Ahead to the Past
They appeared in the middle of a small grove of trees. The sun was high in the sky and the grass grew green in the surrounding fields, but strangely, there was no sound, except for the wind in the leaves overhead. An oppressive calm had taken control over the land.
He is here. He has to be.
Cassima had thought it, but Edgar had heard it in his own mind as well. They stared at each other in surprise. The pendants' fusion of their minds hadn't worn off completely – Cassima was able to pick up on whatever went through Edgar's mind and vice versa. Neither of them had any idea how long this would last, but they had no time to contemplate such affairs at the moment.
This is Daventry, isn't it? Edgar thought, donning and concealing his pendant once more as Cassima mirrored the action with her own.
I'm positive it is, Cassima replied. But where is…
Her thoughts trailed away as both of them glimpsed a figure walking through the grass some distance from where they stood. It moved with the shamble of an elderly man, and it was clad in elegant robes that only a member of royalty would wear. It had to be King Edward. The king that ruled before Graham – the king Shadrack was going to kill.
Edgar suddenly detected a strong trace of magic coming from the east. He turned and gaped.
Hide! he thought furiously.
Cassima dropped to the ground immediately, as did Edgar. The two of them quickly hid behind a nearby clump of thick bushes. Through the scrubby foliage, they could see another figure moving at a deliberate, yet controlled, pace. Even though neither of them had seen the figure before, they immediately knew who it was.
Shadrack was shockingly younger than Cassima had imagined he would be. His face was angular and pale, with eyes that were black – not dark brown, but black, black as a starless midnight. His hair was black, too, as was the simple cloak he wore. It definitely was the color of choice for members of the so-called Black Cloak Society.
He was walking past them, in King Edward's direction. It would be less than five minutes before Shadrack reached the king.
What are we going to do? Edgar thought frantically.
I'll think of something! Cassima replied, her thoughts distorted with terror. Keep down…
But she didn't think of something. Edgar would have known if she had. Cassima's mind was blank with the horror at seeing the man who intended to alter the very flow of time so that her husband never existed. All she could do was stare at him, following him with her eyes. Edgar urged her to act, but received no response from her. He didn't dare try speaking out loud and risk Shadrack hearing them.
Cassima, what should we…
Suddenly, a stream of memories began replaying in Edgar's mind, and not all of them were his. He was recalling one of the sections of the "Guide to Using the Charm of Transformational Power" that Cassima owned:
Panther: One of the most graceful and lithe animals in existence. Like the wolf, it has penetrating night vision and is renowned for being swift, stealthy, quick-minded and intelligent. Armed with sharp teeth and claws, this form should be used with caution by all bearers of this charm, novice or expert.
Then he recalled a line from the conversation that he and Cassima had had in Tamir regarding her charm bracelet:
"All I need to do is recite the name for the animal that is associated with it magically – although I can be changed if someone else speaks the name as well."
Then he recalled something that King Neptune's Channeler had said to Cassima:
"Whatever you can't do, your friend will do, and what neither of you can do alone can be done together."
Edgar tried desperately to make sense out of these thoughts. The panther…the charm…working together…?
Wait – the words that changed Cassima were words from the Old Language, a language spoken only by the ancients…ancients like the ones that had crafted that pool on the plateau in Kolyma? The pool that had the image of the panther inlaid on the bottom…what were those words under it…?
Edgar instantly knew what to do – and he did not want to do it at all. He couldn't – it would be too much for him. His mind might split from the strain. With Cassima and him sharing minds, he would feel what she felt, experience what she experienced. He simply couldn't bear being part of another transfiguration, especially if he was the one responsible for it…
There are times when one must do such things, even if they risk bringing turmoil to your life.
That voice again – he had suspected that it was his own inner voice at first, but now he wasn't so sure. Even if it had been right on that occasion with Ashni, there was no way he was going to listen to it again. He wasn't going to go through with it. The world would have to be on the verge of destruction before he…
But the world was on the verge of destruction. If Shadrack succeeded, the world would be as good as destroyed without the balancing forces of Alexander and Rosella's family to counteract the evil forces that plagued every land in both their realm and Edgar's.
That clinched it. He wasn't going to let himself be afraid of this perfectly natural form of magic any longer. After all, he was living on the life of a black cat, wasn't he? And a panther was a black cat...only much bigger. Drawing in the most confident breath he could manage, Edgar turned to Cassima, and in a steady, determined voice, said:
Cassima jumped in surprise as the magic coursed through her body. As her form began to shift and change into the sleek, powerful, black creature whose name was so similar to its name in the Old Language, Edgar could feel her fears and anxieties lessening as her primal instincts grew stronger. He watched her with a strange sense of awe as her formerly confused, jumbled thoughts suddenly became clear, precise and simple; the gray swirl of human thoughts sharpening into the crisp black-and-white contrast of animal thoughts: Shadrack needed to be stopped…and she was going to stop him.
The sorcerer was almost in front of them by now. The panther that Cassima had become tensed its muscles until its entire body became as taut as a drawn bowstring. Then, with a grating snarl that made Edgar's skin prickle, it burst out of the bushes, leaping through the air as swiftly and gracefully as a hawk. Its front paws made contact with the torso of Shadrack and knocked him to the ground. Edgar knew that she didn't intend to kill him – she just meant to subdue him, to detain him until King Edward was safely out of his reach – and deal with him more forcibly once the king had departed. Though the connection between them had faded now that Cassima was farther away, Edgar could still make out faint whispers of her thoughts.
He cringed in fear as Cassima the panther struggled with the young sorcerer, who turned out to be much stronger than he had first appeared. She dug her claws into his shoulders, but he was able to wrench himself free from her. When Cassima attempted to bite him, he struck at the side of her head with a clenched fist – a blow that Edgar felt as well. Just as Cassima seemed to have gained control over Shadrack, he suddenly coiled his legs beneath her and struck out, kicking her not only off his body, but several feet through the air, her trajectory cut short by a large tree, which she hit with a sickening thud.
She lay motionless on the ground for a moment before regaining her senses and staring wildly back at Shadrack. The sorcerer appeared completely unhurt. He rose to a kneeling position, pointed one hand in Cassima's direction, and in a cold, toneless voice, intoned the word Andros.
Edgar and Cassima reeled in shock. Shadrack knew how Cassima's charm bracelet worked. Cassima tried to leap away, but it was too late. The power of the word hit her in midair, and she hit the ground as a human, a creature much more defenseless and fragile than a panther. Before she could rise to her feet, Shadrack was on top of her. He had leapt through the air in a manner that made him appear almost weightless, gliding towards her in a flutter of dark robes, and landing on her as swiftly as a spider landed on its prey.
Cassima struggled in vain as Shadrack clenched his left hand around her right arm so tightly that she could barely feel her fingers, while his right hand searched her pockets until it located her dagger, which he dragged out and clutched firmly. He glared down at her with a look that was dour and merciless, twisting the young face into a hard mask of contempt.
Shadrack opened his mouth and began to speak to Cassima in a low voice like cold iron:
"So this is the little queen that's been following me all these times…I must congratulate you on your unwavering determination, but I'm afraid your journey is at an end now."
Edgar, who had been watching the entire scene from behind the bushes, decided to start making his way to where Cassima and Shadrack were locked in a morbid embrace. He silently rose from where he crouched, then tiptoed swiftly towards the nearest tree, which he ducked behind, peered around to make sure Shadrack hadn't seen him, then made his way towards another tree, hoping to sneak up behind the sorcerer before he got wind of what was going on.
Something Shadrack had said lifted a veil in Cassima's mind. She looked into his dark eyes – eyes that she realized she had already seen – and gasped. As terrified as she was now, her shock was doubled upon this new revelation.
"They were you!" she forced out in a trembling whisper. "All those people who said they served someone or served you…they weren't your agents…they were you!"
Shadrack grinned like a serpent about to strike.
"Well done, your Highness," he chuckled. "I thought my little ruse would keep you fooled, but apparently I was mistaken. Shape shifting has never been my strong suit, but it is without a doubt one of the most effective forms of disguise. It's a pity I was never able to master it completely while I was at that silly little wizards' academy. I can't create an original alternate identity out of thin air, and I'm still unable to take the shape of another individual creature unless their bodies are in a particular state…"
Here he paused and stared at Cassima with those blazing dark eyes.
"Namely, the state where they are no longer functioning."
Cassima's blood froze. He had murdered the people whose shapes he had assumed. She suddenly imagined a man's body drifting away from Tamir on the nighttime tide, a dead woman in an indigo robe buried somewhere in the Llewdor desert, the limp body of a thin, wiry man falling through the clouds of Dark Etheria…Cassima had no idea how Shadrack could have murdered a giant talking chess piece, but she was beginning to think that there was very little Shadrack couldn't do. He could travel through time to gather knowledge of how to conduct his revenge, he could move with the swiftness and agility of a bird, he could figure out how her charm bracelet worked without even seeing the thing…
With a shudder, she wondered whether Shadrack had intended to use the body of Ashni's father as a guise after he killed him or whether that poor man was merely an annoyance that the sorcerer had decided to eliminate rather than ignore. If the sorcerer's mention of this gruesome side of his shape shifting was an action meant to paralyze Cassima with horror, it had certainly worked.
"There are many advantages to using other shapes," Shadrack went on. "They never age or weaken…as long as the mind within them is strong, they remain quite usable."
Here he leaned closer to Cassima's face, gripping her arm a little more tightly.
"Speaking of such…I think it's safe for me to show you what you've failed to notice during your quest, Cassima of the Land of the Green Isles…"
Cassima felt a pricking, squeezing sensation where Shadrack's hand gripped her arm. She glanced down at it and watched in mortified shock as the hand slowly metamorphosed into a huge, hairy, deformed version of its former self, the nails changing into thick claws, the knuckles becoming huge and knobby.
She forced herself to look away from the ghastly sight, but the only other place for her to look was at Shadrack's face, which was also undergoing a hideous transformation. She found herself unable to shut her eyes as the slender, youthful face twisted itself into the most monstrous, devilish one that Cassima had ever seen and would ever see. It was impossible to describe just how that face looked. Looking back on the experience, Cassima remembered a wide mouth filled with huge, sharp teeth; huge, yellow eyes with slits for pupils; wrinkled, warty, misshapen skin, and little else.
This wasn't a mere beast from a cave deep beneath the earth or a demon from the Underworld. This was a monster from the darkest corners of the human psyche, a creature born from the most terrifying of nightmares. It was the thing that lurked beneath children's beds when the sun went down and skulked beneath bridges waiting to ambush heedless travelers. It was an entity that had torn itself from the shadows that people automatically turned away from, choosing to walk among those who lived in the real world, disguised as one of them.
The man she knew as Shadrack the wizard was nothing more than a mask hiding this physical manifestation of darkness. He had attempted to learn magic disguised as a young man, and then joined the side of Evil, also known as the Black Cloak Society, after gleaning as much human knowledge of the mundane – as well as the magical – that he could from the side of Good. For the wizards that knew him, however, there were always a few subtle clues that came close to betraying his true origins – his fiercely antisocial disposition and his eternally young appearance were two of the most obvious traits.
Now, however, Cassima could see what his true shape was – or the closest physical equivalent to it. His form seemed to shift and pulse as she stared at it, and waves of terror washed over her. Tears ran from her eyes as she gazed upon this embodiment of all human fears.
"You thought that only humans could be wizards, eh?" the abomination hissed in a deep, guttural voice that would have made Cassima shriek if she hadn't been rigid with fright. "Well, you thought wrong, my little prey…"
He slowly raised Cassima's dagger, clutching it somewhat awkwardly with his clawed fist, but still skillfully holding it at an angle that would lead it straight into Cassima's heart.
"And I hope your next life will be less foolish and reckless as this one that is about to end…" he growled softly.
The dagger continued to rise. Cassima watched it with a detached fascination, barely even realizing that both she and her unborn child were about to die, killed by the same dagger that had brought about the downfall of Alhazred, the very man Shadrack was about to avenge. When Shadrack's hand could be lifted no higher, he paused for a moment, apparently savoring his imminent victory.
Suddenly, an arrow sang through the air with such speed that it knocked the dagger from the creature's grasp. Shadrack roared furiously and turned his beastly head in the direction that the arrow had come from. Cassima heard a voice crying out that seemed faintly familiar, yet she was still too scared to make out where she had heard it before.
"What is this?" Shadrack snarled contemptuously to whoever was speaking.
Edgar, who had been watching the whole horrific scene from behind a nearby tree, had torn his eyes from Shadrack's real shape as soon as he had seen the arrow, looking to see who had fired it. His breath caught in his throat when he saw who it was.
It was Rosella. She was holding a large bow in one hand and shouldering a quiver of arrows as well. She wasn't alone, either – beside her was Alexander, holding a sword by his side and looking just as enraged as Shadrack was at having his fun spoiled. Behind the brother and sister were their parents, Graham and Valanice; Cassima's parents, Caliphim and Allaria; and Edgar's parents, Oberon and Titania. Behind them were three legions of soldiers, one from each ruling couple's respective kingdom: a troop of knights from Daventry, a pack of Guard Dogs from the Land of the Green Isles, and a bevy of fairy warriors from Etheria.
"Get off of my wife, you demon!" Alexander shouted, sounding remarkably brave for being only a few yards away from a creature made up of nightmares, a creature whose name had haunted his sleep for months. Suddenly recognizing her husband's voice, Cassima weakly turned her head to look at him. The tears flowing from her eyes were now tears of joy as well as fear.
Even though Shadrack's attention was no longer focused on her, it wouldn't be long before he attempted to kill her again...and he wouldn't move slow enough to have the arrow shot from his hand again this time.
Unsurprisingly, Shadrack was unimpressed by Alexander's words.
"Oh, brother!" the monster spat. "The whole family is coming to join the bloodbath, eh? Well, it's not as simple as that, little man!"
He glared fiercely at the young king. Cassima desperately tried to think of a way to escape his clutches, but nothing came to her mind.
Then she saw Edgar. No…she didn't see him...she sensed him. She was somehow able to see him standing behind a tree barely a dozen feet behind Shadrack, even though Shadrack's looming form blocked out everything in that direction. She became aware that he was the only one who could save her life now. Shadrack wouldn't be distracted for much longer; Edgar had to act now…
With all the might left in her, Cassima mentally reached out to Edgar, trying to make contact with his mind, thinking Now! Now! Now! as loudly and frantically as she could.
In an instant, Edgar both heard and understood her, and he didn't hesitate for a moment. In one quick movement, he ran from his hiding place and took a flying leap through the air, landing squarely on Shadrack's lumpy, deformed back. Strength surging through him, Edgar was just able to pull the creature off of Cassima, rolling over onto his back, carrying Shadrack with him.
Once she was free, Cassima immediately sprang to her feet and plucked her dagger from the ground. Edgar still had a grip on Shadrack, but the beast was trying its hardest to break free, and starting to succeed. Edgar was able to pull the monstrosity over him one last time, pinning it against a nearby tree. It was only a matter of time before Shadrack broke loose, though. He seemed oddly weak now compared to when he had first leapt on Cassima. His journey to this era must have sapped him of nearly all his physical strength, but even in Shadrack's current state, Edgar alone couldn't overpower him.
Cassima turned. It was Rosella. She, Alexander and the rest of those with them were running toward Cassima, Edgar and Shadrack. Rosella was clutching a coil of rope in her hands, which she swiftly tossed in Cassima's direction. The queen caught it and raced over to where Edgar was struggling with Shadrack. She quickly wound the rope around the monster's quivering body and bound it firmly to the tree Edgar had shoved it against with the most complex knots that she could think of.
Shadrack's gaping maw hung slack, exposing multiple rows of glittering fangs, and his sagging chest heaved as he panted laboriously.
"If you think mere ropes can hold me," he hissed menacingly, "I have some bad news for you, humans!"
Suddenly, wisps of smoke began to emanate from the ropes. Cassima stared in terror as they began smoldering in every place where they touched Shadrack's bare flesh. Panicked, Cassima turned to Edgar, who once again took immediate action. He raised a hand to Shadrack's head and unleashed all the power he could muster. There was a shuddering screech and a brilliant blue light, and when both had stopped, Shadrack was slumped in his no longer smoking bonds. A lolling black tongue hung from his jagged jaws, and a muscle in his face twitched occasionally. He was unconscious, but not for long – at least Cassima and Edgar had some time to catch their breath.
The pair turned around. Behind them stood their parents, as well as Alexander, Rosella and their parents.
"Cassima!" Alexander exclaimed, sheathing his sword. "You did it!"
"Edgar!" Rosella cried.
The siblings ran to their respective loved ones. Rosella dropped her bow and her quiver of arrows before racing up to Edgar and clutching his hands as tightly as she was able. Even though it had only been two days, it felt as if they had been apart for an eternity.
"Well…I suppose we won, Rosella," Edgar shrugged.
Rosella struggled to put her emotions into words.
"I…Even when I saw your face in the mirror, I thought I'd never see you alive…but…after all you've done…I can't believe it…"
The irony of the entire situation finally dawned on Edgar: He had been so wrapped up in finding out how to show Rosella how much he loved her that he hadn't even noticed that his quest to find and defeat Shadrack had been doing just that. He had left home to seek advice and wound up acting on it without even receiving it first.
The Edgar that Rosella looked upon now seemed like an entirely new person. All those letters and flowers he had given her while he was courting her had never shown her who he really was. Now she knew that he wasn't a confused young prince – he was brave, loyal, and as much of an adventurer as she was, who would risk his life not just for her, but for anyone he considered a friend. How could she ever have doubted him?
Even though Edgar wasn't human, Rosella felt that she would love him forever, no matter what he was. Perhaps marriage wouldn't be as monotonous and horrid as she feared it would be – perhaps it would turn out to be an adventure of its own.
"I love you," Rosella whispered.
Edgar held her close, resting his cheek against her golden hair.
"And I love you," he said.
As Alexander approached Cassima, he suddenly halted and stared at her. In the chaos, the reality of the way she looked hadn't hit him until now. She was wearing brightly colored men's clothes that were stained, dusty and torn. It looked as if she had crawled through a forest and then stopped to roll around in a pasture. Not only that, but her beautiful black hair had been drawn back into a tight ponytail, and her delicate face was smeared with grime. Seeing her husband gaping at her, Cassima looked down at her attire, then back up at Alexander with shame coloring her face.
"Is this…" Alexander stammered, "Is this what I've married, Cassima?"
Still slightly embarrassed, Cassima smiled and pulled the ribbon out of her hair, letting the raven tresses cascade over her shoulders and down her back. She then absently rubbed her wedding ring, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.
"This is what love can do to a person, Alexander," she finally said. She took several delicate steps towards Alexander before falling into his arms so forcefully that he nearly fell over.
"I missed you so much," she sobbed.
"So did I…" Alexander said, holding her tightly, despite the dirt covering her skin and clothing. "But why did you do all this for me?"
"The same reason I stabbed Alhazred," Cassima said. "I loved you then and now. I didn't want you to die."
Alexander sighed and stared into his wife's fearless green eyes.
"After you contacted me the way you did yesterday, I should have known that you would do whatever was possible to save me…but how did you do it, Cassima?"
Cassima put a less-than-tidy finger up to his lips.
"Not now, Alexander. I'll tell you everything later."
Alexander nodded and smiled a true smile for the first time in two long days.
A voice suddenly interrupted their blissful embrace:
"Cassie! We need help here! Shadrack is coming out of it!"
It was Edgar. He and Rosella were standing near Shadrack, whose body was starting to quiver dangerously. Despite his foe's imminent awakening, Alexander couldn't help but look confusedly at Cassima.
Cassima looked down and shrugged innocently. Still puzzled, Alexander hurriedly followed her to where Shadrack was bound.
"We've got to think fast," Edgar said. "If he wakes up, he'll break loose and possibly kill all of us on sight."
Cassima was thinking…and Edgar was thinking alongside her.
"As powerful as Shadrack is, he has one great obsession that will ironically lead to his downfall…Shadrack has placed his power within a single tiny object which is directly connected to his monomania."
It was the voice of Jason the sorcerer. The words resounded inside Cassima's and Edgar's heads, and Cassima began to recall something that linked the times she had encountered Shadrack in the past – his visit to Chessboard Land, the rook on the table in the hut in Tamir, the only activity that he delighted in, according to the letter from the sorceress Kaida that Cassima had found in Crispin's cellar…
Then she remembered the letter from Shadrack that had started this entire journey, and the very first line of that letter's body:
"I was sorry to hear of great Mordack's death, though he was a bit of a ninny at chess."
Chess. Just as Cassima was thinking the word, a thunderstruck look spread across Edgar's face. He reached into his pocket and withdrew something small and dark. It was the black chess knight that he had found hidden in the maze in Etheria. As he held it out for everyone to see, its surface swirled and rippled as if storm clouds were moving over its exterior.
"That's it!" Cassima yelled. "That's where Shadrack has hidden his power! Hurry, Edgar! Destroy it!"
Edgar lifted his other hand and tried to incinerate the knight, which was starting to glow with a dull red light. Unfortunately, his magical energies had become so depleted from stunning Shadrack that he was almost as impotent as he had been when he left the physician in Aeolus. Noticing the fear in his eyes, Rosella held him close, but even the warmth of her touch didn't help Edgar destroy the knight…
Then Cassima laid a hand on his shoulder, gripping it firmly.
"…what neither of you can do alone can be done together."
Edgar's fingertips glowed with light. The black knight grew red, then yellow, then white hot before exploding in a shower of ash as pale as dandelion down. At the same time, Shadrack's demonic form convulsed horribly, and a horrid gurgling roar bubbled up from his throat. Then he slumped in his bonds again, and his dark shape seemed to start sloughing away like strands of black silk. Pieces of the nightmarish beast flaked away from the still form and drifted off, disintegrating in the sunlight.
When every shard of the abomination had vanished, all that was left hanging in the now-limp ropes was the form that Shadrack had assumed when he first appeared in Daventry – the shape of a young man with dark hair, whose face no longer seemed that severe or cruel.
Is he… Cassima begun, but strangely, Edgar didn't reply to her thoughts. She couldn't hear what he was thinking, either.
"He's not dead, is he?" Edgar whispered.
The dark-haired man stirred and slowly opened his eyes, blinking as if he had just stepped outdoors. His eyes weren't black anymore, but a shade of blue so pale that they were almost completely white. There was an almost empty look to them. When he noticed the crowd of people standing around him, he gaped and tried to hide his face, then stared confusedly down at the ropes holding him to the tree and made several incoherent noises.
Cassima and Edgar didn't need to share their thoughts to figure out what had happened: The chess piece had contained not only Shadrack's power, but everything that made him what he was – his ambitions, his memories, his personality…his very essence. This form before them now had to be the first human shape he assumed when he crossed the threshold between Dark and Light and entered the world of men – undoubtedly, he had killed the man who originally owned the body in order to use it. This form was merely an empty vessel which Shadrack's essence filled, but in order to ensure that such a fragile form wouldn't be destroyed, he kept his essence locked away in that chess piece, hiding it in another realm, where no potential enemy could find it…or so he thought.
Now that the chess piece was destroyed, the creature from humanity's darkest dreams that called himself Shadrack was also destroyed, but the body that he had used for most of the time in this world remained undamaged.
The mind within the body, however, was now completely empty. It was a proverbial blank slate, a lump of clay waiting to be sculpted. When Shadrack had been eliminated, he had left behind a man as mentally inexperienced as an infant.
Cassima slowly took out her dagger and began cutting the ropes that tied the man to the tree. The man watched her with an open, innocent look in his pale eyes.
"He's not Shadrack anymore," Cassima said. "In fact, he's not anybody anymore."
"But what is he?" Rosella asked.
Cassima had freed the man from the waist up. Edgar cautiously extended a hand, which the man stared curiously at and started prodding gently with his own hand.
"I think that's for us to determine," Edgar said. "This man is nothing more than an empty shell now."
Alexander nodded, examining the man's childlike behavior.
"Do you think we should take him home with us?" he asked.
"We can't leave him here," Cassima said, cutting the last of the ropes free. The man staggered for a moment before regaining his balance, leaning against the tree for support. "He needs us now."
Alexander's brow furrowed. He glanced at his family and his other relatives, who all looked concerned and skeptical, but they eventually agreed with Cassima's words nonetheless.
"I suppose we all should be going home now," Rosella said. Her pretty face then appeared puzzled for a moment, and she looked worriedly up at her beloved.
"When we marry…where will we go? Etheria or Daventry?"
It was a question that Edgar had tried desperately to avoid for months. As much as he loved Rosella, he couldn't leave his homeland without a successor and become the heir to Daventry's throne. With no brothers or sisters, he was the sole heir to Etheria, but if Rosella decided to live in Etheria, her parents would have no one to rule after them, either.
"I…I'm not sure…" he sighed. He slowly turned to his parents and Rosella's parents, who were standing close by.
"Edgar," Graham said, "If you truly love my daughter, your heart should tell you where you belong. Don't use your head, use your heart."
"Yes," Titania agreed. "Don't worry about it now, Edgar. We will find a way."
Edgar looked into Rosella's eyes. From the first day he had seen her in Tamir, he had known which realm his heart belonged to – the realm in which the girl he loved resided.
"In that case…I wish to live in Daventry. With you, Rosella."
Rosella came dangerously close to bursting into tears. She buried her face in his chest.
"Oh Edgar! You shouldn't…"
"Actually," Oberon interrupted, "In the light of something I just recently realized, you are not leaving your homeland to die, Edgar."
Edgar and Rosella stared at the fairy king with equal looks of surprise.
"Father…what do you mean?"
Oberon took a deep breath before beginning again:
"Before we left to look for you and Cassima, your mother and I had a long talk, which everyone you see before you took part in as well. We recalled that many years ago, before you were born, I had a brother that was always closer to earth than most fairies. He took a wife but shortly afterwards he disappeared, leaving his mate and his child alone in the outer islands of Etheria. I never knew if either of them survived…until now. Now I know that the child has grown to manhood, but he has never known of his royal heritage."
An odd feeling began prickling the back of Edgar's neck. It wasn't a sensation of fear, but of anticipation.
"What…what was his name?" he asked.
"His name? Why…Alberic, as I recall. But he apparently prefers to be called Aubrey."
Edgar's mouth fell open.
"Father, I met him in the outer isles, and again in Lycathia!" he cried. "Are you saying that man is my cousin?"
"That is what we've been told, Edgar," Valanice smiled. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"And not only that," Allaria put in, "But Oberon tells us that from what he's learned, Aubrey has slowly been becoming aware of his own magical abilities. He has been refining them to the point where he can not only perform great magical feats, but has even enough power to move through time…just as you and Cassima can. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if…"
There was suddenly a sound of frantically pounding footsteps. Everybody turned to see a blonde-haired young man, with a bag slung over his shoulder, and a girl with rust-colored hair, parted in a zigzag, rapidly approaching them.
"Edgar!" the man cried.
"Ashni!" Cassima yelled.
The two newcomers quickly came to a halt beside the small crowd.
"I was hoping we'd get here before…" Aubrey began. He stopped abruptly and looked warily at all the people that were staring at him.
"What…what is it?" he asked. "What's going on?"
Then he noticed Oberon. Edgar couldn't help but notice that Aubrey's hair color and Oberon's hair color were the same shade of blonde.
"Wait – you're not…you're not King Oberon, are you, sire?"
Oberon barely hid a smile in his beard and nodded.
"That I am, young one," he replied modestly. He placed a large hand on Edgar's shoulder.
"I believe you have already met Prince Edgar. He is my son…and your cousin."
Aubrey was so stunned by these words that he nearly fell down. Ashni stared at him in astonishment.
"You…you mean…my father was…"
"…Or is my brother," Oberon confirmed. "You and my son have much in common, my boy. Just as you have fallen in love with a human girl, my only child has just proclaimed that he wishes to live in another land with this earth-born princess."
He gestured towards Rosella as he said this.
"Do you realize what this means for you and your new bride?"
Ashni gasped and stared at Aubrey, who continued looking dumbfounded for a minute or two. Then he turned to Edgar, looking slightly irritated.
"You were behind all of this, weren't you?" he asked.
Edgar grinned sheepishly.
"You…you don't mind being heir to Etheria, do you?"
Aubrey remained vexed for a moment, then he couldn't keep from smiling as a look of utter joy spread over his face.
"I…I'm as happy as a dragonette in an ambrosia patch, Edgar…I guess I should thank you for this, shouldn't I?"
"Only if you want to, your Highness," Edgar replied.
"Don't call me 'your Highness,' Edgar…not for a while, anyway," Aubrey reminded him.
"Well, it never hurts to practice," Cassima shrugged.
"And I believe this is yours?" Aubrey said, reaching into his bag with both hands and pulling out a madly struggling something that was the size of a kitten with wings, a beak and a lion's tail. He tossed the little beast in Edgar's direction.
"Scrimshaw!" the prince cried. The pygmy griffin flapped wildly up to Edgar, letting him catch the creature in his hands. "Oh, thank you, Aubrey! I thought I'd never see you again, Scrim!"
The griffin nuzzled Edgar's chest affectionately, overjoyed to be reunited with his master – as irresponsible as that master was turning out to be over the course of this quest. It didn't seem to matter how many times Edgar abandoned Scrimshaw – the creature would always follow him until he found him again. As belligerent and stubborn as Scrimshaw was, he was as faithful as the sun was bright.
"That thing is yours?" Rosella asked, sounding slightly repulsed at the sight of the oddly shaped beast in Edgar's hands.
"He's not bad once you get to know him," Edgar said.
"That's for sure," Cassima smirked. She looked at Edgar, who suddenly had a much more serious look in his eyes, an emotion that was consequently mirrored in her own mind.
"Er…could all of you excuse Edgar and me for a moment?" she asked.
"Certainly," Graham said.
"Of course," Valanice seconded.
Everyone else had similar responses. Cassima began walking away, beckoning to Edgar as she did. Edgar gave Scrimshaw to Aubrey and followed the queen to a clearing near the edge of the grove, which gave them a beautiful view of the rolling hills and wide fields of the land that they had just helped save.
They stood facing each other, staring silently into each other's eyes. They still couldn't hear each other's thoughts. Perhaps the pendants had stopped making them capable of doing this when they sensed that the enemy they had helped their wearers find was no more. It was a good thing that they had – as much as they trusted each other now, Cassima and Edgar didn't want to go through life hearing what the other was thinking whenever they were close together.
"I can't believe that we're still alive now…after all this."
"You've done so much for me…but I'm afraid that I've done nothing for you except get you into trouble."
Cassima almost laughed at this.
"No you haven't," she said. "Would you call saving my life last night getting me into trouble? You've taken a little out of me and given a little back. I think we're pretty even now."
In a sense, this was more than true. The pendants might have done more than exchange their thoughts. Cassima seemed to have become slightly more withdrawn while Edgar had become slightly bolder. This might have been attributable merely to the pressures of their journey, but it was difficult to tell.
"So…" Edgar said, "Our quest is over now?"
Cassima put a hand on her chest, directly over the spot where her pendant rested.
"It's over for now, Edgar. But in the grand scheme of things, it's never over. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone."
Edgar sighed with equal amounts of weariness and amusement.
"I guess not. Um…Cassie?"
Edgar said nothing. There was a soft, gentle look in his eyes. He leaned closer to Cassima, who felt his breath on her face. She looked questioningly at him, then relaxed when she realized that she was feeling the same way that he was. She drew closer to him as well, her hands clasped in his.
It wasn't going to be a lover's kiss. Edgar knew it, Cassima knew it, and even Rosella and Alexander knew it. It wasn't going to be a kiss of passion born out of the flames of desire – it was a kiss that embodied an emotion that was a close kin to true love, but was spoken of much less frequently and certainly much rarer in its purest form.
It wasn't a feeling that was sung of in romantic ballads and sonnets, and very few flowers or colors could be said to be associated with it. Its closest relatives were loyalty and devotion, which were usually only felt by one entity towards another – it was the way a knight felt towards his king, the way a servant felt towards his master.
The feeling between Cassima and Edgar at this moment was neither of these, however – it was one of deep trust and faith in each other that was equally strong in both of them. It was an emotion felt between people who knew each other since their childhood, between a parent and its child…and between two strangers thrown together by a bizarre set of circumstances that forced them to depend on each other, over the course of which they discovered that, relationship-wise, they were almost close enough to be brother and sister.
In short, it was friendship.
However, the gesture that symbolized this quality was never performed. Just before their lips met, they heard someone chuckling close by. They turned to see an elderly man with a flowing white beard, clad in regal splendor, standing only a few yards away – King Edward. Fortunately, trees that surrounded them hid the crowd of people close by.
"Oh, young love!" the aged monarch chuckled. "It's so fleeting for you, isn't it? Enjoy it while you can, children."
He turned and slowly began walking away. Edgar and Cassima looked at each other and hastily pulled away from each other, feeling considerably embarrassed. Cassima suddenly looked saddened for a moment.
"It's such a shame that he had to live such a sad, lonely life while even our blackest hours are sunbeams in comparison to his," she said. "Having the three treasures of Daventry stolen from under his nose, watching his wife sicken and die…"
"I know," Edgar replied, still holding her hands. "But he's right. We should seize life while we can. Now that this darkness is past, let's look into the light."
These words touched Cassima so deeply that she impulsively embraced him before she could stop herself.
"No arguments there, Edgar," she smiled.
The prince and the queen returned to the large crowd that was still milling around the grove. Alexander and Rosella were talking with Aubrey (who had Scrimshaw perched on his shoulder) and Ashni, and gesturing toward the dark-haired man beside them and the latter pair was looking quite astonished at the former pair's words. Alexander and Rosella were apparently trying to fill the newcomers in on what events had led up to this point, including the unpleasant truth about the childlike man beside them.
Everyone turned as Edgar and Cassima approached.
"Is everyone ready to go home?" Edgar asked. Aubrey shook Scrimshaw off his shoulder, prompting the griffin to flap towards Edgar and nestle in the prince's hood once again.
"Yes," Alexander said. "And I've got a way to get us there…"
"So do we," said Cassima, showing him her pendant. "But I'm sure your way is safer, Alexander. It got all these people to this place and time, which is probably more than our pendants could ever do."
"But where should we go?" Edgar asked.
"I say we go to Daventry first," Cassima said.
Several people looked at her oddly.
"Sorry – I meant our Daventry, the one we belong in, not this one where half of us haven't even been born yet. We can decide what plans to make from there."
"Point taken," Graham replied. "Well, Alexander, lead the way."
Alexander nodded, made a few slight gestures, muttered something incomprehensible, and a doorway of light opened in the middle of the grove. The young king beckoned for everyone to pass through it.
The legions of soldiers from the three kingdoms were the first to walk through the doorway, followed by Caliphim, Allaria, Oberon and Titania. Graham and Valanice were next, though they paused just short of the threshold and looked at the remaining people standing behind them.
"You have done well," Valanice said.
"Yes," Graham agreed. "You all have. Alexander, Rosella, you two –" here he pointed to Aubrey and Ashni "– and especially you."
He gestured towards Cassima and Edgar as he said this.
"You've all made this life of mine seem more than an endless string of journeys and hardships. Even though I may never pass on this adventurer's cap of mine, I know that you will all be keeping the spirit it embodies alive in each of you. Thank you."
He lightly jerked the brim of his cap and stepped through the doorway with his wife close behind him.
Aubrey and Ashni were the next to pass through the door, holding the unsteady nameless man who had tried to kill Cassima only fifteen minutes ago between them.
"You're sure he's safe now?" Ashni asked no one in particular.
"If he isn't, then we made a terrible mistake," Edgar said, "But we're certain that Shadrack is gone forever. This man is just the form he was using to make himself look human."
"I see," Ashni said, looking at the ground. She and Aubrey paused in front of the glowing doorway, which Aubrey examined with considerable interest. Then he glanced at Alexander.
"Nice portal," he remarked, clearly impressed. "So, you're Edgar's future brother-in-law?"
"I suppose I am," Alexander said. Aubrey grinned.
"It looks like he and I won't be the only magic workers in the family, then!" he chuckled. "You've got to tell me about where you learned magic like this one of these days."
He and Ashni half led, half dragged the man between them through the doorway. This left only Rosella, Alexander, Edgar and Cassima.
All four of them started to say something at the exact same time, and all four simultaneously fell silent. Then, Alexander spoke up:
"Whatever we have to say, I believe it can wait until we get home."
The others silently agreed. Alexander and Rosella stepped through the doorway first, but Cassima and Edgar lingered. They took one last look at the land in which the people they loved had been born and then became involved in several undertakings, which ultimately shaped the destiny of the entire world, as well as the lives of Edgar and Cassima. This was the country where it all began, and now it was the one where this particular escapade came to an end.
Neither of them said a word. They just gazed at the land, then at each other.
They were about to go home at last. The memories of the dismal futures of Etheria and the Land of the Green Isles had become fuzzy and indistinct in their minds, as if they had been no more than dreams – and both of them knew that this was because those futures were never going to take place. They had defeated Shadrack and found a way back to their homelands, and whatever future would come to pass for those countries, it wasn't going to be the one Cassima and Edgar had briefly stepped into during their journey with their pendants.
Relieved and overjoyed, the pair smiled at each other, clasped hands and stepped through the luminous portal.