps finally ended, not at the door of the odd house, but beneath it. Part of the house's base projected out over a large recess in the rock, and it was there that Alexander took the time to catch his breath and examine his new surroundings. At first he was puzzled about how there seemed to be no way to enter the house, but then he noticed a trapdoor in the floor above him. However, it seemed too high overhead to reach.
Just as he was contemplating how he could get into the recluse's house, he heard a loud, resonant voice beside him:
Alexander whirled around, trying to find the person who had spoken to him. All that he found, however, was a brass pipe protruding from the house's floor. The end of the tube was flared out like a trumpet's bell; in fact, the device resembled a trumpet more than anything else.
"Is anyone there?" came the voice again, and this time it was clear that it was emanating from the trumpet. Seeing no other way to reply to the unseen speaker, Alexander turned and spoke into the trumpet:
"Yes. I wish to speak to the recluse...or rather, the man who lives here that is often called 'the recluse.'"
"What is your business with him?" the voice asked.
"It's a matter of some urgency," Alexander said. "I need to speak to a man who has much knowledge of magic, and I was told that you are such a person."
There was silence from the trumpet, then:
"Very well. Just a moment."
There was a slow shuffling sound from the floor above Alexander. Then the trapdoor hinged upwards, and whoever had opened it knocked what looked like a coil of rope through the hatch. The coil turned out to be a rope ladder.
"Climb up," said the man who had opened the trapdoor. "Come on in, now."
Alexander did with some difficulty, considering the steps he had just had to climb. When he reached the top of the rope ladder, he crawled through the hatch and into a room that strongly resembled a ship's cabin. Rows and stacks of books were placed here and there, shelves holding seashells, chunks of driftwood and old bones decorated the walls, and a variety of charts and maps were pinned above a makeshift worktable, which was constructed out of a large plank supported by two tall stacks of old books.
A window seat graced the south side of the room, with several sad-looking cushions placed on it. The window itself looked more like a porthole than a window, and Alexander felt that he could see the whole town of Glaucus from it. He also noticed a familiar-looking tube protruding from the floor adjacent to the window seat, which continued upwards for several feet before curving towards one end of the window seat with a horn-like end to it. It was the other end of the trumpet that Alexander had seen beneath the house. Apparently the recluse used the trumpet to communicate with anyone he heard outside his home to ascertain whether he should invite them in or not.
Alexander examined the recluse himself: he was a short, plump, middle-aged man, wearing a long robe that was so covered in patches that it was difficult to tell what the original garment was. His face was round and friendly, and his dark brown hair was turning white, but only around a spot just above the center of his widow's peak, making it look as if a pale sun were rising above his forehead.
"Good day to you, stranger," the recluse said.
"Good day," Alexander echoed. "Are you the one known as 'the recluse?'"
"I suppose I am," the recluse said. "What is your name, traveler?"
"I see...and what exactly is it you want of me, Alexander?"
"I need to get to the realm of the Sea Fairies. I was told that the only way for me to do that was by magic, and that you were the one to ask about such an undertaking."
The recluse sighed and nodded slowly, casting his eyes downward.
"I suppose I am," he said gloomily. "I know more about magic than anyone else in this village."
"I was also told that there is an accomplished wizard in this village...are you he?"
The recluse shook his head.
"No, no,' he muttered. "That was my father. He was the most skilled magic-user this town has ever seen. As for myself, however..."
Here he sighed again.
"He tried his hardest to teach me, and I tried my hardest to become as great a wizard as he was, but I simply never had the knack. After a terrible magical accident, I swore off casting spells forever, and decided to become a doctor. Ten years ago, while I was traveling, Father disappeared. When I returned to Glaucus, I found all his belongings still scattered around this little shack. I never knew what happened to him."
"I'm sorry," Alexander said softly, trying to hide his own despair at the prospect that this recluse wouldn't be able to help him enter the Sea Fairies' kingdom after all. Vark's information about the wizard had been quite out of date.
After a respectful pause, he spoke again:
"So your knowledge of magic isn't enough to help me, then?"
"I didn't say that," the recluse said. "All I said was that I refuse to perform magic, but I still have a head full of magical knowledge and a house full of magical books and knick-knacks..."
Here his face became downcast once more.
"...But if I were you, I wouldn't risk your neck brewing up some dangerous potion or reciting some diabolical incantation. Magic is simply too dangerous for novices to meddle with."
"I've had experience with magic before," Alexander said. "And nothing's ever gone wrong..."
"Yet," the recluse interjected. "I had that same overconfident air before my little accident. Take my word for it; it's simply not worth the danger. I suppose you might think it's thrilling to risk death by traveling to that realm, but that kind of adventure just isn't..."
"I'm not doing this just for the sake of adventuring," Alexander said defensively.
"Oh?" the recluse asked. "For what other reason, then? Riches? Fame?"
"Family," Alexander replied coolly.
The recluse's eyes became wide, and he ran a hand though his hair.
"What happened?" he asked quietly. Something in the man's voice demeanor convinced Alexander that he could trust him.
"My son was taken by the fairies," the king said quietly. "I don't know why, but I'll do anything in my power to find him again and persuade the fairies to return him to me."
The recluse stared at Alexander in astonishment and pity.
"Good heavens," he finally gasped. "If I had known...please forgive me, friend. I had no idea..."
"No need to apologize," Alexander said, raising his hand. "Just help me, Recluse. That's all I ask."
"I shall, Alexander," the recluse said. "By the way: my name is Emmett."
"Then I'm glad to meet you, Emmett," Alexander said, warmly shaking the hand that the recluse offered to him.
"Now let me see," Emmett said, "I believe the best way to enter the Sea Fairies' realm would be through some form of transfiguration...have you undergone any sort of transfiguration before, Alexander?"
"Yes," Alexander replied, recalling the spell he had cast that had enabled him to briefly change into a fly and an eagle several years before.
"Good," Emmett said. "I suppose entering the realm as a seal or a fish would work, but you probably want to stay as close to your own shape as possible, correct?"
"Yes," said Alexander again. "I don't know how I'll be able to carry my son back with me if I have fins instead of arms."
"Then I think I know just the right spell you need," said Emmett, shuffling over to the nearest pile of books and starting to dig through it. After a few minutes of digging, he sighed and moved over to another pile.
"This may take a while," he said to Alexander. "Feel free to make yourself at home."
Alexander nodded and turned to examine the room once more. There were two doors leading off to adjacent rooms, but he didn't feel like exploring the rest of the recluse's house. The book-supported table he had noticed earlier was covered with beakers, retorts, glass tubes and vials, a mortar and pestle, and various other similar implements. They seemed like the sort of things a wizard would possess in order to create certain potions, but it seemed that a doctor could easily get some use out of them as well. There was another table near the north wall that had several medical instruments resting on it, and some distance from it was a large, leather-bound trunk. Various trinkets decorated the sparsely furnished room, either sitting on shelves or hanging from the ceiling. Among these odd knick-knacks were a piece of colored glass that was twisted like a piece of taffy, a small crystal ball, a sharks' jaws, and a tiny model of a castle inside a glass bottle -- the sight of which stirred some very unpleasant memories in Alexander.
"Ah-hah!" Emmett exclaimed triumphantly. "I found it!"
Alexander turned back to the recluse, who came shuffling eagerly towards him. It seemed like the length of his robe prevented him from walking normally. Emmett held out a large, crumbling book, which was open to a page near the middle.
"This is what you need," Emmett said, jabbing at one of the pages. Alexander frowned at it.
At the bottom of the page were the instructions for the creation of three different spells, written in an elegant, precise hand. The instructions called for a variety of odd ingredients that had to be combined in various ways. Above the instructions and to the left were two engravings labeled "Spell 1" and "Spell 2", both depicting a creature with the tail of a fish and the torso of a woman, but the top right section of the page was completely gone. It looked as if it had rotted away or been chewed to pieces by vermin.
"Emmett, this page..."
"I know," Emmett sighed. "It's been like that for decades. I don't know how it happened."
"But what was on the missing piece?" Alexander asked. "It might be something important."
"I'm afraid it was something important," Emmett said sadly. "You see, these instructions are for three spells: the first one allows the person who uses it correctly to breathe underwater, but as you probably know, humans are terrible swimmers. Thus the inclusion of these other two spells: one will temporarily transform a person into a mermaid or a merman -- or triton, as they are sometimes known -- while the other will transform a person into a merrow."
"A what?" Alexander asked.
"A merrow is a close relative of the mermaid," explained Emmett. "The females are almost identical to mermaids, but the males are spectacularly hideous and grotesque: clawed hands with webbed fingers, small beady eyes and thick warty skin. Though I have no firsthand experience in such a thing, I am certain that changing into one is hardly a pleasant experience."
Alexander nodded uneasily in agreement.
"So...which spell is the merman spell and which one is the merrow spell?"
"Ah," Emmett said sheepishly, "That's the problem with this page being incomplete. As you can see, the illustrations show how the spells change women, but since mermaids and female merrows are identical and the illustrations depicting how the spells alter men are gone, there's no way of telling the two spells apart."
Alexander groaned inwardly.
"And you can't remember which spell is which either?"
"No," Emmett said, shaking his large head. "I'm sorry, Alexander, but this is the only thing I have that can help you."
Alexander gazed cautiously at the incomplete spell page. Even though the instructions were complete, the missing illustrations made him apprehensive. However, the thought of Devin quickly made up his mind. He reached for the heavy book, but to his surprise, Emmett held up a hand to stop him.
"You don't need to take the entire book," the recluse said. "Just take the page. I have no need of it myself, after all."
He tore the thin page from the book and gently handed it to Alexander, who carefully pocketed it.
"I'm deeply grateful to you, Emmett," the king said reverently.
"I'm glad that I could be of assistance to you, friend," said Emmett. "Just remember what I said about magic: be careful with it. You never know when it might turn on you."
"I will," Alexander said solemnly, turning towards the trapdoor and preparing himself for the long climb down.
"Wait," Emmett suddenly said. "Do you plan on returning here?"
"To Glaucus or your house?"
"I might. I may have need of your advice on other magical matters."
"In that case," Emmett said, digging into a pocket of his robe, "I want to give you this."
He held out a small silver ring, which Alexander took from him.
"Wear that ring and turn it on your finger thrice whenever you wish to return to my house. It will transport you to just below my door when you are elsewhere, and when you are here and wish to leave, it will transport you to the base of the stone steps."
"Why, thank you," Alexander laughed, slipping the ring onto the little finger of his left hand.
"My father forged that ring and many others like it," Emmett smiled. "And they've remained some of the few magical items that I still trust. They certainly make leaving and returning here less of a horror."
Alexander smiled, thanked Emmett for his help once more and carefully turned the ring three times. Instantly, the interior of the recluse's home vanished, and Alexander found himself standing on the lowest walkway of West Wedge.
Alexander pulled the page from Emmett's book out of his pocket and began to read the instructions at the bottom. Despite being unable to tell which of the two main spells was which, he knew that he had to start hunting down the various ingredients. Above the three spell directions was the heading "Spells For the Temporary Transformation of a Mortal into a Merbeing or a Merrow". Alexander continued reading:
Initial Spell (Caution: Prepare this potion first)1. Grind the grass to a pulp in a mortar.
1 vial seawater
A small handful of the magical grass which grows about the village of Glaucus
2. Boil the seawater in a glass retort, separating the water from the salt. Discard the salt.
3. Squeeze the juice from the grass and mix it with the pure water. Keep the spent grass fibers, for they will be needed later. This potion will enable the drinker to breathe underwater. It must be consumed before either of the two spells below are attempted. --------------------------- Spell 1:
A talisman to invoke the powers of the sea
A thimble-sized lump of wrung-out Glaucan grass
A sprig of Cryptalis sea moss
A finger-sized section of the root of a red shrub from the Wandering Island
A large drop of fish oil
Seawater 1. Chop the root as finely as possible.
2. Mix the moss, grass and root together with the fish oil.
3: Add seawater to the mixture until it begins to congeal into a solid lump.
4. Wave the talisman over the lump. It will split open, revealing a tiny pill.
5. See bottom of page for further instructions. --------------------------- Spell 2:
A talisman to invoke the powers of the sea
A thimble-sized lump of wrung-out Glaucan grass
A sprig of Cryptalis sea moss
A finger-sized section of the root of a red shrub from the Wandering Island
A silverheart shell
Seawater 1. Chop the root as finely as possible.
2. Scrape out the shining inside of the shell.
2. Mix the moss, grass and root together with the shell scrapings.
3: Add seawater to the mixture until it begins to congeal into a solid lump.
4. Wave the talisman over the lump. It will split open, revealing a tiny pill.
5. See bottom of page for further instructions. --------------------------- After either of these spells has been completed, swallow the pill, but only after the preliminary potion been taken and the subject has immersed himself completely in water. The transformation will last until the subject leaves the water and intones the following:
Though a life 'neath the sea
Is for what some yearn
My home it is not
To earth I return
Alexander read the text carefully, then read it again a second time. Some of these ingredients seemed common and easy to acquire, while some were quite alien to him and gave him no clue as to where they could be found. Where did Cryptalis moss grow, and was this magical grass simply any type of grass that grew around Glaucus? However, out of all the strange and unusual ingredients listed on the page, it was the red shrub that made Alexander the most curious. The page clearly stated that it grew on the Wandering Island, but where was the Wandering Island?
Though Alexander didn't know where this island was, he did know someone who might. Tucking the page back into his pocket, he walked down the boardwalk towards the first place in Glaucus he had visited: the inn.
The old adventurer was still seated at his table in the corner. Alexander greeted him and again sat down in one of the uncomfortable chairs.
"Tell me, Adventurer," Alexander asked. "Have you ever heard of the Wandering Island?"
"The Wandering Island," the adventurer breathed, "Yes, indeed I have. I spent many years searching for it, and eventually I discovered it. A very peculiar place indeed, covered with strange, thick soil, many strange plants but no animal life save for the birds that fly by it. And true to its name, that island wanders a good deal -- it is never in the same place twice."
"Then how did you find it?"
"I found a trader in possession of an amulet that he claimed would direct a ship towards the island," the adventurer replied. "I was skeptical at first, but amazingly, the amulet worked perfectly, and I reached the island within two days. I only stayed long enough to cut a sprig from one of the plants to prove that I'd been there. After all, I didn't want the island to drift off and leave my ship behind."
"Do you still have this amulet?" Alexander asked.
The adventurer stared incredulously at him.
"You want to go there, don't you?" he asked.
"Yes, I do," Alexander admitted.
"Well," the adventurer grumbled, "Seeing as how I have no more need of the amulet, you may take it, but on one condition."
"And what is that?"
"Please return it whenever you come back to Glaucus. As I said before, I still want to keep what little I have with me."
"I promise I will," Alexander said with a bow of his head. The adventurer opened his knapsack and rummaged around in it, eventually withdrawing a small amulet on a silver chain. The amulet was roughly triangular in shape and had a thick ridge running along its center. It was made of an odd, shiny material that was hard, yet strangely light, almost like bone. Attached to the amulet was a tiny silver arrow, mounted on a small, vertical rod sticking out of the amulet's center.
"Once you are at sea, that arrow will point the way to the Wandering Island," the adventurer said. "And once you have reached the Wandering Island, it will direct you back to the place you departed from -- in this case, Glaucus. That's all there is to it."
"Thank you very much, Adventurer," Alexander said. "
"Just be careful out there, Alexander," the adventurer warned. "There's something very sinister about that island..."
Alexander returned to the Dryad. Shappa wasn't on the top deck, but after a quick search of the lower deck, the king found him curled up in his hammock in their sleeping quarters. Alexander quietly cleared his throat, and Shappa sprang awake as if he had heard a cannon go off.
"Sorry, Shappa," Alexander said, "But we have to set sail."
"Are we through in Glaucus already?" Shappa asked.
"Definitely not," Alexander said, "But I need to visit a certain island before I do anything else in this town."
"And you know where this island is?"
"In a sense," Alexander faltered. "That is, I have this amulet that is supposed to direct a ship to the island."
He held the amulet up, and Shappa squinted intently at it.
"I don't know much about magic," he remarked, "But that amulet should work with the Dryad. Try putting it on one of the prow's branches."
Alexander turned and headed back towards the top deck, with Shappa close behind him. The pair headed towards the bow of the ship, where Alexander placed the silver chain the amulet hung on over one of the many branches that the Dryad had instead of a figurehead. Immediately, the gangplank began to fold itself up and the ship gracefully turned away from the pier, heading away from the rocky shallows and towards the open ocean.
"Looks like it works," Shappa said smugly. "I'm sure Vark will find your supplementing his magic with some of your own rather interesting."
"I suppose he might," Alexander agreed. "By the way, Shappa: what in the world keeps the Dryad from drifting away from the pier? That gangplank can't possibly be heavy enough to hold it in place."
"It isn't," Shappa said. "Whenever the Dryad docks, it sends roots down to the ocean floor. It then retracts those roots whenever it departs."
Alexander shook his head in amazement and stared at the pale green leaves sprouting from the prow, unable to suppress a bemused smile.
For their first hour at sea, Alexander quietly observed the adventurer's amulet as it dangled from the Dryad's prow. The silver arrow attached to its center pointed up steadfastly most of the time, but occasionally it would veer slightly to the right or the left. Whenever this happened, Alexander would feel a slight lurch beneath his feet, which was undoubtedly the ship altering its course to the direction that the arrow pointed.
"How long do you think we'll be at sea?" he asked Shappa.
"Why do you think I might know the answer to such a question?" Shappa asked.
"I don't," Alexander said. "I just wanted to know what your feelings were on this."
"Ah," Shappa replied. "If you must know, I have no idea how long we'll be at sea, but if luck is with us, we should have enough supplies to last us, and we can always return to Glaucus if they start to run out. What island did you say we were traveling to, Lex?"
"The Wandering Island."
"And you say it drifts about in the sea and never appears in the same location twice?"
"That's what the man I got this amulet from claims."
Shappa twitched his whiskers suspiciously.
"I don't like it," he said. "Islands don't move. They may remain undiscovered, appear out of nowhere or sink into the sea, but they don't move."
"Perhaps the adventurer was just exaggerating," Alexander suggested.
"Yes," Shappa said quietly. "Perhaps."
He was quiet after that. After a few more minutes of observing the pendant, Alexander began to feel a bit tired from the morning's activities and decided to catch some rest below decks. Scarcely had he nodded off when he heard Shappa's light voice addressing him.
"We're here," was all the half-breed said.
"How long have we been at sea?" Alexander asked as he groggily followed Shappa to the upper deck.
"Three hours," Shappa said. "However, at the rate this ship moves, we may have covered the distance that a normal craft might cover within two days."
"And we've reached The Wandering Island already?" Alexander yawned as they reached the Dryad's top deck.
"Look for yourself," Shappa said, pointing over the railing.
The Dryad was floating next to a tiny, roughly round island. It was dappled with trees and shrubs, some of which were familiar, but most of them had very alien colors and shapes, looking more like flora Alexander would have expected to find on the bottom of the sea. The island's soil was varied and sparse; in some regions there was nothing on the island's surface but a layer of flat, pale stone slabs. There were no hills, ponds, boulders or rivers upon it; in fact, it looked more like a lump of stone protruding from the waves than a true island.
Alexander examined the island, and though it did appear quite strange to him, it didn't appear dangerous. The only real danger he would have to worry about was the island's moving away from the ship while he was on the island. He glanced where he knew the Dryad's gangplank would be, but to his confusion, the gangplank was still folded up.
"Shappa, why isn't the gangplank down?"
"I have no idea," Shappa said, twitching his nose nervously. There was a slightly agitated edge to his voice. "It's as if it doesn't recognize this island as a place to dock."
"Then how am I supposed to get to the island?" Alexander asked.
"I don't know," Shappa muttered, staring at the island as if he expected it to attack him.
Alexander stared at the island as well, then turned and headed back below decks. In the cabin next to the sleeping quarters, he found a large coil of thick rope. He picked it up, carried it back to the top deck and tied one end of it to the ship's foremast.
"You're going down there?" Shappa asked nervously.
"Of course," Alexander said. "I need to get the root from a plant that grows on this island. What's the matter with you, Shappa?"
"What's the matter with this island is a better question," Shappa said, wrinkling his nose and twitching his whiskers. "There's something...something wrong about it."
Alexander turned and looked at the island.
"What do you mean?" he inquired.
"I...I can't explain it," Shappa said. "It wouldn't make any sense..."
"Try explaining," Alexander said.
"This island...it smells wrong," Shappa said. "It smells like...it just smells wrong."
"Have you considered that it smells 'wrong' because it might be magic or enchanted in some way?" Alexander asked. "It is a moving island, after all."
"No," Shappa protested madly. "It..."
Then he stopped short. His eyes flicked from the island to Alexander, who stood with the rope in his hands.
"All right," he said in a much calmer voice. "Go down there if you must, but whatever you do, be careful. And get back here as quick as you can."
Alexander assured Shappa that he would, threw the free end of the rope over the side of the ship, grasped the rope in both hands and began to slowly descend it. When he reached the island's muddy shores, he cautiously set foot upon them, half-expecting something horrible to happen. However, nothing did.
Alexander began walking inland, even though the island was so small that it seemed to be all coastlines. As the adventurer had said, there were no animals to be seen, and the peculiar plants that grew upon the tiny piece of land seemed to be its only inhabitants. Alexander examined the various trees and bushes carefully, looking for the red shrub that was listed on the page of spell ingredients.
After a few minutes of searching, the king found a small cluster of red shrubs growing beneath a warped palm tree. The shrubs were aptly named: not only were the teardrop-shaped leaves bright red, but so were the branches and the central stem. They looked more like coral than shrubs. Alexander knelt beside one of them and attempted to uproot it, but the small plants were much less delicate than they appeared. The shrub refused to budge, no matter how the king tugged at it.
Alexander decided to try a different approach and dig the shrub out. However, the ground was packed quite hard, and digging with his hands failed to get him any closer to his immediate goal. He sat puzzled for a moment before remembering that he had his sword with him, and though it wasn't made for something as undignified as tearing up plants, he could think of no better use for it at the moment. Unsheathing the blade, Alexander drove the sword into the thick earth that surrounded the shrub. He gouged at the soil again and again, driving the sword in further and further each time. Despite his best efforts, the shrub still remained firmly rooted.
Enraged at being bested by a mere plant, Alexander stabbed at the earth more furiously, driving the sword in more viciously until one thrust made the blade sink in almost up to the hilt. It was this attempt that seemed to do the trick, for when Alexander tugged at the shrub again, this time it slowly came out in his hand, trailing a long, blood red root behind it.
Alexander withdrew his sword from the soil and suddenly gaped, his satisfaction changing to confusion as he beheld a black liquid coating the weapon's tip. Gazing at the large hole that he had pulled the shrub from, he saw more of the same liquid pooling in the bottom. However, Alexander's bewilderment was short-lived, since at that moment, the island began to shake fiercely, and he could just hear Shappa's terror-stricken voice screaming at him to get back on the boat.
Sheathing his sword and leaping to his feet, Alexander took off running towards the Dryad with the shrub grasped tightly in his hand. The island was rumbling violently now, and the tremors nearly knocked him off his feet more than once. Soon, the ship was in sight. With all his strength, Alexander sprinted towards it, noticed almost too late that the island had shifted away from the ship, took a flying leap towards the rope dangling over the side and caught it with his one free hand.
He hung helplessly from the rope for a moment before deciding to grip the shrub between his teeth. With both of his hands free, he scrambled up the rope, clambered on board and spat the bitter-tasting plant out of his mouth.
"Glaucus!" he shouted to the Dryad, eager to get away from the Wandering Island as quickly as possible. The ship remained motionless, and the waves stirred up by the nearby island began buffeting the sides of the small craft. Alexander shouted the name of their destination again, but once more there was no response from the magic ship.
"What's going on?" Alexander shouted to Shappa. "Why isn't it obeying me?"
"I don't know!" Shappa screamed, hunched over in a terrified crouch on the deck, his claws digging into the wood. "There shouldn't be anything wrong with -- "
He suddenly spun around and stared at the bow of the ship...and the small, magical amulet hanging from the prow. He ran to the prow and snatched the amulet from the prow's branches.
"Try again!" he yelled to Alexander.
Alexander shouted the name of Glaucus again, and this time the ship lurched forward so quickly that both its crewmembers were almost knocked off their feet, as if it sensed the urgency of their situation. Within a minute, they were safely out of range of the Wandering Island, though the ocean was still churning wildly beneath them. Standing at the railing, Alexander and Shappa stared at the island, as it slowly seemed to roll over and vanish beneath the waves. Then, a colossal, webbed, scaly tail broke the surface of the waves, a tail so large it seemed to blot out the sun. It was visible for only a moment, and then it too disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a vast still spot in the choppy water.
Shappa's claws were still extended, digging into the gnarled railing as he stared out at the water, trembling fiercely. When the rocking of the craft had finally subsided, the cat turned slowly to Alexander and forced out a noise that was intended to be a chuckle but came out as a breathless gasp.
"Well, what do you know," he said, with a quaver in his voice. "I thought I smelled something -- "
Alexander swiftly rounded on Shappa.
"If you say 'something fishy', I'll..."
The king's admonishment ended prematurely. The terror of the situation had finally started to hit him. His whole body felt suddenly weak, particularly in the legs. He leaned forwards slightly, his hand on the railing for support. Shappa looked at him curiously.
"I'll...I'll tell you later," Alexander muttered. "After I've rested."
"So you think that the pendant's magic might have been interfering with the Dryad's magic?" Alexander asked. It was late afternoon, and he and Shappa were swiftly making their way back to Glaucus, talking to each other from across the top deck.
"Yes," Shappa replied. "Again, I don't know much about magic, but I do know that two different types of it often have trouble working together."
The adventurer had certainly been right when he said there was something strange about the Wandering Island. Alexander should have realized what the island truly was sooner -- the Dryad must have seen the island for what it really was, which would explain why it refused to extend its gangplank, and those flat slabs of rock that Alexander had seen weren't rock after all, but patches of scales...and the black liquid Alexander had seen must have been blood...he had pierced the enormous creature with his sword, which was what had upset it. No wonder Shappa had been reluctant to say what he thought the island smelled like.
"I suppose I can't blame the adventurer for what almost happened to us, then," Alexander muttered, staring at the adventurer's pendant, which he held in his hand.
"I should say not," Shappa said. "And just why did you need that plant anyway, Lex?"
"It's an ingredient in a spell I'm preparing which should hopefully enable me to enter the kingdom of the Sea Fairies."
"I see...and have you found the kingdom yet?"
"Well, yes and no. The adventurer has a map there, but he won't part with it unless -- "
A thunderous boom cut Alexander off, and Shappa leapt back with a yelp of surprise. A large puff of smoke had appeared between them, and when it had cleared, an alarmed Vark was standing on the deck.
"Oh dear, oh dear," he muttered, wringing his forepaws.
"What are you doing here again, Vark?" Alexander asked.
"I'm not altogether sure," the aardvark said, "But I'm starting to suspect that I've caught myself in yet another magical trap of my own making."
"What do you mean?" Shappa inquired.
"Well, you see, I haven't practiced much magic in nearly twenty years," Vark explained. "And I started two difficult projects at roughly the same time: constructing the Dryad and learning how to teleport myself. It seems like that wasn't the brightest idea, because now it seems like whenever I attempt to teleport myself, I end up here, on this ship. At least when I try teleporting back, I always make it to the place I'm aiming for, and I never run into the same problem when I'm teleporting somebody besides myself..."
"So now you're always going to show up here whenever you attempt to teleport?" Alexander asked.
"Not if I can help it," Vark replied. "I'll do my best to get about in the non-magical way until you return. Then hopefully I can undo whatever mistakes I made that have somehow linked me to this vessel. By the way, how is your journey going so far, Your Majesty?"
"Fairly well," Alexander replied. "We made it to Glaucus, and I think I may have discovered a way to the Sea Fairies' realm."
"Oh, wonderful," Vark cried. "I wish you nothing but the best, my king! Good luck, and I promise not to show up like this again."
With that, he vanished in another puff of smoke. Shappa and Alexander looked doubtfully at each other.
"At least we know why he's been appearing like this now," Alexander muttered.
"Indeed," Shappa said with a shrug. "Despite what the poor fellow said, though, I wouldn't be surprised if he accidentally visits us yet again."
The Dryad reached Glaucus in the late afternoon. The sun was low over the ocean, and clouds were gathering in preparation for what was shaping up to be a spectacular sunset. Alexander was reading the contents of the spell book page as the ship neared the town. Now he had one ingredient, and enough of it for both of the main spells, but there were still many more ingredients left to find. As he studied the page, he found that one of the items, a type of grass said to grow around Glaucus, was essential for all three spells. He decided to find out where he could obtain the grass next, but first, he had an unrelated but important errand to run.
As soon as the ship had docked, Alexander disembarked and walked towards West Wedge, stepping onto the walkway that connected the pier with the rock face and continuing east until he came to the nameless inn owned by the two odd-eyed women.
He opened the door to find the place's tavern a little more active than it had been that morning. Several men were eating and drinking at the tables, and many of them were talking in loud voices, while One-Eye and Three-Eyes bustled behind the counter and carried plates and mugs out to their customers.
Sitting at the same table as before was the old adventurer, watching the inn's various patrons indifferently. Alexander walked up to the man and held out the amulet, which, he now realized, was not bone after all, but an enormous fish's scale.
"Here you are," Alexander said.
The adventurer turned to face Alexander with the same look of indifference he was giving the rest of the men in the room, but his eyes brightened when he recognized both Alexander and the amulet. He gratefully took the latter.
"Thank you, lad," he said with an inclination of his head. "I almost feared that you might not keep your promise, but I'm glad to see that my apprehensions were uncalled for."
"Thank you for trusting me," Alexander replied. "I don't suppose my honesty is sufficient payment for that map you spoke of earlier, though."
"I'm afraid not," the adventurer said. "If your honesty could buy me a decent place to live, I would gladly give you the map, but as it is, I'm not giving this map up unless you give me a decent sum of money."
Alexander nodded, thanked the adventurer, and walked towards the counter at the back of the tavern. One-Eye and Three-Eyes seemed to be arguing about something. When Three-Eyes noticed him out of the corner of her right eye (since her upper eye was once again covered by the cloth she wore over her head) she crossly turned to him and snapped:
"If you're looking for a room, I'm sorry, but they're all taken. As for food -- "
She stopped in mid-sentence upon recognizing Alexander, and a large, toothy grin split her long face. She surreptitiously nudged her sister in the ribs, who angrily turned in Alexander's direction, then her face also melted into an overly sweet expression.
"Why, welcome back to our inn, friend," she said kindly.
"Yes, it's good to see you again," added Three-Eyes.
"Pardon me again, ladies," Alexander said politely, "But I have another question to ask of you."
One-Eye cast her eye down, looking slightly put out for a moment.
"Ah, yes," she said flatly. "We suspected you might ask us about it eventually. In fact, I'll save you the trouble of asking it and and simply answer the question for you instead."
Alexander stared confusedly at One-Eye as she continued speaking:
"My sister and I have been like this since birth. We weren't cursed, as far as I know, and Mother had no idea why...she just told us we were special."
"I know why One-Eye is the way she is," Three-Eyes said with a mischievous grin. "Long before she was born, a Cyclops visited Mother, without Father's knowing. They soon fell in love, and..."
One-Eye trod upon Three-Eyes' foot with all her might. Three-Eyes squawked in pain and hopped awkwardly for a moment.
"That's not funny," One-Eye growled. She quickly turned back to Alexander. "Anyway, we had another sister who had two eyes, just like everybody else. As you might expect, she was named Two-Eyes as well. A pretty plain, fragile little thing..."
"...And not terribly smart, either," put in Three-Eyes.
"Hey, who's telling this story, Three-Eyes?" One-Eye barked angrily. "To make a long story short, Two-Eyes somehow acquired a vast amount of wealth, and a young knight passing by our house decided to marry her. They rode off together, leaving us with nothing. After Mother grew ill and died, Three-Eyes and I started begging for food in our town, but our eyes made more people fear us than pity us.
"Then one day, we heard of Glaucus, where the mundane supposedly 'meets the miraculous' and unusual beings are commonplace and accepted. We came here, and sure enough, nobody seemed to loathe us at all. We got jobs as scullery maids at this inn, and when the innkeeper decided to retire, he liked us so much that he left us in charge of the place.
"So," said One-Eye, after pausing to catch her breath, "that's the answer to your question as to why we have odd eyes and how we came to be here."
"Ah...that's a fascinating tale, Miss One-Eye," Alexander said, "But I wasn't going to ask you about your eyes or your origins."
One-Eye's smile fell.
"I wanted to know about the magic grass of Glaucus."
"First Sea Fairies, now magic grass," she chortled. "What are you, a young wizard?"
"That's enough, Three-Eyes," growled One-Eye. "I'm afraid I'm not intimately familiar with this grass of yours, young man, but I know someone who most likely is."
"And who might that be?"
"The man who once owned this inn," One-Eye said with a smile. "Nicest gent you're ever likely to meet. Knows everything there is to know about this town and its history. He lives in a big house on East Wedge. You can't miss it."
"Indeed," said Three-Eyes. "I've never met a kinder man. He took us in when everyone else in the world threw us out. He's definitely the sort you can look up to, he is."
For some reason, One-Eye became angry at this last sentence.
"That's not funny either, Three-Eyes. You know how sensitive old Tavish can be!"
"But Tavish isn't here, is he?" Three-Eyes sneered.
"That's not the point! The point is..."
"If you'll excuse me, ladies," Alexander said as courteously as he was able, "I'll be off to visit this man...did you say his name was Tavish?"
One-Eye quickly regained her dignified posture and her wide, warm smile, and Three-Eyes immediately fell silent.
"Yes," One-Eye said in a strained voice, sounding as if she was eager to see Alexander off so she could get back to yelling at her sister. "The largest house on East Wedge. You'll know it when you see it."
"Very well. Thank you again."
The moment Alexander had turned away from the two sisters, they began quarreling with each other once more:
"Insulting poor old Tavish!" One-Eye growled. "After all he's done for us!"
"Well, how about your launching into our entire life story before you knew that poor man even wanted to hear it?" Three-Eyes snapped. "And you tell me not to jump to conclusions!"
"Well, you didn't exactly try to stop me," One-Eye retorted.
"I was afraid you'd yell at me again...and I'm sure he was, too! Didn't you see that look on his face as you were droning on?"
"No...and why were you looking at him? Were you waiting for another chance to show him your extra eye?"
It took all of Alexander's self restraint to keep him from sticking his fingers in his ears as he hurriedly made his way away from the two shrieking women and towards the door.
It didn't take long for Alexander to find the house that One-Eye had described to him. It certainly was the largest house on the right side of the cleft, if not the largest house in the entire town. Alexander knocked on the enormous oak door, which seemed much taller than it needed to be, though the latch was situated in the usual place. After a moment, he heard a muffled "Just a moment" from within the house, and the sound of heavy shuffling footsteps.
Presently, a middle-aged man opened the door. He was dressed in plain clothes that were somewhat worn and tattered, had a fringe of bright red hair around his bald head, and a bushy red beard that he had woven into a chunky, angled braid. His large face had a few wrinkles in it, and his bright blue eyes gazed kindly at Alexander.
He also stood nearly ten feet tall.
Three-Eyes' quip about Tavish being the sort of man "you can look up to" revisited Alexander's mind, and he would have groaned at it if he weren't so busy trying not to look startled in the presence of this enormous man.
"Good day," Alexander said. "Are you Tavish?"
Tavish bent over slowly, falling into a hunched, humble posture.
"I am," he said gently. Even though he spoke softly, his voice was noticeably louder and deeper than that of any man Alexander's size.
"My name is Alexander," said the king. "I'm a newcomer to your town, and I have a question about a type of grass that is said to grow around here, and I was told that you know of it."
"Whoever told you that isn't mistaken," Tavish replied in the same delicate growl. "If you would care to come in...oh drat. Just a moment please, sir."
Tavish turned and lumbered away from the door. Alexander stared through the doorway at the vast interior of Tavish's house. Though it was sparsely furnished, nearly everything was almost twice its normal size. There was a colossal bed against one wall, and a chest at the foot of the bed could easily have served as a bed for Alexander if it were open. There were several shelves that seemed to be of normal size, yet were positioned at high spots on the walls, which were out of Alexander's reach but could easily be seen and accessed by Tavish.
A table that Alexander could probably walk under without ducking and a single wooden chair stood against the wall opposite the door, and Tavish was kneeling beside the table, pulling something out from beneath it. When the huge man rose and turned, Alexander could see that the object was a normal-sized table, which Tavish carried to the center of the house's single room and carefully set down. He then hurried back to the large table and pulled a normal-sized chair from beneath it, then returned to the center of the room and placed the chair next to the table.
Tavish returned to the doorway, hunched over and gesturing politely.
"Come in," he said. "I'm sorry about that, I just wasn't anticipating company this late in the day and I didn't think I would need to set things up."
"Thank you," Alexander said, uncertain how to react to the gigantic man's overflowing hospitality, "But my question is very brief, and -- "
"You are my guest," Tavish said. "It would be rude of me to have you stand in my doorway when you could be sitting instead. Please, be seated."
He beckoned fiercely to Alexander, who stared uneasily at Tavish. Despite what One-Eye and Three-Eyes had said about him, Alexander felt a little nervous about entering a giant's home, even though Tavish was rather short for a giant. Despite his size, though, there was an earnest, almost pleading look in his eyes that made Alexander think that perhaps this giant could be trusted.
The king made his way towards the normal-sized table as casually as he was able and took a seat in the chair next to it. Tavish walked around to the other side of the table and delicately knelt down beside it. Tavish's use of a smaller table for his human guests seemed to be a gesture to make them more comfortable in his home, but it was still unnerving for Alexander to be sitting next to a man whose enormity made him feel no larger than a small child by comparison.
"Now, then friend," Tavish said gently, placing his plate-sized hands on the table, "You know my name...may I ask yours?"
"I see. Well, welcome to Glaucus, Alexander...and what was the question you wanted me to answer? I'm afraid it slipped my mind."
"I was told that you know of the magic grass of Glaucus."
"I do indeed," Tavish replied. "Legend has it that many years ago, a fisherman laid out his catch on the grass on the shore of this land. To his amazement, the fish seemed to spring to life, wriggle with amazing speed towards the shore, and leap back into the water. The fisherman was puzzled, and wondered if the grass somehow had some sort of power in it. He tasted some of the blades, and suddenly he was seized with a mad yearning to be part of the sea. He ran and dived headlong into the surf, but he did not drown -- he changed into a creature that was half man, half fish, and became an immortal being of the sea. When this town was constructed here, it was given the same name as the fisherman -- Glaucus."
"My goodness," Alexander said nervously, starting to wonder whether preparing the spells that included this grass was such a good idea after all.
"However, most of that story might be mere artistic embellishment," Tavish continued. "Perhaps the grass played no part at all in turning the Glaucus into an inhabitant of the sea, and perhaps the change was only temporary. All that we know for certain is that some of the grasses surrounding this village have magical properties, and that human beings are advised against sampling them, just in case."
"I see," Alexander nodded, still a little worried. "What if this grass was prepared in a certain way and combined with different ingredients in a magic concoction?"
"Then I'd say it would be relatively safe to consume, provided whoever was mixing the concoction knew what he was doing. A lot of things are harmful in their pure state, but relatively harmless when distilled or split apart. As I said before, the properties of our grass are often quite exaggerated."
"I need to acquire some of this magic grass, though. What does it look like?"
Tavish smiled and shook his head.
"It will do you little good to try looking for it around the village," he said. "Over the years, it has become rare along the coast, and some of the townsfolk are trying to figure out ways that the grass can be replenished. However, there are still spots near here where this grass can be found in abundance, though they are difficult to find."
"Where are these spots?"
"Deep in the woods to the north," Tavish said, gesturing in that general direction with his hand. "However, for a novice, it's almost impossible to distinguish the magic grass from the normal grass. The only way to identify the magic grass with certainty is if you hunt for it by night."
"By night? Why night, Tavish?"
"This grass glows in the dark," Tavish said. "You could spot a large patch of it a mile away on a clear night...but only when the moon is large and bright. Even though the grass does glow on near-moonless nights, it shines so faintly that none but the most keen-eyed humans can see it."
"Is the moon going to be bright come evening?" Alexander asked. "I haven't been heeding its size these last few nights."
"I'm afraid I can't say," Tavish shrugged. "My age has robbed me of my wisdom, and now, I couldn't tell you whether the moon is waxing or waning, nor whether it is gibbous or new."
"You have no idea whether the moon will be bright enough to see the grass by tonight?" Alexander asked.
"Alas, I don't."
Alexander sighed. There had to be someone in Glaucus who was more aware of the moon's cycle and could tell him what phase the moon was currently in, but before he could seek such a person out, there was something else he wanted to ask Tavish about. He had just remembered another essential ingredient for the spells he was preparing.
"Tavish, I need to collect some Cryptalis moss. Do you know where it grows or what it looks like?"
"I'm glad to say I know both," Tavish said. "Cryptalis moss is bright green, and it grows only in caves that get very little sunlight and are located next to the sea, and there is but one place in Glaucus where it grows: a large cave near the base of the cliffs of East Wedge. However, it can only be entered when the tide is out."
"And when is that?" Alexander asked.
Tavish rubbed his temples. "I fear that my knowledge of the tides is just as feeble as my knowledge of the moon," he sighed. "I truly can't recall what time the tides go in and out...perhaps they ebb in mid-afternoon, or midnight, or evening..."
"Don't worry," said Alexander gently. "I'm sure I'll be able to find out for myself."
He rose from his chair.
"I must be leaving now. Thank you, Tavish," he said. "You've been very helpful and courteous."
Tavish grinned and nodded, and, much to Alexander's relief, he didn't attempt to shake hands with him.
"I'm glad of that, my friend," Tavish said, opening the door for Alexander. "Good luck."
The moon and the tides...who would know about them? Alexander thought as he walked along a bridge to West Wedge in the red glow of the sunset. His first thought was the old adventurer, but when he visited the inn, the man was gone, and One-Eye said that he had retired to his room.
Alexander left the inn and started walking along the pier, trying to gather his thoughts. Just to satisfy his curiosity, he walked along the pier until it reached East Wedge and looked down near the waterline, but couldn't see any cave entrances in the rock face. Either he wasn't looking in the right spot, or the tide was in.
He sighed disappointedly, turned, and retraced his steps. After he had reached the center of the pier, he looked up at the odd town clinging to the sides of the rock. What work it must have taken to construct those houses...how dangerous it must have been too; one misstep and a man would be sent plummeting into the rocky surf. In a way, the town's odd look reflected the appearance of some of its inhabitants. Glaucus truly was a place where the mundane met the miraculous.
Alexander's eyes moved up the multiple layers of houses and walkways to the very top of the cliffs, where several wind-warped trees clung fervently to the isolated peaks. On one of the topmost points of West Wedge, faintly visible in the dying light, was a small, ramshackle house -- the former home of Glaucus's only sorcerer, now occupied by his son, Emmett.
Despite its remote location, Alexander could see the appeal of living so high off the ground, away from the rest of the world. Emmett could see not only the ocean, but most of the nearby countryside from his house, and at night, he could easily observe the stars and the moon without any noise and light to disturb him...
Suddenly, Alexander didn't have to wonder about who he could ask about the moon and the tides any longer. He twisted the silver ring on his finger three times, and instantly found himself standing beneath the recluse's house, at the very top of the dizzying flight of stone steps.
"Hello?" he said into the end of the brass trumpet that protruded from the house's floor.
"Yes?" came Emmett's voice through the trumpet. "Who's there?"
"It's Alexander -- the man you met earlier today. May I come in?"
"Alexander..." Emmett repeated. "Ah yes, Alexander! I'll be right there."
After a brief pause, Emmett opened the trapdoor and threw down the rope ladder for Alexander, who quickly clambered up it into the recluse's peculiar little home.
"So what brings you back here?" Emmett asked, scratching the side of his head.
"I have a couple of questions I believe you can answer," Alexander said. "They concern the ingredients for the page of spells you gave me."
"Ah yes," Emmett sighed dismally. "I'm afraid I can't tell you any of where those ingredients are, though, Alexander. I've left magic and spells behind me, you know."
"I do, but my questions aren't about the ingredients themselves," Alexander explained. "Do you know Tavish, Emmett?"
Emmett's glum look immediately brightened.
"I do indeed," he smiled. "Not very well, but I had him here once when he cut open his arm and needed it to be stitched up and treated. Nicest fellow you're ever likely to meet."
"So I gathered," Alexander said. "But he told me that one of the spell ingredients could only be found in a small cave near the base of East Wedge, which can only be entered when the tide is out. What time do the tides ebb here, Emmett?"
Emmett tapped his temple thoughtfully, then replied, "At this time of the month, I'd say the next time they ebb is around midnight tonight, then early the following morning."
Since Alexander didn't want to go poking around a potentially slippery cave after dark, it looked as if there was nothing to do but wait until the following day before seeking it out.
"Thank you, Emmett," Alexander said. "One last thing before I leave, though: what phase is the moon in tonight?"
"Why do you wish to know that?" Emmett asked.
"Tavish said that the magic grass that grows near this town glows during the night, but only when the moon is large enough."
"Oh dear," Emmett muttered. "I'm afraid you're too late, then, Alexander. There is no moon at all tonight."
Alexander's heart sank. He couldn't spend several nights in Glaucus waiting for the moon to become bright enough for him to find the grass, and as sharp as his eyes were, he doubted that they were keen enough to find a sprig of faintly glowing grass in a thick forest at night...
Then an idea hit him. Perhaps he couldn't see in the dark, but he knew someone that could. Thanking Emmett again for his help, Alexander turned the ring thrice again and found himself at the base of the stone steps. He then began to make his way towards the Dryad as the last rays of the sun began to fade into the darkening sky.
"Shappa," Alexander said. "I need to do something which can only be done with your help."
"Oh?" Shappa asked. "And what is that?"
"I need to find a type of grass that grows in the forests to the north. It glows brightly at night, but only when the moon is out. When there is no moon, it glows too faintly to be seen by human eyes."
"And you want me to seek out this grass for you?" Shappa queried.
"Yes," Alexander said. "But not alone. I will come with you."
"I can take care of myself," Shappa said haughtily, flicking his tail.
"I have no doubt that you can," Alexander said, "But we stand a much better chance in those woods together."
Shappa stared coolly at Alexander, his luminous eyes blinking slowly.
"I promise I won't order you around or make you do anything you don't want to do," Alexander said quickly. "I only want to make sure nothing happens to you. After all, I'm the one who wants this grass."
"If you must," he muttered. "Shall we set out now?"
Alexander looked at the distant, glowing horizon.
"No...let's wait until it's completely dark first," he said.
When the sun's light had been reduced to the faintest gleam over the sea, Alexander and Shappa set out on their odd mission. The only way inland was by a road carved into the side of East Wedge, starting at the end of the pier and skirting the rock face, gradually sloping down and coming to a stop on the other side of the town. Here, Alexander could see that the channel formed by the two Wedges fed into a small lagoon, which was surrounded by several houses, some built up the slopes of the Wedges while some were surprisingly ordinary houses built on the ground. Several fields and pastures surrounded the houses, and a few lights still burned in the houses' windows.
To the north were many rolling hills covered with tall, dry coastal grass, not a blade of which gave off the faintest gleam in the darkness of the night. There weren't many trees growing on the hills, but as Alexander and Shappa moved further inland, the trees grew more numerous and varied. Soon, they were within a thick forest, where the branches of the trees almost blotted out the light from the stars. After Alexander had stumbled over rocks and tree roots numerous times, Shappa began to warn him about the various obstacles that lay in their path. Though he appreciated the half-breed's assistance, Alexander still cursed himself for not thinking to bring a lantern along.
"See anything yet?" Alexander asked after they had been traveling for about a half an hour.
"No," Shappa said.
Neither of them said anything for the next few minutes. There was nothing but the sound of their feet crunching through the grass and the trilling sound of thousands of insects.
"Shappa," Alexander remarked, "I just had an unpleasant thought...how are we going to find our way back?"
"Easily," Shappa replied. "We've been leaving a trail through these woods. I'll simply follow it back, and you'll follow me."
"Ah," Alexander said, reminding himself that there were many human difficulties that were no problem at all for a creature like Shappa.
There was another long silence, then Shappa suddenly froze in his tracks. Alexander stopped walking as well and squinted into the darkness ahead of them.
"Do you see -- " he began.
Shappa hissed sharply.
"What is it?" Alexander asked softly.
"Listen," Shappa whispered back.
Alexander did. For a few seconds, he heard nothing, but as his ears became accustomed to the night stillness, he heard a sound completely unlike the ambiance of the forest: the sound of a human, most likely a man, striding heavily through the underbrush, heading straight for them.
Shappa suddenly turned and darted away.
"Where are you going?" Alexander whispered as loudly as he dared.
"I'm going to hide," Shappa spat. "I don't want to take my chances with another human!"
"But what about me?" Alexander protested, not wanting to be left alone with a stranger in the woods in the dead of night.
"You're human, and you've got a weapon," Shappa said, slipping away into the bushes, where he was impossible to be seen. "You should be able to deal with him in some way!"
Alexander was tempted to call out to Shappa again, but quickly decided against doing so. The stranger was less than forty feet away and still coming. Alexander stood motionless, hoping that the individual would pass him by. When the stranger was fifteen feet away, he suddenly stopped. Alexander held his breath.
"Hello?" the stranger called out. "Is someone there?"
It was a man's voice, not only kindly in tone, but strangely nervous as well. Alexander decided to risk revealing himself:
"Yes," he said. "Directly ahead of you."
The stranger slowly approached Alexander until he was close enough for the king to see that he was wearing a cloak with the hood pulled over his head, a sword at his side and a knapsack on his back. The stranger then pulled back the hood, and Alexander could just make out the face of a man not much older than he was.
"Good evening," the man said breathlessly. "I hope I didn't frighten you."
"I admit that you did," Alexander said.
"I suspected as much," the stranger muttered. "Say, friend, could you find it in your heart to do something for me? It may be a little dangerous, but I promise you'll find it worth your while."
"I don't know...what is this 'something' you speak of, stranger?"
"I'll tell you," the man said. "I'm a soldier from one of the northern kingdoms, and I was on my way home through this forest yesterday when I met this warty old hag by the side of the road. She wanted me to climb into a cave beneath a large tree stump and retrieve a small tinderbox from there. She also claimed that there were three rooms in the cave, each containing a large box, one full of copper coins, one full of silver, and one full of gold. She said that I could take as much money as she wanted as long as I brought her back the tinderbox."
"And did you do what she asked of you?" Alexander asked.
The soldier shook his head.
"No," he said, anxiously running his tongue along his upper lip. "You see, that hag --whom I'm almost certain was a witch -- she also said that each room was guarded by...by a huge beast, each one bigger than the last. She said that each one could be subdued if I laid out her apron and had each one lie down upon it in turn, but I was simply too terrified to face them."
"So...you want me to face those beasts in your place?" Alexander asked suspiciously.
"I do," the soldier replied. "I told the witch that I would return later and spent all of yesterday looking for someone more suited to the task than I was. I was just about to give up when I found you. You seem like a brave-hearted, able-bodied fellow, and I'm certain that those...those monsters should be easy for you to deal with. And if you do this for me and gather up all the wealth you can carry, I promise that you can keep half of it. All I ask for is the remaining half."
Alexander pondered this situation for a moment. Just how dangerous were these beasts that the soldier spoke of? Were they more menacing than the various creatures Alexander had dealt with in the past (among them a gigantic spider, the monster Medusa, a three-headed dragon and a Minotaur) or were they merely creatures that looked frightening but were quite harmless in actuality?
Though Alexander was reluctant to leave Shappa behind, he was sure that the half-breed would be all right on his own, and they still had the whole night to find the Glaucan grass. The soldier seemed like an honest sort as well, and Alexander felt it would be wrong not to assist him.
"Very well...I'll help you."
"Thank you, friend," the soldier said, shaking Alexander's hand almost feverishly. "Now, the plan I have is that you go to the witch disguised as me. You'll wear my cloak and my knapsack...just a moment."
He removed his knapsack and began to remove its contents, dumping them on the ground with a considerable amount of noise. He then took off his cloak and handed it to Alexander.
"Be sure the hood hides your face," he warned. "She may be old, but I am certain that she is no fool. Also be sure to have the beasts lie down on her apron whenever you enter one of the rooms."
"Should I use the knapsack to carry the coins?" Alexander asked as he fastened the heavy cloak around his shoulders.
"Yes," the soldier nodded. "You should be able to fit a good deal of money in there, and I swear upon my honor as a soldier that you can keep half of what you take."
Alexander slipped his arms through the straps of the knapsack and pulled the hood of the cloak over his head.
"All right, I'm ready. Where is this witch, soldier?"
"Come with me," the solider said. "I'll show you."
He turned and began walking back the way he had come. Alexander started to follow him, then turned and waved, hoping that Shappa would see the gesture and interpret it as meaning, "don't worry."
There was no perceptible return wave from the thick underbrush, so Alexander could only hope that Shappa would stay where he was, and that he himself wasn't about to do something foolish.
Alexander and the soldier made their way through the thick foliage and soon came to a narrow path winding its way through the woods.
"Follow this path that way," the soldier said, pointing east. "You should soon find the witch standing at the right side of the road."
"And where will you be?" Alexander asked.
"I'll stay here," the soldier said, sitting down on a large boulder beside the path. "I promise not to move until you return successfully."
"And you are certain that I should be able to deal with these beasts?"
"Quite certain," the soldier said. "Just remember to lay the witch's apron down for each one and they won't harm you."
"I hope this task will be as simple as it sounds," Alexander sighed.
"As do I," the soldier said.
Alexander bade the soldier farewell and started walking down the path. By this time, his eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the dark and he could just make out the outlines of the trees and shrubs that lined the small road. There was an ominous peacefulness to the night, and Alexander felt a little afraid to be so alone in the woods, despite having a sharp sword at his side. As he walked along the path, he thought of Cassima and Devin. It seemed like eternities since he was standing by Cassima as she read Devin that story about the lad who entered a land where fairies reigned. How was Cassima faring in Alexander's absence, and what was it like for Devin, being in a realm at the bottom of the sea? How long would it be before Alexander saw him again?
Before Alexander could brood too deeply over these questions, he noticed a squat figure sitting against a tree trunk on the right side of the path. As he drew closer, he could see that it was an old woman with a deformed, wrinkled face endowed with a large nose and a protruding lower lip. The woman opened one bloodshot eye as Alexander neared her.
"Is that you, young soldier?" she croaked. "Have you finally come back?"
"Yes," Alexander said, trying his best to imitate the soldier's voice. "I have."
"Good, good, good," the witch said eagerly, rising to her feet and rubbing her calloused hands together. "This way, my boy. This way."
She waddled into a clearing just off the path, where a large, rotting, hollow stump stood. It was almost as tall as Tavish and twice as wide. Alexander followed the witch as she made her way towards the base of the stump.
"Are you sure you're ready this time?" she asked Alexander, apparently fooled by his simple disguise.
"I am," Alexander replied.
"Good, good," she grinned. She untied a large, ratty, blue-and-white checked apron from around her wide middle and handed it to the king.
"You know what to do with that," she said.
Then she reached into one of the pockets of her tattered dress and pulled out a length of rope.
"Use this to climb down inside," she said, giving this to Alexander as well. "Remember: take all the money you want, just be sure to bring me the tinderbox you find in the third room."
"I shall," Alexander said. He tied one end of the rope around one of the stump's exposed roots and tossed the other end over the top of the stump. He then carefully climbed up the gnarled stump, clung tightly to the rope and climbed down into the damp, dark hollow within the shell of the once-mighty tree.
For a few moments, Alexander was in almost complete darkness, then he noticed a faint glow below him. When he finally reached the bottom of the stump, he found himself at the end of a long passage that appeared to have been carved from an underground cavern, lit by dozens of brightly burning lamps. There were three doors leading off of the passage, which had to lead to the three rooms that the soldier spoke of...and the three beasts.
With trepidation, Alexander approached the nearest door and grasped its handle. After hesitating for a few moments, he slowly pushed it open. With all the horrible creatures that his mind had imagined lurking behind the door, nothing could have prepared him for what was actually there...
It was a dog. A large, tawny dog, normal in every aspect except for its eyes, which were as large as saucers. It stood in the center of the room and growled fiercely when it noticed Alexander, but Alexander hurriedly laid the witch's robe on the floor, and the dog immediately ran to it and lay down upon it, where it remained as still as a statue.
Alexander was surprised to find the so-called fierce beast to be merely a dog, and wondered what the beasts in the remaining two rooms were like. Alexander examined the room he was presently in and found it bare except for a large chest against one of its walls. He opened the chest and found it to be full of gleaming copper coins. Remembering what the soldier had said about the other two rooms containing coins much more valuable than coppers, Alexander left the coins alone. He closed the chest and made his way towards the door. When he attempted to pull the witch's apron out from beneath the dog, the animal immediately sprang off the dirty garment and returned to its original position in the center of the room.
Alexander left the room, shut the door firmly behind him and made his way towards the second door. In the room that this door led to stood a dog twice as large as the one before it, with eyes as large as millstones. Alexander started slightly at the sight of the creature's enormous eyes, but quickly laid the apron on the floor, and just like its counterpart, the dog obediently ran to the apron and stayed there.
This room also had a chest within it, which, as the soldier had said, was filled with silver coins. Alexander also left these coins untouched, retrieved the apron from under the second dog, left the room and made his way towards the third and final door.
When he swung this door open, he found himself face to face with an enormous dog with eyes that were wider than he was tall. Fortunately, this dog was just as obedient as its two predecessors, and it sat down upon the witch's apron just like a lapdog heeding the voice of its master.
Alexander opened the third chest and found it filled to the brim with gold. Having found the chest with the most valuable contents, he took the knapsack from his back and began scooping the gold into it. When he had crammed as much money as he could into the large knapsack, he tried lifting it and found it too heavy to budge. He then started moving several handfuls of the coins back to the chest, attempting to lift the knapsack every few handfuls.
When the knapsack was finally just light enough to lift, Alexander hoisted it onto his back with some difficulty and trudged back towards the door. As he was about to open it, he heard a deep voice behind him.
"Don't forget the tinderbox."
Alexander would have jumped were it not for the heavy weight on his back. He slowly turned to find the largest of the three dogs staring at him with its colossal eyes.
"Was that you who just spoke?" Alexander asked.
"It was," the dog rumbled. "You were about to leave here without the tinderbox that the witch asked for. I thought I would save you the trouble of a second trip."
Alexander cursed himself for forgetting the reason the witch had sent him down the hollow tree stump. He looked around the third room and noticed something lying in a corner that had to be the tinderbox. Putting the knapsack down, he walked over to the tinderbox and picked it up. It seemed to be a fairly normal tinderbox, and it puzzled him why the witch would want it so badly.
"I also must warn you about something," the large dog growled. "You must not give that tinderbox to the witch."
"Why not?" Alexander asked, shouldering the knapsack again. "I have all this gold, why should I deprive the witch of the one thing she asked me to get for her?"
"Because," the dog said somberly, "That is a magic tinderbox. Try striking it, and you'll see what I mean."
Alexander held the tinderbox up and struck a fire with the flint. Instantly, the first of the three dogs appeared at his side.
"What is it you wish, master?" it asked.
"Ah, nothing," Alexander said, taken aback. "Nothing at the moment."
The dog bowed and vanished.
"If you strike once, the dog that guarded the copper coins will come to your aid," said the largest of the dogs. "If you strike twice, the one that guarded the silver coins will appear, and if you strike three times, I shall appear. Whoever possesses that tinderbox has my two fellows and I at his disposal to do whatever he or she wishes...which is why you mustn't give the tinderbox to the witch. She is not one to be trusted with it."
Alexander quickly realized what the dog meant. Once the witch had the tinderbox, she would probably call upon the dogs and command them to kill him, then use that box to do all manner of foul deeds.
"Thank you, dog," Alexander said gratefully. "I'll be sure to keep this box with me from now on."
"A very wise decision," said the dog. "One other thing, though: we know that you are not the man who met the witch on the day before."
Alexander said nothing, unsure whether to continue bluffing or to confess.
"We also know that the tinderbox will not serve you in your journey," the dog continued, "And that it belongs in the hands of the soldier you are masquerading as. As afraid of us as he may be, he still needs us. With our help, he will gain not only wealth and fame, but a fine wife and a lot more besides. It has been a long time since we have served a master such as he."
"If you say so," said Alexander. "Thank you again, dog."
"The pleasure is ours," the dog rumbled. "Don't forget to take the witch's apron too, traveler."
When Alexander reached the beginning of the passage, he found it impossible to ascend the rope with the heavy knapsack weighing him down. He was contemplating leaving some of the gold, climbing up with the rest of it and then coming back for the remaining gold when he heard the witch's shrill voice calling down to him:
"Is that you, soldier?"
"Yes, it is," Alexander called back.
"Do you have the tinderbox?"
"Yes, but I can't seem to climb this rope carrying all this gold."
"Don't worry," the witch croaked. "Just grab that rope and I'll pull you up."
Alexander wondered how such a frail-looking woman was going to lift both him and a heavy knapsack out of the cave, but the minute he took hold of the rope, it grew taut, and he felt himself being pulled steadily upwards. In less than a minute, he had been hauled to the top of the stump, and could once again see the bright stars overhead. Below him on the ground stood the witch, holding the other end of the rope in her hands and panting heavily.
"Excellent, excellent," she muttered as Alexander climbed down the bumpy exterior of the stump. "Now that you've gotten what you want, young man, please give me what I want."
Alexander hesitated, remembering what the dogs had told him about the power of the tinderbox.
"Very well, my lady, but I just want to know one thing first," he said, feigning curiosity. "Why exactly do you want with this tinderbox?"
The witch glared angrily at him and snorted loudly.
"That's none of your concern," she snapped. "You have your gold, and all I want is that tinderbox, now hand it over!"
She thrust her shriveled, calloused hand out. Alexander stood his ground.
"I won't hand it over until you tell me why you want it," he said firmly.
"If you don't give me that tinderbox, I'll take it from you myself!" the witch shrieked. She leapt towards Alexander, but before she could reach him, the king's hand flew to his sword and had it out of its sheath. The witch staggered backwards, quivering in terror. Before Alexander could ask her anything more, she picked up her skirts and fled. She was out of sight within moments, and Alexander was left alone in the clearing, with nothing to show from his odd experience but a knapsack full of gold, a magic tinderbox and a tattered old apron.
Alexander made his way back up the path, moving slowly because of the great weight on his back. His shoulders were just starting to ache by the time he spotted a familiar figure sitting on a boulder at the side of the road: the soldier. He seemed to have nodded off, but as Alexander approached, his head snapped up and he went for his sword, but relaxed when he recognized the king.
"It's you, isn't it, friend?" he whispered. "Did you succeed?"
"I did," gasped Alexander.
"I knew you would," the soldier said, leaping to his feet. "Here, let me help you get that bundle off."
Alexander gratefully accepted the soldier's help. The two men returned to where the soldier had left his possessions, where Alexander removed the soldier's cloak and returned it to him. The soldier began to pour the gold coins out of the knapsack, staring at them in amazement.
"I don't think I've ever seen so much gold at one time before," he stammered. "I could live like a king with this much money..."
He stopped and stared up at Alexander.
"Oh, but don't worry, I'm still going to hold up my end of the bargain, friend," he said hurriedly. "Half of this money is yours...but I'm afraid I just realized that you don't seem to have any means of carrying this much gold."
Alexander held up the witch's large, dingy apron.
"I think I do now," he smiled.
He spread the apron on the ground, then scooped as much gold as he could onto it and tied the apron into a bundle with its straps. Since the apron hardly held half of the gold, Alexander placed a few more handfuls into his pockets.
"It looks like this is all I can take," he shrugged.
"You certainly deserve it," the soldier said. "I suppose I'll just pack up my belongings and be on my way now. Thank you again, good sir."
"Wait a moment," Alexander said. "There's something I have to give you."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tinderbox. The soldier stared confusedly at it.
"Is that the tinderbox the witch wanted me to get?" he asked.
"Why didn't you give it to her?"
"This tinderbox is magic," Alexander explained. "The witch would have used its powers for evil, and you deserve it much more than her."
"Magic?" the sorcerer asked, taking the tinderbox from the king and examining it. "What do you mean? Does it grant wishes?"
"You might say that," Alexander said.
"Well, thank you once more," the soldier laughed. "This journey has certainly taken a turn for the better thanks to you."
"Thank you for keeping true to your word," Alexander said. He picked up the bundle of gold and was about to start looking for Shappa when he decided to ask the soldier one last question, one that had been puzzling him since he entered the first room in the underground passage.
"Soldier...did you know that those fierce beasts guarding the money that you spoke of were nothing more than dogs?"
The soldier froze for a moment, then turned slowly in Alexander's direction.
"I did," he said flatly.
"You did?" Alexander said in surprise. "If you knew that they were dogs, then why in the world didn't you get the money and the tinderbox yourself?"
The soldier's eyes grew angry, and when he spoke again, there was a tremor in his voice.
"Because dogs are deceptive, nasty things," he said. "People trust them and share their homes with them, but lurking beneath that soft fur and those warm eyes is a ravenous, bloodthirsty wolf. At any moment that thing that you call a dog is likely to turn on you and rip your throat out, or slaughter your livestock. Why so many men keep these monsters under their roofs is beyond me."
Alexander stared at the soldier, unsure how to respond to his words. The king knew that many men had rational or irrational fears of particular animals, but he had never encountered a man with such an extreme loathing of dogs. He could understand a fear or hatred of snakes, cats, spiders or bears, but why a fear of dogs? Had this soldier had a bad experience with a dog as a child?
"I...I'm sorry to hear that you feel this way toward dogs," Alexander said, wondering whether giving the tinderbox to the soldier was a sound idea after all. "I hope you find some way of dealing with your hatred of them."
"I'm just glad that you volunteered to deal with them," the soldier muttered crossly. "Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?"
"Then good evening, traveler," the soldier said. He resumed packing his knapsack, and Alexander softly bade farewell to him, then turned and started to make his way through the dense undergrowth of the forest in search of his half-breed companion. The king sincerely hoped that the poor solider could overcome his fear, which he would have to do if he wanted to benefit from the power of the tinderbox.
Once Alexander was out of earshot of the soldier, he began calling out Shappa's name. Before long, he heard a soft rustling behind him, and Shappa was soon at his side.
"How did you find me so quickly?" Alexander asked.
"I didn't have to find you," Shappa said. "After I left you, I followed you and that other human at a distance. I heard what the other one wanted you to do, so I decided to explore the woods until you returned. Then I retraced my steps until I found the two of you again, and when you left the other human, I followed you here. I have some good news for you, Lex."
"Oh? What is it?"
"I found your grass. There's a large clump of it at the base of a nearby oak."
Alexander brightened, remembering the original purpose of their journey into the northern forest.
"That's wonderful, Shappa! I can't thank you enough. Can you lead me to it?"
"With the greatest of ease," Shappa said proudly. "Come. This way."
He turned and began moving through the thick foliage with barely any noise, with Alexander stumbling along behind him, his progress hindered by the large bundle of gold he carried with him.
"So, how much of our conversations did you hear?" he asked the half-breed.
"Most of it," Shappa said. "I found it rather odd that you should chose to risk your life for a man you've never met before."
"I know," Alexander said, "But he seemed desperate, and I try my best not to hold back help from someone I can easily give it to."
"I was a little concerned for you when he spoke of those three beasts," Shappa said. "But were they truly dogs?"
"Yes...huge dogs with incredibly enormous eyes, but still dogs. I just don't understand why that soldier hated them so much."
Shappa grunted amusedly.
"Neither do I, but I certainly sympathize with him," he said.
In less than five minutes, Shappa had located the clump of Glaucan grass. The long, slender blades were indeed glowing with a faint bluish-green luminescence, but so faintly that Alexander would have easily overlooked it. He pulled out the page listing the spell ingredients and was pleased to see that he could just read it by the light of the grass. All three spells used the grass; the initial spell required the juice of a small handful of it, while the two other spells required a thimble-sized lump of the wrung out fibers.
Alexander carefully picked enough of the long blades to form a mound in his hand, then looked around the forest floor until he found a shrub with large, round leaves. He picked one of the leaves and wrapped the precious grass up in it, wondering whether the plant in its pure form truly could turn a man into an immortal being of the sea.
"So, are we done here now?" Shappa asked.
"It looks like it," Alexander replied. "I just hope we don't run into any other people demanding me to climb down into an underground cavern to fetch money for them."
Shappa nodded and began to lead Alexander back the way they had came.
"So what are you going to do with all that gold?" Shappa asked after they had been walking for several minutes.
"I'm not sure yet," Alexander said. "All I want to do with it now is take it back to the ship and keep it safe until tomorrow morning."
"You could buy a lot of things with that much gold," Shappa said, glancing back over his shoulder at the bundle at Alexander's side. "And how fortunate of you to find so much of it in one place."
"I know," Alexander said. "Finding all that wealth in that cave was like finding a buried treasure without having to dig for it."
"Buried treasure?" Shappa repeated, not understanding the phrase at first. "Oh, yes, that. Have you ever found a buried treasure, Lex?"
"Actually, I have."
"Earth's wounds," Shappa breathed, gazing at Alexander with genuine interest. "What did you do with that treasure?"
"My family returned as much of it to its original owners as we could," Alexander said.
Shappa looked at him confusedly.
"But why didn't you keep the treasure? Most humans keep whatever wealth they find."
Alexander had to admit that Shappa's generalization was true, and decided to explain the whole history of the treasure to the half-breed. Years before, after Alexander had escaped slavery under the wizard Manannan and was planning to leave the land of Llewdor, he had given the captain of a large ship a bagful of gold in exchange for letting him come aboard. Alexander had discovered too late that the ship was run by a gang of pirates, and had been stripped of his possessions and tossed into the hold.
Fortunately, he had been able to escape and discover that the ship was heading to a northern beach on the same continent where Daventry was located, where the pirates intended to dig up a treasure chest they had buried there. Alexander had been able to escape from the pirates using magic, then unearth and take their chest of ill-gotten wealth for his own, feeling certain that he would find someone far more deserving of its contents than them.
In the chaos surrounding the return to his homeland and his father's brief but severe illness the treasure chest had been nearly forgotten, but eventually, with the help of several knowledgeable members of the castle court, Alexander had been able to identify and return nearly every single plundered item to its rightful owners. Since Daventry was in possession of an ever-replenishing chest of gold, the kingdom was in no need of any more wealth.
Some of the kingdoms that had been robbed by the pirates were so grateful to have their precious items returned to them that they had become allies of Daventry, but some of the items in the chest were more than mere trinkets. One jeweled orb turned out to be a talisman from a small city, which was destined to remain prosperous as long as the orb remained there, but would slowly perish if the orb were ever removed. The servant who had been sent to return the orb reported that because of a horrible drought, the city's few remaining people had been on the verge of starvation, but as soon as the servant had come through the city's gates carrying the orb, it began to rain.
One of the more frightening items in the chest was a plain gold ring with an onyx set in it. The scholar that examined it nervously informed Alexander that it was cursed, and whoever wore that ring would slip into a state resembling madness. The ring would then remain on the wearer's finger until his or her death, unless the finger was cut off. Needless to say, Alexander requested for the ring to be destroyed, which a local blacksmith was able to do with some difficulty.
"So you gave all of that treasure away?" Shappa asked once the story was over.
"Almost all of it," Alexander replied. "Some of the coins had no seals on them so there was no way of telling where they came from, and there was no way of reuniting the loose jewels with their owners either."
Shappa nodded and was silent for a moment as they continued walking through the dark forest.
"What about the pirates who buried the treasure?" he finally asked.
"I don't know what happened to them," Alexander said.
"Do you think you might ever encounter them again?"
Alexander frowned. As unlikely as a second meeting with those pirates was, there was always the slimmest chance of them recognizing him and connecting his disappearance to the theft of their treasure.
"I certainly hope not," he replied, a quiver of unease stirring within him.
Soon, Alexander and Shappa had reached the edge of the forest, and the outlines of the two Wedges of Glaucus were just visible against the starry sky. His fingers stiff from clutching the bundle of gold, Alexander wearily trudged up the Dryad's gangplank with Shappa close behind him, almost stumbled down the steps to the lower deck, dropped the bundle on the floor, emptied his pockets, took off his boots and sword and was just about to collapse into his hammock when he remembered something important, something vital to acquiring one of the spell ingredients...
"Shappa," he said, trying to stifle a yawn, "I'm sorry to ask so much of you, but could you please wake me as soon as the sun is up?"
Shappa stared at him in befuddlement.
"After walking through a forest half the night, you want to get up at sunrise?" he asked. "If I slept as little as you, I'd be dead within a week!"
"I promise I'll explain later," Alexander said. "But you've got to wake me at daybreak, no matter how tired I am then. Can you please do this?"
Shappa sighed and shook his head amusedly.
"I can," he replied. "You're lucky that my people are such light sleepers."
Muttering something nearly inaudible about the eccentricities of humans, Shappa crawled into his hammock and lay still. Alexander gratefully fell into his own hammock and dozed off almost immediately, but it seemed like only a few minutes before he felt Shappa nudging at his shoulder and telling him to get up.
"What is it?" he mumbled groggily.
"It's sunrise, Lex," said Shappa. "You wanted me to wake you, remember?"
Through the haze that clouded his semiconscious mind, Alexander slowly began to recall what had happened the night before and why he wanted to be up at this hour: the cave where the Cryptalis moss grew that could only be reached when the tide was out.
Trying his best to gather his thoughts, Alexander rose and began preparing himself for the day. He went through his belongings, deciding which ones to take with him and which ones to leave on the ship. The heavy bundle of gold was one of the items he left behind, as was the root he had found on the Wandering Island and the Glaucan grass.
After Alexander had done this, he went to the ship's food storeroom, where he helped himself to a piece of bread and a mug of water. He then told Shappa to stay with the ship and departed, heading towards the east end of the pier.
The day was just starting to dawn over Glaucus. There was a thick mist hanging over the ocean and blurring the horizon, a sight which didn't make Alexander feel any more alert. He breathed deeply and hoped that he could make it through the entire day without sleep overtaking him.
The path leading to the cave that Tavish spoke of was quite easy to overlook. It wasn't truly a path but a row of rough stone steps carved into the cliff side, much like the ones leading up to Emmett's house. Though there was no railing on the staircase, the highest step was barely ten feet above the water, so whoever had the misfortune to fall off the steps only risked getting soaked. Nonetheless, Alexander made his way down the steps as carefully as he could. When he reached the bottom, he quickly found the entrance to the cave. It was an opening in the rock wall barely three feet high, and Alexander had to wade through several inches of seawater in order to get inside.
The cave's tiny, humble entrance belied its interior. It was as enormous as a king's throne room, and eons of crashing waves and scoring sand had sculpted the rock walls into a myriad of ornately twisting shapes, forming caverns within the cavern and strange, naturally formed statues. The echo of the waves that lapped in through the cave's entrance created an ominous roar magnified by the cave walls, and the sound of dripping water was omnipresent. A large pool of seawater ran almost the entire length of the cave, stopping just short of the far wall.
There was just enough light coming through the cavern opening to see the interior clearly, and for a moment, Alexander stood silently without moving a muscle, afraid to break the quiet stillness that dominated the place. Then, remembering that he only had a short window of time before the tide rose, he began clambering over the distorted rocks, making his way deeper into the cave in search of the Cryptalis moss.
After several minutes of exploration, he had failed to find anything that even resembled a moss. There was a layer of dead seaweed coating most of the cave floor and some slimy dark green algae growing on some of the rocks, but no moss. When Alexander had reached the end of the cave and was contemplating calling on Tavish to ask for his help in finding the moss, he heard a soft scuffling noise coming from behind a nearby low rock wall. He saw nothing when he turned to look at the formation at first, but then he saw five pale fingers curl over the edge of the wall, and a small face appeared from behind the fingers and looked at him.
Alexander looked back at the face. It was the face of a woman, but one unlike any woman Alexander had seen before. She had long, wet brown hair, her features were thin and delicate, and her large, dark eyes had an almost unearthly quality to them. They were almost completely black, like the eyes of a deer, and Alexander couldn't help staring deeply into them. This woman was exquisitely beautiful, yet there was something strange about her, something that made Alexander remember Cassima and regain his senses.
"Who are you?" he asked quietly.
The woman's face ducked out of sight for a moment, then she cautiously lifted her eyes over the wall to stare at Alexander again.
"It's all right, I won't hurt you," Alexander said. "I just want to know who you are. Can you understand me?"
The woman blinked her large eyes and nodded slowly, her tiny mouth pulled into a tight line.
"Can you speak?" Alexander asked.
The woman hesitated, and moved her mouth soundlessly for a moment. Then she spoke, in a gentle, nervous whisper:
"Yes...yes I can."
"Can you tell me who you are?" Alexander tried again.
The woman cocked her head to one side.
"You are mortal?" she asked. "You are human?"
"Yes, I am," Alexander replied.
"Then...I am what the mortal humans call...selkie."
Alexander stared at the woman in amazement. A selkie! He had heard of selkies before; they were a race of magical beings who lived in the sea and resembled seals, but could shed their seal skins and come ashore disguised as humans. There were also several tales about selkie women becoming brides to mortal men, but Alexander couldn't quite recall the details of those stories.
"What are you doing here?" Alexander asked.
The selkie looked hurt at his words.
"You ask many questions of me, but don't allow me to ask any of you," she said.
"I'm sorry," Alexander said. "What do you want to ask me, then?"
"What are you doing here?" the selkie asked.
Alexander didn't see the point in continuing this conversation with the selkie for very much longer, but he was determined to remain patient with the creature.
"I'm trying to find a moss that grows in this cave," he said. "But I can't find it anywhere."
"'Moss?'" the selkie repeated, cocking her head to the side again. "What is this 'moss?'"
Alexander fought back an exasperated sigh.
"Most mosses are soft, fuzzy plants that cling to the sides of trees or rocks, and the one I'm looking for is bright green."
The selkie's wide eyes grew even wider. She looked at a spot behind and some distance above Alexander.
"I have looked at all the plants that grow in this cave, and there is only one that looks like what you call 'moss,'" she said.
She rose high enough for Alexander to see her bare white shoulders and pointed upwards with her slender hand. Alexander looked in the direction she indicated, and high above his head, nearly touching the cave's ceiling, was a patch of thick, brilliant green moss. Alexander's excitement at finally finding what he was searching for was quickly squelched as he realized that there was no way he could possibly reach the Cryptalis moss, and the rocky walls were much too steep to climb. The selkie noticed his despair, but instead of looking apologetic, she looked strangely hopeful.
"You may not be able to reach it, mortal, but I can," she said. "On the condition that you help me first. Will you?"
Alexander looked dubiously at the delicate selkie, but nodded just the same. He knew better than to underestimate the abilities of magical beings.
"What is it you want me to do?" he asked.
"Find my skin," the selkie said. "It was taken from me two nights before, and without it, I am trapped here. I know it is in this human place, but exactly where I cannot tell. Please find it and bring it back here to me."
"I'll try to find it," Alexander said gently. "But I'm afraid that's all I can promise you for now."
Alexander left the cave and began climbing the stone steps that led up to the pier, wondering where to start looking for the selkie's sealskin. He couldn't knock on every door in Glaucus asking about it, and he doubted whether Emmett or Tavish would have knowledge of such an article's whereabouts. What did the selkie's skin look like, anyway? Did it look like an ordinary seal's pelt, or was it different in some way?
Suddenly, Alexander's left foot slipped out from underneath him, and before he knew what had happened, he was toppling sideways off the steps, falling into the sea. Then, just as suddenly, he wasn't falling but hanging horizontally over the ocean with his feet braced against the rock face. Something very large had grabbed the back of his shirt and was still gripping him firmly.
Still shaken, Alexander slowly turned his head. Just above the stone steps was the path that led out of Glaucus, and crouched on the path, his huge hand clutching Alexander's shirt, was Tavish.
"I'm sorry," he rumbled as Alexander gingerly found his footing on the stone steps again.
"Why do you say such a thing?" Alexander panted. "You just saved me from taking an unexpected swim, and that's hardly something to apologize for."
"I'm sorry for not telling you about that step," Tavish said, letting go of Alexander's shirt. "You see, several years ago a man not much older than you and his fiancée came to this town, and they decided to spend some time alone with each other in that cave. As they were leaving the cave sometime later, the man slipped on one of the steps and fell into the sea. There were several townspeople present and they all laughed at his misfortune; even his fiancée couldn't help laughing.
"As it turned out, the man had some knowledge of sorcery, because in his rage he cursed the step he slipped on. To this day, anyone who climbs those steps is fated to slip on the same one that that young man slipped on, the third one from the top. I should have warned you about that step when I told you about the cave, but it must have slipped my mind. When I saw you going in there this morning, I thought I'd wait here in the hopes of helping you out."
"But why didn't I slip on that step when I was going to the cave?" Alexander wondered.
"That's the beauty of the curse," Tavish said. "You only loose your footing on that step when you are leaving the cave. It's perfectly safe when you're going down, but when you're coming up, if you don't remember to skip that step, you're going to get wet."
Tavish sighed thunderously and scratched his shiny bald head.
"That's the problem with Glaucus," he sighed. "Its magic may attract people, but for most normal folk, it's difficult to live peacefully in such an unpredictable place. Some travelers may spend just a few days here before they start growing homesick for the mundane."
Very slowly, Tavish rose to his feet and began to plod towards the left side of East Wedge.
"Tavish, wait," Alexander called. "Have you heard anything about a sealskin that was found around here recently, possibly under somewhat peculiar circumstances?"
Tavish looked down at Alexander from his nine-foot-plus height and tugged idly at his bright red beard.
"I haven't heard anything about a sealskin myself," he replied. "But try asking One-Eye and Three-Eyes about it. They know about everything that happens in this town."
Alexander thanked Tavish and watched him slowly shuffle along the wooden walkway, which creaked loudly under his immense weight. The former innkeeper was right: Glaucus was a remarkable town, but unless whoever visited it was unusual in some way, he or she would have a very difficult time getting used to living there. After encountering an undersized giant, two women with remarkably abnormal eyes, a cursed stone step and a stranded selkie in the space of only two days, Alexander was already starting to become a bit overwhelmed by Glaucus.
The inn's tavern was nearly empty when Alexander entered it. Three-Eyes was cleaning the room's tables with a discolored rag and One-Eye was standing behind the counter, wearing a small brown hood that cast a dark shadow over her eye.
"Well, well!" she smiled. "If it isn't the young wizard! Can I get you something to eat this morning, young man?"
"No, thank you," Alexander replied. "But there is something that you can possibly help me with."
"And what is that?" One-Eye asked.
"Have any of your customers reported finding a complete sealskin around here recently?"
"Good gracious!" Three-Eyes squawked in surprise, throwing her rag down on the table she was cleaning. Alexander turned to face her.
"How odd that you should ask such a thing," the gangly woman continued. "The night before last, this young sailor came swaggering in here with this smelly seal's pelt slung over his shoulder. He sat down at a table, threw the skin on the floor and started ordering drink after drink, bragging about how much money he was going to make when he sold the skin. He kept carrying on until he realized that he didn't have enough money to pay for his drinks, so we threw him out. The next morning he was carried onto his ship unconscious, and they all sailed away, leaving that skin here."
"Did anyone take the skin?" Alexander asked.
"Of course not," Three-Eyes scoffed. "Sealskins are barely worth a few coppers around here, and the pelt he had seemed to be in terrible shape. None of us had the heart to spoil the poor lad's happiness, though."
"Where is the sealskin now?"
"Over there," Three-Eyes said, pointing to a table on the right side of the tavern. Alexander looked at it and noticed a nondescript silvery bundle tucked under one of the chairs.
"We decided to leave it here in case anybody wanted to take it," One-Eye explained. "But no one has even asked us about it."
"May I take it?" Alexander asked.
"By all means, do," One-Eye said with a wave of her hand. "It's doing nothing but smelling up the tavern, and I'm certain you can find a better use for it."
"Thank you," Alexander said, carefully taking the sealskin out from under the chair. It felt warm and pliable in his hands, almost as if it were alive. The hide wasn't merely a flat piece of skin either; it looked like a seal whose skeleton and innards had been completely removed, leaving the ears, nose, whiskers, tail and flippers perfectly intact, with two round openings in the face where the eyes had been. It made Alexander wonder how the selkie could slip in and out of it, since there were no large enough holes in the skin to be seen.
"Do come again if you're in need of a comfortable room or a mug of ale," One-Eye called after Alexander as he walked towards the inn's door.
"Yes, please do," Three-Eyes seconded.
When Alexander returned to the cave, the water at the entrance seemed slightly higher than it had been before. He hoped that the selkie would be true to her word, otherwise the rising tide would once again render the cave inaccessible. He hurried along the warped floor of the cave towards the place where he had last seen the selkie. She was there, partially concealed by the low rock wall, and her eyes widened with happiness when she noticed what Alexander was carrying.
"You've found it!" she cried in her high, lilting voice. "And you've brought it back to me!"
"I promised you I would try," Alexander said, handing the skin to her over the rock barrier.
"You have my deepest gratitude, mortal," the selkie said, holding the skin tightly to her chest. "You have proven yourself to be a kind, honest man. When I told you of my skin, I was afraid that you might chose to hide it from me and make me your bride."
"Your bride?" Alexander asked.
"You do not know the code of the selkie?" the selkie inquired. "It states that any mortal man that finds the skin of a she-selkie is entitled to take her for his mate, and she will remain so unless she finds her skin once more."
"I won't deny that your beauty astounds me," Alexander said. "But even if the circumstances were otherwise, I would never force you to be my wife."
"I already have a wife," Alexander said solemnly. "And a child. It is because of him that I am on this journey. He was taken from me by beings of the sea, and I am determined to find him."
The selkie stared pityingly at him.
"I should have known that your heart was already intertwined with that of another," she said. "A mortal such as you has more than earned my help. To express my thanks to you for aiding me, I promise to grant you three favors, as long as they are within my power."
"Thank you, selkie," Alexander said. "I'm afraid the only favor that I can ask of you at the moment is getting me some of that moss that you showed me earlier."
The selkie bowed her head and smiled.
"It shall be done," she said.
She turned towards the pool of seawater bisecting the cave and made a loud, rapid clicking sound with her mouth. She continued making the sound until two bright red crabs, each as large as Alexander's hand, scuttled out of the pool. The selkie made another clicking noise and gestured toward the section of cave wall where the moss grew. The crabs sidled over to the cave wall and began to climb it, their hard, spiky legs easily gripping the rough surfaces. Within half a minute, the crabs had reached the moss, and with their large claws, they began snipping pieces of the moss from the wall and carefully gathering it, like harvesters cutting wheat.
"How much of this moss will you need?" the selkie asked.
Alexander quickly pulled out the page of spell ingredients and consulted it.
"I think they've picked more than enough already," he said.
The selkie clicked at the crabs and they rapidly scurried down the wall with the moss clamped in their claws. They then walked over to Alexander's feet, laid down the sprigs of moss and quickly crawled back into the pool.
"Thank you, selkie," Alexander said, bending down and picking up the moss. "I don't know how I would have acquired this without your help."
"Though I know not what a mortal would want with this little plant, I wish you well in whatever you plan to do with it," the selkie said. "As for myself, I shall be leaving now."
With that, she unrolled the sealskin and wrapped it around her body. A warm glow enveloped her, and when it faded, the brown-haired maiden was gone, and in her place was a lithe, silvery seal.
"Remember," the seal said in the maiden's voice, "Until the two remaining favors you wish of me have been used up, I shall not be far away. I thank you again, mortal, and before I go, I will give you one warning which I bid you heed."
"What is it?" Alexander asked.
"Beware a mortal who has a lip like mine," the selkie said ominously.
Alexander looked closely at the selkie's dark lips, especially the upper one, which was split in the middle like a dog's.
"A mortal with a lip like yours?" Alexander echoed. "Do you mean someone with a harelip?"
"If that is your name for someone whose lip is shaped in this way," the selkie said, gesturing awkwardly at her muzzle, "Then yes. Be careful, mortal, and farewell."
She ambled over to the pool and slipped into it, barely making a ripple in the water. There was a brief flicker of silver beneath the water, and then the selkie was gone.
A mortal with a harelip, Alexander thought. Who could that possibly be? And why should I beware of him or her?
As Alexander returned up the stone steps to the pier (remembering to skip the third step from the top just in time), he took another look at his list of spell ingredients. He had the Glaucan grass for all three spells, and the shrub from the Wandering Isle and the Cryptalis moss for the two transformation spells. The only things he had yet to find were "a talisman to invoke the powers of the sea", seawater, a silverheart shell and fish oil. Since he had successfully found the three most difficult-to-obtain items, the remaining four couldn't be too hard to acquire either -- although producing a spell that would enable him to breathe and move about underwater would be useless unless he could locate the Sea Fairies' kingdom.
His frustrations were heightened by the fact that the old adventurer he had encountered in the inn the previous day had a map to that realm, but was unwilling to part with it.
Unwilling to part with it unless...
"...unless you give me a decent sum of money."
Alexander almost laughed at his newly discovered good fortune. He ran back to the Dryad and picked up the apron containing the gold he had split with the soldier, as well as the scattered pieces that he had taken out of his pockets the night before. Clutching the bundle tightly, Alexander made his way back to the inn. His enthusiasm quickly turned to worry when he entered and noticed that the adventurer wasn't seated at his usual place at the table in the corner. Had he left the inn?
"Excuse me," Alexander said to One-Eye and Three-Eyes, who were now both behind the counter. "Where is the elderly gentleman who was sitting at that table yesterday?"
One-Eye frowned at him. Though Alexander couldn't see under her hood, he was certain that she was narrowing her eye at him as well.
"Young man," she said curtly, "If you want to know about the girl with the pointed ears who lives on East Wedge, what the marital status of the woman with the webbed feet who lives two levels up is or how many times we get satyrs coming in here for a drink, we'll tell you all that and more without question...but we refuse to give out any information that might intrude on our customers' privacy. The man you are looking for is in his room, and I am certain he does not want to be disturbed."
"So...you're not going to tell me which room he is in?" Alexander asked timidly.
"Of course not," One-Eye huffed. "Rules are rules, and don't even think about knocking on every door trying to find him or we'll have you thrown out."
Alexander thought for a moment. As adamant as One-Eye was about following rules, she and her sister both seemed like types who were willing to break them under certain circumstances. Alexander reached into his pocket and withdrew a small handful of gold. Three-Eyes' two visible eyes grew wide, and One-Eye's mouth fell open at the sight.
"If you tell me which room is his, I'll give you this," Alexander said in a low voice. "And you have my word that I won't tell anyone that you did."
"Tell him, One-Eye, tell him," Three-Eyes begged. "Think of what we could buy with all that gold!"
"We're not exactly impoverished, Three-Eyes," One-Eye snarled back. "Besides, if Tavish ever found out..."
"If he ever does, tell him that what you did aided a young man on a very dangerous, near-impossible mission," Alexander said. "And I am positive that your guest will be grateful for this breach of his privacy."
One-Eye hesitated for a moment, then sighed.
"It's the third door on the left through there," she said, pointing to the door to the right of the counter.
Alexander poured the gold into Three-Eyes' hands, which she had eagerly cupped the moment her sister had spoken.
"Thank you, ladies," Alexander said. "Again, I promise not to tell anyone about this."
"You'd better not," One-Eye said coolly.
"Thank you, Alexander," Three-Eyes trilled merrily as he turned towards the door that led to the inn's rooms. Something in the tone of her voice made Alexander feel quite uneasy.
On the other side of the door was a hallway, but not one constructed out of wooden planks. This hallway was carved into the rock face, with several wooden doors lining it, looking similar to the passage Alexander had found at the base of the hollow stump in the forest. It looked as if the inn had been constructed over the cave's entrance, which had been hollowed out and had other smaller caves carved out of it to make the inn's rooms.
Alexander found the third door on the left and knocked politely.
"Who's there?" came a weary voice from within.
"Alexander," the king replied. "The man who wanted to buy the map to the Sea Fairies' kingdom yesterday."
"Oh? And what do you want?"
"I want to see whether I have enough money to buy it from you now."
There was a heavy shuffling sound from behind the door, followed by the sound of a latch being lifted. The white-haired adventurer slowly opened the door and invited Alexander in.
The adventurer's room was small, but comfortable. There was a bed with a feather mattress against one of the carved stone walls, two chairs, one by the door and one by the table, and a lamp burning on a bedside table. The adventurer's knapsack lay against the table.
"So," the adventurer said eyeing the bundle Alexander held at his side, "How much money do you have with you, lad?"
"See for yourself," Alexander said, setting the apron down on the floor and untying it, exposing the gold coins within. The adventurer's misty eyes became wide enough for Alexander to see the whites all around their centers.
"I...I..." he stammered. "I haven't seen this much gold in years! Where in the world did you find all this?"
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Alexander said, emptying his pockets of most of the remaining gold coins. "I truly don't have any need of this much gold, and once I remembered what you said about selling that map, I brought it all here...is it enough, Adventurer?"
"Why...why certainly it is enough," the adventurer gasped, picking up a handful of the coins. "I could probably buy two houses with this much gold. To be honest, my offer was a serious one, but I never believed that someone would find this much money in barely a day's time..."
"Maybe it was your wishing me well that helped," Alexander guessed. "What was it you said...'May you find what you seek and avoid what you do not seek?'"
"I think that was what I said," the adventurer chuckled. "But enough chatter. You've given me what I wanted, now I'll give you what you wanted."
He walked over to his knapsack and lifted it onto the table. Lowering himself into a chair, he began digging through its contents, opening and peering into its many pockets and muttering to himself as he did. Finally, he pulled a tube-shaped leather case out of the knapsack, opened one end of the case and extracted a rolled-up piece of parchment. He unrolled the parchment and spread it out on the table, and there was no mistaking what was depicted on the parchment as anything other than a map. The map displayed the entire known world, even the Land of the Green Isles, which was still nothing more than a myth to most travelers.
"See here?" the adventurer said, pointing to a small symbol roughly midway between Daventry and the Green Isles. "This is where the Sea Fairies' realm is located, and once your voyage is underway, a symbol representing your ship will appear on the map as well. As I said before, as your ship approaches it, you might encounter some tricks to throw you off your course. Just trust the map and keep sailing straight towards the kingdom."
"That sounds simple, but I suppose it's easier said than done," Alexander mused. "But tell me something, Adventurer: my boat was constructed magically, and it operates using magic as well. How will the boat and this map work together?"
The adventurer mumbled thoughtfully to himself for a moment.
"I don't rightly know," he shrugged. "There shouldn't be any conflict because of this map's relative simplicity -- it just perceives anything large and wooden floating in water as a boat and indicates exactly where the boat is. It's how your boat might be affected by the fairies that I'm worried about...how is this boat of yours constructed anyway, lad?"
"It's made out of living trees woven together," Alexander explained. "And it goes wherever I tell it to go, as long as I know where the destination is."
"Fascinating," the adventurer muttered. "Since you say it's made out of trees, perhaps it won't risk being altered by the fairies' magic after all, since trees grow on the land, and the fairies' powers come from the sea."
"That makes sense," Alexander nodded. "I hope you're right, Adventurer."
"You've been lucky so far, my boy," the adventurer smiled, rolling the map up and putting it back in its case. "I don't see any reason why good fortune should turn its back on you now."
He stared at the case for a moment and sighed. Then he gave it to Alexander.
"Thank you," Alexander said.
"Be sure to treat it with care," the adventurer said. "Maps like that don't grow on trees."
Alexander thanked him again and turned to leave.
"Wait a moment," the adventurer said. "I feel a bit like celebrating my good fortune. Could you please take this gold coin to One-Eye and Three-Eyes and ask them to bring me a mug of their finest ale? All this excitement has tired me out a bit."
"Of course," Alexander said, taking the coin from the adventurer's hand. "And farewell in case we don't meet again."
"Farewell," the adventurer echoed. "May all your adventures end successfully."
The oddly eyed sisters weren't in the inn's tavern when Alexander arrived. However, the loud shouts coming from the other side of the door behind the counter told the king exactly where they were. Cautiously, Alexander approached the door and opened it a crack, revealing a room that had to be the tavern's kitchen. Like the inn's rooms, it was a naturally formed cave modified to suit human purposes. Wooden shelves stuck out of deep grooves in the walls and a fireplace burned in an alcove dug out of the rock. Large casks lined one of the walls, and the many tables were covered with the many various items involved in food preparation. The room was surprisingly disorganized compared to the rest of the inn, and near the back of the kitchen stood One-Eye and Three-Eyes, arguing in voices loud enough to be heard by the people in the next building over.
"Hey, I can't help it if I find him attractive, can I?" Three-Eyes barked. The cloth she wore over her head before was off now, leaving her glaring third eye exposed.
"I think you can help it," One-Eye yelled. "You're just flirting with him deliberately, just to upset me!"
"I'm not flirting with him!" Three-Eyes said. "I'm just treating him courteously -- that's the way we're supposed to treat visitors, isn't it?"
"Stop denying it! Just because I can't pass as normal as easily as you doesn't mean you have to keep rubbing that in my face every chance you get!"
As loath as he was to do so, Alexander quietly opened the door and calmly addressed the quarreling women. Three-Eyes spotted him out of the corner of her extra eye before he even spoke and quickly signaled her sister to stop yelling.
"Excuse me for intruding, ladies," Alexander said, "But the adventurer rooming here requested that I buy him a mug of your finest ale."
He held out the gold coin. Three-Eyes started to move towards him, but One-Eye elbowed her in the stomach and strode up to Alexander and took the coin from him herself.
"Thank you," she said with strained politeness. "We'll have the ale ready for him in a minute. I just need to discuss something with my sister first."
Alexander glanced at Three-Eyes, whose face had turned bright pink. One-Eye stomped back to Three-Eyes and they both began arguing again, only this time they had the courtesy to speak in hissing whispers and turn away from Alexander.
As the king was turning to leave, he noticed a small bottle on a shelf near the door with a label reading "Fish Oil" on it. Alexander suddenly remembered fish oil as being one of the spell ingredients he was seeking, and was tempted to snatch the bottle and leave, but despite the peculiar way One-Eye and Three-Eyes treated him, he couldn't deny that they had both been very helpful people, and he couldn't bring himself to steal from them. Then he remembered that he still had a few gold pieces with him. Moving in front of the shelf, he slowly reached back and picked up the bottle. Then, turning around and swiftly slipping the bottle into his pocket, he left two gold pieces in the fish oil's place, confident that that was enough money to buy more than a dozen more bottles -- and he was fairly certain that there was no shortage of fish in Glaucus.
"One-Eye? Three-Eyes?" he said as he turned to leave. The sisters turned towards him again, the anger still obvious on their faces.
"I just wanted to thank you for all the help and advice you've given me," he said. "I know I've been asking you both some odd questions and made unusual requests, but I can't tell you how grateful I am for your putting up with me."
The sisters glanced awkwardly at the walls and floor and quietly replied that Alexander was quite welcome and that they hoped he would visit Glaucus again sometime. They began whispering viciously again as soon as Alexander had turned towards the door, and Alexander was almost certain he could hear them arguing over which one of them he liked better. As sharp-tongued and bizarre as the two women were, there was something about the coarse, yet kind behavior of the two misfits that made Alexander respect them. Consequently, he couldn't bring himself to tell them that he was already married.
Now Alexander had only three more items to find before he was ready to start preparing the three spells. The seawater was easy enough to obtain, though he needed a vessel to hold the water in first. As for the talisman and the silverheart shell, a few moments' thought gave him the idea where to ask about such things. He turned the ring on his finger three times and found himself below the house of Emmett the recluse, who politely let him inside.
"So," Emmett said, looking just as cheerful as he had been the day before and wearing the same long robe that completely covered his feet, "Did you find that grass all right last night, Alexander?"
"I actually did," Alexander said. "I found the cave this morning, too."
"You seem pretty dry," Emmett said, looking the king over. "Did somebody warn you about that cursed step?"
"No, but Tavish was close by when I slipped, so he caught me."
"That's Tavish for you," Emmett chuckled. "A big man like that naturally has a big heart."
"Emmett," Alexander said apprehensively, "I know it's none of my affairs, but...how did...I mean, what...why is..."
"Why is Tavish the size he is?" Emmett asked.
"Why didn't you ask him yourself?"
"I...I was afraid to," Alexander admitted.
Emmett let out a wheezy laugh.
"So is every traveler that meets Tavish," he chuckled. "They're either afraid of getting crushed by him or of hurting his feelings. None of the town's residents have asked Tavish about his size either, at least none that I know of. I suspect that he might be either part giant or a normal man raised by a giant, or perhaps a spell or potion caused his growth. I suspect that even Tavish himself isn't sure why he is so large. I don't think it really matters, though. We're just glad to have him here in Glaucus, probably the only place where he fits in."
Emmett paused and tapped his forehead.
"But there I go, rambling on again," he muttered. "What is it you wanted to see me about, Alexander?"
"Oh yes," Alexander said, so caught up in Emmett's words that he temporarily forgot the purpose of his visit. "I need to borrow a couple of things from you."
"The first is a small container of any kind that water can be carried in."
"Help yourself to any of the ones over there," Emmett said, gesturing towards the makeshift table made out of stacked books and a plank standing against the wall. As Alexander looked over the vast array of tubes, beakers, vials and various apparatuses resting on the table, he suddenly realized that these were just the things he needed to prepare the spells. Alexander asked Emmett's permission to use the equipment, and the recluse said that the king was welcome to use it as long as he left everything just as he had found it when he was done. Alexander thanked Tavish and helped himself to a small beaker.
"What else did you want to borrow?" Emmett asked.
"A talisman to invoke the powers of the sea," Alexander said, repeating the phrase from the list of ingredients. "Do you have such a thing?"
"I believe I do," Emmett said. "Somewhere...ah, there it is! Just a minute."
He pointed to something near the ceiling, then quickly shuffled into an adjacent room. Alexander looked where he had pointed and noticed what looked like a stylized scallop made out of gold hanging from a hook in the ceiling by a loop of blue silk. A large symbol was inlaid in the shell's surface with mother of pearl, and the shell was too far overhead for Alexander to reach.
Emmett came back with a large, empty crate in his hands and a long pole tucked under his arm. He set the crate down under the golden shell, then lifted up the hem of his robe and stepped up onto the top of the crate.
Alexander's eyes widened as Emmett did this. The recluse's feet were more than twice as large as a normal man's, with elongated toes connected by translucent webbing and a greenish-gray sheen to them, looking like the feet of a frog. When Alexander looked Emmett in the eyes again, the cold expression on the recluse's face made it clear that he knew that Alexander had glimpsed his feet.
"Believe me, it used to be much worse," Emmett said tonelessly.
Alexander tried to come up with an apology, but was unable to think of an appropriate one. Emmett reached up and removed the shell from its hook with the aid of the pole. As he delicately stepped down from the crate, Alexander tried to avert his eyes.
"This is what you need," Emmett said, removing the shell from the pole. "This talisman belonged to my father, but he seldom used it. I've just been using it as a decoration since he disappeared."
"Thank you," Alexander said, taking the talisman. "I'm afraid it may be a while before I can return this to you..."
"That doesn't matter to me," Emmett said. "If you find it useful, you can keep it."
"I insist," Emmett said. "I'd much rather have my father's belongings in the hands of someone who needs them and puts them to good use instead of having them sit around here, gathering dust or rotting away. After all, I'd give anything to help a man who puts his life on the line for the sake of saving a member of his family."
His last sentence was much quieter, and he gazed wistfully out the room's small window as he spoke it.
"You know," he said with a sigh, "As terrible a wizard as I was as a child, my father never lost faith in me, and when I decided to become a physician after the accident, he didn't turn his back on me for choosing another trade. He even began showing interest in my work."
He ran a hand slowly through his graying hair.
"I didn't realize just how much my father had loved me until he was gone...and I thought I'd never know another man who loved his son that much..."
Here he turned back to Alexander.
"...But it seems I thought wrong."
Alexander had to leave Emmett's house to acquire some seawater, which he was easily able to do near the bottom of the steps leading to the now submerged cave entrance. He returned to Emmett's house immediately after getting the water, glad of the opportunity to avoid the awkward footwork it took to get past the cursed step.
Now he had all the spell ingredients but one, the silverheart shell. When he asked Emmett where such a shell could be found, the recluse frowned and shook his head.
"I'm afraid that ingredient will be much more difficult to find than the others," he said. "Silverhearts can only be found on the ocean floor, and in very deep water. They are said to bring good fortune and protection from evil to a person who possesses one, but they are very, very rare. Once in a blue moon one might wash up on a beach, but by then, most of its power is gone."
"So there's no way to easily find one?"
"No," Emmett said sadly.
Alexander sighed and wondered what to do. He had the ingredients for the preliminary spell and "Spell 1", according to the page from the spell book, but since the page was incomplete, he had no way of knowing whether Spell 1 was the one that would change him into a merman or a merrow. He pulled out the page and stared at the depictions of the two half woman, half fish creatures on it. If only there were some way of knowing which was which.
Finally, Alexander decided to prepare the two spells, regardless of what creature Spell 1 would change him into. If he ever did locate a silverheart shell, he still had enough of the items necessary to prepare the second spell, which was nearly identical to its companion, after all.
After making a trip to the Dryad to gather the rest of the spells' ingredients, Alexander returned to Emmett's house once again, spread the odd assortment of items out on the recluse's makeshift table, put the page from the spell book where he could easily read it, pulled a crate up to the table to serve as a seat, and began to work.
Alexander had prepared several magic spells in his lifetime, and despite not having any formal training, he was fairly good at it. Consequently, the spells described on the page from Emmett's book were quite easy for him to follow.
He filled a vial with the seawater and began heating it in a glass retort while he ground a handful of the Glaucan grass in the mortar. After all the water had condensed and dripped down the neck of the retort into the container waiting underneath it, Alexander squeezed the now soggy grass over the vessel. Bright greenish drops fell from the grass, tinting the pure water a pale emerald hue.
After pouring the completed potion into a small vial and corking it, Alexander began chopping up two finger-sized pieces of the root from the Wandering Isle, one for Spell 1, and one for Spell 2. Then, once the sprig of Cryptalis moss, fish oil and diced root were combined, he began stirring the small, odd-looking mass with a rounded wooden stick while slowly adding seawater to it. When the mass had become the solid lump that the directions described, Alexander waved the talisman over it. The lump instantly split in half, and a tiny sphere barely a quarter of an inch in diameter fell out of it.
He had completed both spells without mishap. Now all he had to do was travel to the kingdom of the Sea Fairies and hope that they both worked. After wrapping the small pill up in a piece of paper and carefully pocketing it and the vial of potion, Alexander cleaned Emmett's supplies as thoroughly as he could and rose from the small table.
"Ah," said Emmett. Alexander turned to see the recluse reclining on the window seat. "You are finished?"
"Yes," Alexander replied. "And I think I'm just about ready to leave Glaucus to seek out the Sea Fairies' realm."
Emmett rose to his feet.
"How exactly do you plan to get there and rescue your son?" he asked.
"Somebody was able to provide me with a map," Alexander said, "As for rescuing my son...I don't know yet. I suppose I'll have to deal with that problem when I encounter it."
"I wish there were more I could do to help you," Emmett sighed. "Wait -- there is one thing that might be of use to you..."
He left the room and returned shortly with a light blue tunic in his hands. The garment was made out of something that resembled leather but was much thinner and softer. Emmett held out the tunic so Alexander could see it more clearly. Its hem was much lower than a conventional tunic's, and there was a large pocket on each hip, with a flap covering each one.
"When you enter the water, wear this," Emmett said. "Anything kept in the pockets will remain dry until you are ready to use it. The fabric also dries quickly too."
"Is this magic?" Alexander asked, taking the tunic from Emmett and examining it.
"I believe so," Emmett replied.
"Thank you again, Emmett," Alexander said. "I don't know how else I could carry my possessions underwater without getting them soaked...oh, and speaking of possessions..."
Here he removed the silver ring from his finger and handed it to Emmett.
"...I suppose I should return this to you before I leave."
"Well, thank you," Emmett smiled. "And good luck to you, Alexander...but remember what I said about magic: be careful with it. Otherwise...who knows what could go wrong."
He glanced down as he said this, and even though Alexander bade the recluse farewell in a calm, friendly voice, the memory of that brief glimpse of Emmett's huge, webbed feet still made the king shiver slightly.
The sun had started sloping downwards towards the sea when Alexander left the recluse's home for the last time. Descending the stairs to Emmett's home proved to be even more harrowing than the journey up. Alexander was afraid that he might slip on a wet step and go tumbling down the sheer cliff side. Fortunately, he was able to make it to the pier without loosing his footing.
It was hard to believe that Alexander had only spent two days in Glaucus, what with all that had happened since the day the Dryad had first docked, yet at the same time, he wished that he could stay longer in the simple, yet strange little village. However, with his son being held captive in the realm of the Sea Fairies, he had no time to lose.
As he neared his ship, he saw a tall, gaunt figure standing near the gangplank. As he drew closer, he could see that it was the old adventurer. He stared at the boat with a look of childlike wonder on his face, which remained even as he turned to face Alexander.
"And here I thought I'd seen it all," he murmured. "After years of adventuring and spending so much time in what some consider the oddest village in this world, I don't think I've ever seen a ship quite like yours."
"She may look odd, but she's served me well," Alexander said. "And hopefully she will carry me to the Sea Fairies' kingdom."
The adventurer nodded. As Alexander was climbing the gangplank, the adventurer spoke up again:
"Thank you again for the gold, lad. I'm certain that I'll be able to buy a lovely cottage on the land behind the Wedges with it."
"You're very welcome, Adventurer."
"Certainly...one last thing, though: where did you get a boat like that, anyway?"
"You may not believe it, but an aardvark who was once a wizard made it for me," Alexander replied.
The adventurer looked puzzled for a moment, then grinned and shook his head.
"I believe it," he smiled. "Of course, when you've been an adventurer for as long as I have, you start to believe just about anything."
Alexander went below decks and awakened Shappa, who was curled up in his hammock.
"What is it, Lex?" the half-breed grumbled.
"We're leaving," Alexander said.
"You've found a way to that kingdom, then?"
"Yes. I just need to tell the ship where to go, and we should be on our way."
"If you say so," Shappa said, curling up again and turning away from Alexander, who turned and headed towards the top deck. There, he opened the leather case the Adventurer had given to him and carefully extracted the map to the Sea Fairies' realm. After carefully taking note of where the realm was in relation to his current location, Alexander tucked the map away and calmly addressed the ship:
"The kingdom of the Sea Fairies."
The Dryad obediently retracted its gangplank and began to turn clockwise, a maneuver which would have been impossible with a conventional ship. After it had turned 180 degrees, it lurched forward and began gliding gracefully away from Glaucus' pier. The old adventurer stood watching in amazement, his white hair glistening in the sunlight. He waved to Alexander, who stood near the stern, waving back. The king watched the two Wedges of Glaucus and the many structures built up their slopes slowly growing smaller as the Dryad made its way south until the village was nothing more than a pointed ridge on the horizon.
With nothing else to do now that the ship was underway, Alexander went below decks to get a little sleep. He was still tired from the exertions of the previous night. As soon as he laid down on his hammock, however, he began fretting again, wondering how he was going to rescue his son, how he was going to deal with the fairies, and how Cassima was faring. To make matters worse, he now had something new to worry about: the selkie's warning to beware of a mortal with a harelip. Who was this mortal?
All that day the Dryad sailed, and all night as well. Alexander was keeping track of their progress by checking the adventurer's map, and according to it, they were moving towards the realm of the Sea Fairies with remarkable swiftness. Like the adventurer had said, a small symbol resembling a ship was slowly crawling along the map, making a beeline for the symbol that indicated where the realm was located. Alexander tried spending some time writing at the desk in the room adjacent to the storeroom, but was too nervous with excitement to write, and always found himself pacing on the top deck and studying the map again.
Now that the ultimate purpose of their voyage was almost upon them, Shappa had become more curious than ever, asking Alexander question after question about the realm of the Sea Fairies, most of which Alexander was completely unable to answer.
In the late morning of their second day at sea, Shappa was asking Alexander yet another question of this sort when he suddenly stopped and stared westward.
"Lex..." he said quietly.
"Yes?" Alexander replied.
"What is that?"
Alexander gazed off the port side of the Dryad and noticed a large black speck near the horizon.
"It looks like another ship," Alexander replied.
"Doesn't it look like it's heading towards us?" Shappa asked nervously.
"It might be," Alexander said, wishing that Vark had seen fit to include a spyglass among the Dryad's supplies.
Neither man nor half-breed said anything more after this, but tensely watched the strange ship as it drew closer and closer to them. Shappa began to crouch down until he was on all fours, with only his eyes and ears sticking up over the railing. Alexander stared at the craft, trying to figure out what sort of craft it was and why it seemed to be making a beeline towards his boat.
He finally got his answer when he squinted up at the mainmast and noticed a single black flag flapping in the breeze -- a black flag with a white skull and two crossed bones painted on it.
"Shappa, that's a pirate ship!" Alexander shouted. "What should we do?"
"You're asking me?" Shappa asked, still crouched on the deck. "You're the human, you're supposed to be the one with the good ideas!"
"I know, but you're the one who's the most familiar with this ship!" Alexander yelled. "We've got to outrun that galleon somehow -- is there a way to make the Dryad go any faster?"
"I think we're going as fast as we can go right now," Shappa said nervously.
"Are you sure?"
When all Shappa did in response was shrug, Alexander tried bellowing "Faster!" to the ship several times, but couldn't discern any increase in the Dryad's speed. Looking at the pirate ship again, he noticed that it not only was drawing even closer, but also turning so that the ship was parallel with the Dryad.
"What do they want?" Shappa cried. "We don't have any treasures on board."
"We know that, but they don't," Alexander snapped. "Besides, they may decide to rob us of everything we do have on board instead -- food, water, and supplies -- and after that, they'll either kill us or take us prisoner."
Shappa shuddered and turned to look at the pirate ship, which, Alexander noted with mounting terror, now had several large cannons pointed at them.
"They'll sink us if we don't outrun them," he yelled.
"But the Dryad can heal itself," Shappa said, panic rising in his voice. "Besides, we seem to be moving faster than them..."
There was a loud boom from the pirate ship and a shrill whistling sound. A cannonball had been launched in their direction, but hadn't come anywhere close to hitting them -- it was a warning shot. The next time, Alexander was certain that they would hit them.
"The Dryad may be able to heal itself, but how quickly can it do that?" Alexander asked. "Did Vark tell you how quickly this ship could repair itself after its hull has been punctured by a half-dozen cannonballs?"
"I don't know," Shappa cried. "Vark must not have thought of that."
"So we have no way of defending ourselves against those pirates?" the king shouted.
"No," Shappa said in a small voice. "We don't."
There was another boom from the pirate ship, and this time a cannonball crunched into the Dryad's prow. Fear coursed through Alexander's body, but Shappa suddenly appeared strangely calm and controlled.
"So our only choice is to surrender to them, is that it?" Alexander demanded.
"I...I think I have an idea," Shappa said, as if he hadn't heard Alexander at all.
"What is it?"
"First, you must pretend to surrender the ship," Shappa said. "Then, no matter what happens, don't let those men know that I'm here."
"Then, with luck, I should be able to get us out of this," Shappa said.
"How do I know that this plan will work?"
"You don't," Shappa admitted. "You must simply trust me just as I trust you not to reveal my presence."
With that, Shappa crawled across the deck, climbed over the railing and disappeared over the side of the ship. Alexander was gripped by the impulse to run to the side of the ship and see what he was doing, but the pirates were close enough to see him do that, and it would certainly give Shappa away. Instead, Alexander hurried below decks and found a plain white rag in one of the storerooms. He hurried to the top deck with the rag in hand and waved it wildly.
Once he was certain that his signal had been seen by the pirates, he quietly urged the Dryad to slow down, and to his surprise, it did decrease its speed until it was barely moving at all. In no time at all, the huge galleon had drawn up alongside him, and its men had thrown lines with hooks on the ends, which embedded themselves in the soft wood of the Dryad's railing.
As Alexander stared up at the enormous craft, his blood suddenly froze. He had seen this boat before. It was the same pirate ship that had taken him from Llewdor to Daventry.
Transfixed by fear, Alexander watched silently as a rope ladder was flung over the side of the galleon and onto the deck of the Dryad. Down the ladder descended three men: two of them simple-looking, bristly oafs in striped shirts, while the third was dressed in a large black hat and a matching coat with gleaming gold buttons.
Though the man had an intimidating glare on his face and had a large cutlass at his side, neither of these were what made Alexander's throat go dry...for the man's upper lip had a broad vertical slit in it that ran almost all the way up to the base of his nose.
The man with the harelip gazed expressionlessly at Alexander's ship, calmly examining it from stem to stern. Then he turned his attention to the king.
"What odd manner of craft is this, boy?" he demanded.
"I'm afraid it would take a long time to explain it to you completely," Alexander said.
The man with the harelip sneered at the king.
"Do I look that daft to you?" he growled.
"No, no," Alexander said quickly. "It's just that this ship has a rather complicated history, and even I don't know exactly how it was built."
The man opened his mouth to speak again, but slowly shut it again and peered suspiciously at Alexander. Then he turned to the man standing on his left and whispered something into his ear. The man nodded and began to clamber back up the ladder leading to the galleon's top deck.
Alexander stared quietly at the man with the harelip. He was starting to strongly suspect that this man was the pirate ship's captain, though he looked nothing like the man that had captained the ship when he was last aboard it. The previous captain was fairly old with a large gray beard and a wooden leg, and the man who stood before Alexander now looked barely a decade and a half older than Alexander, was clean-shaven and possessed two good legs.
Finally, Alexander couldn't keep silent any longer.
"What's going on?" he asked.
The man with the harelip narrowed his eyes.
"You look very much like someone that my crew once described to me," he said. "Someone that they encountered once...and it was not a pleasant experience for them at all, so they tell me..."
He was interrupted by a yell from the galleon.
"Captain! I've got Old Sponge up here!"
The man with the harelip and Alexander looked up to see the pirate that had gone back aboard the ship standing on the top deck. With him was a short, dwarflike man with a thick, bristly gray beard streaked with white that had to be Old Sponge. As soon as Alexander had noticed him, Old Sponge grinned wildly and thrust an accusing finger towards the king.
"That's him!" he crowed. "That's him, no question about it! I'd know that man's face even if I just saw his eyes!"
"That's enough, thank you," said the captain gruffly. The two men on the top deck walked away, while the captain turned back to Alexander with a cold, dangerous look in his eyes.
"A remarkable fellow, Old Sponge is," he remarked. "Once he sees a face, he never forgets it. He can remember a person he saw years ago, even if he only caught the briefest glimpse of him or her. He may not be good for much else, but he is still a valued member of my crew."
"And what does this skill of Old Sponge's have to do with me?" Alexander asked nervously.
The captain smiled, obviously enjoying the anxiety he was causing Alexander.
"Years ago, the former captain of my ship took a young lad aboard on his way to reclaim a chest of treasure that he and his men had buried on a beach far northwest of here. Just before they dropped anchor at that beach, he and his crew suddenly became so weary that they all fell asleep.
"When the captain and his crew awakened, they discovered that the treasure chest had been dug up and carried away. It had taken them a great many years to acquire all that wealth, so unsurprisingly they were quite upset by this strange turn of events. No one was certain what had happened to the treasure at first, but when the crew discovered that the young man they had taken aboard their ship had vanished...well, you can probably guess what they thought. And Old Sponge -- who never forgets a face -- has just informed me that you are that same young man."
"What?" Alexander exclaimed, trying to act innocent. "Your Old Sponge must be mistaken! I've never been on a pirate ship before in my life, and I've never even touched a treasure chest, let alone dug one up!"
The captain continued smiling and shook his head.
"Don't even try to deny it, lad," he said. "The crew suspected that you must have used magic to put them to sleep, and a ship like this with no sails and no rudder seems like just the sort of thing someone experienced in magic would travel in. Besides, Old Sponge is never wrong."
Alexander tried to say something that would convince the captain that he wasn't the boy who had enchanted the ship's crew and stolen their treasure, but there didn't seem to be any way he could talk himself out of this situation now. It seemed as if this part of his past had finally caught up with him.
"Word of my predecessor's misfortune spread quickly," the captain said. "And soon, he had become a laughingstock among his fellow pirates. Deprived of his wealth and unable to hide his shame, he soon retired from piracy, vowing never to sail again. I was the one of the few pirates who didn't laugh at what had befallen him, and consequently, he asked me to take his place as captain. I spent a lot of time wondering about this dark-haired, blue-eyed lad that had somehow outsmarted and robbed him...but I never dreamed that I'd meet that lad face to face."
"Listen," Alexander said coldly, "I gave this captain you speak of a pouch of gold in exchange for letting me on board his ship, and in return, he robbed me of everything I had and tossed me into the hold, planning to make me a cabin boy."
The captain glared at Alexander.
"Such trivialities don't matter any longer," he snarled. "All that matters to me now is that I've found the man who brought shame and misfortune to my ship and its crew, and now it's time to settle things with him."
"And how do you plan to do that?" Alexander demanded.
"I believe I have a reasonable idea," the captain said. His eyes dropped to the sword at Alexander's side, then he turned to the remaining man standing beside him.
"Take this back to my cabin," he said, handing the man the cutlass he wore at his side, "And bring me my best sword. Since we're going to be fighting on this man's ship, I feel that I should use the same type of weapon as he uses."
The man nodded and hurried up the ladder.
"Incidentally," the captain said, turning back to Alexander, "I completely forgot to introduce myself: I am Merrill. Captain Merrill. And may I ask what your name is, boy?"
"Alexander," the king said tonelessly.
"Just Alexander?" Merrill asked.
"Yes," the king replied. "Just Alexander."
The pirate Merrill had sent back soon returned holding a plain sword in his hand. Merrill picked up the sword, took a few practice swings with it and nodded to the man. Then he removed his hat and coat and commanded the crewmember to carry them back to his cabin. Now that Merrill's hat was off, Alexander could see that he had a head of short, steely gray hair.
"Now, Alexander," said Merrill, walking around Alexander until he was between the king and the bow of the Dryad, "You and I are going to have a duel...a fair, simple duel. If I win, you will die. If you win, you are free to do whatever you wish with me and my crew. The first man who falls or is disarmed is the loser. Are you ready?"
Secretly cursing himself for not taking any sword fighting lessons in the Land of the Green Isles when he had the chance, Alexander carefully removed his scabbard from his belt and withdrew his sword, the emerald in its pommel glittering brightly in the sunlight.
"Yes," he said stiffly.
He and Merrill slowly raised their swords, stood motionless for a moment, then Merrill swiftly swung his sword in Alexander's direction, and the duel had begun.
For a few minutes, the two men fought steadily, neither one gaining or losing any ground. Then, just as Alexander feared, Merrill forced him several steps backwards. Alexander was frantically trying to figure out how he could possibly get out of this mess alive. The last time he had been forced into a duel, it was with the mad tyrant who had attempted to take over Cassima's homeland, and if it weren't for Cassima's intervention, Alexander would surely have lost that fight.
As Alexander struggled to keep a grip on his sword and parry every blow from Merrill, he slowly became aware of something large and orange-red in color crawling over the railing near the Dryad's bow. With his back to the bow, Merrill was quite unaware of whatever it was, and Alexander couldn't spend too much time looking at it, or else Merrill would waste no time in running him through. It had to be Shappa. Alexander had no idea what he was planning, nor did he have any time to figure out what the half-breed intended to do. The king was tiring quickly, and it was taking all his concentration and energy to fight Merrill, who still looked just as self-assured as ever, showing no signs whatsoever of fatigue. By the smug grin on his face, Merrill seemed confident that he would win.
Finally, Alexander forgot to raise his sword in time to parry a sharp jab from Merrill's blade, and Alexander's only option was to leap backwards, which he swiftly did. He very nearly toppled over, but he managed to steady himself with his free hand just in time. He hadn't fallen, and therefore hadn't lost...yet.
Dissatisfied with his opponent's refusal to go down quickly, Merrill glowered at Alexander and began to stride towards him, but before he could get close enough to Alexander to cross swords with him again, there was a sound like a thunderclap and a huge burst of white smoke appeared between the two men. When the smoke cleared, a large, pink-skinned creature with a long snout and huge, rounded ears was standing on the deck.
"Oh dear, oh dear, I did it again," it moaned, staring up at Alexander. "I didn't come at a bad time, did I?"
Suddenly it became aware that there was another man standing beside it. It turned towards Merrill, and one look at the grizzled, gray-haired pirate captain was enough to answer the creature's question. It let out a frightened yelp, then vanished.
For a moment, there was complete stillness on board the Dryad. Though Vark's third visit had startled Alexander, it hadn't startled him nearly as much as it had Merrill. The captain was still standing rigidly, staring at the spot where Vark had appeared, his eyes wide and unblinking.
Without hesitating for a moment, Alexander mustered up all his strength and swung his sword in the captain's direction, striking not Merrill, but Merrill's sword. Alexander struck it just a short distance above the hilt, knocking the weapon out of Merrill's momentarily relaxed fingers and sending it clattering across the deck. Coming to his senses, Merrill lunged after the sword immediately, but a crimson blur came flying through the air and landed squarely on the sword, its claws and teeth exposed. It was Shappa. Merrill stared at the half man, half cat creature in alarm and tried grabbing his sword again, but Shappa swiped at him with his clawed hand and hissed furiously. Merrill slowly turned back to Alexander, his smugness completely gone, with nothing but mute shock on his hardened face.
"The creatures..." he said. "Coming from everywhere...I was winning...I should have won..."
"But you didn't win," Alexander said, still trying to catch his breath. "You said the first man to fall or be disarmed would be the loser, and it looks as if you're that man."
Merrill's look of shock slowly grew into a look of angry frustration.
"You cheated!" he snarled. "You conjured that hairless beast to put me off my guard, then called upon this...this weretiger to steal my sword!"
"He didn't steal your sword," Alexander said. "I disarmed you myself. As for that other beast, I had nothing to do with it. I had no idea that it would appear."
Merrill gazed fiercely at Alexander, his teeth and fists clenched in anger. Finally, he grew calmer, and spoke with a steadier voice:
"Very well, Alexander...you've won the duel. You are free to do whatever you want with my ship, its crew and myself now. What do you wish to do first?"
Alexander glanced at the huge galleon and thought for a moment, then turned back to the pirate captain.
"All I want to do is command you to return to your ship and go away," Alexander said. "And never attempt to attack any ships in these waters again."
Merrill peered inquisitively at Alexander.
"You're not going to kill us?" he asked.
"No," Alexander replied.
"After the way you say my predecessor treated you, you don't want to take revenge on us?"
"Revenge?" Alexander said. "Why would I do that? All that captain did was take all my belongings and toss me into the hold. There are far worse things that he could have done with me...and after all, he did remain true to his word and take me where I wanted to go."
"So," said Merrill slowly. "You just want us to leave?"
"Yes," Alexander replied. "And if I ever encounter you again, I may be motivated to use magic on you and your crew once more."
It was an empty threat, but it did the trick. Merrill flinched and nodded, then glanced at Shappa, who was still lying crouched on his fallen sword.
"Very well...could you please call off that beast now?" the captain asked nervously.
Alexander made a bold gesture with his free arm and spoke to Shappa in a deep, ominous voice:
"I command thee to step away, creature of flame and fang!"
Shappa, apparently understanding the ruse, bowed respectfully and crept away from the sword, hunched over like a deformed monster, his mouth hanging open and his claws still out. He moved to the bow of the ship and sat there, as if he were awaiting Alexander's next command.
Merrill glanced uneasily at Shappa, then picked up the sword. He walked over to the Dryad's railing and called down a couple of men to unhook the lines that held the two ships together. Once this was done, Merrill began to climb back up the ladder to the galleon, but stopped before he had reached the fourth rung. He hesitated, looked back over his shoulder at Alexander, then in one swift movement, pulled something from his belt, then with a bellow of rage, threw it in Alexander's direction. It just missed the king's right side, then embedded itself in the Dryad's railing. It was a small dagger.
Alexander glared at Merrill as he scampered up the ladder and boarded its ship, which slowly began to move away from the Dryad. When the galleon had grown too distant for Alexander to make out the men on board, Shappa stood up and slowly walked over to him.
"That was a bit too close, even for me," the half-breed muttered. "I had it all planned out, though. I was going to jump on that man, but then Vark appeared."
"I think it's just as well that he did," Alexander sighed. He picked up his scabbard and attached it to his belt. Then, after gripping the pommel of his sword tightly and whispering a word of thanks to the heavens, he slipped it into the scabbard. Then he ran towards the ship's bow and looked down at the side that the cannonball had hit. Except for a spot made up of several small branches tightly laced together, the hull appeared completely unscathed.
"How has the place where they hit us healed?" Shappa asked.
"Incredibly well," Alexander replied. "But speaking of the side of the boat, Shappa...is that where you were all the time I was talking to the captain?"
"Of course," Shappa replied. "I've climbed trees before, and that's pretty much what this ship is. You don't think I jumped into the sea, do you?"
"No, no," Alexander muttered. "I was just wondering."
He turned to look at the dagger that Merrill had thrown at him. It was still embedded in the ship's railing, but the living wood of the railing appeared to be pushing the dagger out. After several seconds, the dagger was completely free. It fell to the deck, leaving a puckered scar where it had been. Alexander bent down and picked it up.
"At least he was kind enough to leave you a gift, right, Alexander?"
Alexander turned and stared at Shappa. The half-breed was smirking at him, and after a few moments Alexander smiled as well. He couldn't help feeling triumphant, not just because he had come out the victor in his reencounter with the pirates (as well as the man that the selkie had warned him about), but because had finally earned Shappa's respect and trust, and consequently had "earned" his full name as well.
When Alexander and Shappa's third day at sea was almost half over, the ship symbol on the map was almost touching the location of the Sea Fairies' realm. Alexander began looking around for some sign that they were nearing the kingdom. Though he couldn't detect anything, Shappa nervously remarked that the air had gotten strangely cold very suddenly. Several minutes later, Alexander could see dark clouds and white, churning waves ahead of them.
"That doesn't look safe," Shappa said nervously. "Are you sure you want to continue into that?"
"I'm positive," Alexander said. "The adventurer told me that the fairies use tricks like this to keep mortals out of their domain. We just have to ignore it and head straight for it."
"Can't we go around it instead?" Shappa asked.
"That's just what the fairies want us to do," Alexander said. "That storm is only an illusion. It can't harm us."
"I certainly hope not," Shappa muttered.
As the Dryad approached the storm, the air became colder and the wind grew stronger, but as they neared it, it faded and dissolved like a mirage. Shappa shuddered violently, and Alexander shivered with fear as well.
Before they had a chance to recover from the experience, an enormous whirlpool suddenly appeared in front of the ship. Even though Alexander could feel the Dryad being drawn towards the swiftly churning water, he kept telling himself to remain calm, and that there was no whirlpool there, no matter what his senses told him. Just as it seemed as if the ship was about to topple into the whirlpool, it suddenly vanished.
Just as quickly, though, a deafening roar filled the air, and the ocean several yards ahead of the Dryad seemed to disappear, leaving nothing but an endless cascade of water tumbling into a bottomless void. It was as if Alexander and Shappa were moving towards the Edge of the World.
As the ship was pulled closer to the cascade, panic began to grip Alexander. He squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the railing with all his might, trying his best to shut out the thunderous noise of the water. It isn't real, he told himself. It's just an illusion. It's not real...
Then suddenly, there was silence. Alexander opened his eyes to see that the falls had vanished. The ocean on every side of the ship was calm, and that the boat itself seemed to have stopped moving. Alexander unrolled the adventurer's map to find that the ship symbol was now on top of the realm symbol, and a black circle had appeared around them.
"I think we made it," Alexander said to Shappa, who was lying crouched on the deck, the fur on his back standing on end.
"Wonderful," Shappa muttered wearily. "What now?"
Alexander looked over the side of the ship into the dark, shining sea.
"Now I'd better get ready to go down there."
Alexander went below decks and changed into the long blue tunic that Emmett had given him, then he went through his belongings, trying to figure out what to bring with him on his underwater journey. Obviously he had to bring the pill needed to change him into a mercreature, but he didn't want to bring only that. He went through his possessions and eventually decided to bring all the prepared ingredients for the second spell on the page from Emmett's spell book: a finger's length of the chopped up red root, a sprig of Cryptalis moss, a thimble-sized lump of Glaucan grass fibers, and the talisman that would invoke the powers of the sea. If the spell Alexander had prepared turned out to be the merrow spell, at least he would have most of the ingredients for the merman spell ready.
Alexander studied Spell 2 carefully. It seemed almost identical to Spell 1, except it used silverheart shell scrapings instead of fish oil. He also made sure to memorize the verse on the bottom of the page, which would return him to his original shape once he had completed his journey.
He considered bringing his sword, but imagined that it would be difficult to swim with it strapped to his side. Then he remembered the dagger that Captain Merrill had "given" him and decided to take it instead. Wrapping the blade in a thick rag and tying it up tightly, Alexander slipped the dagger into his pocket.
Finally, he felt that he was ready. Picking up the vial of greenish liquid that he had to drink before entering the water, Alexander made his way up to the top deck, much more slowly than usual because of the tough, gnarled and occasionally sharp floor under his bare feet. Shappa was waiting for him at the railing.
"How long will you be gone?" the half-breed asked.
"I don't know," Alexander replied truthfully. "But you must wait for me here so you can help me get back on board when I return."
"That will be fine with me," Shappa said. "I've no desire to go for a swim."
Alexander nodded. He glanced over the railing at the calm ocean again, then lifted the vial and eyed it cautiously. He had never before created a spell that required him to eat or drink it in order for it to work. Nonetheless, he had come too far to turn back now.
He carefully opened the vial and swallowed its contents, which tasted just like water to him. Giving Shappa a final wave, Alexander crawled over the railing, then jumped into the water.
Alexander's world instantly became muffled and still beneath the surface of the ocean. It was much warmer than he had anticipated, and oddly, the salt water didn't even sting his eyes. He soon realized that he was still holding his breath, and he wouldn't be able too much longer. He breathed in nervously, and to his astonishment, he didn't inhale a mouthful of water, but air...at least it felt like air, only heavier. He took a few moments to grow accustomed to being able to breathe underwater, then once he felt confident enough, he began to swim towards the bottom of the ocean.
Though the water began to grow darker as he went deeper, he could soon make out a bright light below him that grew larger and brighter as he swam on. After several minutes, he could make out the ocean floor beneath him: a flat, sandy expanse punctuated by boulders and mountains of rock, with a variety of colorful aquatic plants sprouting here and there. Schools of tiny fish occasionally flashed past, and crabs scurried over the rocks. Alexander was certain that it would be dark as midnight this far below the sea's surface, but oddly, the light had become so intense that it was almost as bright as day.
When Alexander finally touched down on the grainy ocean floor, he was quite tired from the exhilaration of his swim, and decided that he couldn't put off taking the pill that would change him into a mercreature any longer. He hesitated even longer with the pill than he had with the potion. True, in the past he had transformed himself into a different creature on two different occasions, but neither one involved him ingesting something in order for the spells to take effect. He stared warily at the innocuous, tiny brown sphere he held in his hand. Then, reminding himself that this was for his family's sake, he put the pill into his mouth and forced it down.
For a moment he remained motionless except for the gentle currents that pulled at his hair and nudged him this way and that. Then he noticed a strange feeling spreading throughout his body. Shuddering, he felt his legs begin to draw together and merge into a long, muscular tail. He urged himself to remain calm, since this was just what the spell was supposed to do.
Alexander suddenly became aware of a strange sensation in his hands. He lifted one up to his face and gasped. Greenish scales were beginning to appear on the back of his hand, while thick webbing was developing between the fingers and the nails were beginning to grow into large, curved claws. Scales were appearing on his arms as well, and when Alexander put a hand up to his face, he withdrew it in horror, for not only had his face started to become scaly too, but its entire shape had started to change.
Fear raced through him. Just as he had dreaded, he hadn't prepared the spell that changed men into mermen, but the one that transformed them into merrows. Memories of Emmett's dire warnings about magic and the webbed feet that his magical mishap had left him with ran through Alexander's head. He tried his best not to panic as his arms developed tapering fins at the elbows and became covered with scales while a webbed fringe started to grow down his spine, pushing against the fabric of his tunic.
When the transformation had finally stopped, Alexander put his clawed hand to his face again and shuddered. He was glad that there was no way for him to see what he looked like. His face felt deformed and twisted, so different from his own, yet there was still something human in its shape. His hands were vaguely human as well, despite the webbed fingers and claws. Looking down, he saw that his two legs had become a long tail very similar to a fish's. He tried his best to think rationally. Perhaps unintentionally becoming a merrow instead of a merman wasn't so disastrous after all. He still had hands and his intellect, and a fish's tail would certainly make it easier to move about...
...But how would Devin recognize him like this? Alexander would probably frighten his son out of his wits if he approached him as a scaly monster. Besides that, Alexander wasn't sure if he could endure being a merrow for very long. His skin felt thick and leathery, the fringe on his back was bent at a painful angle, and there was something about being a creature that was human in many ways yet wasn't human at all that disturbed him. He was reminded of his sister Rosella's account of temporarily being changed into a troll once, and how unsettling she said the experience had been for her. Now Alexander understood just why it had been so unsettling: trolls were humanlike, but they were certainly not human...and neither were merrows.
The only hope Alexander had was to prepare the second transformation spell that would change him into a merman, but that spell required a silverheart shell, and Alexander had no idea what a silverheart shell even looked like. Overcome with despair, he sank to the ocean floor, his eyes shut. However, he hadn't moped for more than a minute when he heard a gentle voice behind him:
"Poor mortal human...do you require my help?"
Alexander spun around to find a gray seal with large dark eyes staring at him. For a moment he stared back at it in disbelief, then he remembered where he had heard that gentle, feminine voice before.
"Selkie?" he asked, relieved to find that he could still speak as a merrow, though his mouth felt differently than it did before.
"Yes, it is I," the selkie replied.
"How in the world did you find me so quickly?"
"I followed you," the selkie said. "As you were riding in the great wooden basket. I can help you in two more ways before my debt to you is fully repaid, so I stayed close to you until a time when you were in need of me...and to me it seems that now is such a time."
"You're right, selkie," Alexander said. "I was trying to change myself into a merman but something went wrong. All I need to complete the magic spell that will correct my mistake is a shell that mortals call a silverheart that is found on the bottom of the sea...have you ever heard of this shell?"
The selkie's dark eyes looked puzzled for a moment, then grew bright again.
"I do," she replied excitedly. "Do you wish me to find you such a shell, mortal?"
"Yes, please," Alexander said earnestly.
"Then I shall," the selkie said nobly. "Remain here, mortal, and I will return soon."
The selkie sped away, leaving a thin stream of bubbles in her wake. Alexander remained where he was on the sandy sea bottom, hoping that she would return soon. He looked around, but couldn't see the grand city that the old adventurer had told him about when they had first talked. Perhaps the city was hidden from mortal eyes, just as the realms of the fairies that lived on land were hidden. Alexander couldn't help recalling the story that Cassima had kept reading to Devin about the lad who entered the realm of the fairies. How odd that Alexander should find himself doing the same thing in order to save Devin.
After a time, he noticed a dark shape approaching him through the azure waters, and as it drew closer, he could see that it was the selkie, and in her mouth was a small shell that resembled a large oyster. She swam up to Alexander and dropped the shell into his cupped hands.
"Is this what you wanted, mortal?" the selkie asked.
Alexander examined the shell. Its exterior had a swirling ornate texture that made it appear as if it were sculpted by Man instead of nature, and it had a pearly white hue to it as well. Alexander pried open the shell and found it empty, but the inner lining of the shell made its exterior seem downright plain. It shone like silver, and faint colors swirled hypnotically across it.
"I think it has to be," Alexander said.
The corners of the selkie's seal mouth turned up. She moved a fair distance away from Alexander, but still kept an eye on him. Remembering the instructions for Spell 2, Alexander pulled out Merrill's dagger and the rest of the spell ingredients. After removing the cloth from around the dagger, he carefully scraped out the shimmering interior of the silverheart shell with it, which proved to be more difficult than he had anticipated because of his webbed fingers. He then mixed the shining flakes with the chopped root, moss and grass fibers, and since he was completely surrounded by salt water, he didn't have to add any to the mixture like the instructions told him to. He merely molded the brownish-green mass with his hands until it began to congeal, then pulled out the talisman and waved it over the mixture.
The small lump split open, revealing a tiny sphere identical in almost every way to the previous one. Alexander carefully grasped it, put it into his mouth and swallowed it -- getting a small mouthful of seawater in the bargain. He waited apprehensively for a few moments, then looked at his hands again to find that the webbing between his fingers was disappearing, and the green scales were beginning to drop away from his skin. The fringe on his back began to wither away, and he could feel his face changing shape as well. Scales continued to fall from him like autumn leaves, and it wasn't until they had stopped falling that Alexander took a look at himself. To his relief, he had his own hands back, just as he had his own face and hair. The only thing different about him was the silvery fish's tail that his lower body had become.
"How much better you look now, mortal," the selkie said warmly, swimming closer to him.
"Er, thank you," Alexander replied, tying the cloth around the dagger again and putting it back in his pocket. The selkie started swimming in circles around Alexander, making it difficult for him to look her in the eyes.
"Does this form you have assumed play a part in rescuing your child?" the selkie asked as she continued to circle Alexander, making him a little dizzy.
"How do you know about that?" he asked in surprise.
"Do you not recall what you told me when we spoke in the cave?" the selkie queried. "You told me that your child had been taken from you by beings of the sea, and that you were determined to find him."
"Oh, yes," Alexander said. "In fact, that's another problem that I'm facing now, selkie. I need to get to the kingdom of the Sea Fairies, but I don't know where it is. I know their city is near, but I can't see it anywhere."
"I can show you where it is," the selkie smiled. "Do you wish to go there now?"
"Then follow me," the selkie said, beginning to gracefully swim away. Alexander tried to follow her but found it much more difficult to swim with a tail than he had anticipated. It took him a few minutes to grow accustomed to this new form of locomotion, and fortunately, the selkie didn't leave him too far behind. She would frequently stop and wait for him to catch up with her, offering him words of encouragement. Once Alexander had grown used to swimming with a tail instead of legs, he was amazed at how rapidly he was able to move. He could swim more than twice as fast as he could with legs, and he tired much more slowly. Then there was the advantage of being able to breathe underwater, which was so strange and remarkable that he was still astounded by it.
Alexander and the selkie swam on through the bright waters, passing shimmering masses of colorful fish and the occasional pod of dolphins. Once or twice a shark glided by, but the beasts always kept their distance from the gray seal-like creature and the half man, half fish entity, as if they feared or respected them. The many aquatic plants growing beneath them swayed back and forth with the ocean's currents, creating a dreamlike, almost magical landscape.
The waters began to grow even brighter as the pair continued along, and soon, Alexander noticed a great white pinnacle growing visible in the distance. As they drew nearer, Alexander gaped in astonishment as he realized that the pinnacle was a towering palace. It was the color of ivory, and though it resembled the palaces built by humans, there was a soft, natural look to it. Its towers, walls and windows were all rounded, and there wasn't a single right angle to be seen in its construction. In fact, the palace appeared to be sculpted out of white coral, and magic had undoubtedly been involved in its creation in some way. Even if the old adventurer's description of the Sea Fairies' realm was twice as detailed as it had been, it still couldn't have prepared Alexander for the sight that lay before him now.
The palace was looming over a large city with houses and buildings that also resembled large, ornately shaped mounds of coral. As Alexander stared at the city, he could just make out delicate, humanlike creatures darting about, either along the narrow roads that curved around and in between the houses or just above the tops of the buildings like large, oddly-shaped birds. As fascinating as the city was, Alexander's gaze was repeatedly drawn back to that beautiful, yet strangely ominous palace in the center of the city, the place where the Lord and Lady of the Sea Fairies dwelt.
"We must stop here," the selkie suddenly said, dropping down to a smooth slab of rock protruding out of the sand.
"Why?" Alexander asked, letting himself drift down until he too was resting on the rock.
"The people you call Sea Fairies will not be fooled by your disguise," the selkie warned. "They will know you are not a true mercreature."
"But I must enter that city," Alexander said. "How can I enter it undetected...and once I have, how will I be able to find my son?"
"The city is a vast one," the selkie said, "But fear not: the Sea Fairies and my kind are distant kin, but we know of their ways, just as they know of ours. Whenever a mortal child is taken from its parents it is brought to the palace, where the rulers of the fairies and their many servants look after it. Your child will most likely be either in the throne room or a room close to it, near the center of the palace."
"So I have to find a way in there?" Alexander asked, glancing at the imposing white pinnacle jutting from the sea floor yet again.
"Indeed," the selkie nodded. "I cannot sneak you in there myself, but there is something I can give you that may help you get to the palace without the fairies noticing you...and if you will follow me, I can show you a means of getting to the palace swiftly as well as discreetly."
The selkie pushed herself off the rock slab and sped away. Alexander took off after her, trying his best to keep up as she hurried along. They soon reached an enormous rock formation that resembled a large, black hill. The selkie led Alexander up the slope of the hill, and when they reached the summit, Alexander was surprised to see that it wasn't a hill at all, but a semicircle of cliff walls surrounding a large valley covered with bright green grass.
"Look down there," the selkie said, pointing towards the valley with one of her front flippers.
Alexander did, and saw that there were several large creatures feeding on the grass, and as he looked more closely, he could see that they closely resembled horses, although they had muscular fish's tails instead of hind legs, while their front legs ended in webbed appendages instead of hooves. Their pelts were as white as sea foam and their manes were a bright greenish gold in color.
"They are what you mortals call hippocampuses," the selkie intoned. "The Sea Fairies tame and ride them, but they are still allowed to roam freely, like the ones you see here. The hippocampus is a swift, flighty creature, and if you were to capture a tame one belonging to the one of the higher ranking fairies, it would carry you to the royal stables if you commanded it to."
"Remarkable," Alexander muttered. "But wouldn't the fairies notice me riding one of their hippocampuses?"
"Not while you're wearing this," the selkie said. She placed her hand-like flippers together and shut her eyes, and when her flippers parted, she was holding a large pearl attached to a large loop of thread that was barely a hair's breadth in thickness.
"When you wear this around your neck, you will be invisible to everyone but yourself," the selkie said. "But be warned: it won't be effective for very long, and it will only work once, so don't use it unless you absolutely have to."
Alexander carefully took the delicate necklace from the selkie and placed it in one of his pockets.
"So I shouldn't try using it to sneak up on a hippocampus, then?" he asked.
The selkie shook her streamlined head.
"If you did that, the beast would surely become panicked and strike at you," she said. "You'll have to find another way to capture one -- and make certain that it comes from the royal stables rather than a commoner's home."
"How will I be able to tell that?" Alexander asked.
"Do you see the one nearest to us?" the selkie asked, pointing to a hippocampus separate from the herd. "The one with the bands about its face?"
Alexander peered at the lone hippocampus and noticed that it was wearing a plain brown halter.
"Yes, I do," he replied.
"That one belongs to a commoner," the selkie said. "The ones that belong to the higher ranking fairies wear bands that are far more elaborate than that. You will know them when you see them."
"I see," Alexander said. "So...I should capture a hippocampus from the royal stables and command him to return there...but before commanding him, I should wear the necklace you gave me so that no one will be able to see me?"
"Exactly," the selkie nodded. "That necklace is the last of the three favors I have carried out for you, so now my debt to you has been completely repaid. Before I leave you, though, there is one more thing I must warn you about, mortal."
"What is that?" Alexander asked.
"Moving about underwater is not the same as moving about on land," the selkie said quietly. "Keep that in mind when you plan to sneak into the palace. Good luck and farewell, brave mortal."
The selkie gracefully leapt upwards and began to swim away from Alexander, but before she left, she glided towards him and kissed him softly on the forehead. Then she darted away, soon becoming lost in the bluish haze of the vast ocean.
After watching the selkie depart, Alexander looked at the field full of hippocampuses, wondering how he was going to capture one. From what the selkie had told him about them, they were probably just as skittish as wild horses, and as swift a swimmer as Alexander had become, he certainly doubted that he could move fast enough to grab a hippocampus by the halter.
When no idea as to how to capture one of the aquatic horses came to mind, Alexander began to make his way down into the valley. As he slowly descended the rocky cliff, the heads of two of the hippocampuses nearest to him jerked up and stared in his direction. The beasts swiftly swam away, but fortunately, the rest of the herd remained oblivious to his presence.
Alexander soon reached the bottom of the valley and began slowly circling it, trying to locate a hippocampus wearing an ornate halter. He soon spotted one near the outer edge of the herd. Its halter was studded with pearls, and the fabric the halter was made out of wasn't brown in color, but golden.
Alexander continued swimming along the base of the cliffs, trying to figure out how he could possibly capture the hippocampus now that he had found the one he needed. Then suddenly, he came to a small gap in the rock wall. Looking closely, he could see that it was a small cave that seemed just large enough to accommodate a hippocampus.
Cautiously, Alexander swam into the cave and soon discovered that it wasn't a cave, but a tunnel -- a tunnel that led under the cliffs and out of the valley. It was completely dark for several feet, and the exit was impossible to see until the last second, since it only appeared after the tunnel made a sharp turn.
As Alexander swam out the other end of the tunnel, an idea began to form in his mind: if he set a trap at the tunnel's exit and forced that hippocampus into the tunnel from the other side, the animal would probably swim straight into the trap. But what sort of trap could Alexander use? He had no rope that he could use to make a noose, and a pitfall trap simply wouldn't work underwater.
Alexander began swimming away from the cliff-surrounded valley, wracking his brains and trying to figure out how he could make his plan work. After a few frustrated minutes of swimming, he noticed something that looked like a large tangle of weeds out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw that it wasn't a tangle of weeds, but a large fragment of a fishing net partially buried beneath the sand. Immediately, Alexander knew he had found the answer to his problem. He sped over to the net and pulled it free, glad to find that it was still quite sturdy. He made his way back to the cliffs, and hunted around until he found the tunnel exit.
Alexander draped the net over the jagged black rocks surrounding the opening and frowned -- what would prevent the hippocampus from swimming away once it had swum into the net? Alexander glanced at the sandy ocean floor and noticed several apple-sized rocks scattered about. He picked up one, and using his knife, cut at the edge of the net until he had several feet of rope free, then tied the rope securely around the rock. He repeated this process until the net had several makeshift weights tied to it. He carefully placed the net over the tunnel's exit, making sure that the weights wouldn't drag the net down prematurely.
His trap set, Alexander swam up to the top of the cliffs and looked down at the herd. The hippocampus with the golden halter was still there. Now all Alexander had to do was force it into the tunnel. He carefully circled the cliffs, then descended into the valley, making sure that the hippocampus was between him and the cave. Hoping that what he was about to do wasn't going to get him severely injured, Alexander began swimming towards the herd.
Several hippocampuses noticed him and shied away. Then, when they saw that he was approaching them, they whinnied shrilly and swam away as fast as their fish's tails would let them, leaving wakes so powerful that Alexander was pushed backwards several feet. Most of them sped towards a large gap between the cliffs and out into the open ocean. Alexander slowly approached the one hippocampus with the golden halter, hoping that it wouldn't do the same.
When the hippocampus noticed him, it swam away from him, towards the cliff wall. Alexander paused, not wanting to frighten the beast more than he needed to. After a minute or so, he swam closer to the hippocampus, which backed away from him again. Alexander continued doing this until the animal was just a few feet away from the cliff wall, then, making sure that there was no way other the creature could escape, he sped towards the hippocampus. Just as he had anticipated, the hippocampus glanced wildly about, noticed the narrow opening and darted into it. Alexander sped after it, hoping that it wouldn't turn and charge his way when it noticed the net.
Presently, there was a terrified cry from ahead of Alexander. He slowed down and cautiously approached the end of the tunnel. As he rounded the sharp turn, he could see that the net was gone, and as he exited the tunnel, he saw that his plan had worked: the hippocampus had darted straight into the net and had become pinned down by the rocks that he had secured to it. The proud creature was lying in the sand, thrashing its body in a vain attempt to break free from its ropy prison. At the sight of Alexander, its movements became even more frantic.
"Be still," Alexander said soothingly. "I won't hurt you."
If the hippocampus understood Alexander's words, it didn't appear convinced by them. It continued to strain against the net.
"I can free you," Alexander said. "But when I do, you must take me to where your masters keep you."
The hippocampus glared at Alexander out of its large, dark eyes and seemed to calm slightly. Alexander slowly pulled his dagger out of his pocket and removed the cloth from around its blade. The hippocampus cringed at the sight of it, but didn't start thrashing around again.
"I'm going to cut you loose now," Alexander said, slowly approaching the strange beast. "And remember: you will take me to your home when I do."
The hippocampus remained motionless, but kept its eyes on Alexander, as if it was starting to trust the strange merman that was speaking to it, but still remained suspicious. When Alexander had gotten close enough to touch the animal, he carefully moved his dagger to one of the net's ropes and began slicing away at it. The hippocampus flinched, but otherwise didn't move. Alexander cut through another rope, then another. Soon, he had formed an opening in the net that was large enough for the beast's head to fit through. He still had a few more ropes to cut before the entire hippocampus was free, though.
As Alexander continued cutting the net, he carefully lifted the selkie's necklace out of his pocket and held it firmly in his free hand as he worked. Soon, the hippocampus was almost completely free of the net. Alexander began cutting the net in such a way that there were two large openings with only one rope dividing them. Once he cut that rope, the resulting hole would be large enough for the hippocampus to slip through.
Quickly, Alexander slipped the selkie's necklace over his head, and a slight tingle spread over his body. Immediately afterwards, he grabbed the hippocampus's halter with his free hand and sliced through the last strand of rope with the dagger. Dropping the dagger, he gave the creature a sharp slap on the flank. The hippocampus lurched forward; then, realizing that it was no longer trapped by the net, shot forwards at such a speed that all Alexander could do was hang on to the beast's mane and halter with all his might.
The hippocampus's tail pumped up and down frantically, as if it was being chased by a sea serpent. It moved so quickly that Alexander's surroundings slipped by almost too rapidly to be seen; the rocks and sand below became streaks of black and tan and schools of fish were nothing but shining, colorful blurs. He peered over the hippocampus's white rounded ears, and to his relief, saw that the creature was heading straight towards the Sea Fairies' city. Below him, the rocks and sand flashed past until he was moving over the curious coral buildings and gently winding roads. As the hippocampus neared the towering palace located in the center of the city, its speed decreased until it had slowed to what would be considered a walk, were it a normal horse on land. Alexander silently thanked the selkie for her last favor; if it weren't for the power of her necklace, any fairy in the city that happened to be looking up would have spotted the king almost immediately.
Alexander could now see all the details of the great palace. Though the entire structure tapered upwards, it had a central spire that was twisted like a colossal unicorn's horn. Below this spire were many squat, rounded towers with many large round windows set in their walls. A ring of tall doorways circled the palace three-fourths down, and in each doorway stood a figure -- but Alexander was too far away to see them clearly.
Below the doorways was a ring of hut-like structures, all pushed together like peas in a pod. Alexander guessed that they were homes for the castle's servants, but since the hippocampus seemed to be making its way towards them, one of the structures had to be the royal stables.
The entire palace was perched on a gigantic coral pedestal that lifted it many feet above the city below it. The lack of stairs or a path of any sort leading up to the palace puzzled Alexander until he remembered that he was underwater: the palace could easily be reached by swimming up to it.
Alexander tightened his grip on the hippocampus's bridle as it approached a large, open building on the lowest level of the palace. Alexander looked in through the building's open door and noticed several hippocampuses inside, each one tethered in a stall that, like the palace, was formed out of white coral. The Sea Fairies' stables appeared little different than the stables fashioned by man. Alexander gently let go of the hippocampus's bridle and was about to try to find a way to get into the palace when he heard a low voice from inside the stables:
"Hmm...you're back a bit early, aren't you, my dear?"
Nervously, Alexander peered into the stable. The hippocampus was floating in between the rows of stalls, and beside it was a creature that looked human, but Alexander immediately knew that it wasn't a human at all, but one of the Sea Fairies.
Its skin was a dull grayish green, its hair was dark green and its eyes were huge and unblinking, like a fish's. Its body was lean and sinewy, the only clothing it wore was a plain loincloth, and its fingers were long and webbed. Its toes were webbed as well, and its feet were long and flat, much like Emmett's. It also had a long, webbed fringe running down its spine.
Alexander stared at the creature, intensely grateful that it couldn't see him. As he watched the Sea Fairy stabling the hippocampus, he couldn't help but think of the infant fairy that he had left with Cassima. How much more like its true self had it become since he last saw it? Had its eyes become large and dark, and were its fingers completely webbed? Had it started growing a fringe on its back?
Alexander tried his best to force those questions out of his head. He couldn't let those worries predominate his mind, especially not now. He was right outside the palace where Devin was imprisoned, and if luck was with him, he would be returning to the Green Isles with Devin in less than a day. If Alexander just remained calm and thought things through clearly, he would succeed.
He had to succeed.
Maneuvering his way around several large groups of fish, Alexander slowly swam up to the main entrances to the palace, but decided that there were too many guards there to risk entering the palace that way. He swam up towards the castle's lower floors, and noticed that not only were the windows devoid of glass or bars, but they were quite large as well -- just large enough for a human or a merman to slip through.
He wriggled through one of the windows and found himself near the end of a wide hallway with a high ceiling. The walls, floor and ceiling were all decorated with elaborate carvings, and occasionally, there would be an alcove carved out of the wall with an ornate statue sitting in it. Occasionally, a school of tiny fish would zip in through a window then out through another, while larger, solitary fish would casually swim down the hallway as if the palace belonged to them.
Alexander tried to decide which direction to head first, and eventually decided to head left. He swam towards the hallway's end and found that it turned sharply to the right. After rounding the corner, he gasped and grabbed at the nearest wall to stop himself from moving any further. This hallway was much smaller and lower than the previous one, and near its right wall was a Sea Fairy. It appeared to be a male, was clothed in deep blue-green robes, and his facial features were distinctly different from the fairy Alexander had seen in the stables. This fairy's face was much broader and flatter, his webbed ears were much larger and his nose was nothing more than a slanted pair of nostrils. In his right hand it held a long, harpoon-like weapon, making Alexander decide that this creature was one of the palace's guards. Even though the fairy couldn't see him, Alexander moved down the hallway as discreetly as he could, not wanting to make any noise and attract the guard's attention.
As he began to make his way past the guard, the guard suddenly frowned, tightened his grip on his barbed spear and glanced up and down the hallway.
"Who's there?" he snarled. "Show yourself."
Alexander froze. Even though he hadn't made any noise, the guard somehow sensed his presence. The king was utterly confused by this until he remembered what the selkie had said about moving about underwater being different than it was on land, and how the wakes churned up by the hippocampuses had knocked him back. Even though Alexander was invisible, the guard could feel the currents stirred up by Alexander as the king swam. No matter how slowly he moved, the guard would still notice him, and would probably strike out with his spear if Alexander tried to sneak past him again.
Alexander was contemplating turning back and going in the opposite direction when he noticed a small school of fish swim past the guard, who didn't so much as glance at them. Alexander watched the school pass him, feeling the currents they created brush against them. Suddenly, he had an idea. He drifted backwards, trying his best not to move his arms or his tail, then waited in one of the alcoves, watching the numerous fish darting up and down the hallway.
Finally, when a huge school of small, silvery fish started swimming in the direction Alexander wished to go, he waited until they had almost passed him, then took off after them, swimming so that the fish were just between him and the guard. He sped past the guard, and though he was going too quickly to see the expression on the fairy's face, Alexander was certain that he had regarded the passing school of fish as nothing more than fish, even though they had left an abnormally strong wake.
Once Alexander was past the guard, he slowed down and let the fish speed on without him. He continued down the small hallway until he reached another turn. This one also led to the right, into a hallway similar to the first one in the palace he had encountered. It was wide and had the same high ceiling. Unlike the first hallway, however, it was lined with guards, three of them by each wall, several feet apart.
Alexander wondered how he could possibly get past them. He didn't know how much longer it would be before a large enough cluster of fish would swim by, and he wasn't sure whether all the guards would be fooled by his ruse. Then Alexander glanced up at the ceiling, noticing how high it was compared to the ceiling in the hallway he had just left. Perhaps he wouldn't have to wait for a school of fish after all.
He moved towards a wall and began to slowly move upwards, swimming and climbing at the same time. Soon, he had reached the hallway's ceiling, some thirty or so feet above the heads of the guards. He carefully made his way down the length of the hallway, being sure to remain close to the ceiling. None of the guards so much as glanced upwards as he did.
At the end of the hallway, the ceiling became low once more, and Alexander let himself drift downwards until he was on the floor again. The hallway made yet another right turn, and Alexander swam around it and down another small hallway that was thankfully devoid of guards, and somewhat shorter than the last one as well. He swam by a passageway that appeared to slope upwards, but he was hesitant to take it -- he wanted to see where these hallways led first. The hallway he was currently in turned right when it ended as well, and Alexander was starting to think that the hallways on this level of the palace formed a spiral, and that he was following it to its center.
As Alexander was about to turn into the next hallway, he saw a single guard standing where the wall curved. Alexander contemplated how he could get past this guard. The ceiling was far too low for him to sneak along, and he doubted whether he would be able to keep up with a school of fish as it rounded that tight turn.
Alexander moved back up the hallway, glancing at the elaborate carvings lining the walls, floor and ceiling, and the elegant statues standing in the alcoves. He soon reached an alcove that caught his eye because it wasn't displaying a coral statue, but a tall vase that seemed to be made entirely out of ivory. Alexander looked back at the guard, then at the many alcoves between the guard and him, then knew exactly what to do.
He pulled at the vase until it began to topple over, then quickly made his way into an alcove halfway between him and the guard and waited. The vase slowly tipped over and hit the floor with a soft thud. The guard's head turned in the direction of the noise and immediately spotted the fallen vase. Mumbling to himself, he swam towards the vase, his body undulating as his webbed feet kicked at the water. As soon as the guard reached the vase and started to right it, Alexander sneaked out of the alcove and hurried down the hallway.
The next hallway he passed through was even shorter than its predecessor, and though there was another passageway set in its left wall, Alexander ignored it. After this hallway came one that was barely twelve feet long, and when he reached its end, the next turn didn't lead to yet another hallway, but a massive pair of doors. These doors were carved out of coral as well, and inlaid with pearls and mother-of-pearl. Alexander sensed that he had reached the center of the palace, and the room that lay beyond these exquisite doors had to be the throne room.
It looked as if there was no way Alexander could get into the room without opening the doors and risking discovery. Heart pounding, he approached the doors and reached out to touch them. Suddenly, a loud, resonant voice emanated from the other side:
"You may enter, mortal...but we wish to see you when you do."
The necklace around Alexander's throat suddenly snapped and drifted towards the floor. Alexander stared fearfully at it, then realized that it was pointless to worry about being noticed by the Sea Fairies now. The fairies behind the doors had known he was there before he even entered the room. There was nothing he could do now but open the doors and pray that the fairies wouldn't try to harm him.
With trembling hands, he pushed against one of the doors, which slowly swung open into a place that even Alexander's wildest dreams couldn't have prepared him for.
At first glance, what lay beyond the doors resembled a coral reef enclosed within an enormous cave. Upon closer examination, however, Alexander could see places where the white coral had been molded or carved into a variety of shapes of a complexity and perfection that even nature would have difficulty duplicating. The walls were covered with the same patterns that Alexander had seen in the rest of the palace, and inlaid with a pearls and variety of other materials, much like the doors he had entered the room by.
Round windows set in the domed ceiling let in bright shafts of light, and just like in the other parts of the castle, fish swam in and out through them. Aquatic plants and unsculpted coral in colors other than white sprouted along the bases of the walls. There were three raised areas on the room's floor that resembled large, flat daises, two on either side and one towards the far side. Sitting in coral chairs on some of these daises were several Sea Fairies of such variety that it was difficult to find two that looked alike. One fairy was short with no hair, large floppy ears and a long nose, making him look much like a goblin, while another fairy was tall and so slender that his neck was scarcely wider than his waist.
High above Alexander's head was an enormous, delicate webbed platform that also appeared to be created out of white coral. It was supported by three elaborately shaped columns that sprouted from the center of each dais and bent towards the center of the room, joining together in its center.
On the uppermost part of the platform, Alexander could see two elaborately shaped chairs, and sitting upon each one was a Sea Fairy...but these two made the other Sea Fairies Alexander had seen look downright plain. They were clothed in colorful, frilly robes that fluttered gently in the surrounding water, their long, blue-green hair shimmered in the light, their skin was a bright pale green, and bold orange and black markings in various places on their skin made it almost as colorful as their garments. They each had two large frills on their backs that protruded like spread wings, making them look very much like many of the fairies that lived on land.
These two creatures had to be the Lord and Lady of the Sea Fairies that the adventurer and the selkie had spoken of...the ones that were looking after Alexander's son. Alexander stared up at them, wondering what it would take to persuade them to return Devin to him.
As Alexander looked at the two enthroned Sea Fairies, the one on the right spoke to him. Its voice was identical to the voice Alexander had heard when he was on the other side of the doors.
"Mortal, despite all the barriers we have placed between your realm and ours, you have somehow managed to evade them all. How did you manage to do this, and what has driven you to carry out such an ill-advised endeavor?"
Alexander paused, trying to figure out the best way to answer the fairy's question.
"I received much help from many individuals," he eventually replied. "Some were human and some weren't. As for why I sought your realm out...I came here to see if I could persuade you to return my son to me."
The fairy that had spoken to him stiffened slightly. The frills on its back quivered and the dull orange spots on its body turned bright crimson. The other fairy, who had also become slightly agitated at Alexander's words, addressed him in a much higher voice, convincing Alexander that she was the Lady of the Sea Fairies.
"Do you speak of the mortal child that we took from the island realm?" she asked.
"Yes," Alexander said. "Where is he?"
"You will not ask any questions of us unless we grant you permission to do so," the Lord of the Sea Fairies snarled, still trembling furiously. His wife placed her delicate hand on his arm and he seemed to grow calmer, his spots slowly returning to their dull orange color.
"Your child is safe, mortal," the Lady said, "We have been taking care of him."
"I am glad to hear that, my Lady," Alexander said, "But where is he?"
"Do you wish to see your child?" the Lady asked.
"Please," Alexander said humbly.
The Lady looked at her husband briefly, who muttered something to himself, then nodded slowly. The Lady pointed to one of the fairies standing on the floor, who looked up at her, then Alexander, then paddled over to him. This fairy was a short, gangly creature with white, wispy hair, long, floppy ears, and a long, pointed nose devoid of nostrils.
"Come with me," he said to Alexander in a nasally tone that gave his voice a comical edge.
Alexander followed the gangly fairy towards the rear of the throne room, passing beneath the twin thrones. Alexander noticed that there were four round passageways leading out of the room, not counting the doorway he had entered the room by. Each passageway was covered by a curtain of thick greenish weeds, and it was towards one of these passageways that the fairy was leading Alexander. He merely pushed the weeds aside with his webbed hand and slipped through the passageway, and Alexander cautiously followed him through.
The room the passageway led to was small and plain, and in its center was a waist-high tapered pedestal supporting what looked like a large basin with a glass dome covering it. Sitting under the dome was a tiny figure covered by a light green blanket and gazing towards the two individuals who had just entered the room. Alexander's heart leapt and he sped towards the pedestal.
"Devin!" he cried, stopping just short of the basin. "Devin, are you all right, Devin? It's me, your father!"
Devin stared around idly for a moment, then glanced up at the joyful face looking down at him. He grinned happily, then put two of his fingers in his mouth.
"Don't worry, Devin," Alexander urged. "I'm going to get you out of here. You'll be home with me and your mother before you know it."
Devin happily glanced at Alexander again, then became interested in the edge of his blanket. Alexander sighed with relief. Just seeing Devin alive and well had made all the perils of his journey worthwhile.
"It's been a long, long time since we've swapped a human infant with one of our own," said the nasal fairy, approaching the pedestal and looking at Alexander's son. "I didn't think I'd live to witness another. "
"Why is he being kept under this glass dome?" Alexander asked, slowly reaching towards it.
"Don't touch it," the fairy said sharply. "That is a bubble of air, not glass. Touch it with your fingers and it might burst. We haven't yet been able to get him used to the water...speaking of which, mortal, there is something odd about this child that I feel I should inform you about."
"Oh? What is that?"
"I am the one who has been assigned to looking after him," the fairy said. "He gets much attention from the many fairies who visit him day after day, but I am the one who makes sure that he remains alive and healthy. I didn't think he would be that difficult to look after, since he is only an infant, but feeding him has been surprisingly troublesome."
An unpleasant memory resurfaced in Alexander's mind. He recalled how the old man in the story Cassima repeatedly read to Devin warned the lad not to eat anything from the fairy realm while he was within it, otherwise he would be trapped there forever. Did the same rule apply to the realm of the Sea Fairies?
"What do you mean?" Alexander asked worriedly.
"One thing that lets mortals acclimate to our world faster is eating the food from our realm, but this mortal child simply refuses to eat it," the fairy muttered. "For the first day that we had him, he would push his food away and throw a fit if I tried force-feeding him. I simply couldn't understand it. Some of the servants eventually tried catching some fish outside the realm's boundaries and stealing some food from a coastal human town, and he ate those without complaint. I tell you, this child has been far more trouble than he's worth, at least for me."
Alexander stared in disbelief at the fairy, then at Devin, who was now playing with his blanket. Devin turned towards his father and grinned again. Alexander shook his head, overwhelmed with astonishment and relief. Did Devin truly understand the importance of not eating fairy food because of that story? Whatever the reason behind Devin's actions was, Alexander would never chastise Cassima for repeatedly reading that fairy tale to their baby ever again.
Alexander silently watched Devin as he continued to smile and loll about, oblivious to his imprisonment. As close as the king was to him, he couldn't even touch Devin's hand because of the fragility of the dome of air that surrounded him. Even though Alexander had finally found Devin, there was still the matter of figuring out exactly why the Sea Fairies had taken him, and whether there was anything that could be done to persuade them to have mercy on Alexander's family and return Devin to his rightful home in the Land of the Green Isles.
Alexander turned to the long-nosed fairy next to him.
"Why did your people kidnap my son?" the king demanded. "What did we do to make you do this?"
"That is a question that only my Lord and Lady are entitled to answer," the fairy intoned. "Do you wish to see them again?"
"Yes, I do."
"Very well," the fairy said. "Follow me, mortal."
The fairy began swimming out of the small room. Alexander glanced at Devin one last time and gently waved good-bye to him. Devin smiled again and slapped his lap repeatedly with his hands. Then he raised one of his hands and wiggled its plump fingers at his father.
"The mortal wishes to speak with you once more," the nasal fairy said once he and Alexander had returned to the throne room and were standing beneath the elevated twin thrones.
"He is free to do so," the Lord of the Sea Fairies said coldly.
The nasal fairy bobbed his head and returned to the dais where he had been sitting when Alexander first entered the room.
"Great rulers of the sea," Alexander said to the Lord and Lady, "I wish to know why you have taken my only son from my kingdom, the Land of the Green Isles. Can you please tell me why you have done this?"
The fairies gazed suspiciously at Alexander, and the Lord began to quiver angrily again.
"If you must know," he said in a low voice, "In the past, the dark-haired mortal woman that rules this Land of the Green Isles greatly offended our kind and all entities of the sea and never admitted her guilt. Until she does, her child will belong to us."
Alexander's mind reeled. Cassima offending the entities of the sea? That didn't seem like her at all. What had she done to offend them, and when?
"Does this mean that if I persuade this 'dark-haired woman' to apologize to you and your people, you will return my son to me?" Alexander asked hopefully.
"Not precisely," the Lord of the Sea Fairies said. "You must not speak of us in the presence of that mortal woman, otherwise you will never see your child again."
"Not speak of you?" Alexander exclaimed. "But how in the world will I be able to convince her to forgive you if I can't even mention you?"
"That is for you to figure out, mortal," the Lord said. "If you succeed, your child will be restored to you. If you fail, he is ours."
Alexander fell silent, his head swimming. He had been so close to saving Devin, now he would never see him again unless he somehow figured out how to persuade Cassima to apologize for offending the Sea Fairies without bringing up their name.
"I admit, your perseverance has impressed us, mortal," the Lord said. "But until the dark-haired mortal apologizes for her behavior towards us, her child is ours."
"I understand," Alexander said flatly. "Is there anything else that I should know before I return to the Green Isles?"
"No, there -- " began the Lord.
"There is one last thing," cut in the Lady.
"What is that?" Alexander asked.
"You no longer need to keep the truth from the one you love," she said gently.
Alexander stared at the Lady of the Sea Fairies, who stared back with a curiously kind look in her vaguely human face.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"That is all I have to say to you," the Lady said, waving a webbed hand in Alexander's direction. "You are free to go; I promise that none of our people will harm you. Return to your homeland, mortal, and may all the deities of the sea be with you."
Alexander sighed. He turned and swam towards the double doors, pausing only to look back at the miraculous, yet somehow unearthly throne room one last time. Then he opened one of the heavy doors and slipped out into the hallway.
Leaving the castle took much less time than getting into it had. Alexander squeezed out of the first window he could find that accommodated his size, then began swimming straight up. He didn't want to swim out over the city, despite the Lady's reassurance that none of the fairies would harm him. Alexander wanted to get back to his ship as soon as possible.
As he swam upwards, the city faded to a white blur as the water grew darker. After a while, the water became clearer and brighter again, and soon Alexander could see the pale blue sky above of him, distorted by the waves. Finally, he broke the surface of the ocean and shivered in the cold air. He looked around and eventually spotted the Dryad about a quarter of a mile behind him. He ducked under the water again and slowly headed it. Many of his muscles were growing sore from so much swimming, and he was more than ready to lie down in his hammock and remain there for several hours.
When he finally reached the side of the ship, he called Shappa's name. When the half-breed didn't appear at the railing, Alexander called him again, and this time Shappa showed up almost immediately.
"Do you need a rope, Alexander?" he called.
"Please," Alexander yelled back. "And get me something that I can dry myself off with as well, if you can."
Shappa vanished, and a few minutes later, the end of a rope came hurtling over the Dryad's railing, landing with a sharp smack in the water. Alexander grasped the rope firmly, thankful that he hadn't had to use his arms to swim much during his journey. Remembering the incantation he needed to recite in order to return to normal, he shut his eyes and spoke the words clearly and firmly:
"Though a life 'neath the sea
Is for what some yearn
My home it is not
To earth I return."
He felt his tail slowly split into two legs, and with a growing sense of relief, he found that he once again had feet and toes. He wearily started to climb the rope, the exertions of his underwater adventure beginning to take their toll on him. When he finally reached the deck, he pulled himself over the railing and was about to stand up when he suddenly wobbled dangerously and nearly fell overboard. He had grown so used to swimming with a fish's tail that he had nearly forgotten how to walk. Shappa cautiously watched him, carrying a thin blanket in his hands.
"Do you need help?" he offered.
Alexander steadied himself against the railing, salt water dripping from him as he forced himself to remain standing. His body felt twice as heavy and ungainly as it had been underwater.
"I might," he muttered. "If you could just help me to those stairs to the lower deck, I should be able to make it."
Shappa slowly extended his hand. As Alexander extended his own hand, he realized that this was the first time he had ever touched Shappa. As his fingers closed around the half-breed's, Alexander was puzzled by the roughly human shape of Shappa's hand combined with the coarse hair that grew on the back. Alexander carefully let go of the railing, and making sure to keep a close eye on his feet, gently made his way across the Dryad's deck. Shappa led him to the stairs, but before Alexander attempted to descend them, he muttered "The Isle of the Crown, Land of the Green Isles" to the Dryad, which immediately began to move forward, heading towards its final destination.
"Here's something you can dry yourself with," Shappa said, passing the blanket he was holding to the king. Alexander nodded his thanks and made his way down the stairs, almost crawling down them to the lower deck. As he was preparing to turn and make his way to the ship's sleeping quarters, Shappa spoke again:
"Alexander...did it go well?"
Alexander thought for a moment.
"I suppose it did," he replied. "Why do you ask?"
For a moment or two, Shappa didn't answer.
"Well," he said quietly, "You don't have your child with you."
The words clawed at Alexander's heart. He firmly clutched the blanket with trembling hands.
"I'll tell you about it later," he mumbled, not looking Shappa in the eyes. He turned and staggered towards his cabin and collapsed into his hammock. Sleep soon mercifully overtook him.
When Alexander awoke, most of his body was still wet, and where it wasn't wet, it was sticky from the salt water. He forced himself out of his hammock and dried himself off as thoroughly as he could, then changed back into his clothes, casting the long tunic aside. He trudged up to the top deck to find the sun low in the sky, the ocean an endless blinding expanse beneath it.
Shappa was standing near the bow. He told Alexander that he had been asleep for only a couple of hours, and according to his sharp senses, they had several hours to go before they reached the Green Isles. For a while, Alexander stood at the railing, staring down at the water. Then, remembering what he had said to Shappa before retiring to his cabin, he turned to the half-breed and began to tell him everything that had happened during his underwater journey, about how the spell he had prepared had been the wrong one and how the selkie he had met in Glaucus had helped him find the last ingredient to the proper spell, how he had snuck into the Sea Fairies' palace, seen Devin and was told that the only way to get him back was to persuade Cassima to apologize for offending the Sea Fairies without mentioning them.
"...And just before I left, the Lady of the Sea Fairies told me, 'You no longer need to keep the truth from the one you love,'" Alexander said. "What do you think that means?"
"I don't know," Shappa muttered, shaking his head. "Do you suppose she was referring to your wife when she said, 'the one you love?'"
Alexander pondered this silently. With pain in his heart, he remembered how he'd been forced to lie to Cassima about Devin to ensure that she would care for the changeling as if it were her own child so that it wouldn't die, leaving Devin trapped in the fairies' realm forever.
Where the Sea Fairies aware of this? If so, why would the Lady of the Sea Fairies tell him to be truthful to Cassima, since being truthful would mean telling her what the being she thought was Devin truly was and what had become of the real Devin -- both of which would mean mentioning the name of the Sea Fairies, which their Lord had specifically commanded Alexander not to do. Perhaps Alexander could disguise their name in some way, but that would still be keeping the truth from Cassima...was the Lady of Sea Fairies trying to trick him into mentioning her people's name? Some fairies of the land and air were known for deceiving mortals in many ways, but were the fairies of the sea any different?
"I don't know," Alexander sighed. "I suppose it has to be her...but I don't know how I'll be able to be truthful to her without getting Devin stranded in that realm for the rest of his life."
"Those fairies sound like a strange lot," Shappa said. "I'd hate to have to deal with them, water or no water."
"Do you think Vark might have some advice on what I should do?" Alexander asked.
"I'm not certain," Shappa replied. "He's good with magic, but not magical beings."
Alexander sighed again, and once again resumed staring into the deep blue waters. For a long time, he said nothing and thought of nothing but the Sea Fairies, Cassima and Devin.
When the sun began nearing the horizon, Shappa spotted the Isles. As usual, the Dryad was heading straight towards them, not pushed off course by the winds or waves in the least. In the space of a half hour, the ship was among the Isles, carefully steering itself around the treacherous rocks and reefs, heading towards the Isle of the Crown. Soon Alexander could see the island's docks, as empty as they had been when he and Shappa had departed. The Dryad slowly drew closer to the docks, and when it finally came to a stop, its gangplank unfurled and formed the familiar row of steps leading down to the pier.
Alexander looked around the cabins on the lower deck to make sure he had gathered up everything that was his as well as taking one last look at the peculiar interior of the living ship. When he returned to the top deck, he was surprised to find Vark there, deep in conversation with Shappa. Vark was wearing the same oversized robes he had worn when he first met Alexander in the village square.
"Oh, good day to you, Sire," Vark said kindly, waving his clawed paw. "I'm glad to see that you made it back safely."
"Thank you, Vark," Alexander said.
"Shappa's been telling me all about your voyage," Vark continued. "I'd be interested in hearing the whole tale from you when you have the time."
"Has he told you about what I have to do in order to get Devin back?" Alexander asked quietly.
Vark's ears drooped.
"He has," he said in a quavering voice. "I'm terribly sorry about your misfortune, your majesty, but I am confident that you will find a way to sort this mess out. After what you've accomplished in the past, it shouldn't be too difficult for you."
"Is there anything you can do to help me?"
"Alas, no," Vark said with a sigh. "I have little knowledge about the ways of the Sea Fairies, I'm afraid. All I can do is wish you luck."
Alexander fought back another sigh and tried to smile at the aardvark.
"Well...I still appreciate all that you've done for me, Vark," the king said. "I never would have gotten this far without you, and I'll make certain that the Isle of Wisdom gains full credit for aiding me in my journey and receives all the respect it deserves."
"You won't mention me, will you?" Vark trembled.
"I won't," Alexander assured him. "I'll just say that one of the people of the Isle of Wisdom has a vast knowledge of magic."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Vark said with a sigh of relief. "If I was ever found out...I don't want to know what the people of the Isle of the Crown would think of me."
"I think they'd be immensely grateful to you," Alexander said, "Regardless of your shape."
"We agree to disagree," he mumbled. "Anyway, I'd better be getting this craft back to the Isle of Wisdom. I don't want someone chopping it up after you've left, and I still have to do something about what it's been doing to my teleporting. I'll return all your unused supplies as soon as I can."
"Very well," Alexander said, making his way towards the gangplank. "Good-bye, Vark."
"Farewell," Vark said. "Don't bother contacting me once this unpleasantness is over; your wife's nightingale will surely come to us and tell us how it turned out. Good luck, my king!"
As Alexander was about to step onto the pier, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw that it was Shappa.
"Leaving without bidding me farewell?" Shappa asked with a toothy grin. "That's something that I would normally do to you."
"I'm sorry," Alexander said. "I should have thanked you, too. Suhad was right about you being a worthy companion."
"Just doing what I can to give our island a good name," Shappa said. "Though I must admit that I didn't know how I was going to put up with you for a while."
Alexander would have laughed at this had his heart not been so heavy with thoughts of Cassima and Devin.
"Well, I'm glad you found the ability to do it," he replied.
Shappa smiled again, then his mouth turned downward and his whiskers twitched.
"I also wanted to tell you what I thought you should do regarding your wife: I think you should do what the Lady of the fairies said and be truthful to her."
"What makes you think that?" Alexander asked anxiously.
"I think those fairies liked you," Shappa said. "If they didn't like you, they would have done away with you the minute they knew you were in their castle. Somehow they knew that you weren't going to attack them or steal from them, that all you wanted was your child. I think it would be fair to say that they not only liked you, but trusted you."
"And what does that have to do with what the Lord and Lady told me?"
"I think that they are testing you in a way that requires that you trust them," Shappa said. "Much in the way you trusted me when I abandoned you as the pirate ship attacked us, and the way I trusted you when I was preparing to attack the captain. Trust is never complete unless each side trusts the other."
Alexander contemplated this wisdom for a moment, idly scratching his head.
"So you really think that I should tell Cassima the truth about Devin, even if it means revealing the Sea Fairies?" he asked.
"It's what I would do, were I in your place," Shappa said, "But I am not the expert in dilemmas such as this. I'd suggest you follow your own instincts and decide for yourself whether the idea I've proposed to you is right or wrong."
Alexander nodded solemnly.
"I'd better be getting home now," he said.
"Agreed," Shappa said. He hesitated and glanced upwards quizzically.
"Er...what sort of gesture do humans use when they part ways?" he asked. "Do they shake hands?"
"Yes, they do," Alexander replied.
"Then...if I may?" Shappa asked, extending his right hand.
Alexander firmly shook the peculiar, furry hand.
"And what sort of gesture do cat half-breeds use when they part ways?" he asked when they had let go of each other's hands.
Shappa cocked his head to one side.
"I don't think we have one," he said quietly. "We often touch noses when we meet, but we don't do anything when we depart."
"Maybe someday you'll come up with one," Alexander shrugged. "Good-bye, Shappa."
"Good-bye, Alexander...I mean, King Alexander. And good luck to you."
Alexander waved to the bright red and orange cat as the creature climbed back up the gangplank. The king stood on the pier and watched as Vark spoke several unusual phrases and waved his arms wildly. When he had finished doing this, the gangplank retracted and the Dryad was on the move again, heading for the island where it was created. Alexander watched its delicate leaves tremble in the wind as it sailed away, the sun turning the numerous branches that lined its hull a brilliant gold. When the Dryad had become no more than a dark speck in the sparkling waters, he turned and slowly walked up the pier, heading toward the path that led to his home.
"My Lord!" one of the Guard Dogs at the doors to the Castle of the Crown exclaimed as Alexander approached. "You're back! Was your journey successful? Did you find a cure for -- "
"Shut it, Gruff," the other guard snarled. "We're here to protect the Royal Family, not to hound them with questions! Greetings, Your Majesty."
"Greetings," Alexander replied. "How fare my kingdom and my queen?"
"You haven't been away long enough for any real trouble to brew," the guard replied. "As for the queen, she acts well, but we fear that she is quite troubled inside."
"I need to see her right away," Alexander said. "Is she in our chambers?"
"I believe so," the other guard said. "Shall I open the doors?"
"Yes, immediately," Alexander said.
The guard opened the heavy doors to the castle. As Alexander stepped inside, he faintly heard the other guard angrily whispering: "He asked me that question, Gruff. Don't you think I could have answered it?"
Alexander hurried up the reddish marble steps to the second floor, then strode down the hallway until he reached the door to Cassima's room. He knocked gently.
"Who is it?" came a voice from inside: Cassima's.
"It's Alexander. I've returned."
The door opened almost immediately. Cassima stood on the threshold, gazing at him with relief in her emerald eyes. Still, there was a faint shadow of worry in them as well.
"Thank Samhain you've come back unharmed," she sighed.
She slowly moved to embrace him, putting her arms around him in an odd mechanical fashion, as if she were a marionette with a rigid body and limbs.
"Were you successful?" she whispered.
"I think so," Alexander replied. "How is the -- how is Devin?"
Cassima silently led him across the room. Sing Sing the nightingale was perched in the window, silently watching them. When Alexander and Cassima reached Devin's cradle, Alexander looked into the cradle and barely fought back a shiver. The changeling had become much more like his people in the time Alexander had been gone. The webbing between his fingers was clearly visible, his skin had become much greener, his reddish hair had become thin and dark, and his eyes had grown large and round.
"Everything else about him has been fine," Cassima said, fighting back tears. "He eats heartily and sleeps through the night, but every day his appearance becomes more and more like that of some sort of...of monster."
Alexander's mind was on fire. He did his best to calm it, trying with all his might to think coherently. Now he had to make his choice: he could either be truthful to Cassima and risk losing Devin forever or persuade her to reveal her misdeeds towards the Sea Fairies by only telling her part of the truth. Finally, he decided.
"Cassima," he said, turning to his wife. "There is a way Devin can be cured, but in order for him to be well again, you must do something first."
"Do what?" Cassima demanded. "I'll do anything to help him!"
"I know," Alexander said. "What I'm going to ask you to do may sound a little odd, but Devin's future depends on you doing it."
"What is it?"
Alexander breathed deeply, contemplating what he was going to say.
"Cassima...have you ever in your life, done or said anything that might have...well...offended any supernatural beings?"
Cassima stared questioningly at Alexander.
"Supernatural beings?" she repeated. "Like what?"
"Er...magical creatures," Alexander said. "Ones that live in nature and are seldom seen by mortals."
"That doesn't narrow things down much," Cassima said. "What sort of creatures do you mean, Alexander?"
"I...I don't know," Alexander said. "All I know is that some time ago, you did something that offended a particular race of supernatural beings, and if you don't confess your guilt, Devin will never get better."
"I offended some supernatural beings?" Cassima cried. "I have no memory of doing such a thing, and if I did do it, it was so long ago that I completely forgot about it."
"You've got to remember," Alexander pleaded. "If you don't, Devin is going to die."
Cassima gasped sharply.
"Alexander, I never offended any supernatural beings or magical creatures," she insisted, her voice starting to tremble. "I mean, I may have been a little rude to some of the inhabitants of the Isle of Wonder once or twice when I was little, but my parents always made sure that I apologized to them."
"Are you sure you're not hiding some particularly unpleasant memory of -- "
"I'm not!" Cassima yelled. "I would never hold back anything from you, especially if it could help save Devin's life! I'm telling you, I never offended a supernatural being in my entire life!"
She began breathing heavily, upset and exhausted by their conversation. Alexander gazed helplessly at her, wondering what to do.
I would never hold back anything from you.
Cassima hadn't lied when she had spoken those words, whereas Alexander had been keeping numerous dark secrets from her for days...but if he revealed those secrets, Devin would become trapped in the Sea Fairies' kingdom. Alexander recalled how he had been kidnapped from his parents as a baby and hadn't seen his homeland for seventeen years. He couldn't let something similar happen to his own son...if he told his wife the truth, they would never see Devin again...
But the Lady of the Sea Fairies had said to be truthful to Cassima...
But her husband had said that if Alexander mentioned their name to the 'dark-haired mortal woman that rules the Green Isles', Devin would be theirs forever...
But Shappa said to trust the Lady, since the fairies trusted Alexander...
Keep trying to get her to admit her guilt, said Alexander's head.
Tell her the truth, said his heart.
Finally, the guilt of keeping the truth from Cassima in the first place became too much for Alexander to endure.
"Cassima, I'm afraid I have some unpleasant news for you," he said shakily.
"What is it?" Cassima asked, sensing the tension in his voice.
"I've been lying to you," Alexander said. "That creature in Devin's cradle isn't Devin at all, but a changeling from the underwater kingdom of the Sea Fairies."
Cassima stared at the changeling, too frightened to speak.
"I journeyed to their kingdom to find out why they had kidnapped Devin and replaced him with a changeling, and they told me that 'the dark-haired woman who rules the Green Isles' greatly offended them in the past, and until that woman admits her guilt and apologizes, Devin belongs to them."
He paused. Cassima was now staring at him. Alexander didn't want to continue his story, but it seemed that he had no other choice.
"Unfortunately, they said that if I mentioned the Sea Fairies to you..."
Suddenly, there was a gentle knock at the door. Alexander looked up to see Cassima's parents, Caliphim and Allaria, standing outside the room.
"Alexander, you've returned," Caliphim said. "I knew you would -- "
He paused when he saw the distraught look on Cassima's face.
"Child, what's wrong?" he demanded.
"Yes, what's going on?" Allaria asked. "We heard some shouts, but we were afraid to disturb you."
Alexander was just about to reply to Allaria when Cassima spoke up:
"Devin has been replaced with a changeling from a race of aquatic fairies," she cried. "And that the only way to get him back is to have me apologize for offending them in some way, but I never offended any fairies from the sea and I..."
She suddenly trailed off. Allaria's features had turned white, and her expression was not one of sadness, but of utter astonishment.
"But..." she stammered. "But...but I was the one who must have done that."
"What?" Cassima and Alexander said almost at the same time.
"It was long ago, before you were born," Allaria said to Cassima. "Your father and I had been on one of the other islands for the better part of a day and were making our way home on the ferry when a storm suddenly came up. The wind whipped the sea into a madly churning tempest, as if we were afloat in a bottle of water that had suddenly been shaken. It was all the ferryman could do to keep the boat from capsizing. At first I was frightened, but then I became angry at being tossed about in that boat and being made sick by its constant movement.
"Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I ran to the railing and told all the entities of the sea that I hated them and I wished ill fortune upon every last one of them. I suppose in my addled mind, I must have felt that they were responsible for the storm, and that they had decided to torment us just to amuse themselves. As I recall, Caliphim was shocked by what I had done, but I just laughed and told him not to be so superstitious, and I never thought about it again...until just now."
Alexander stood spellbound by Allaria's words for a moment, then the reality of the situation started to dawn on him: the fairies had never said that his wife was the one who had offended them...they only said 'the dark-haired mortal woman', and Allaria's raven hair was the same color as her daughter's.
But why had the Lord of the Sea Fairies said that this dark-haired woman ruled the Green Isles? Caliphim and Allaria had stepped down from the throne years ago...and the Lord of the Sea Fairies said that the dark-haired woman's child was the one they kidnapped, but Cassima was Allaria's only child, and she hadn't been kidnapped, Devin had.
As Alexander was trying to make sense of it all, Allaria held out her arms and began to speak:
"O fairies and other beings of magic that inhabit the sea, I ask that you hear my word and forgive me for my past deeds," she said reverently. "Please have mercy on me for my harsh words towards you and return my daughter's only child to her...please."
She clasped her hands and shut her eyes. Caliphim, Alexander and Cassima gazed silently at her, silently repeating her words in the hope that the Sea Fairies would somehow hear them as well.
Suddenly, there was a low thrumming sound near Devin's cradle. The four people turned to see a short, gangly creature with white, stringy hair, a long nose, floppy ears and broad webbed hands and feet standing on the floor, which was already dripping wet from the water cascading off of him. He was also clutching something in his arms, wrapped in a light green blanket.
"My apologies for the dampness," the creature said in a nasal voice. He turned towards Alexander, who recognized the creature as the same one that had led him to Devin in the Sea Fairies' palace.
"We have heard the dark-haired one's words, and I have come to return your child to you and take the child we left here back to his home."
"Devin!" Cassima cried, racing towards the fairy and almost knocking him over as she tore the bundle from his arms. "Oh, Alexander, it's him, it's him!"
She held the bundle tightly to her chest and walked back to Alexander, who felt tears come to his eyes at the sight of Devin's round face smiling up at him from the soft, warm, dry haven of his blanket. The king held out his hand and Devin reached up and firmly gripped one of his fingers, his green eyes shining as he giggled. Caliphim and Allaria moved closer to Cassima to see their grandson.
After the euphoria of Devin being returned to his family had waned slightly, Alexander turned back to the Sea Fairy, who was attempting to get the changeling baby out of the cradle, but failing to even see over the side.
"But...I don't understand," Alexander said. "Your Lord told me that if I mentioned the Sea Fairies' name to Devin's mother..."
"I'm afraid there has been quite a mix-up between our realms," the fairy said. "I suppose I had better explain everything to you: as you probably know already, my people live much longer than mortal men. Consequently, we often forget how much faster time passes for those who live in the mortal world. The decades that passed between the moment that the dark-haired mortal woman spoke ill of us to the present time was but a few months to us. We knew that a child had been born to the dark-haired woman, but nothing more, and the fairy who was sent to kidnap the infant mistook the child's mother for the one who offended us -- for indeed, there is very little difference between the two women."
Allaria and Cassima stared at each other and nodded in agreement. Save for Allaria's graying hair and her blue eyes, she and her daughter were nearly identical.
"As for mentioning us to the dark-haired woman -- you never did, mortal. You told your wife about them, and she relayed this knowledge to the one who offended us. Ergo, you never directly told her about us, and since she has confessed her guilt, we have kept our word to you."
He tried unsuccessfully to reach the changeling again and grumbled angrily to himself. Alexander reached into the cradle and lifted the oddly formed infant out, placing it into the waiting arms of the spindly Sea Fairy.
"Thank you, mortal," he sniffed, removing the white blanket from the changeling and tossing it aside.
"Thank you for returning our son to us," Cassima said.
"Certainly, certainly," the fairy muttered. "Listen, I would stay longer, but I'm drying out pretty quickly, so I'd better leave as soon as I can."
He turned his pointed nose towards the lethargic changeling in his arms.
"Don't worry, lad," he smiled. "We're going home."
Caliphim, Allaria, Cassima and Alexander all had time to give a hurried good-bye before the fairy vanished with the same thrumming noise that had accompanied his arrival, leaving a faint tang of seawater in the air. Sing Sing trilled happily, then took off, doubtlessly heading to the Isle of Wisdom to break the good news to Vark, Shappa and Suhad.
For a moment, silence permeated the room, and everyone in it seemed frozen in place. Then, Cassima turned towards Alexander, the light of the evening sun making her green eyes glow with a shimmering golden hue. Carefully shifting Devin to the crook of her right arm, she placed her left arm around Alexander's shoulders.
"I don't know how I can possibly thank you enough for what you've done," she whispered.
Alexander smiled but said nothing. He was sticky with dried seawater, exhausted and sore, but the events that had just taken place had left him speechless with relief and happiness.
"Cassima," Allaria said softly, "Cassima, I'm so sorry...if I had only known about the Sea Fairies and apologized to them beforehand, this never would have happened..."
"Don't blame yourself, Mother," Cassima said. "Everything's all right now."
"True," Alexander said, finally finding his voice. "I don't blame you for what happened, my lady. It was just an accident, after all, and everything turned out for the best in the end."
Allaria nodded slowly as Caliphim took her hand. Sensing that their daughter and their son-in-law wished to be alone with their son, they both quietly thanked Alexander for saving their grandchild, requested him to tell them all about his journey when he had the time, and quietly left the room, shutting the door behind them
"So..." Cassima said, "Do you think we're even now?"
"Yes. You saved my kingdom; I saved your life twice, once from Alhazred, once from Shadrack; now you've saved Devin's life. Would you say we're even now?"
"I suppose we are," he said.
There was another long silence. Devin reached up and tried to grasp a lock of his mother's black hair.
"Cassima?" Alexander asked. "Can you forgive me?"
"For lying to you about Devin. I didn't want to lie, but I was told that if you knew the truth about the changeling, you wouldn't care for it as if it were your son, and that would make it sicken and die much quicker. If that had happened, the fairies would have refused to give Devin up."
Cassima glanced down at Devin, who was happily sucking on his fingers.
"I suppose that's just what I would have done if I'd known that that...thing wasn't our son," she remarked. "So perhaps lying to me was the only thing you could have done."
"But can you forgive me?" Alexander repeated.
Cassima stared at a spot on the wall across the room, then after a few moments, turned her eyes back to Alexander.
"Of course," she replied with a smile. "Were the circumstances any different, I guess I would be angry with you, but you admitted lying to me...and now that Devin is back, I don't see the point of getting angry with you about something that you had to do in order to save him."
She looked down at Devin again.
"I suppose any father in the situation you were in would have done it if he truly loved his son," she added quietly.
Alexander sighed with relief and put one of his arms around his wife's shoulders, her soft black hair brushing against his hand. Looking down at his son, Alexander saw that Devin was now staring up at him and occasionally slapping both of his hands on his blanket.
"Don't worry, Devin," Cassima said, putting both arms around him and rocking him gently, occasionally stroking his tousled auburn hair. "You're safe with us, and we'll never let any fairies take you away from us ever again."
Devin stopped slapping and grew calmer, but there was still an excited look in his eyes. Cassima stopped rocking him and turned to Alexander.
"It's almost his bedtime, but he doesn't look all that tired yet," she said. "Do you think I should read him a story before putting him to bed?"
"I doubt it," Alexander said with a smile. "I don't think Devin needs to be told a story for a long time...he's just lived one."
Special Features | KQ9:IT4 | Back to Literature | Home
Back to KQ10:ABD
© Akril 2007-2008
King’s Quest and Sierra On-Line are trademarks of Vivendi Universal Games