World's of Ash: A Fantasy Tale

(hardback, and paperback, copies found at: https://www.austinmacauley.com/us/author/rutan-jonathan-lee)

Chapter Thirty-Three

“So,” Amalin asked, “will he help?” She took her eyes off the puddle and threw her dark blue brilliance onto Ash. “Because I can wait on you too, little girl, I really can.”

“Oh,” Ash rushed forward. She’d been lost in what her grandfather had been saying. Why would Jeth want to stay here? “Of course, he’ll help.”

Casten went first. Once Amalin explained that the mirror on the Unkindness did indeed lead to Penthya, and once she also added that the puddle led to the same, Casten eagerly volunteered to go. Amalin was certain they were about to enter the Centaur Woods, and as the son of the Queen—and, just as importantly, as brother to the King—Casten’s appearance would be shocking but welcome. He didn’t have to argue his point for long.

After him went Amalin. She wanted Jeth to go, but he refused. He said a Rider should be second if only so Casten could have further proof he’d just left the Kawshun. It was the first sign that maybe Poppa Henry had been right.

Jeth turned to Ash. “You’re next,” he said. Amalin was gone—the dark water of the puddle quiet. Only Poppa Henry’s face, the vague outlines of it that could be seen, hazily floated on the surface to let Ash know he was there. “I’ll be right behind.”

“No,” Poppa Henry said. His voice floated up from the Kawshun before it began to issue out from Ash’s blue mirror. Ash had been staring at the puddle—it wasn’t a difficult move to make. “You go. I’ll take her after.”

Jeth shook his head. He wasn’t looking at Poppa Henry. No matter how much Ash held her mirror his way, he kept dancing his eyes elsewhere.

“Henry,” he finally coughed. Even his voice was trying to waltz away. “There are things here. You can’t want your granddaughter to be alone with them?”

Poppa Henry laughed. “I don’t want her to be alone with half the stuff she’s already faced, but these are special times. My son, his wife, my own grandson—”

“You have a grandson,” Jeth finally turned to the mirror. “You never told me that.”

“I’ve been busy with the shock of seeing you again.”

Jeth smiled. Oddly, it was only then that Ash realized something strange. She hadn’t seen it when Casten and Amalin were at her side—she hadn’t even noticed it when Quill, Fara, and Thur were there.

Jeth could smile. Casten could do the same, so could Amalin and her Riders, but they smiled as if to remember how to smile. Yet Jeth looked perfectly at ease whenever his lips rose. How was that possible?

He was the first Elf Ash had seen do that. Granted, she’d only met one other, but Ash was already certain that Casten could never smile convincingly even if his life depended upon it, but Jeth could. Strange.

“Yeah,” Jeth said, “shock. You know, for such…I mean…the Fields of Kawshun, the Unkindness, both reside in a between that is supposed to be reserved for the Riders and the dead, yet one living soul finds a Reflection of a dear old pal, and also stumbles upon a nephew he never knew he had. What are the odds?”

Jeth turned and walked closer to the puddle. He crouched down, let his fingers run along the water.

“And I am dead, aren’t I,” Poppa Henry said. He was suddenly inside the puddle as Jeth quickly yanked his hand away. “Is that bothering you as well?”

Ash tucked her blue mirror back between her red shirt and the white one beneath. It made a bit more sense. In many of the stories her Poppa Henry had told, she’d heard of how Elves were born with the promise of longevity. But one had achieved such a thing without a lot of the consequences that usually came along for the ride.

He’d left when he was but a Little and had experienced a time of suffering. But centuries had also passed with Jeth being only an animal, and now he was about to go back with most everything he knew aged far beyond him or already gone. No wonder he didn’t want to return home.

Ash wasn’t sure how it was possible—maybe it was her sword, the soft whisper Justice put into her mind and how it let her see things at a speed she’d never experienced—but she knew what Jeth must be feeling. It was kind of like when she’d been in the Pool, except this was much better.

The emotions she’d felt back then had been so big—the whole of the Kawshun had been hers, a landscape way too wide to travel all at once. But now she had only one heart to explore. It was a landscape almost as wide, yet Ash knew she could walk the beats it made with ease.

Jeth was suffering from dread. Perhaps even a gnawing discomfort was within as well since there was no way he could understand the truth of what he might find once he returned.

“My world is gone,” Jeth said. “My King and my Queen, those who truly had eternity before them are dead, and though a few of their children remain, there is nothing else. My brother is gone and maybe so are my mother and father. Even my younger sister, she will be older than me by now—physically, mentally, emotionally, her skill with magic should have been behind mine, yet now she must be able to do such wonder.

“All my time with Mujatan, it doesn’t count because look at me—look at what being a wolf on the Kawshun has done. I am the same as when I fell into this place, yet my sister will be unrecognizable since I last saw her when she was but a Little of fifty. And finding you, Henry, is just as bad.”

Jeff sighed. “I thought we would die in the Ferrousai,” he shrugged his shoulders at the puddle too, yet also returned to not truly looking at Poppa Henry.

“But,” he continued, “when we survived only to be taken into the Western Wilds, I—I definitely believed I was done for, especially after Pride Syndon chose me as Cattle. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this. If Cabalt had a family, then what about Anneese—what has she done to surpass all the limited I’ve lived through. And Casten and his stories, they…”

Jeth drifted off. He stood and cast his eyes to the gray above as Ash went to his side. She stared at his long and mangy black hair, at the thin and worn angles of his face as well, but he acted as if she wasn’t there. It was an advantage that let her relax. It allowed Justice, or whatever, to give her another intuitive leap.

There was something else bothering him, something much greater than the loss of so many from his past. Ash stared and stared until she had it.

“You’re ashamed,” she said. The words fell from her lips without her realizing she was saying them. But they felt so right, and the whisper in her soul felt rather giddy too. Ash knew she couldn’t have said anything else. “You’re ashamed you’re an Elf.”

A loud intake of air and a sharp hiss of disapproval came from the water near to her feet. What she’d said had shocked her grandfather.

However, it pleased Jeth. He only looked at her and smiled a bit more of his strange.

“Ash,” Poppa Henry said. “I may have asked you to…but…Jeth is grieving! For you to—how could you know anything about any Elf? I can’t believe you!”

“Yet,” Jeth said. He turned to Poppa Henry’s Reflection and shrugged his shoulders once again. “She’s right. More than the deaths, more than the loss, she is spot on as to what is bothering me.”

“But,” Poppa Henry asked, “how are you ashamed of anything?”

Jeth sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “You heard how Casten talked to Amalin, how he told her again and again that he knew a bit about Elves, but not as much as he would have liked since he left Athren not too long after he turned one hundred. He got to enjoy a few years of the schooling they hand out to all who are deemed mature, yet still he acts as if he doesn’t know his people. I can’t help but to wonder what that means for me.”

“I,” Poppa Henry began, “wait…Cabalt being dead, your sister being alive, those things aren’t important?”

Jeth was done with the shrugs. He threw his arms up in exasperation.

“Of course, they’re important,” he yelled. “Knowing Cabalt is gone is devastating, but don’t you think I was prepared for that? Don’t you think that after hundreds of years I didn’t ready myself for the possibility of not only my death but the death of everyone I loved? My mother, my father, my brother, and my sister, I prepared every day for the likelihood I would never see them again, but I never prepared for this!”

Ash went to his side. Justice was now held firmly in her right hand. She could hear it better when she had it clasped tight.

“You never prepared for the fact that you might return to your people,” she said, “only to find you were too much of an outsider to gain acceptance.”

“You are very wise,” Jeth said. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. He gave it a gentle squeeze. “And you are brave. I hope you know that. You’re quite a Little.”

“I…well…I’m not brave,” Ash said. Her fingers loosened around Justices hilt as her face went a deep and vibrant red. “Or…at least…I’m not brave enough.”

She sighed, Jeth eyeing her careful. “I,” for some reason, Ash couldn’t shut up. A second ago, she hadn’t even known she had the urge to speak, yet now—it was as if this explanation needed to be set free. “I can punch people…which is awesome, yet…I mean, no. It felt good, but it was wrong…or brave…maybe brave…I don’t know. But…I mean I was brave at my school… I punched someone there and I even ran past a wolf once, yet I returned to being scared almost immediately after those things. I’m never brave enough.”

Jeth gave her another squeeze. “Violence is bad,” he began, “but after being a wolf, you can trust me—I know it can also be a rush; something that confuses you because it can feel so good. You just need to know how to temper violence rather than letting it control you. It’s a delicate dance that…sometimes, it takes a while to know yourself well enough to temper anything, and maybe that’s why your fear returned. You got scared because you’re not sure who you are.”

Jeth smiled—something still strange, yet the more Ash stared at it, the more she knew. She liked his smile. “However,” he said, “that’s okay. You’re young, now is the time for you to not be sure. Do you…are you understanding this?”

“I,” was Jeth looking for a quick response of yes? Ash hoped so. “I got it.”

“Good, I knew I was right. You are wise. But let me help you to be a tad wiser. Okay?”

“Okay,” Ash whispered. She really hoped she was about to hear something great. She could use great right now.

“You are brave,” Jeth said. “I’m sure of that too. This punch, your school, I don’t know where those things are or why they came about, but they’re not here. In this place, you’re Henry Ash’s granddaughter. I can see his strength in you.

“I can also see his wisdom in you. It’s why you are wise, and it’s why you are right. I am ashamed, Ash, and it makes me scared. I’ve returned to fear and doubt—probably the very same things you felt after you ran past that wolf. If Casten is nervous because he thinks he doesn’t know enough about the Elves, then what does that mean for me, a man who fell away from his people before he was able to start what Casten had a taste of? I’m terrified of that.”

Ash pointed towards the puddle. “So step on over, see if it helps.”

Jeth laughed. “She really does have your strength, Henry. She reminds me of how you were in the Ferrousai. You never listened, and you never let me do it the easy way.”

“Easy isn’t fun,” Poppa Henry said, “and while my Little Ash may have my strength, I know for a fact she has a deeper wisdom than I ever had. Have you been ashamed for long?”

“Like when we escaped from Mujatan?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe,” Jeth said, “I might have been a little ashamed back then, but this is worse. I am older, much older, and my shame and fear have only grown.”

Ash shook her head in dismay. “So,” could she ever get him to move, “you won’t go back?”

Jeth quickly stepped into the puddle. “I’ll go back,” he said. “I have to.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Ash leapt. It was the ravens, how, when everyone else had been around, she hadn’t noticed them continually circling above her head. Even at the distance they were at, Ash could see the evil gleam in their dark and beady eyes. She didn’t like how they stared.

And their endless number—they didn’t attack, but still, their feathery conglomeration…it was creepy. Ash had to splash down heavy as soon as she was alone—her eyes closed, a fast prayer for her Poppa Henry to quickly return spilling past her lips.

He arrived. Right when her prayer finished up, Ash felt a tug around her ankles—the whole world changed.

She was being pulled again, through liquid that wasn’t wet yet was somehow dry and damp—as if that made any sense. Ash opened her eyes. She wished she could conjure up another dream—something like when Poppa Henry would tell her all about the Infya Sea and the many islands that dotted here and there all along that forever water. But this wasn’t glass. All Ash had was a foggy absence—an eternal dusty gray blanket she tried to catch at and hold tight.

A sudden stream of brightest white—it started at her head before covering her shoulders—put an end to that game. The tug on her ankles changed into a push at her feet. Ash was rocketed out into new.

She found herself in the middle of a forest, the largest she’d ever seen. Trees, numerous kinds—pine trees, oak trees, willow trees, dogwood trees, even a weird variation of tree that had blue trunks and yellow leaves—surrounded her as Ash realized she was standing amidst something beyond her wildest imagination.

Almost everything nearby reached a mountainous height with the smallest trees around, a few dogwoods with brilliant white leaves, making it up to a good ten feet into the sky. Ash was in a colossal place filled with magic and wonder—filled with other plants, too, that dotted the floor around her in thick and vibrant greens that seemed more real than anything back in her world.

And everything was interested in her arrival. Ash knew that nothing she saw could be filled with any kind of life she understood, yet she could sense an awareness flowing through each bit of greenery. The tops of some of the trees bent a little to check her out, but they weren’t breathing or talking. They were alive, yet they weren’t, and Ash was sure it had to mean she was in a magic much greater than any she’d seen so far. It gave the forest a soul.

“The King and Queen have been sent for,” a voice, a noble and strong voice, said somewhere off to the right.

Ash was still in the puddle, one that had been dark and black on the Kawshun, but one that was a bright blue in the Centaur Woods. And she was in the Centaur Woods…right? Yes, that had to be the case. That was where Amalin had said they would go.

Centaur Woods. Ash had always liked the sound of that. Regal and mysterious yet apparently devoid of any Centaurs because she sure didn’t see one.

Ash stepped out of the puddle and found a space to her left where she could stand on thick brown earth. It was a spot with no grass—a place that would never make her feel bad for perhaps crushing anything that could feel.

Ash had been so enthralled by the trees—and seriously, where were those Centaurs—that again she’d failed to notice something important. However, that failure did allow her to understand a whole separate issue.

She could control Justice. Or at least when she was consumed with other thoughts, her mind was her own. Was it good or bad that Justice could speak so loudly to her?

Ash shook her head. This wasn’t the moment to get lost. She stared back at that something important. It was a crowd, a growing throng of bodies that was walking closer and closer her way. The mass wasn’t incredibly large, but it was quickly becoming that way. A whole horde of Elves was arriving from every direction to stare at those who’d appeared in their midst.

A few held hammers and chisels kept in holsters at their waists while others had paint-coated brushes tightly clutched between paint-stained fingers. Ash saw Elves carrying parchments of paper and broken pencils—some had dirt-covered hands too, and armfuls of what had to be a kind of planted crop. It made Ash see how maybe—to her extreme delight—those she’d once thought of as myth could be kind of normal.

In fact, the only Elf that Ash couldn’t help but to be in total awe of—she looked so breathtaking—was the one who’d spoken. She reminded Ash of Emily Baker, except a thousand times better because this woman’s beauty was so much greater.

She had short, dark, silky hair, a rich creamy black kept far from her shoulders—it was trimmed back from her ears, too, and off her neck—yet it shimmered even when she stood still. And her hands, her arms, the briefest glimpse of smooth mocha that ran around dainty ankles and perfect pointy Elf ears—every inch of this lady was impressive, yet the best thing about her had to be her eyes. They were vibrant purple—a thick and startling shade that Ash knew she would never forget.

To match them, the lady wore a purple gown that was like shear liquid continually flowing back and forth along her body. She was so magnificent, so powerful and important, Ash almost dropped to a knee without being asked.

This woman had to be a Queen. But what she’d said made Ash pause. The beauty had made mention that the Queen had been sent for, and that could only mean she wasn’t the woman who held most of the might in the Elf world. The Queen was someone else, and that just made Ash more nervous. If this lady was this amazing, then what would true royalty look like?

“Lady Mist,” Casten said. He bowed towards the dark haired Elf. “It has been too long. Does your arrival mean we’ve stumbled upon The SpellMaker’s domain instead of Athren?”

“You are in my father’s house,” Lady Mist said, “he thought for a while you might make it into one of the guest quarters, but when you decided to gain entrance into our courtyard, he was very pleased. In his advanced years, his magic has slowed. He barely had enough time to speak the charm that announced your presence to our city.”

Once again, Ash looked around. Lady Mist wasn’t making much sense.

She kept talking about guest quarters and of Ash having almost been inside them, but there were no quarters that Ash could see. There were just the trees and the people and the occasional grove of bushes and the wild runs of grass. There was nothing else.

Ash found it. The place fit so perfect into the trees—the place was the trees—it was no wonder she hadn’t noticed before. Each of the nearby pines and willows, each of the dogwoods and oaks and all the other trees that towered far above, were so very close together. There was absolutely no space between one and the next, and though it took a bit of study, Ash saw how they were linked so that when an oak ended and a strange tree with a blue trunk began, there was no separation between the two. Ash finally saw how all the trees were folded one into the next, and when she did, she also saw the reason why.

Elves weren’t just walking her way, each of those trees also had Elves in them that were staring out at her just as much she was staring up at them. Ash was completely encircled by the walls of a grand city, every tree just another wing of some gigantic house.

And what she was standing in—an open glade which let her see the tops of every nearby behemoth—was nothing more than the courtyard Lady Mist had already mentioned. Ash thought that maybe she was in a place set aside for guests to wait in before being allowed any further entrance.

This part of the forest was a house, and that fact, once registered, let other things become clear. Every tree had staircases winding up and down them. They had doors and hundreds of windows too. Some even had balconies and what appeared to be tiny chimneys though Ash thought she may have been mistaken about that due mainly to the danger any fire would present. The mammoth house she stood in the center of had everything any normal house would have, but unlike any normal house, the trees that held those staircases and those doors didn’t look as if they’d been touched by any tool.

Those trees looked more like they’d sprouted up with everything already intact—doorways popping into place next to nearby branches, a few stairs forming alongside deeply set roots so that each blue trunk, or length of dogwood or pine, could become the conjoined house Ash was seeing. Everything around her simply looked as if it had grown out of the ground fully formed.

“Not the SpellMaker too,” Jeth said. Ash had stepped closer to him than anyone else, Amalin nearer to Casten and Lady Mist who were both more to the front and a tad off to the right of where Ash stood. She alone caught his words. “Please, don’t let him be dying.”

“What is wrong with the SpellMaker?” Casten asked. “Why has his magic slowed?”

“Merely old,” Lady Mist said. She turned and pointed to a tree behind her where Ash saw a low doorway sitting far enough from the light that some shadows made it hard to see. “He is much older than last his favorite pupil ever remembered his responsibilities and came to visit.”

Casten shook his head. To Ash, it looked like that was the closest to weary he could get.

“Mist,” he said, “I’ve just come from the Kawshun, I have just stepped out of a puddle to find you walking down from that tree, and still you would rather speak mean than anything else. After the pleasantries of our greeting, is this all you can say?”

“I did not leave my home to chase adventure in the land of mostly Men,” Lady Mist said. Her eyes, those strange yet alluring bits of purple, dropped to the ground as she spoke. “I did not stay away after my own mother had seen the light and had returned, and I suppose that all that does remain is anger. I stayed. I cared for Athren and for Spell, I cared for Daylin too, and I sung the Lyrics with my father while you risked your life for a land thriving only on chaos.”

“Mist, I,” Casten said, “I’m here now.”

“And my father is waiting,” Lady Mist said. Her eyes flicked up to Casten’s face, eyes welling with tears. “Shall we go?”

Lady Mist took off as Casten followed. Like it had been on the Kawshun, he went first with Amalin just behind—Jeth right on their heels as Ash tried to keep up. It was clear that Jeth was as stunned by the beauty of the forest as Ash was, and though he did turn to acknowledge her, he was too engrossed in what was around to notice much of anything else. He completely missed that while he was tall and had long legs, Ash did not. She had to run to keep up.

“Let me stay under here,” a voice from beneath her red shirt said—Poppa Henry’s voice. Ash came to a stop no matter how much she didn’t want to fall anymore behind.

“What?” she asked. She jostled Justice in one hand while using the other to peer down at her soft white undershirt where her blue mirror rested.

Ash was glad her grandfather had easily moved out of the puddle. She hadn’t helped by pointing the mirror to the water, but he’d made it, and now she wasn’t sure what it was he was saying. Wouldn’t he want to see what she was seeing?

“Let me stay under here,” Poppa Henry said again. “And stop peering down at your chest like a fool. I need to stay hidden for a while.”

“Why?”

“Because as great of a magician as Lady Mist is, I know she won’t be able to sense me. Keep me hidden. I want to hear as much as I can before we get to her father and my secrecy ends.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

Past the doorway in the tree was a long and winding staircase, one so large Ash was sure a whole army—tanks included, maybe a horse or two as well—could have ambled up it with ease. Thick chestnut colored walls enclosed each gentle twist and turn, but they stood at such a distance Ash could have even lifted both her hands—with Justice pointed as far as she could get it—and still she wouldn’t have touched a thing.

The group stayed in single file. “He has changed homes,” Casten said to Lady Mist’s back. She’d kept the lead, everyone dutifully following behind. “Last I remember he was in the part of your house that was a giant redwood, when did he switch to oak?”

“Chaos reaches even into much of the Centaur Woods,” Lady Mist said. Her flowing gown and that short, silky black hair, all that anyone could see of her as she quickly took another bend in the stairs. “No matter how many words of protection we sang, the giant redwood was destroyed by the Errun not so long ago.”

Casten came to a stop. Everyone was forced to cease walking as well. “But,” he began, “how did the Errun get inside Spell without the SpellMaker’s permission?”

“He is old, he is tired,” Lady Mist said. She finally turned and peered down at Casten with mild disappointment. “Surely you remember I said that. You should just be glad he saw you coming. After the Seal lost its strength, his fields of protection remained. He could have kept them there, kept you from leaving the Unkindness, but he didn’t no matter how much it cost him to let you in.”

“But,” Casten continued to say. “I have always heard that the Errun never got within a hundred miles of Spell. Why would I be kept ignorant of this?”

“Maybe it is because you were busy with Watch,” Lady Mist said, “and the concerns of those who are not your people. Or maybe it is simply because we don’t want everyone to know how weak we have become since the loss of the five thrones.

“The magic of my father, of your mother and brother too, has slowly drained, it is happening all over Penthya, and a few Errun were able to exploit that. They entered Spell and caused much damage. Of course, the magic of non-Elves still finds itself weak inside these woods, but swords and arrows always pierce deep, and maybe, just maybe, we want to keep it a secret that some of our cities are vulnerable.”

Casten shook his head. “Why wouldn’t my mother tell me this? And since when did the SpellMaker become unable to counter what was lost when the five thrones stopped working?”

Lady Mist smiled and turned back around. “You never change,” she said. “I have already given you an answer, yet it is an answer you do not like so you refuse it. You are the same fool I knew when we were Little’s.”

She didn’t say another word. She just walked at a quicker pace, the gown she wore becoming a tempest, the liquid shimmer gaining in intensity as she took each step with a hurried grace. No matter what Casten shouted from behind her, and no matter the scattered conversation that Amalin and Jeth had with him as well, nothing was given. Lady Mist stayed silent, and soon everyone followed suit—the growing quiet allowing all to hear only the soft clattering of many feet.

After a good ten minutes, and just as Ash was beginning to believe the tree would never end, she stumbled out into a room wider and more open than the staircase. Her head was hung low, vague thoughts of if Poppa Henry was glad or upset that he’d stayed hidden, all that was filling her mind. Ash missed it when everyone disappeared around a final corner.

She looked up. She was in a room as deeply brown and covered in wood as the staircase had been. But unlike the staircase, there was no roof over her. Instead, large branches, thick and sinewy with leafy mounds of green at their very tops, towered above in a strange canopy of bark and leaves that were mixed with the last few rays of an almost-gone sun.

The branches were wrapped around each other, but they were also open just enough so Ash could see patches of a darkening sky and the strange sight of what appeared to be two moons silhouetted in muted gray. She was at the top of the tree, yet it also seemed as if she was not at the top at all.

There was another level of magic to where she stood. Ash wasn’t sure how to describe it, but the room felt like what she’d felt on the forest floor. There was heaviness and warmth, as if the air held hidden currents she was pushing her way through. The room she was in—and the stairwell, too, now that she thought about it—was wide and quite large, yet at the top of the tree, Ash suddenly knew that everything was much larger than it ever should have been. The magic Ash was feeling was all that could explain that away.

And when she took note of a few corners far off to her left and right, and especially when she saw some open doorways and a few figures standing there, Ash knew for certain. Elves, not as many as had been outside but a good amount, were exiting those doorways, each filing out slowly to stand across from an elderly yet regal looking man who sat in a Wicker Chair a good ways from where Ash stood.

Those doors could only lead up and into the branches above, yet that also had to be impossible. The branches were large, but they couldn’t be large enough to house as many Elves as Ash was seeing.

The SpellMaker, the old man in the Wicker Chair, for there was no one else who could be him, had a name that fit. Ash was sure he alone was responsible for the wonder of a tree that was one size on the outside and another on the inside.

“Bring my guests to me,” the SpellMaker said from his chair, his voice strong even from the distance he was at.

He held something about him, another touch of odd Ash couldn’t get a handle on until she was much closer. From where she was standing—and before Lady Mist led her from the end of the stairwell and towards his chair—Ash saw his long flowing silver hair, his pale-white skin too, and his sharp face hidden behind a wild white beard that was as long as the hair on his head. The SpellMaker had a hawkish nose and piercing blue eyes that stared only at Ash, as if no one else in the group were as interesting as she. But for some reason, Ash couldn’t make out much of the rest of his face.

His eyes and nose, his hair and beard too, they were his most striking features, yet they seemed out of focus, as if something was blurring them up. Ash didn’t know if her own eyes were failing her or if it had something to do with the magic all around, but the SpellMaker remained a hazy mess even as she neared.

When she reached a few feet from him however—Lady Mist the only one who ventured to his chair to kiss him on the cheek—Ash at last understood why the SpellMaker had been blurry. As soon as Mist bent down, a swarm of tiny creatures, some no bigger than gnats and mosquitoes, others quite a bit larger and carrying bright orange berries, scattered. They had been flying around the SpellMaker so fast Ash hadn’t been able to clearly make them out. But once Lady Mist was in their way, they slowed and flew off, the sight of them causing Ash to scream in surprise as she stopped right beside Jeth who, like Amalin and Casten, was bent at the waist in a bow of deepest respect.

“My fairies and sprites,” the SpellMaker said. He accepted his daughter’s kiss and patted her on the cheek. “I get a bit chilled with an ease that is surprising. I never know when it is coming or how bad it will be, but my fairies and sprites are always kind enough to give a warm breeze or two whenever it arrives.”

“And today, they did that while also feeding you,” Lady Mist said. She stared down at her father. “When you reached me through my Looking Glass, I didn’t know you were hungry. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“As you cruelly teased, Casten,” the SpellMaker said. He shooed Mist away. “So now I do to you.” He pointed her towards the side of his chair. “Maybe I, too, have secrets I keep from my only child. Maybe I don’t want someone I love to worry.”

“But they brought the Starlight a day ago,” Lady Mist didn’t look at her father. She just gripped his shoulder tight as she stood where he’d directed. “And that means this is the quickest turn around yet. You used to be fed only twice a year.”

“And I knew that would make you worry.” the SpellMaker said, “so I’m glad I have my secrets. As you have already told everyone, I am old and my magic slows. I need the Starlight, lots of it, if the Lyrics are to continue. My sprites and fairies did as I asked because the Starlight is finally fading from me faster than I can replace it.”

“But, Father—”

The SpellMaker patted her hand. “You need to hush now,” he said. “You already know I have been getting weaker—everything will be fine. This is merely the way of things, so let us stop talking about it. The master of Justice has traveled many leagues to see me.”

Casten, Amalin, and Jeth rose as one, Ash feeling slightly ashamed that she alone had never bowed. Like Lady Mist, the SpellMaker carried a deep aura of power and control about him. She should have done something to show a measure of respect.

However, her shame didn’t last long. It quickly morphed into a deep embarrassment for Casten who stood up straight and smoothed out the ragged cut that Syndon had made across his shirt. He took a step forward.

“You knew I would be coming,” Casten said. But the SpellMaker didn’t look at him. He still had eyes only for Ash. “I didn’t even know I would be doing it. I thought I was on a mission to finally bring Penthya’s greatest villain to justice, but instead, I find myself in front of you. I have been away for far too long, but now that I am here, I bring very strange tidings. Around this young girl’s neck is—”

“I have been waiting for the master of Justice,” the SpellMaker said, finally staring at Casten. “I’ve been waiting for that girl who does hold a Reflection as I am sure you were about to say.”

“Her?” Casten said. “But…I…in a Remembrance—I saw her fight the Riders of the Kawshun. She didn’t make Justice shine. She can’t be its master.”

“And did you ever make it shine?” the SpellMaker asked.

“I…well, no—”

“Then maybe one day she will be able to do what you could not,” the SpellMaker said. “So let her come close, let her bring her sword, and let her also bring her blue mirror. I need to see both in order so that I may be sure.”

“Sure of what?” Casten asked. He turned to Ash—motioned for her to get moving.

“I need to make sure she is how she has always been in my dreams,” the SpellMaker said. “If she is, I will know I am about to die.”