Red Knight of Ocix
Book One of the Heroes of Ocix Series
A novel by: Roman Dufrene
Copyright: Roman Dufrene, 2016
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed are products of the author’s imagination and any similarity to real persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.
This ebook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the reader. It is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied, or distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Distributed by Shakespir.
Lars Springtree skipped along a winding path through Brewer’s Wood. The tiny fairy smiled as the early beams of morning sunlight flitted through the branches above his head and warmed his fuzzy ears. Lars whistled happily. It was going to be a nice day for walking. A heavy sack full of food and drink was slung over his shoulder and he carried a small, sturdy walking stick in his free hand, which he used to keep from losing his balance on the uneven, wooded path.
Lars was a palomino fairy—a woodland creature that looked a little like a person and a little like a rabbit—with shining golden fur and a cream-colored tail that was little more than a bob of fluff. He was small, even by the modest standards of fairies, and had to hop onto his tiptoes to pick huckleberries from the scrubby bushes that lined the path. Juice dripped onto his fingers and he licked them clean before wiping them dry on his clothes.
His outfit was nice, but nothing extraordinary. He wore a water-stained blue cloak, loose-fitting tunic, and trousers that had patches on both knees. His mother had dressed him, giving him garments that would be comfortable to travel in. Dangling from his neck was a citrine pendant. It was exquisite in every way, and not something one would see on many fairies, if ever at all. The smooth orange gem—which he kept meticulously polished to better reflect the sunlight—was wreathed by coils of hand-wrought silver. Lars occasionally fiddled with it as he walked, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the metal against his stubby fingers. Of all his worldly possessions, the pendant was without a doubt his most precious. In addition to being beautiful, it was one of two objects that marked Lars as an apprentice mage. The second was not nearly as pretty to look at; it was a crude, hand-carved summoning flute that Lars kept in his travel sack so as to not bother him while he walked.
Both the pendant and the flute bolstered his burgeoning abilities as he studied the arcane and mysterious with his master, Revias Brightwood. The flute helped him conjure objects out of thin air and summon help when needed. Eventually, with greater control, it would let Lars travel to distant lands if he chose to do so. In contrast, the pendant served as an anchor for enchantments, which helped keep Lars focused whenever working magic. The pendant could also be a reservoir, storing excess energy. By making sure to channel a bit of his leftover power into the citrine every night before bed, Lars ensured that he could always cast big spells in an emergency.
Lars was as proud of the pendant and flute as he could be. Growing up as the smallest and weakest of eight koovbo—the fairy term for children—he’d worried about his future constantly. He came from an old and respected family of silversmiths and soldiers, after all, and neither of those occupations had room for weaklings. However, the day he earned his pendant and flute—the first in his family to do so in four generations, mind you—his worries vanished. According to the examiner who tested Lars and gave him the pendant, young Springtree was gifted in the ways of magic and had a bright future ahead of him as a mage. Naturally, Lars’ mother and father were very proud.
His reason for being in the forest was simple. Two nights before, a massive falling star streaked and burned through the sky before landing somewhere in Brewer’s Wood. Every fairy in Maplehill—the trading village where Lars and his family lived—took notice. Falling stars, meteors, were made out of a precious rainbow-colored metal, one that was stronger and easier to work than steel. As such, it was prized by smiths and merchants alike.
Craving adventure, Lars decided to go into the woods by himself in order to collect some fragments from the meteor’s crash site. When he first proposed the idea to his parents, they refused to let him go alone. The woods were a dangerous place, they said. Lars would not be deterred though; he wheedled and whined until he convinced them that his magic would keep him safe from trouble and they finally agreed to let him go, so long as he returned in a few days.
The first day or so outside Maplehill had been great. Lars woke up as late as he wanted to and ate whatever he wished. When he got tired enough to do so, he slept beneath the stars, conjuring a soft blanket with his flute to keep himself warm. However, another day had passed since then, and the excitement of an adventure was wearing off. Lars found himself wishing that one of his brothers or sisters had come along with him. He was getting lonely and would have liked to have someone to talk to. Despite that, Lars trekked on, determined to make the most of his adventure into Brewer’s Wood. Who knew when he’d get another opportunity like this one?
A small orb of magic fluttered in front of the fairy. It was a basic dowsing spell he’d cast that morning, and it bobbed in the direction of the fallen star’s landing site.
Roughly twenty feet down the path, two plump blue birds skipped back and forth on the skinny branches far above the fairy’s head. They noticed Lars coming and called out to him in nature-tongue, the language of woodland animals. Being a fairy, Lars could understand them easily, though a human would have heard nothing but chirping.
“Chirp! Hello friend! What brings you into our woods, our woods?” they warbled at him in their sing-song voices.
Lars smiled up at the birds and gave them a friendly wave.
“Hullo birdies! I’m here because I’m on a quest to find something special.” Seeing their confused expressions, he elaborated further. “Did either of you see the shooting star a few nights ago? I think it crashed nearby.”
The blue birds looked at one another and chirped back and forth in rapid nature-tongue. Lars had a good ear for the language—he suspected his magic was partially responsible—but they spoke too quickly for him to follow. Thankfully, the blue birds only kept up such a pace for a short time. Eventually, the larger bird peeked down at Lars and bobbed his head up and down in a clumsy but polite nod.
“Chirp! We saw it, saw it! Saw a big ball of red and blue fire streaking through the sky! Terrible noise! It hit the ground a little ways from here. It was near the swamp, but all the trees in the forest rocked and shook, rocked and shook.”
Craving company, Lars shuffled his feet on the ground and shyly asked: “Would you two help me look for it? I’ve been traveling by myself for some time and I’m getting a bit lonely.”
The blue birds conferred once more, but this time it was the smaller one who answered. “My mate and I would be happy to go with you, but we will not enter the swamp. It’s too dangerous for us. There are too many predators, too many predators.”
After an invitation from Lars, both birds fluttered down from their branch to perch on their new traveling companion’s free shoulder. Lars beamed at them. “Thanks for coming along,” he said cheerfully. “If we’re going to travel together, we should be properly introduced. My name is Lars Springtree. I’m from Maplehill. What are your names?”
The smaller blue bird squealed, suddenly mortified. She bumped her head into her mate’s wing, chirping fussily. “What an embarrassment! How could we have been so rude as to not introduce ourselves, introduce ourselves? My name is Berrybeak; my mate is called Seedfeather. We are happy to meet you, Lars Springtree. We’ve lived in these woods for as long as we can remember, but we haven’t talked to many fairy folks before today, before today. Please forgive us!”
Still shaking her head, Berrybeak ruffled her feathers and avoided eye contact with Lars. The fairy gave her a gentle pat on the head.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lars reassured her. “I don’t find you rude at all.” The matter settled, Lars resumed his trek, keeping a good pace along the forest path. The trio exchanged jokes and small talk until the sun was high above their heads. Hours later, Lars was beginning to slow down. He’d walked many miles already that day, and was tired and footsore. Berrybeak took notice of his waning enthusiasm and got his attention.
“We should stop for a little while, little while,” she chirped.
Seedfeather affectionately nipped at the corner of Lars’ ear. “I agree. You look like you’re going to fall over any second, any second.”
Lars nodded, thankful for their concern. He slowly lowered himself onto an especially soft-looking patch of shady grass beneath an oak tree that towered nearby. Berrybeak and Seedfeather hopped down from their perch on his shoulder and started poking around the ground with their beaks for worms while Lars opened his sack of supplies and rummaged around for a snack of his own.
Finding what he wanted was tougher than it sounded; the sack was so crammed with provisions it was almost bursting. Worrying that her smallest son was underfed as it was and afraid that he might not be able to fend for himself in the forest, Lars’ mother had packed as many supplies as her prodigious skills allowed. Somehow, probably as the result of motherly magic that Lars could not comprehend or ever hope to emulate, she managed to fit enough food in the sack to last for more than a week. There were handfuls of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, chestnuts, hazelnuts, baked pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pretzels and even a few small, smoked fish. Lars had also seen her stuff in two loaves of home-baked poppy seed and honey bread and several small canteens of lavender tea. In comparison, Lars would have considered himself lucky if he’d gotten two lunches and a dinner inside the same space.
Since his throat was scratchy with thirst, Lars reached for one of the canteens first. He popped it open, taking several greedy gulps. The delicious tea ran down his throat and rested in his stomach, immediately refreshing him. Sighing with contented relief, Lars wiped his mouth clean with his cloak. His mother would have scolded him for such a thing and told him it was poor manners, so Lars felt a rush of childish glee in the act. Grinning mischievously, Lars took another few sips of tea and wiped his mouth on his cloak again. His thirst slaked for the time being, he replaced the canteen’s lid and lay back to nibble on some food.
“That feels better,” he squeaked, munching on a handful of salty pretzels.
On the ground next to him, Berrybeak and Seedfeather didn’t seem to be having much luck hunting worms. They bobbed and poked at the ground, but they had yet to find anything to show for their efforts. Feeling pity for the blue birds, Lars scooped a handful of berries and seeds out of his sack and put it on the ground near his friends.
“Have these instead,” he told them. “I have plenty of food, so eat until you’re full, okay?”
Berrybeak and Seedfeather trilled in delight and dove onto the food. They gobbled noisily, snapping up the offering in a few bites. Their enthusiasm prompted Lars to give them a second helping, and then a third portion after the second disappeared. For such small creatures, the blue birds sure could eat!
Feeling full and safe, Lars and his companions decided to take a short nap in the pleasant shade of the oak tree. Lars snored gently beneath the hot sun, his mouth open and the air whistling through a tiny gap between his front teeth. He was perfectly content like that for some time.
An irritatingly-persistent breeze woke Lars and his blue bird friends. The sun was far away now, floating just above the edge of the horizon, and the air was much cooler. Chilly, in fact. Lars let out a squeak of despair and scrambled to get back on the road. He hadn’t meant to sleep the day away! He hurried to clean up and pack the rest of the food that was still out, shoving it into the sack and pushing it down until everything fit. The sack bulged and strained, but it closed. Lars slung it over his shoulder and got walking with the birds perched atop his head between his ears. As they traveled, Lars couldn’t help but think that the journey felt different. Instead of laughing and talking as they had that morning, Lars and the birds traveled in near silence. Lars suspected that the reason was that his friends were nervous about getting closer to the swamp. He wondered what sort of predators lived there, and if they ever had a hankering for fairy. Hopefully he wouldn’t find out.
Berrybeak and Seedfeather’s sullen mood was contagious. Lars caught it too, moping as he plodded along. There was a change in the air, though it was tough for him to identify the cause. Something evil weighed on his thoughts; and he got the feeling that he was being stalked by a creature he couldn’t see. His invisible follower was patient, undoubtedly waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Lars didn’t like it and constantly checked the trees and bushes next to the road, fully expecting to see a hulking monster waiting to pounce. Thankfully he never did.
The sky above was clear and free of clouds, but the hairs on the back of Lars’ neck prickled the same way they did in the moments before a lightning storm. Nervous, Lars toyed with the citrine pendant, finding a small measure of comfort in the familiar buzz of magic inside the crystal. I’m safe as long as I have the pendant, Lars thought. If there was an emergency, he’d just tap into its deep reserves of power and teleport home with a few notes from his flute. Bam. Safe in the blink of an eye.
“The swamp is just past that hill up ahead,” Seedfeather told Lars. “There’s a river that separates it from the rest of the woods, so you’ll have to find a way across, way across. Berrybeak and I will accompany you until you get to the other side, but then we’ll leave you and return to our nest.”
Lars nodded solemnly and scratched his ears. The thought of being alone once more wasn’t particularly attractive, and Lars wished that the birds would stay with him. However, he forced himself to smile awkwardly to hide his disappointment so as to not make Seedfeather and Berrybeak feel guilty about going home.
“I understand, Seedfeather. I wouldn’t want either of you to put yourselves in danger. You’ve been great company and I’m glad that you two came this far with me. If the shooting star crashed in the swamp the way you think it did, I’ll find it without much trouble.”
Closing his eyes, Lars dowsed for the meteor once more. The little orb bounced and jigged; it was close. Before Lars could get a better idea of its exact location though, a disconcerting presence touched the corner of his mind. It felt like a clammy hand. Lars jerked his consciousness away from it and stopped the dowsing spell. That was strange. I’ll try it again once I’m in the swamp, he thought.
Just over the hill Seedfeather had indicated, Lars got his first real look at the swamp. With it came an awful smell that made the fairy queasy. Lars wrinkled his nose at the musky reek and winced at the sudden humidity. He didn’t like humidity much, it made his fur frizzy and wild.
The river separating the swamp from the rest of the woods flowed quickly. The cloudy water crashed against tiny, moss-covered stones that barely poked out above the surface. Though the river didn’t look especially dangerous, it certainly presented a problem.
“It’s too deep for me to cross on foot,” Lars murmured. He scratched his chin thoughtfully, trying to come up with a way to safely reach the other side. “On top of that, swimming won’t work either. The current is too fast; I’d be swept away before I even made it halfway.”
Biting his nails as he always did when faced with a difficult problem, Lars looked around for something he could use to ford the river. Flying around his ears, Berrybeak and Seedfeather tried to offer advice, but since they had never known a world in which they couldn’t fly over any obstacles in their way, none of their suggestions were particularly helpful.
“Jump as far as you can,” Berrybeak suggested. “The wind will catch you and carry you the rest of the way.” Lars didn’t have the heart to tell her the wind was nowhere near strong enough to carry a fairy—even one as small as him—across such a wide river.
Seedfeather recommended that Lars try building a set of artificial wings out of tree branches, claiming that “the leaves are just like feathers if you think about it.” If only that was the case, Lars thought wistfully.
His mother and father had raised him to always be polite, so Lars earnestly thanked his friends for their suggestions. They were doing their best, after all. However, Lars couldn’t help but wish that their ideas were more practical.
There’s got to be a way to get across the river, the young fairy adventurer told himself. I guess I’ll just have to think about it a little bit harder.
He grinned and rubbed his hands together. Lars Springtree always liked a puzzle.
Three frustrating hours of failure after failure later, Lars crossly believed that getting to the other side of the river was impossible. His attempts to build a makeshift bridge had almost caused him to fall into the river. There weren’t any trees he could make a swing from either; the ones nearby were all too short for him to get enough momentum. With no other options, he begrudgingly settled on building a raft. The process of doing so was painfully slow and tedious. He poked around between the trees on the riverbank, picking up tufts of grass and struggling to weave them into rope. The grass was finicky and Lars’ fingers quickly grew tired as he fought to twist all the strands together. It was infuriating. He’d never had a knack for this sort of thing, and gnashed his teeth or tugged his fur when the ends of his rope inevitably split and frayed. Spitting and kicking at the ground, Lars tried again and again. Finally, the rope stayed together and Lars could actually start assembling his raft.
He looked down at the sticks he’d collected. They were a mismatched bundle of warped and bent pieces of wood. He wasn’t particularly impressed by their quality. One or two of the longer, straighter sticks looked like good raft material, but that was it. Faced with such poor resources, Lars didn’t think much of his chances of crossing the river safely. In all likelihood, his little boat would only float for a few seconds before snapping apart and sinking. Hopefully that’d be enough; if he got close to the other side of the river, maybe he’d be able to jump the rest of the way across.
Behind him, Seedfeather made a noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter as he poked the grass rope lying coiled on the ground next to the bundle of sticks.
“You’ll need to be the luckiest creature alive to get across anything bigger than a puddle on something held together with this thing, with this thing!” he teased. Lars shrugged.
“Maybe. Unfortunately, this is the best I can come up with,” he told the bird.
Berrybeak jumped to Lars’ defense. “Shame on you, Seedfeather! It’s not like you came up with anything that would work better, work better,” she scolded.
Seedfeather trilled and dejectedly looked down at the ground. “I’m sorry, Lars. I didn’t mean any offense, any offense,” he warbled sadly.
Smiling, Lars knelt down and gave the large bluebird’s head a friendly pat. “There, don’t be sad, Seedfeather. It’s okay. I know you didn’t say it to hurt my feelings. Besides, you’re right about that rope. I’ll definitely need a magic pocketful of luck to make it across the river without the raft coming apart.”
Seedfeather chirped, looking relieved, and Lars returned his attention to the materials in front of him. He grimaced. He hadn’t even started assembling the craft yet and his hands were already red and sore from the effort of making the rope. Construction was going to be unpleasant to say the least.
Wincing as he picked up the grass, Lars began the slow and careful work of lashing the logs together. His father had taught him how to tie knots, and while he wasn’t particularly good at it, he found it relaxing. Wrapping and tightening the ropes reminded Lars of something he was good at; weaving spells together out of tactile magic. Tactile works were the first spells he’d learned how to make and they were still his favorite. Because of the similarities between the two activities, Lars was able to stay focused. He smiled proudly after the final log was fastened in place.
However, after taking a look at the sky, he decided that he could not cross the river tonight. Because gathering his materials and assembling his craft had taken several hours—on top of the hours he’d wasted trying other ideas—the sun had long since set. Lars was exhausted and needed sleep. It had been a long day. The blue birds were tired too, falling asleep next to one another in a makeshift nest of grass tufts and twigs. I’ve done enough for tonight, Lars thought, lying down on a comfy patch of yellow-green moss next to his friends. Before drifting off, Lars imagined himself saying good night to his family. The mental image brought a smile to his face and he closed his eyes. With his cloak draped over his body like a blanket, Lars fell into a deep sleep.
His dreams that night were troubled. In them, he ran through an endless maze of roots and branches, chased by a stooped figure made of shadows. His legs felt as heavy as stone as he tried to escape, and his pursuer got closer with each step. Thankfully, before it could grab him with its white, mottled hands, Lars was woken up by an insistent Berrybeak. He blinked and looked around. It was already the next morning.
“Don’t sleep the day away!” Berrybeak trilled, nipping at her friend’s ear. “The sun is almost to the top of the sky, top of the sky!”
Lars shook away the final figments of his nightmare. His heart was still thumping in his chest, but it’d slow down eventually. Groaning, the groggy fairy pulled himself up to a sitting position and craned his neck to look at the sky. Berrybeak was right. The bright, hot sun was right above him.
“Sorry, I guess I overslept,” Lars mumbled, still feeling a bit spooked and uncomfortable. He reached into his sack to nab a quick breakfast. Chewing noisily, he offered his crumbs to his avian friends, who devoured them with the same enthusiasm they’d shown during lunch the day before.
Once he finished eating, Lars carefully examined the raft. Much to his pleasant surprise, the ropes were still intact. In fact, they looked like they were holding together well for the most part. There were a few splits here and there, but Lars twisted them back together and they were as good as new. His hands were tender, but they ached less than he’d been expecting, which he figured was a good thing. He admired his handiwork with a smile. The finished rectangular vessel was a little bit wider than Lars’ body, and long enough for him to spread out comfortably with plenty of space past his head and feet. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but it would get the job done.
Bending down, Lars tried to push the raft into the water, but it was too heavy for his tiny body to move. Lars growled and tried again, digging his feet into the soft dirt in an attempt to leverage the raft forward. No luck. The thing didn’t budge. Frustrated, Lars took a handful of steps backward, gathering his strength and then charged forward. He pushed his body into the raft the same way he’d seen his brothers push into each other when they wrestled. His muscles burned from the effort, but the extra momentum from his charge meant that Lars was rewarded with the soft scraping sound of the raft slowly moving toward the water. Overly excited by this sudden progress, Lars promptly lost his balance and fell down face first, earning himself a mouthful of dirt for his efforts.
“Oww, that hurt,” Lars groaned, spitting out the muck. Though it did little good, he stood up and brushed his clothes off as best he could, imagining the horrified look on his mother’s face when she saw his muddied outfit.
“Are you all right, all right?” Berrybeak asked. Her concerned gaze swept over him.
Lars sheepishly nodded at her and looked back at the raft. Having zero desire to repeat his charge and fall, the fairy decided that pushing the raft was not going to work. However, there was another way to get the vessel into the water. Magic. Admittedly, Lars felt a little foolish. Why hadn’t he thought of that right away? He was an apprentice mage, after all.
Focusing his thoughts on what he needed to do, Lars put his hand around the citrine pendant. Closing his eyes, he entered a casting trance, which was the first step for casting any sort of tactile magic. The remainder of his thoughts and worries faded away into the trance’s bubble, leaving him with nothing but a sense of cold, determined purpose. His mind became quiet, and he devoted his full attention to the process of spinning magic like thread. Once that was done, the actual process of casting a tactile spell was akin to working with clay. Lars took the strands of power that he’d drawn from the stone and molded them with his hands, squeezing them into whatever shape he desired. Since he needed to drag the raft through the soft and rocky dirt, he settled on making a harness. He could wrap it around the boat and drag it behind him. With the image of the harness fixed firmly in his mind, he worked calmly and efficiently.
Though Lars did not see it, Berrybeak and Seedfeather had hopped away from him in alarm as soon as he started casting his spell. Who wouldn’t in their position? After all, Lars was glowing! Shimmering silver light surrounded him and gave off an ethereal heat that spooked Lars’ little friends. Maybe he should have warned them first. He was bad about that sort of thing.
“Chirp! What are you doing?” Berrybeak cried in alarm. In the trance, she sounded far away, and so Lars had no trouble ignoring her question. He was busy. The harness had been shaped, but the job was not yet complete. He still needed a way to make the raft easier to move, or his harness wouldn’t be any help at all. Snatching a passing breeze, Lars wove the wind into each strand of the harness and wrapped it around the raft. The addition did exactly what he wanted it to do. Bolstered by the breeze, the raft bounced a few inches off the ground, which meant that it’d be easy for Lars to drag it into the water.
Lars was just about to put the final touches on his harness spell when something cold slithered into his awareness. It was the gnarled, clammy hand from his dream. The hand groped around his trance bubble, trying to snatch his power and a sinister, croaking voice invaded his thoughts. “Come to me, fairy spell caster; you will guide me to eternal power,” it wheezed.
Though frightened by the sudden intrusion, Lars knew how to react. His teacher, Revias Brightwood, had drilled proper response to trance invasion into him during their lessons, insisting that it was a very real threat amongst mages. Lars was grateful for the old fairy’s wisdom. Sealing his mind, Lars exited the trance and opened his eyes. That made it easy for him to dispel all magic around himself but the harness, which severed the connection to the invader. Lars shifted his head back and forth, scanning the trees around him, but he didn’t see anyone other than the blue birds.
“Did either of you hear a voice?” he asked his companions. Sometimes, trance invaders could be heard by those around the caster, as the competition of magic caused the sounds to echo out into the world around them.
They looked at him like he was crazy.
“Chirp! A voice? We didn’t hear anything. Is everything okay?”
“Maybe you should sit down. You don’t look so good, chirp! Maybe all that glowing hurt your head, your head.”
Sweat beaded above Lars’ brow, but he didn’t want to scare his friends by telling them what had happened. “Forget I said anything,” he told them. “I must have imagined the voice. You’re right, Seedfeather, working magic does funny things to my head sometimes.”
He was lying, but Lars was already worried and didn’t want to scare himself even more. For a moment, he thought about giving up on finding the piece of the fallen star and using his flute to teleport himself back to Maplehill, but eventually decided against it. The intruder had only found him through magic, so Lars reasoned that if he refrained from casting any more spells until he found what he was looking for, he’d be fine. Not using magic would be a minor inconvenience, that’s all. He’d take one such bother over another encounter with the creepy hand and voice any day.
His completed harness floated in front of him, though only he could see it. He was glad that he’d finished it before the hand appeared, or else he’d be in trouble. Wrapping it around the raft, Lars lugged the boat over to the river’s edge. The wind tied into the spell made the job easy, and Lars lamented the fact that the harness would dissipate in a few minutes. Tactile magic was finicky and didn’t stick around for long after the mage was done with it.
Standing next to the edge of the bank, Lars slowly lowered the raft into the water. He heart was pounding and his stomach was in knots; this was the real test of his vessel. “Please don’t break apart,” he whispered to the little boat. “Stay together.”
The furious river battered the raft, and the grass ropes were strained to their limit as the current tried to rip the logs apart. Lars held his breath as he watched, hoping that all of his effort wouldn’t be for nothing. For several terrifying seconds, it didn’t look like the ropes were going to hold and Lars had to fight his natural impulse to use his magic and reinforce them. He resisted the urge, but the temptation frightened him. Lars grit his teeth. Whether he liked it or not, the raft’s survival in the river would depend on his craftsmanship instead of his magic.
Time was a snail and passed at an agonizing crawl. Lars scarcely dared breathe, lest the extra movement in the air cause his precious craft to break apart. After what felt like an eternity, Lars was able to let out the breath he’d been holding. The ship settled and looked like it was going to stay together. Lars gingerly boarded the boat, taking great care to keep his balance as the raft rocked back and forth. Taking up his makeshift paddle—which was just his walking stick with some leaves and grass hastily tied to one end—Lars started making his way to the far bank.
“Be careful, careful!” Berrybeak called after him.
“You don’t want to fall into the river!” Seedfeather added.
The trip across the river wasn’t the most comfortable experience Lars had ever had. He bounced up and down something terrible and water rushed over the side of his raft from time to time. Lars worried about sliding off. He rested on one knee as he paddled, digging each stroke as deep into the river as he could and pulling as hard as his tired muscles would allow. The raft drifted down the river, but that didn’t bother him much. He was moving steadily toward the other side. When he got close to the bank, he jumped from the raft, tumbling onto the muddied grass of the river bank. Lars lay there for some time, panting and elated. He’d made it.
“Are you all right over there, over there?” Berrybeak called. Her voice echoed across the water.
Lars gave the birds a proud thumbs up. “I’m fine!” he called. “Thanks. I hope I get to see you both again one day!”
Both blue birds chirped and squeaked. “Good luck finding the fallen star, Lars! Be careful! There’s a lot of spooky things in the swamp, in the swamp!”
Lars nodded. “Okay, I’ll keep my eyes peeled! Thanks for the warnings! Goodbye, friends!”
Seedfeather warbled a short good-bye song and fluttered down to sit next to Berrybeak. “We’re happy we met you, Lars! Take care of yourself, of yourself!”
With one final wave, Lars turned and took his first steps into the swamp. His feet immediately sank into the mushy ground. Crossing his fingers, he prayed that the next leg of his journey would be as safe as the one through the forest had been. He also hoped that he wouldn’t have any more encounters with the trance intruder.
Far above the trees, where Lars couldn’t see it, a wispy gray cloud slowly bobbed through the sky. With Lars going deeper and deeper into the swamp, it sank to do the same.
Lars absolutely despised the swamp. Talk about bad luck, he thought. Why did the meteor have to land in this awful place? With each step, the warm, putrid scent assaulted his sensitive nostrils. He wanted to vomit. Scrunching up his nose, he fought back the urge to do so, though kneeling down and puking probably would have made him feel less queasy. As an apprentice mage, he’d been taught to see beauty in everything around him, but try as he might, he couldn’t find anything redeeming in the swamp. It definitely wasn’t pretty to look at. That was for sure. A smattering of yellowed, dying shrubs dotted the ground, and spiky marsh grass jutted up between rotting logs. Here and there along the gloopy path, scum-covered muck pits or puddles of foul green-gray sludge bubbled and oozed. After poking one with his walking stick to make sure that it wasn’t actually solid, Lars vowed that even if it was the only water around for a hundred miles and he was dying of thirst, he would never let a drop past his lips.
However, those were far from the worst parts of the swamp. The nasty water, awful smell, and lack of healthy plants paled in comparison to the horror of the bugs. Every inch of air buzzed with their small bodies, and Lars felt like he was walking through a swimming pool of honey. The gnats were the worst. They zipped around his eyes, causing them to water, and swarmed into his nose and mouth, making it tough for the fairy to breathe. Lars swatted at them, shook his head and spat frequently, but all he accomplished by doing so was agitating the pests further. Shortly thereafter, Lars gave up trying and simply accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to be left alone anytime soon. Trying to remain optimistic, Lars figured that it could be worse. The bugs could be the stinging type.
He bravely soldiered forward for another hour or so. Miserable and cold, he trudged along the wet and mucky path. Walking had never been so unpleasant. His feet stuck into the ground, squelching with each step. The sound and sensation unnerved him and to distract himself from his discomfort, Lars fantasized about his home. Specifically, he longed for his ivory bathtub. It was big enough for him to swim in. Oh, what he would have given for a nice, hot bath! Fully immersed in his imagination, he could almost feel the rushing, steamy water and smell his lavender soap. Once he was home he’d scour his fur and get rid of every trace of the filthy swamp. That was a cheerful thought.
A particularly slimy bit of muck stuck to his right foot brought him back to his senses. His bath was far away, and he couldn’t be sure when he’d get to use it. He’d been hoping to find the meteor’s crash site by now, but there was still no sign of it. If he hadn’t been worried about the trance invader, he would have simply dowsed for it and gotten a better idea of where it was. If only!
Instead, he was limited to what he could see and smell. He sniffed dubiously, unsure if the swamp’s acrid stench would overwhelm the scent of burned trees and shrubs caused by the fallen star. He didn’t see any blackened branches or trunks either, and wondered how far into the swamp the meteor landed. Maybe it had actually landed somewhere else and the blue birds had been wrong.
An icy chill ran down Lars’ spine. His follower had gotten closer. There was a nagging presence in the corner of his thoughts, and the back of his head itched like someone was watching him. He stopped walking and looked around nervously, trying to get an idea of where the pursuer was, but it stopped at the same time and he couldn’t get a handle on it. Only once he started moving again did his sense of it return. Lars’ breathing quickened and his heart started to race. He put his hand around his pendant, but didn’t feel nearly as comforted by the stone’s presence as he usually did. There was a dead and hollow log a few yards away from him, surrounded by some tall grass. Perhaps if he was smart about it, he could make it look like he’d vanished in the grass and hide in the log until the follower passed by. After giving it some more thought, Lars decided it wouldn’t be a very good idea. If he tried to hide and the thing found him somehow, he wouldn’t be able to escape.
Shades of frustration joined the fear in the back of his mind. What had he done to deserve such an adventure? First it had been the dream and the hand in his trance, now he was being followed. It wasn’t fair and Lars wasn’t having fun anymore.
Maybe I should go home, just pull out my flute and teleport myself back to Maplehill, he thought. His parents would be disappointed that he hadn’t found the meteor, but they’d be happy that he was safe. Going home made sense, but Lars found that he didn’t want to run away. His desire wasn’t rational, but he wanted to stay and find the fallen star. A means to lose the follower would present itself, he just had to be patient and wait for it.
Lars jogged as quickly as his stubby legs and the swamp muck would allow. He wanted to keep as much space between him and his follower as possible. The ground was uneven, so Lars fell a few times. His clothes were covered in filth and slime, so much so that he was positive they’d never be clean again. Doubtlessly his mother would just burn them rather than try to scrub them clean over and over to no avail.
Drat! Still no sign of the crash site, but a rustle in the marsh grass to his left caught Lars’ eye. Something was coming! Fear rooted him to the ground. A thousand vivid terrors assaulted his thoughts. His fur stood up like the bristles of a wire brush. Swallowing hard, Lars tightened his grip on his walking stick until his knuckles turned white. Raising it above his head, Lars readied himself to attack. He’d never been very good at fighting, but he was going to swing at whatever monster leapt out at him from the grass.
“Who-who’s there?” he called, his voice quaking with panic.
There was no answer, only more rustling. That reassured Lars somewhat, so he took a hesitant step forward and called out to it more confidently. “I said, who’s out there? Show yourself!”
Again, whoever—or whatever—was in the grass didn’t respond. The fairy kept his eyes peeled, carefully watching for any sign of movement. Well beyond the realm of simply terrified, Lars spun around like a top. His imagination was running wild now—making him see giant, purple fairy-eating monsters with great big teeth and claws behind each tree. Every shadow or squelching sound belonged to something that wanted to eat him. Lars shook like mad. Rational thought was impossible. It was like he had a fever, one crazy thought blending into another that was even more bizarre. Feeling like he was going to drown beneath the weight of it, Lars decided to risk another encounter with the trance invader and grabbed his pendant. The silver coils and citrine stone thrummed with life beneath his fingers. He rifled through his pack and snatched up his flute, throwing food to all sides as he grabbed it. Jamming the instrument into his mouth, the fairy started to play. Sharp notes blasted into the air, freeing Lars from the paralyzing grip of his terror. The music calmed him down immeasurably, and Lars got his thoughts back under control. Somewhere in the distance, he felt the presence following him pulse and wriggle with excitement. It rushed toward him, flying above the grass and muck. The mottled hand appeared in Lars’ mind once more and reached for his power. An angry voice called out to him, too.
“Little fairy, come to me! Let me show you eternity! You are my key to unlimited power!”
Still buzzing from the rush of adrenaline that magic always gave him, Lars reacted to the voice rather uncharacteristically. Instead of quailing and running away from the threat, Lars decided that he’d had enough of being afraid. He was going to keep the pursuer far away, and he was going to use his magic to do so. Shutting his eyes and moving the flute away from his mouth, Lars shouted an incantation for protection. Shining silver energy erupted out of his knobby fingertips. It jiggled and rippled in the air until it covered his body entirely. That was good, but Lars wanted more space to move around. He dipped into the reservoir of power stored inside the pendant and used some of it to make his barrier bigger until he could no longer see the edges. The pursuer crashed into the bubble and harmlessly bounced away. It tried to get through Lars’ barrier two or three times more, but the magic held. Defeated for the time being, the pursuer slipped back into the swamp. Lars breathed a sigh of relief and put the flute back into the sack.
A few feet away, the marsh grass rustled once more.
A fat, green frog hopped out and blinked up at Lars. “Ribbit!” it croaked again.
Looking down at the noisy creature, Lars couldn’t help but laugh aloud. It looked ridiculous, after all, with its throat bulging and contracting every few seconds. He knelt down and held out his hand. Admittedly, he felt a little foolish about being so worried by such a small creature.
“Were you the one jumping around and freaking me out, little guy?”
The frog croaked playfully and immediately hopped up onto Lars’ palm.
“Let’s be friends,” Lars said. “My name is Lars Springtree, what’s yours?”
When the frog didn’t answer, Lars shrugged and stood back up so that his new companion could hop up his arm and stop on his shoulder. The silence didn’t bother Lars. Frogs were not known for being great conversationalists, after all. Few bothered to communicate in nature-tongue, and those who did barely did more than say hello.
“Since you didn’t tell me your name, do you mind if I give you one?”
The frog blinked twice and squirmed on Lars’ shoulder. The fairy decided to take that for a yes.
“Hmm—let’s see. How about Croakie? No, that won’t do. Croakie is a rather morbid name. Froggle? No, that’s no good either. I’m sorry, Mr. Frog, I’m not very good at naming things. I wish my brother, Hart, was here. He would have come up with a great name in a snap. Oh, this is hard. Uh, what about Swampy?”
Clearly, the frog was not impressed. Lars scratched his head, unsure of what else to try. Suddenly, he had an idea. “I’ve got it! How does Mr. Ribbits sound? Do you like that?”
The frog puffed out its tiny chest and enthusiastically croaked several times. Lars chuckled. The name was a definite hit. “Mr. Ribbits it is! I bet you and I are going to have a blast together!”
The frog’s presence improved Lars’ mood considerably. With his new companion perched on his shoulder, Lars traveled deeper into the swamp, feeling very safe from his phantom pursuer inside his bubble of protection. The vegetation became scarcer—though Lars barely believed such a thing possible—and the sulfuric smell was worse than ever, but Lars didn’t find either as bothersome as he had before. During his search for the meteor’s crash site, Lars took frequent breaks. Maintaining a barrier was tougher than he’d expected it to be, and he munched on some nuts or seeds from his knapsack to keep his strength up. Thanks to his panicked search for his flute, the sack was almost empty and Lars lamented the loss of some of his more filling supplies. During each rest, Mr. Ribbits would hop back and forth on the ground, using his long tongue to keep the insects around the fairy at bay. By evening, Lars was feeling discouraged. No matter where he looked, there still weren’t any signs of the fallen star. Completely exhausted, he slumped down next to a large, spotted mushroom as the sky turned orange.
“Maybe we’ll have better luck tomorrow,” he told Mr. Ribbits. The frog nodded silently.
Lars started getting ready to sleep. Before he could lie down and close his eyes though, an unusually clean smell filled the air. As he turned his face up to look at the sky, Lars felt a plump rain drop fall onto his cheek. That was odd. It had been sunny all day. On top of the rain’s suddenness, his cheek felt funny, like something was tickling it with a long blade of grass. After brushing the drop away, Lars examined his fingers. They were tingling too. His cheek was numb now. More drops fell.
“Ribbit?” Mr. Ribbits looked at Lars with concern, though he didn’t appear to notice anything unusual about the drops of water that had landed on his back.
There’s something magical about the rain, Lars thought. It’s only numbing me.
Lars lifted his finger to his nose and sniffed the traces of water on it, though he was careful to make sure that he didn’t accidently touch the stuff. He scowled. The water smelled like licorice. Lars sniffed again to make sure. Definitely licorice. As a rule, fairies didn’t like licorice; it made them dizzy if they were exposed to it for too long. Lars shook his head; he was already starting to feel faint. His bubble of protection flickered.
A small, grayish cloud floated above him, flashing and crackling like it was part of a miniature storm. Seconds later, the sky opened up and hundreds—if not thousands—of rain drops splattered around Lars’ feet. They all stank like licorice. Lars’ mouth went dry and his stomach felt like it was doing cartwheels.
Lars heard a voice coming from the cloud. It was the same cruel one that had invaded his trance and called to him before meeting Mr. Ribbits. Lars clutched his ears. Listening to the voice hurt. It was so loud that it made the ground shake with each word.
“You fairy brat. Did you really think that you could keep me at bay with that pathetic barrier spell? I’ll show you real magic!”
Mr. Ribbits croaked like mad and bolted behind the mushroom. Icy cold magic lanced through Lars’ senses and he started choking. Movement became almost impossible—it felt like he was being frozen from the inside out. Try as he might, he didn’t know what to do to stop it. His master had never mentioned such a spell to him in any of his lessons. I have to try to escape, Lars thought. He groped for the pendant, planning to teleport home, but wispy tendrils of the cloud darted toward him and wrapped themselves around his hands.
“That blasted stone of yours won’t help you now,” the booming voice declared. “I’ve wasted enough time tracking you down as it is. I will not let that silly necklace get in the way of my plans. They’ve been delayed long enough! Begone with it!”
More cloud tendrils tightened around his arms, and a particularly fat and fluffy one insistently tugged the pendant away from the fairy’s body. An invisible hand clenched around Lars’ neck, cutting off his air and making it hard to breathe. Panicking, Lars tried to dispel the tendrils with his magic, but he was far too weak to do so. Maintaining the barrier had sapped too much of his power.
“Let me go!” Lars gasped, getting weaker and weaker by the second. “Let…me…”
The tendrils drew tighter still. “You’re coming with me, fairy.”
Lars was barely conscious; his senses were dull. The silver chain that connected Lars to his most precious possession strained before snapping with an awful finality. Lars made a pathetic attempt to catch it before it fell, squirming against the cloud bonds to no avail. The pendant landed on the ground with a soft thud.
“Go…home…”He bent his head toward it. All he needed to do was touch it, and he’d be safe. Safe, at home. Home, with his family.
Through foggy eyes, Lars thought he saw Mr. Ribbits hop over to the pendant. Lars may have imagined it, but the frog croaked several times and it sounded like nature-tongue.
“I’ll get it back to you, I promise.”
Then everything went black.
Brewer’s Castle was nestled away in the heart of Brewer’s Wood. It was an ancient fortress built out of black stone and held together with dark red mortar that looked like blood during the day.
Normally, a castle such as that would have attracted brave men and women to come and explore it, but none ever did. People who valued their lives stayed far away. The same was true for animals and fairies. It was a widely spread and believed rumor that the fortress was cursed; any who ventured near were said to suffer a terrible fate. While the latter was certainly true, the former was nothing more than myth.
A legendarily evil wizard, known as Morgan the Usurper or Morgan the Blackheart, ruled Brewer’s Castle. He was an impossibly old man, having cheated death for well over a thousand years through an unparalleled mastery of potion-making and nefarious magic. However, even the wizard’s prodigious skill could not completely protect his body from the ravages of time. The few strands of hair still clinging to the wizard’s skull were the wispy gray of volcanic ash. His nose was thick and pointed, and his use of evil magic had caused his eyes to no longer look human. In fact, they were little more than two black holes on his face.
There were many reasons that anyone who came to the castle would meet with an untimely demise, but none of them compared to Morgan. He had a wicked temper and a habit of using prisoners as test subjects in his arcane experiments to further prolong his life.
Knowing this and a thousand other horrifying “facts” about the wizard, Lars was rightfully terrified when he woke up inside the castle and saw Morgan’s empty eyes staring right into his own. He recognized them instantly, for his mother had told him countless stories over the years about the dark master of Brewer’s Castle. Surprisingly, he was neither turned to stone nor killed instantly as he expected to be. That was good; at least the stories hadn’t been entirely true. Still, Lars felt a dire sense of dread in the pit of his stomach and tears burned around the bottom of his eyes.
“Don’t even think about crying, fairy,” the wizard growled. His voice was the same as the one that had come out of the cloud. Squeaking in fright, Lars tried to shuffle away from Morgan, but found that he couldn’t; his arms and legs were bound tight by iron shackles. However, he was free to look around as he wished, and he did so, furtively glancing around the room and trying to see if there was any way to escape. There wasn’t. Of course there wasn’t.
Four glowing orbs adorned the walls instead of torches. They were all colored differently: red blue, yellow, and green. Lars didn’t look at them for long; he didn’t like them, because they hurt his eyes.
In the corner of the room was Lars’ sack. It was flopped over on top of itself and looked like everything inside had fallen out. The fairy hoped his flute was still inside. If he could reach it, he might be able to escape. Struggling against the shackles did him no good—the iron bit into his fur painfully.
Sensing Lars’ fear and discomfort, Morgan laughed. It was a throaty, scratchy laugh that sent shivers down the small fairy’s spine. It was unlike any laugh he’d ever heard before; there was no warmth or comfort in it. Lars’ fur prickled and he shivered, feeling like his heart had been frozen solid.
“Did you enjoy your nap?” Morgan asked, smiling wide so that Lars could see his crooked yellow teeth. “That swamp is dangerous, you know. There are all sorts of monsters lurking in the grass and muck. It’s certainly no place for a young fairy like you to be wandering around. Something bad could happen, and if you got lost in a swamp that big your family would never find out what happened to you. Aren’t you grateful that I rescued you and brought you here, where you’ll be safe?”
Lars wanted to reply by telling the wizard that his family would have much rather invited every monster in the swamp over for tea and crackers instead of seeing their son trapped in Brewer’s Castle with a madman, but he knew better. Instead, he scrunched his eyes closed and shook his head in furious denial.
Morgan shrugged. “Suit yourself. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by your magical abilities. It’s rather rare to encounter one as young as you with such control over your power. You have so much potential for greatness. I’d bet the stars and the moon itself that you can help me solve a problem I’ve been having for some time. Tell me, fairy, what’s your name?”
Lars shook his head again. Morgan’s sudden change in demeanor unnerved him. Silence was definitely the best option here. The wizard’s eyes bulged—quite the horrifying effect, given their appearance—and he tweaked one of his wiry eyebrows. He glared down at his captive, furrowing his brow. “Don’t like to talk? Beastie got your tongue? Fine, I have a way to make you answer. Hawthorne! Bring me my staff! I need to teach a lesson.”
Behind the wizard, the heavy wooden door to the room opened and a knight wearing indigo plate armor stepped inside. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a grim expression and pitiless eyes. In his hands was a long ash staff, which he delivered to Morgan with a bow. The wizard snatched the staff up and pointed it at Lars. “Show some respect to your betters, fairy! Erluck rel!”
Twin strands of red light burst forth. They snaked through the air, hungrily searching for Lars. The fairy heard them whispering in an evil language and his eyes grew wide. The beams sank into his chest and stomach and Lars cried out in pain.
The impact of the spell sent Lars flying across the room like a toy thrown by an angry child. He slammed into the far wall and slid down to the ground. Groaning in pain, Lars looked up at Morgan through watering eyes. The wizard still held the staff aloft, ready to cast a second spell. Hawthorne stood next to Morgan, watching intently. Lars studied the man’s face; he could not tell if there was any sympathy or compassion in the knight’s eyes. Based on his experience in the castle so far, Lars seriously doubted it.
“I’d imagine that you didn’t like how that felt very much,” Morgan said quietly. “Should you continue to not answer my questions, I assure you that there are plenty more spells where it came from, and I promise you that they’ll make those beams feel like a kiss from your mother. I’ll ask you again, what is your name?”
Lars needed no further encouragement to talk. He wholeheartedly took Morgan at his word. Gulping, Lars hurried to introduce himself as quickly as he could. “My-my name is Lars Springtree,” he stammered, struggling to sit up. Without full control of his limbs, it was nearly impossible. He tottered once he managed it, and had to lean against the wall to keep from falling back over.
Morgan smiled wickedly and lowered his staff. “That’s more like it,” he crowed. “Now, Lars Springtree, I have a proposition for you. I require an assistant for an important venture in preparation for a new experiment. How would you like to fill the position?”
Lars frowned. He wanted to say no—he wanted to tell the wizard that there was no way he’d help with any experiment, and that his mother had warned him about bad people—but the ash staff in the wizard’s hand kept him from doing it. Instead, fearing for his safety, Lars nodded.
Morgan turned to Hawthorne and the knight bowed. In a mockingly pleasant voice, the wizard said, “Wonderful! Hawthorne, as you can see, the fairy has agreed to my offer. Go to my study and fetch my materials for the teleportation ritual.”
Lars stiffened. Hearing the word teleportation sent a fresh wave of guilt and sadness through his chest. If only he’d been able to grab the pendant, or had teleported home at the first sign of trouble, then he wouldn’t be in this terrible situation. He vowed that if he ever got home he’d never be so foolhardy again.
Hawthorne nodded curtly and left without a word. His footsteps were heavy and his armor clanked as he marched down the hall. Before the knight was completely out of earshot, Morgan called after him, “Do be quick about it, my knight. I’d like to get started right away.”
If Hawthorne replied, Lars didn’t hear it. He sat quietly, mourning the loss of his pendant and freedom. While he glumly waited for the knight to return, he did his best to keep his fear of the wizard’s experiment out of his mind.
He’d never been so scared in his life.
Hawthorne brought Morgan’s teleportation materials: a bag full of chalk, a small red orb and a bottle filled with frothing liquid that Morgan drank in its entirety before doing anything else. Dismissing his servant with a curt nod and wave, Morgan started preparing for the teleportation. Using a piece of chalk, Morgan bent down and drew a series of complicated arcane symbols on the floor around Lars and himself, muttering indiscernibly as he did so. The wizard worked quickly, putting down dots and curves with the ease of long practice. Lars couldn’t believe his eyes. It would have taken him hours to have a passable attempt at such complex shapes, but his captor drew them all in a matter of seconds. Plus, all the symbols looked perfect. Lars recognized the ones for speed and safety—they were staples of any human ritual spell involving movement of people from one place to another—but there were other symbols on the floor that he wasn’t familiar with. His own fairy teleportation worked differently than the wizard’s, and Revias had only briefly taught him about the symbols humans used in their workings.
After putting a line through the final circle on the ground, Morgan stood up and admired his handiwork. “This will do nicely,” he said. Nodding to himself, the wizard held out his hand and whispered into in. A shimmering crystal ball appeared out of thin air, floating just above Morgan’s gnarled fingers. Massaging the crystal ball absent-mindedly, Morgan turned his attention back to Lars.
“Before we begin the ritual, I have a question for you. Are you familiar with the Jubilation Stone?” he asked, his voice surprisingly pleasant.
He must be in a good mood, Lars thought as he nodded. Of course he was familiar with the Jubilation Stone. Every fairy koovbo was. Most human children were too. The Jubilation Stone was a legendary object, and it was the center of many a bedtime story. According to the tales, the stone was a rich green color, and was so big that it took five or six strong fairies to lift it off the ground.
However, the Jubilation Stone was not such a popular part of fairy and human folklore because of how it looked or how heavy it was. No, the reason it was so well known was because of the artifact’s amazing ability. In many ways, the Jubilation Stone was like Lars’ citrine pendant, except that instead of storing the limited power of the one who possessed it, the Jubilation Stone generated magic. Naturally, the allure of unlimited magic attracted countless souls over the centuries. Wizards, mages, witches, and others scoured the world for it. They hiked up every mountain of Ocix, sailed across the western sea to the blue sands of the Anchor Archipelago, and even braved the dangers of the Quiet Taiga, the frigid wasteland of skeletons and dead souls in the far south. Their prize had never been found. In fact, none had even discovered tangible evidence that the stone existed in the first place, but the dream of infinite magical power continued to inspire future generations to search for it all the same.
Lars was surprised by the wizard’s interest. He would have never guessed that Morgan—the terrible master of the arcane—would be searching for such a thing, but supposed it made sense. Those with evil hearts always sought more power, didn’t they?
In addition to his surprise, Lars also found himself terrified. Morgan’s powers were incredible. He could already do terrible things. How much worse would the world be if such an evil man had access to unlimited power? The fairy shuddered at the thought.
“I’m glad to hear it,” the wizard said. “That saves me some time. Now, keep the Jubilation Stone in mind as you look into this crystal ball. Tell me what you see.”
With an almost lazy flick of his wrist, Morgan sent the crystal ball floating across the room. It stopped in front of Lars, just low enough so that the fairy could peek into its smoky depths. At first glance, Lars saw nothing. Then he noticed brown, blobby outlines. He couldn’t tell what they were, but they were moving. The images shifted, growing sharper until they started taking form. Lars was looking at a fortress, though it was one he didn’t recognize. It was bigger than Brewer’s Castle, and it looked like it was built out of bone instead of stone and mortar. Staring at it gave Lars a headache, so he turned his head and closed his eyes. Like a sunspot, the image of the castle was still there.
“What is that dreadful place?” he asked.
Morgan’s voice was even and calm. Lars didn’t like it. “That’s Goulpass Down,” the wizard said. “It’s the lair of my greatest enemy, Cassara the Goulpass Queen. I have long suspected that the Jubilation Stone is somewhere inside its walls. You’re going to help me find out if that’s true. Should it be, the two of us will do what needs to be done in order to acquire it.”
Lars didn’t like the way the wizard hung on the word “acquire”. He also secretly believed that any enemy of the wizard would be his friend, but dared not let his face show his feelings. He forced himself to gaze at the castle once more and shuddered. It was not the sort of place he wanted to go near, let alone infiltrate. Besides, he was small and frail. What could he do for Morgan that Hawthorne could not? The knight looked like he’d be able to take care of himself in a fight.
As if he sensed Lars’ trepidation Morgan pointed at the symbols on the floor.
“You don’t need to do anything too complex. My magic is powerful enough to breach the castle, but getting there is a problem. In order to enter Goulpass Down, we have to travel through the Ruroth—the sky realm. Such a journey is draining, even for me. Spending time in the Ruroth saps magic. If I were to attempt the search by myself, my powers would be gone long before getting to the castle. That’s where you come in. You have plenty of magic, so I can siphon your energy to bolster my own. With you providing the power for us to travel through the worlds, I can enter the castle and search for the stone to my heart’s content.”
Lars gulped. “But, isn’t it against the laws of magic to forcibly take power from another practitioner?”
Morgan waved his hand dismissively as if swatting at an invisible fly. “I’m sure you’ve heard stories about me, young Lars. Think about them. Do I really seem like the type of man who follows the rules of magic?”
Lars hung his head. He knew the answer. Still, he wasn’t convinced by the wizard’s nonchalant attitude. Master Revias had drilled the importance of following the rules of magic into his skull during lessons. They existed for a reason. If Morgan chose to ignore them, the consequences would eventually catch up with him. Crippling insanity, paranoia, agonizing pain all over the body—those were what awaited Morgan if he didn’t respect magic. Looking at the wizard, Lars couldn’t help but wonder if Morgan was already suffering from those things. He certainly could be, Lars thought. However, Morgan was known for his cunning. Perhaps he’d found a way—via potion, perhaps—to circumvent the side effects. He was the man who’d found a way to cheat time, after all.
The wizard smiled sinisterly. “Besides,” Morgan said. “I’m not forcibly taking your magic. As I recall, you agreed to help me of your own will, did you not?”
Only because you forced me to, Lars thought bitterly. He didn’t protest; after all, he wanted to avoid another encounter with the beams of red light or anything worse. Apparently satisfied with the outcome of the conversation, Morgan knelt down and rested his hand against the symbols on the floor. He mumbled an incantation and the air popped. The smell of licorice filled the air and Lars’ stomach turned over. Did all of this man’s spells have to carry such a scent?
The ground around Lars started to glow bright blue. Raw arcane power crackled in the air, and the fairy started to squirm. I can’t breathe, he thought. My chest is getting tight. Why does being around Morgan’s magic hurt so much? His ability to think clearly abandoned him before long, as the pain of his own magic being ripped away from his body demanded all of his attention. The fairy howled as his energy flowed away in long strands. Morgan, the old villain, snatched them up and absorbed them. He laughed like a maniac the entire time; likely because he was a maniac. Throwing his head back, Morgan roared at the ceiling.
“The Jubilation Stone will finally be mine! Telpras Rel!”
The room started to change. The walls stretched and twisted like saltwater taffy and the floor became a rippling pond. It was cold and Lars suddenly found his limbs free from the bonds that had kept him from moving. He hugged himself as tight as he could and bit his lip to keep from crying. The bitter, noxious stench of Morgan’s magic consumed him. Dizziness like none Lars had ever felt before made him sick and he desperately wanted to vomit. This is worse than the time Hart spun me in circles for a minute straight, Lars thought. Much, much worse.
Just when he thought he could take no more, the spinning stopped. The dreadful reek vanished from the air too. Lars took several deep breaths before feeling well enough to reopen his eyes. When he did so, he saw that he wasn’t in Brewer’s Castle anymore. Instead, he was on a floating platform right beneath the sky. At least, he thought it was the sky. A steely gray cloud looked almost close enough to touch, and there were millions of lights that looked like stars. The platform had five sides, and a towering door stood on each corner. The doors glittered and gleamed, and sparkling letters flowed out like water from beneath them to swirl in the center of the platform. The colors changed depending on which door they came from; some were gold, others silver or white, and a few were red and black. Lars had never seen, heard of or imagined anything like them before.
“What is this place?” he asked Morgan. The wizard peered down at him and scoffed.
“You don’t know? But, it’s such a simple thing.”
Lars shrugged and the wizard snorted. “Pitiful. Your master must not be a particularly good teacher.”
Lars bristled at the insult to Master Revias, but kept quiet as Morgan continued. “This is the Ruroth. It’s one of the lobbies between the five realms we can travel between. Each door you see leads somewhere different. Behind us is the door we came through, it’s the one to our world. The silver doors to the right are born from virtue. The first, with the golden handle, leads to Celestia’s Skyforge. Next to it is the door that leads to the Endless Sea. You may know those particular realms as Heaven.”
Nodding, Lars looked at the doors of virtue. They were both beautiful beyond compare, though he preferred the door with the golden handle; the one that led to the Skyforge. The other didn’t interest him as much.
Morgan coughed. “The doors to our left are born from darkness. You probably know them both as Hell. The one closest to us leads to the Infernium, while the further one is the portal to the Nether. That’s the one we’re interested in, as Goulpass Down is in the heart of that realm.”
Morgan started walking toward the door to the Nether, gesturing for Lars to follow. The fairy did so, scurrying along as quickly as his tiny legs would carry him. Even still, he could barely keep up with the wizard’s hobbling stride. The old wizard was faster than he looked. Their steps echoed off the floor, and the letters darted away so as not to be stepped on. The shimmering shapes fascinated Lars to no end. He got so distracted trying to read what they said that he almost stopped walking, which prompted Morgan to turn around and growl in displeasure.
“Pick up the pace, fairy. On top of draining your magic, crossing between realms is noisy and easy to hear for those who know how to listen. I do not want to attract unnecessary attention. We must hurry and enter the Nether before Cassara senses our presence.”
The door to the Nether—and by extension, Goulpass Down—was dark purple, and the air around it was sticky and hot. Lars appreciated the heat. He hadn’t been properly warm since his nap in the forest with Berrybeak and Seedfeather. It was a nice change.
Reaching down into his robes, Morgan drew out the small, red sphere Hawthorne had given him. He raised it to his lips and whispered to it, the way he had whispered to summon the crystal ball back in Brewer’s Castle. The sphere’s hue shifted several times before it settled on the same purple as the door. With a push of the sphere against the entrance, Morgan created an opening that was just enough for the wizard and fairy to squeeze through.
Before they could cross its threshold and enter the Nether, however, a loud roar stopped them in their tracks as a massive boar charged toward them. It was covered in shining black scales and had red eyes that burned like fire. Lars stared at the curved and jagged tusks protruding from both sides of the boar’s snout in horror, trying not to think about what would happen if they struck him.
Morgan was apparently frightened too. The wizard swore and raised his free hand, hurriedly reciting another spell. A gold ring appeared in front of the old man and Morgan grabbed Lars by the arm. Jumping into the ring, Morgan pulled Lars through. The fairy cried out, made queasy once more by the rolling, spinning sensation of travelling between realms. Thankfully, the return journey felt significantly shorter than the first one had been and Lars was back in Brewer’s Castle in almost no time at all. Morgan was next to him, panting hard. They were both safe.
Or so they thought, that is. Seconds later, a second bestial scream told them that they weren’t alone in the castle. Lars wondered how the boar had made the trip. Did it have its own magic to travel between realms? He shook his head. It was more likely that the creature charged into the portal after them. The monster roared again, making a throaty, ripping sound that made Lars’ heart skip several beats.
“Hawthorne!” Morgan screamed, an uncharacteristic panic in his voice. “Get in here and fulfill your duty as my champion protector! A Goulpass servant is here! If you don’t kill it quickly, more may come!”
Lars took notice of his surroundings for the first time since returning to the castle. They weren’t in the spell casting room they’d left; instead they were in what looked like a chapel. There were large stained glass windows dotting the walls and a few polished pews lined the floor. He looked at Morgan. The wizard’s face was covered in sweat and his wrinkles looked as deep as canyons. His hands shook like mad. For just a moment, Lars wondered if Morgan was truly as powerful as the stories made him out to be. Right now, Lars didn’t see a terrifying spell caster without equal. He saw a tired, old man.
Across the chapel, the boar pawed at the ground and glared at them. Its murderous intent was almost palpable in the air. Once Lars met its eyes, he could not look away from the beast’s hypnotic gaze. Suddenly, the monster spoke. Its voice was low and guttural, reminding Lars of a conversation he’d had long ago with a snake, though the accent was very different.
“Yohou have killed yohourself, wizard. My queen knew that yohou would return to seek the Jubilation Stone and stationed me by the door to stop yohou,” the boar growled. “I will see to it that my lady is bothered no more.”
Morgan turned his head and hollered to the door. “Kerplunk, Babump, hurry to me! Take our captive somewhere safe. I need him alive to search Cassara’s castle for the Jubilation Stone once this is all done. He must not be harmed or taken by the Goulpass.”
Behind Morgan and Lars, the door to the chapel slammed open. Two tiny pairs of hands clamped down on Lars’ shoulders and wrenched the fairy from the room as the indigo knight came roaring in with his battle axe raised above his head. The weapon was massive and the blade was the same color as his armor. “Death by my hand!” he bellowed.
The sound of the knight’s battle axe slamming into the boar’s tusks was thunder in Lars’ ears as he was dragged down the hall.
For such a large creature, the Goulpass boar was deceptively nimble, as Hawthorne discovered when the creature deftly dodged his second and third strikes. The knight bobbed and weaved, caught up in the deadly dance of battle. His conscious thoughts faded and he let himself fall into the rhythm of instinct and muscle memory. Both were as sharp as the blade of his axe. Having served as the castle’s champion protector for over a thousand years, Hawthorne was a hardened veteran of mortal combat.
Ducking beneath another swing from Hawthorne’s axe, the boar charged. Though the knight was expecting it to some extent, he was surprised by the beast’s speed. As a result, he wasn’t quite fast enough to dodge out of the way and the monster’s right tusk found his left leg. A cry of pain escaped the knight’s lips and Hawthorne stumbled. He had to roll to avoid the next vicious strike. After slamming his gauntleted fist on the ground in frustration, Hawthorne clambered back to his feet. He grit his teeth and lifted his axe, adopting a defensive stance.
I hope I haven’t underestimated this monster, he told himself.
He warily watched his foe. The Goulpass servant reminded him of a human combatant, pacing back and forth and looking for an opening. Clearly it was smart enough to know that it had injured him and was perfectly content to patiently wait for the wound to take its toll. With a renewed sense of purpose and respect, Hawthorne steeled himself against the pain in his leg and looked for an opportunity of his own.
“Yohou are slow and weak,” the boar taunted. A poor imitation of a smile crept across its mouth. “To think, Ragnaire, our mighty hero, sees yohou as an equal. Through my eyes, he can see that yohou are like yohour master—well past your prime and ready to die. I expected better, knight.”
Hawthorne tightened his grip on the axe. What a strange beast; it even taunted like a human. Uncharacteristically incensed by the boar’s insults, he feinted left, as if he were favoring his good leg. The boar fell for his ruse. It moved to meet his attack head on, only to be surprised by Hawthorne kicking off of the ground with his injured leg and darting the other direction. When he got close to his opponent, Hawthorne swung his weapon with all of his formidable strength. The axe found its mark just behind the monster’s head, but bounced away with a loud clang. The boar’s thick scales saved its life. Hawthorne’s ears rang. He took several wobbling steps, fighting to regain his balance and endure the screaming protest coming from his wounded leg.
The boar turned to face him. Its massive body began to quiver. Heavy jowls flapped up and down, full of cruel glee. Make no mistake, the Goulpass servant was laughing at the indigo knight. “I see it’s been many years since yohou last fought one of my kind, knight. Yohou’ve forgotten that Goulpass scales are almost impenetrable.”
Hawthorne attacked again, though his frustration made him sloppy and the boar dodged his weapon with ease. In retaliation, it smashed its head into Hawthorne’s chest and sent the knight sprawling across the ground. Hawthorne tried to get up, but was stopped by pain he had not felt in centuries. It hit him like a hammer slamming down on an anvil; his entire body—not just his leg, burned like it had been lit on fire. Goulpass monsters produced venom that caused that sort of pain. It was oppressive, and all Hawthorne could think about was how much it hurt. His mind raced, telling him that he’d never been in such agony before, not in all of his long years. It took several precious seconds for him to regain control and push the pain away. If I don’t get my head out of the clouds I’m not going to be alive for much longer, Hawthorne grimly thought.
Across the chapel, the boar was eyeing him hungrily.
“Come on, Hawthorne. Get it together,” the man muttered as he forced himself to stand. His vision was blurry and his leg ached.
Outside the chapel, the moon was blood red and heavy in the sky. Such a moon was an evil omen and a sickly sense of dread spread through the bottom of Hawthorne’s stomach. His fingers were shaking as he wrapped them around the axe’s handle, but he kept a firm grip as he faced the fiery-eyed monster.
“What’s the matter, traitor?” the boar jeered, “Lost the taste for battle already? What a shame. Still, I shall enjoy killing yohou.”
Before Hawthorne could answer, he heard Morgan’s voice in his head. That was a surprise. The wizard had a strong aversion to telepathic communication with his champion for reasons only known to himself, and only resorted to using it in the direst of circumstances. “What are you doing, fool? Stop dancing around and kill that nuisance already. His comrades may hurry to join him. I cannot have our castle besieged by Goulpass. We cannot face them in the open until I have the Jubilation Stone in my possession.”
“Your will is my command, Master,” Hawthorne replied aloud, though Morgan could not hear him.
The boar laughed again, giving him a quizzical look. “Have yohou started talking to yohourself, human? I’d heard rumors that yohour kind loses their minds and babble before they die, but I did not believe it. I am surprised.”
Hawthorne growled and rolled his shoulders in frustration. Boiling anger flooded his senses, but he didn’t let it take control of him this time. I can’t carry on as I’ve been, he thought. If I keep charging in like a bull I’ll end up dead.
Smiling grimly, Hawthorne resumed the battle dance. This time, he kept his emotions under control and fought with his mind instead of his body. The fierce struggle raged back and forth, with neither man nor monster giving an inch.
Hawthorne swung mightily at the boar. Unfortunately, his impaired vision affected his aim and the blow missed by several inches. His axe collided with one of the few pews in the chapel, sending the polished wood flying through the window. There was a dull thunk as the pew landed on the ground below. Hawthorne winced. Morgan was going to be furious with him for that. The wizard was very particular about the chapel’s appearance.
The knight’s breath was little more than ragged gasps now, and while the boar was still moving quickly, Hawthorne could tell that it was starting to tire as well. That was good news for the knight; the monster would finally slow down. Hawthorne waited patiently. He was saving his strength for a killing blow, should the opportunity to deliver one present itself.
The Goulpass boar’s eyes flickered and it took a tiny step forward. Hawthorne couldn’t explain how, but he knew it was gearing up to charge again. He stood ready, planting his feet firmly on the ground and centering himself so that he could react.
His intuition was right. Bellowing, the boar stampeded toward him. Its heavy hooves slammed into the tile floor of the chapel as it gained speed. The knight kept his eye on the monster’s fleshy, unprotected stomach. That’s where he was aiming. For as long as he could risk doing so, Hawthorne stood dead still until the boar had fully committed to its attack. At that point, its own momentum would keep it from dodging. When the boar was directly in front of him, Hawthorne neatly sidestepped the monster and swung his axe for all he was worth.
“Taste my blade!”
A blood-curdling squeal filled the air as the axe sank straight into the monster’s belly. The force of the creature’s charge yanked the weapon from Hawthorne’s hands as it sailed past before crashing into a wall and sliding to the ground. There the boar lay, its body heaving as it gasped for breath. Smirking beneath his helmet, Hawthorne limped over to his dying foe. He leaned down to look into the creature’s eyes. They were more pink than red now. As he spoke to the vanquished Goulpass, Hawthorne’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
“You lose, scum.”
Wheezing, the boar looked up at the knight. The last embers of the fire in its eyes blinked away into nothingness. When they were little more than black pools, Hawthorne was reminded of Morgan. He shuddered beneath his armor.
“So I do,” the boar mumbled. “So it goes. But I do not regret my loss. I exist only to serve my queen. My life is meaningless on its own so I have nothing to fear from death. Can yohou say the same?”
Hawthorne didn’t answer. He simply kept eye contact with his defeated foe. The boar’s voice was strained and quiet now; it sounded like a balloon with a leak. “Though my existence ends, I have shown Queen Cassara and Lord Ragnaire how weak and pitiful yohou truly are, Indigo Knight. Champion Protector? What an ill-fitting title yohour people have for yohou, human. Do not take pride in this victory. I promise that more like me are coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. They’ll tear this castle down brick by brick.”
Laughing weakly, the Goulpass servant closed its eyes for the last time. The ghost of the creature’s final threat lingered in Hawthorne’s thoughts and infuriated him. Yanking off his helmet, he spat twice on the ground before reciting an old victor’s mantra.
“A curse upon you and all your kind. May the Infernium burn even brighter. ”
Reaching down, Hawthorne roughly took hold of the dead monster’s head and pried one of its eyes open. “Goulpass queen, Goulpass scum. If you can still see through this husk’s eyes and hear through its ears, know this. I, Hawthorne the Indigo Knight, protect this castle! Every beast you send will meet the same fate as this piece of filth. I swear that as truth upon my knightly vows.”
Suddenly disgusted, Hawthorne let go of the beast’s head and watched it flop to the floor. Weariness ran rampant through his body and he was forced to sit down. Using the boar’s corpse as a backrest, Hawthorne reached up to the straps that held his cuirass in place. Normally he could unfasten each one with ease, but his hands were still shaking from the adrenaline of battle. After a moment of awkward fumbling, the plate of indigo metal was freed and fell to the floor with a loud clang.
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After a thousand years of uneasy peace, evil is stirring in Ocix. Morgan, a dark wizard long believed to be nothing more than myth, has captured a young fairy mage named Lars Springtree. Morgan is confident the fairy is key to obtaining the Jubilation Stone, the greatest magical artifact the world has ever known. Hawthorne, Morgan’s personal bodyguard and champion knight, has always served the wizard faithfully, but a recurring dream causes him to question his loyalty. When he’s given a grisly order, Hawthorne is forced to make a decision that has the potential to save Ocix . . . or destroy it. Everything rests on the shoulders of Piper Locks, a teenage girl in the small village of Darnyle. Piper wants nothing more than to be a hero, and spends her days fighting local bullies, much to the chagrin of her father. One day, her simple life is shattered and Piper is given the opportunity she’s always wanted, but being a hero is harder than she could have ever imagined. Dangers unlike any she’s seen before haunt her every step and any mistake could mean death. Does Piper have what it takes? Inspired by elements of Arthurian mythos and gothic fiction, Red Knight of Ocix is a fun fantasy adventure that explores growing up, friendship, and what it means to be a hero.