A Selfish Dragon – Fantys, Chapter Five

Droog cruised overhead, screeching and roaring. Wisps of black smoke trailed from both jaws. After circling once, he dipped, pulled up for a landing, and flapped down into the center of the camp, resting on legs as thick as tree trunks. Covered in dull black scales with red markings, he occupied almost half the clearing. Spikes and plates stood out from his head and neck, running down to his tail. Yellow teeth, some broken, hung over his lower jaw.

The warriors stepped back. Droog coughed, and the stench of cooking gas and rotting flesh drifted through the air. Everyone looked frightened except Arie, who wrinkled her nose.

Droog faced Eleond. “I’m not in a particularly good mood. Someone interrupted my nap to call in a favor, and naps are precious to me.” He picked his teeth with a talon. “So let’s get to the point.” His slitted eyes focused on Arie. “You give me the girl, and I promise I won’t, say…torch that pretty elven village over there, and you along with it.” He coughed again, exhaling puffs of smoke. “And no bargaining please. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“We have withstood worse than you,” Eleond said. “The village is well-protected, as are my elves.”

“There are powerful magicians here,” Nim added. “You could be outmatched.”

Droog’s head swiveled over to her. “I think not. Perhaps I’ll just take her.” Ean cringed as Droog stepped forward and grabbed at Arie like a cat would grab a mouse, but Nim’s shield thwarted him each time. He waved a talon at her. “You know…I could pop your silly bubble, but I need her alive and well.”

In seconds, Sir Gwythur drew his sword and struck Droog’s bony wrist with a resounding crack. Droog quickly withdrew, holding his wrist up for inspection.

“Ow. That wasn’t very nice.”

“Wasn’t supposed to be nice,” the knight said.

Droog eyed him suspiciously. “What kind of sword is that?”

Sir Gwythur help up his sword. “This…is Malevene, forged by the great witch Demorra herself. And on this fine day, I shall slay you with it.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me, dragon. Today you will pay for the foul deeds you have done. Ravaging my homeland, burning our villages, and eating our people and livestock.”

Droog turned away, annoyed. “Oh, please. I really don’t need this. Another self-righteous pipsqueak with a magic sword. Like I haven’t faced them before.” He sighed. “You have no idea what it means to be a dragon.”

“Why don’t you enlighten us?” Nim ventured.

Droog stared at her. “Why bother? You live what, a hundred years? I’m pushing fifteen hundred and still going strong. An insufferably dull life laying about in caves or on mountain tops. A huge intellect with nothing to occupy it.” He exhaled a stream of black smoke. “We dragons hoard so much gold, but what can we buy? Not enough ale to forget we’re dragons.” He grew more animated. “And my pet peeve–the scales. What can you do about an itch? Nothing, except go mad and burn down a village or two. Alright, maybe three. And…oh my, the gas. It’s impossible to remain in polite company. They never mention that in the stories, do they?”

“I didn’t know dragons were that sensitive. You should be more social. Try to avoid burning down villages and eating people.”

“Well, that’s what dragons do, isn’t it? As far as I can recall, I didn’t ask to be born a dragon. Seems arbitrary. Why not an elf, or a fair maiden, or a frog? Why this body, in this world?” Droog’s eyes narrowed. “How does that work, exactly?”

Nim frowned. “I could ask the same question.”

“I asked you first.”

Nim glared at him. “Just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean you deserve an answer.” She softened. “I suggest you make the best of it. A lot of folks admire dragons, you know. Including me.”

Droog’s eyes flew open. “So that’s it, then? I’m screwed, without even an explanation. ‘Just tough it out for another five thousand years, Droog.’ Yeah…no. I prefer to live a life that’s meaningful to me, instead of you. Sorry if that seems selfish.” He picked the remains of a dead animal from his teeth and flung it away, narrowly missing Sir Gwythur. “So maybe Zaphan’s on to something. Maybe he’s the way out of this nightmare.”

“You are the nightmare,” Sir Gwythur snapped. “A foul spirit, whether you wear a dragon’s body or not. You need only tough it out for five minutes with me.” Droog spat a jet of flame at him, but it flared around Nim’s shield.

Nim shook her head. “Zaphan doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s only made things worse.”

“Not true,” said Droog. “He led me to food and gold, and fixed a nasty rash on my tongue. See?” He opened his mouth wide and unrolled his considerable tongue. Nim turned away in disgust. “Perfectly healthy.”

“So where’s Dremnel?” Nim demanded.

“Dremnel?” Droog frowned. “What does she have to do with anything?”

“Does she know you’re out here doing favors for Zaphan?”

A shadow of pain darkened Droog’s countenance. “Oh…she’s probably off with her sister, bad-mouthing me.” He brightened slightly. “Another reason to help Zaphan.”

Shandra faced Nim. “The Deliverer may not understand everything yet, but he’s learning. Each new experiment tells him more about the worlds. He’ll soon find the way back to the native world and take us with him.”

Karl laughed. “And you believe him? Even if there is a native world, you have no idea what it’s like, and neither does he. You could be worse off.”

Smoke poured from Droog’s nostrils. “After fifteen hundred years of this, I’ll take my chances. Now are you going to give me the girl or not?”

Nim crossed her arms. “Why does Zaphan want her?”

“He didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”

“Why not? Are you his errand boy?”

Droog bristled. “Dragons serve no one. He does me a favor, I return it.”

“Sounds like he’s getting the better deal. If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t he come here and take Arie himself? Instead, he has you and Shandra do his dirty work.” Nim paused. “Why not resume your nap? Do you really want to fight us all to the death, just as a favor?”

Droog sighed. “If I must, yes. Nice try, though. Especially the nap part.”

“He need only fight me,” said Sir Gwythur. “I will meet this lying worm in combat, with only my sword and shield. I’ll give him his nap.”

“Alright then,” Droog declared. “I’ll warm up with Sir Crispy. I prefer well-done.”

Arie turned to Nim. “This is stupid. You’re all fighting over nothing. Maybe you should let the dragon take me. Then Zaphan will see he’s wasting his time and no one will get hurt.”

“Ah, the wisdom of a child,” Droog said. “You should listen.”

“Absolutely not,” Ean said, horrified. “What makes you think he’d ever release you again? You can’t trust him. Besides, you’re not the one making trouble.”

Nim shook her head. “That’s not going to happen, Arie.”

Sir Gwythur pulled his sword and shield from behind his back, and stepped out of Nim’s bubble. Nim grabbed his arm. “Are you crazy? You can’t fight him without magic. It’s suicide.”

Sir Gwythur smiled. “My sword and shield are old magic, my Lady. Well-suited for fighting dragons.” He rubbed his forearm. “Even so, it pains me to wield such evil weapons.” All eyes were upon him as he slammed his visor shut and marched into the clearing. He held his sword high. “In the name of…”

A river of flame poured out of Droog’s mouth, completely engulfing the knight. Ean felt the heat wave from inside Nim’s aura. When the flames subsided, Sir Gwythur was down on one knee, crouching behind his huge shield. Gripping his sword in both hands, he sprang up and stabbed Droog in the foot.

“That’s for my friend, Brandel.”

Droog screeched and drew back, lowering his head to inspect the damage. Black blood oozed from the wound. He looked up in disbelief. “You bastard. That’s my good foot.”

“Not anymore.”

Droog swiped angrily at the knight with his other front leg, but Sir Gwythur ran underneath it, opening a long wound up to the dragon’s elbow. Malevene sizzled as it cut through hard scales and flesh.

Droog howled and raised up on his hind legs, flapping his great leathery wings. The edge of one wing caught Sir Gwythur and sent him sprawling to the edge of the camp in a cloud of dust. He still held his sword and shield, but he was slow and wobbly in getting up. Droog seized the opportunity to unleash another torrent of flame.

Karl gathered the others around him. “Just heard from Robin. They found the problem and they’re fixing it. We’ll be pulled out any time now.”

Ean smelled something burning. When the flames ceased, Sir Gwythur stood up and waved his sword, his shield still smoking from Droog’s onslaught.

“Is that all you have? Come on, you scaly heap of excrement. Let me give you an itch.”

Droog eyes narrowed as they circled each other, feinting and parrying, advancing and retreating. But finally, he boxed the knight into a corner with his wings. His jaws dropped down with alarming speed, like a huge snake striking its prey. Dragon wings blocked the view, but Ean was sure Sir Gwythur was finished.

Droog suddenly pulled back, his head dripping with black blood. The knight’s sword had cut deeply into his jaw, and the ground shook as he screamed and stamped with rage.

“Oh, that’s it. Now you’ll die, you little rat.”

Sir Gwythur staggered to his feet, but Droog charged, snapping and swiping with terrible fury, until he forced the knight onto his back. Ignoring more sizzling cuts to the jaw, he grabbed the knight’s shield with his teeth and flung it away. Sir Gwythur held up his sword in a final act of defiance as Droog spread his jaws, ready to burn him alive.

“Stop.” Arie ran out of Nim’s bubble into the clearing. “I’m what you want. Leave him alone and take me. Let’s get this over with.”

“No!” Ean cried out.

Droog swung around to face Arie. “A wise decision, little girl.” He wrapped his claws gently around her waist and lifted her into the air, his slitted eyes gazing into hers. “But too late. I’m afraid it’s roast knight for breakfast.” Droog turned back to Sir Gwythur, but he was gone.

Something odd was happening. Droog was shrinking. Ean watched him grow smaller and smaller, pulling the world in around him like cloth through a hole, until he was only a distant speck at the end of a long tunnel. Wrapped around the tunnel walls were distorted versions of Shandra and Tyrren, the elven village, and the world of Mithe–stretched out like taffy to infinity. The tunnel shrank into a thin tube while it expanded in the opposite direction. Ean turned to see a point approaching from the other end, and fell towards it. The point rushed into his mind as the walls flew outward, and once again, Ean stood on the ground of new world.

First Magic Lesson – Fantys, Chapter Four

After dinner, stars began to peek through the clouds, but nothing looked familiar. Nim helped Sir Gwythur tend to his horse, so Ean asked Karl to teach him some simple magic, and Karl agreed.

“The first thing to remember,” Karl said, “is that magic is fundamentally the same thing as free will. It’s that simple. Doing magic is like using free will to move your own body. As a baby learns how to move its arm, you learn how to change the world.” He bent down and picked up a twig. “How did I start the campfire tonight? I willed it. I visualized the flame, felt the heat, and smelled the burning wood, until I felt it…click.” The twig burst into flame at the end. Karl blew it out and gave it to Ean. “You try.”

Ean concentrated like Karl said, but nothing happened. “I don’t feel any click.”

“That’s because you’re not convincing enough about what you want. Most worlds have thresholds to prevent fleeting thoughts from materializing. Try again.” Ean concentrated harder. He closed his eyes and focused on the imagery of starting a fire. This time he felt a tiny acknowledgment in his mind. A small resistance and then a click, like pressing a key on a keyboard. When he opened his eyes, a tiny blue flame glowed at the end of the twig.

“Not bad,” Karl said. “Some beginners take a week to get that far. You just need practice.” He hesitated. “Magic is limited in Mithe, especially after Zaphan’s meddling. But be careful anyway. You might get what you wish for.”

“I’ve tried psychic experiments like this on Earth. They never worked.”

“Nope, they won’t work on Earth. Why not? Because someone very skilled in magic, a worldsmith, used their will to impose a series of tight constraints or laws upon the world when it was set up. They take precedence over your will, confining it to a few actions within your body.” He smiled. “So moving your arm is still technically magic, but other forms of magic were constrained out of existence, ironically, by magic itself. There are a few bugs, though. If you’re talented, stuff can leak through. Traces of ESP, synchronicities, that sort of thing.”

“But you and Nim did magic on Earth.” Ean remembered the cornstalks. “Zaphan too.”

“Nim and I had special authority, granted by the laws already there. I don’t know what Zaphan did.”

Ean grimaced. “This is too hard to believe. How can all our scientists be wrong?”

“How can they be right? They see what the worldsmiths wanted them to see. Long ago, Earth was made to look like something from inside that it’s not. It’s a deceptive world. Robin can explain it to you. If we make it back.”

Dinner Conversation – Fantys, Chapter Nine

Robin’s house was halfway down into the city, next to small park with a pretty stream and an arched bridge. On the outside, it was an old townhouse with four levels, two chimneys, and an overgrown backyard. On the inside, it was much like Robin’s office–dusty, disorganized, and filled with strange artifacts. Old wooden beams lined the ceilings and unstable furniture leaned against the walls, most of it supporting stacks of books.

Ean arrived with Arie, Maya, and Karl. Maya wasted no time sprawling on the living room couch, as if she knew the place. Ean turned as laughter erupted from the dining room. Robin was seated at a long table across from Vonya and Cheng. A woman with curly hair and a round, jovial face sat beside him. Pitchers of dark ale were strategically placed around the table, and a central bowl overflowed with breads, veggies, and cheeses.

Robin beckoned. “Come in, we’re just warming up. I believe you’ve already met Vonya and Cheng.” He gestured to his left. “And this is Wilda, Queen of the Harpies.” Ean shot Karl a questioning glance.

“Harp Guild,” Karl whispered. “The Arts. Music, theater, stuff like that. Cheng’s one too.”

They took seats around the table. Robin filled Karl’s mug, and Ean’s too, but he only poured a little into Arie’s. “Careful with this stuff. It’s got some kick.”

Dara danced in from an adjoining room, carrying two steaming platters of food. It had to be magically prepared, but that didn’t stop it from smelling delicious. She set the platters down and curtsied.

“May the food be to your liking, honored guests of Robin Fairweather, the wisest man in all of Fantys.”

“Not after tonight,” Wilda said.

Dara sat next to Vonya while Cheng raised his mug. “To oblivion.” He took a long swig and everyone followed his example. .

The food tasted as delicious as it smelled. There were meaty nuggets glazed with sweet sauce, and patties filled with something like buttered rice. Mugs were refilled again and again, quenching thirsts and loosening tongues. The talk began with University gossip and Cheng made a lot of inside jokes Ean didn’t get. He assumed they kept it casual to avoid sensitive topics, but was proved wrong when the conversation took a different turn.

“Nim should be here.” Arie said. “She needs a rest.”

“I invited her,” Robin replied. “But she’s covering for Julian. He’s in Yaan today.”

“Can’t imagine what he’s there for,” said Cheng. He drained his ale and refilled.

Robin fingered his mug absently. “Yeah. Lewis is out of control. The Enli keep saying it’s our problem and Julian keeps trying to convince them otherwise.”

Vonya frowned. “He doesn’t show up in any of our worlds, or transfer logs. If he’s outside our jurisdiction, isn’t he their problem?”

“He doesn’t show up on their scans either, which includes a lot more worlds. So either he went farther out into Enna or he’s hiding under our noses. The later seems more likely.”

“There’s a rumor he built his own world,” Wilda said.

Robin shook his head. “We haven’t seen any new worlds or worldsmiths for millennia. Even if he built one, where would he hook it up? The Enna-level authorization is beyond us. Probably beyond the Enli too.”

“I don’t know.” Karl mused. “If he had access to the right code and knew what he was doing…”

“Two big if’s. Even if both were true, it’s probably still impossible. The worldsmiths used special utilities that don’t exist anymore.”

Ean’s ears perked up. He hadn’t come across this on the magical net. “What code are you talking about?”

“Worldcode,” Robin replied, sipping his ale. “The laws that define a world. Abstract spells set up ages ago by worldsmiths, and bound to an object called a seed. We maintain code for all our worlds, but we don’t really understand it. Neither does Lewis.”

Cheng turned to Ean. “We’re keepers of the code, so to speak. Worlds aren’t given access to their own. They’d mess it up.”

“But we have access to ours,” Vonya said. “The Enli trust us.”

“That was before we put Lewis on the Council.”

Outside, the wind picked up, bending trees and gusting around the house. A few drops of rain tapped loudly on the windows. Robin looked up. “Well, that’s unexpected. I didn’t hear about this.”

“I think a storm’s brewing,” Arie said.

“But storms are rare here,” said Dara. “And usually planned.”

The room darkened as angry gray clouds settled over the trees. Rain began to pelt the house in earnest, followed by a flash and a sharp crack of thunder.

“Sounds serious,” Wilda said. “Good thing we’re in a cozy house with lots of booze.”

The storm continued throughout the evening. Dara brought out more ale and chips while Cheng led Arie into the living room. He picked up a lute-like instrument next to the fireplace and played some amusing tunes, starting with a song about a farmer with magical animals who played tricks on him. Arie joined in, laughing as much as she sang. On the couch, Maya opened one eye, then turned over and slept again.

Ean’s curiosity was roused. He wanted to learn more about the worlds, and the ale made him bolder with questions.

“Karl, what did you mean when you said Earth is a deceptive world?”

Karl opened his mouth to answer, but gestured to Robin instead.

“All worlds are deceptive,” said Robin. “But especially Earth. You gaze up into the night and see millions of stars spilled out like glitter across the heavens. Your instruments reveal even more, and you begin to believe the stars are your destiny. So many new places await you, if only you could visit them. But you can’t, can you? There’s this annoying speed-of-light limit. How unfortunate.”

“I hate that limit,” Karl said ruefully. “Spoiled a lot of good science fiction for me.”

Robin sipped his ale and continued. “But what if all those points of light in the sky really are just points of light, until you actually go there? What if the world only expands where it needs to? Or wants to? Could you tell the difference?”

Ean’s eyes flew open. “You’re suggesting Earth is a fake? Like a virtual reality game where rooms are generated as you enter them? Or an arena dome that seems unlimited inside?”

“No, I’m suggesting all the worlds are fake. Well, fake is a strong word. They’re real enough, just smaller and more efficient than they appear. And you can’t see their true nature from the inside. Empirically discovered laws aren’t necessarily fundamental laws. In the case of Earth, maybe none are.”

“Virtual reality,” Vonya said slowly. “Lewis used that phrase. He believed the worlds were built from Earth-like technology.”

Robin smiled. “Some prefer to make reality fit their ideas, instead of the other way around. That has its advantages.” He shook his head. “But to me, the simulation hypothesis only defers problems to the next world up. It doesn’t solve any.”

“It solves one,” Karl said. “A sinful life can be edited.”

“We use historical plays for that,” said Wilda.

Ean grimaced. “It doesn’t make sense. Why make the universe look vast, if it’s not? Why show us places we can’t visit?”

Robin sighed. “Who knows what the worldsmiths had in mind. Aesthetics perhaps? Would you rather have an ugly wall around the solar system, always wondering what lay beyond it? Unreachable stars are prettier.”

“So the stars are a fancy screensaver?” Ean shook his head. “No, it still doesn’t work. Why so deceptive? Why make Earth’s universe look as if it evolved naturally on its own, without rhyme or reason, when it didn’t? If worldsmiths built it, they took great pains to hide that fact from its inhabitants.”

“Yes, they did.” Robin took a long draw from his mug and his speech began to slur. “Think about it. You simply appear in some vast, meaningless place, at a random time, in a random body, with no memory of anything and no idea why you’re there. There’s no real evidence of anything beyond this place. You might even come to believe this place all there is, or ever was. So what do you do? What do you value in the face of utter indifference, insignificance, and impermanence? How do you cope with absurdity, despair, love and hate, or any of the wild, magnificent, and horrifying things Earth throws at you? Who are you really?” He drained his mug. “Maybe someone wants to find out.”

“They could have just asked,” Karl said.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Robin countered.

Ean frowned. “I’d rather trust science. Testing and repeatable observation. That’s how you discover the truth.”

Robin shrugged. “A scientist might spend his whole life testing the world without realizing it was testing him back.”

“Interesting hypothesis,” Dara said. “But you’re assuming there’s another place where the results of such a test would be used. An afterlife? A place where you reunite with your relatives?”

Karl’s eyes widened. “Oh God, I hope not.”

“Afterlife,” Wilda mused. “What a strange word. Why not a beforelife?”

“Exactly,” Robin said. “What makes you so sure you’re not in an afterlife already? Because you can’t remember anything from before you were born? When I’m dreaming, I don’t remember the other dreams I’ve had.”

“That’s depressing,” Karl said. “Then you never see the big picture. I always thought of the afterlife as a clean white utopia where you wake up and they show you the contract you signed. Like the waiver you sign before they give you anesthesia in the hospital. Just to protect them from being sued.”

Wilda spit out a mouthful of ale. “Alright, that’s it. This conversation is officially out of control.”

The Fire Story – Fantys, Chapter Twelve

The air had cooled, so Karl started a small fire. Oooj sat close by, spreading himself into a curved sheet to better absorb the heat. Nim piled wood on the fire and it roared to life, crackling and sputtering.

“Such a fine evening,” the fire exclaimed, obviously enjoying herself as her flames spread. She glanced at everyone around her. “I have an audience. Is it story time already?”

“And I’m Singe, your host for this evening,” The fire bowed politely. “This is a special occasion, you know. It’s my birthday. I was born on this day in…well, this year.”

Arie frowned. “Then you can’t know much. I’m already twelve years old.”

“You are experienced,” Singe agreed. “But I’m equipped with the all the knowledge of my kind, and the memories of trees on whose branches I feed.” She spread herself onto a dry oak twig. “Let’s see. I know a story about…an acorn.”

Arie wrinkled her nose.

“Not your thing. Okay, how about a forest fire story? It’s so heart-wrenching.”

“That sounds really sad.”

“It is, but most stories have some sadness in them. Alright then, perhaps a story about Wizard’s Fire.”

“Is it a kiddy story?” Arie asked warily.

“It might even be advanced enough for you.”

Arie smiled. “Then let’s hear it.”



Singe began her story. “Once there was a boy wizard, a little older than you, Arie, from a peaceful kingdom in another world. He was apprenticed to an old master, who kept a big, dusty book of spells in his study. One day when the master was away, the boy snuck into the study and leafed through the book until he came across the recipe for Wizard’s Fire. The master had forbidden him to learn it until he was older, but the boy was impatient. He copied the spell onto a sheet of parchment and left the old book as he found it.

But he made several copying errors. When he cast the spell, it did not produce a blast of destructive fire as described. Instead, a pale blue flame transformed what it burned into whatever he imagined. The boy was intrigued. By skillfully using his imagination, he could turn worthless objects into valuable goods–food, clothes, gems, and even new things that never existed before.

“Could the fire make living things?” Arie asked.

“It could create the appearance of life. For a while, the boy was almost fooled into believing that appearances were essences, and outsides were insides. But such distinctions hardly mattered. To the boy, the Fire was perfect and beautiful. Things became whatever he wished, within his youthful magical limits. And those limits only expanded with practice, as the Fire gave substance to ever more interesting and useful ideas. He soon realized the hardest part was knowing exactly what he wanted.”

“Not a bad problem to have,” Ean said.

“So it would seem. But as the boy’s skill grew, the Fire began to dominate his life. He gave his inventions to family and friends, and they became as dependent on them as he was. Soon he was supplying the entire village. Word spread, and it wasn’t long before requests poured in from across the kingdom, some for inventions he hadn’t even thought of yet. He tried to accommodate everyone, but there were too many requests and casting spells for the new inventions was complicated and time consuming. The boy showed other wizards how to cast Fire spells of their own, but demand still increased. So work piled up, and the Fire spread.”

“He’d be a successful businessman,” Karl said. “If only they had money.”

Oooj leaned back, growing new legs for support. “Successful, no. He created endless work for himself and others. Yes, he did.”

Nim threw more wood on the fire and the flames rose higher. “He must have enjoyed it.”

“Oh, he did,” Singe crackled. “But the young wizard’s time and resources were stretched to the limit. He began to wonder if the Fire served him, or he served it. If he wanted the Fire to do more for him, he’d have to give it more control. So he bound the Fire to a stone and used another Fire spell to give it the ability to handle requests, make decisions, and even conceive of its own inventions. It freed the wizard for a while, but it also freed the Fire. Without the wizard’s oversight, the Fire duplicated itself billions of times, spreading bizarre and deadly creations over the world like a plague. People and animals were devoured, along with mountains and meadowlands. Rivers dried up and forests burned with the pale blue flame. Even the oldest and wisest trees were consumed. As the original spellcaster, the Fire wouldn’t touch the wizard. But the rest of the world was utterly transformed.”

Oooj’s three eyes blinked in unison. “Power without wisdom. A catastrophe, yes it is.”

Karl nodded. “Reminds me of a story on Earth called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But I guess the old master won’t show up at the end and fix everything.”

“Sorcerer’s apprentice?” Nim asked. “Isn’t that what you are?”

Karl threw more sticks on the fire. “Isn’t that what we all are? Playing with fire we don’t understand? I hope we never let things get that bad.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” Singe roared, her flames leaping higher and higher. “The boy mourned for weeks. But try though he did, he couldn’t understand the alien world the Fire had made. It was difficult to survive. His old body didn’t belong there anymore, so he had the Fire change it to fit the new world. But inside he was still the same boy who couldn’t grasp what the world had become. After mulling it over for days, he ordered the Fire to give him a new inside to fit the new outside. So the Fire used the abilities he’d given it and burned the boy’s mind away, replacing it with its own grand creation.”

“But remember–the Fire could only create appearances, not essences. Only outsides, not insides. So nothing remained but the appearance of a transformed young wizard. No more insides remained in the world. And since you can’t have an outside without an inside, well…the whole world simply vanished. And the Wizard’s Fire? It did what all fires do when their fuel is exhausted–it died out.

There was silence for a moment, until Oooj spoke. “We are the true Wizard’s Fire, transforming everything we touch. The boy never understood this and his entire world paid the price. Yes, it did.”

“A fine interpretation,” Singe said.

Arie scowled. “What a stupid boy. That’s what you get for being too clever. He should have quit while he was ahead.”

Singe smiled weakly as her flames diminished. “Yes, but fires won’t quit until there’s nothing left to burn, including fires of the heart and mind.”

“A tidy little tale,” Karl said. “It certainly cleaned up after itself.” His eyes narrowed. “Except for the narrator, who miraculously survived.”

“Literary license,” said Singe, spitting out a jet of pale blue flame. “Or lazy storytelling. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be a true story.”

Ean nodded. He hoped not.

Ambrosia – Fantys, Chapter Thirteen

Ean awakened to the music of another world. Ancient trees piped air through hollow trunks like giant bassoons, laying down a droning canvas on which fairies painted their exquisite melodies. Sublime, mysterious sound emerged, like sitar music on Earth. Around him, the meadow buzzed with life, as tiny fairies whizzed to and fro on unknown business. The perfume of alien wildflowers hung in the air and Ean breathed it all in, allowing Anima to invigorate him down to his toes. Across the clearing, the mountain stream chattered on, probably to itself. Above him, two of Anima’s moons still shone, their pink and blue crescents pasted on the sky like thin craft paper. A bit lower, an orange sun peered over the horizon, still hesitant to intrude upon the night.

Arie lingered over the ashes of last night’s campfire, saddened by the loss of Singe. Nim comforted her. “She burned brightly and spread her fire into us.”

Ean joined Karl and Oooj at the stream to wash up. Gabby was in fine form. “…wouldn’t believe the things they say upstream. Dear me, talk of ghosts and monsters. Real monsters, nothing like you, Oooj. You’re not a monster. Of course not. Heavens no. We’ve established that. Did I say that? I would never say that. Alright then, what did I say? Couldn’t be nothing. Well, then it had to be something. No, not the weather. I’m not that boring. Oh yes, the ghosts…”

Ean quietly washed his face and left. He helped Arie clean up the campsite, while Karl removed the wards and Nim took care of the sleeping bags. In a few minutes they were back on the trail, with Oooj leading the way.

A cloud of small fairies followed them for a short distance, but soon lost interest and flew off. Squirrel-like animals chittered noisily in the trees, but as the the trail climbed, the forest quieted and the trees grew wide and tall. None seemed interested in the tiny travelers who passed by their roots. But they swayed nervously when a bass rumble shook the forest floor.

“What was that?” Ean asked.

“The old mountain himself, yes,” Oooj replied. “Turning in his slumber, maybe he did.”

Karl was light on his feet. “Let’s not wake him then.”

The trail zigzagged up a steep bank and leveled off. Up here, the forest floor was covered with ferns, and bushes with pink, trumpet-like flowers tended to by a few fairies. From the corner of his eye, Ean caught glimpses of figures darting behind the trees.

“I’m seeing things again, like in Mithe. Are elves here too?”

“There is an elf tribe on the mountain, yes,” Oooj replied. “But not in these foothills, no.”

Nim looked to each side. “Then what–“

Three fairies flew out from behind a thick tree on the right and hovered beside the trail. Larger than the campsite fairies, they were almost two feet long, with four wings and the delicate features of the fae. Arie approached them without fear, as three more fairies hovered into view on the left. Moving with grace and precision, they fussed over Arie like hummingbirds over a flower. She reached out to them, laughing with delight as they perched on her arms and shoulders.

“I don’t know that kind of fairy,” Oooj warned her. “No, I don’t.”

“But they’re friendly,” Arie protested. “And so gentle.”

Before anyone could react, all six fairies grabbed Arie by her arms and hair, and pulled her off into the forest with her feet dragging on the ground. Ean ran after them and the others followed. Another group of fairies fluttered in front of him. He batted one away, but the rest fought with surprising tenacity. Oooj shot out a long appendage, roping three fairies and dashing them against a tree. Nim and Karl put the rest to sleep, but there were more ahead.

Ean burst into a small clearing, where Arie fought to break free. She grabbed and slapped at the fairies, but there were too many. They bound her hands and feet with vines, gagged her, and hovered around her like a living shield.

The others entered the clearing. Ean started towards Arie, but Nim held him back. “Something else is here.”

A cool breeze swirled around Ean, moving on to Nim and Karl. It traced a wide arc around the clearing, stirring up leaves and gathering strength. In seconds, it grew from a small dust devil into a roaring whirlwind. The funnel elongated and darkened, spinning faster and whining louder, until…it abruptly stopped. Dust and debris fell away and a woman stepped forward.

A fairy woman. No, a fairy queen, Ean thought, wearing a dress of green and gold leaves and a crown of wildflowers. Chestnut hair laced with green strands and vines fell in waves upon her neck and shoulders. She approached Nim with power and elegance in her stride.

“Ambrosia,” Nim said, surprised. “That was quite an entrance.”

“They call me the Witch of the Winds these days,” Ambrosia said in a breathy, sensuous voice. “I suppose it fits.”

“What are you–“

“I’m taking the girl. But I wanted to see you first.”

Nim’s eyes flew open. “You too? I thought you and Lewis were complete opposites.”

“Well, of course we are. He’s an emotional wasteland. But he’s passionate enough about Fantys, and there we can agree. That nightmare must end.”

“Oh, come on. Everyone treated you well, especially Robin. The magic takes some getting used to, but–“

“Fantys tore out the heart of magic,” Ambrosia snarled. “Institutionalized and sanitized it. Chained it in irons of logic and duty.” Her lips tightened into a white line. “And Robin…descends from a long line of dreary pedants. But you’re fae, Nim. You know what we are. How can you lock yourself up in such a dreadful prison? Deny your nature?”

Nim hesitated. “We can change.”

“From feral to ferrous? Fae to faded?” Ambrosia softened. “I think I know what happened, but you can’t run away from yourself forever.”

Nim bristled. “And you could? By eloping with Robin to punish Qwace?”

Ambrosia’s eyes flashed with anger as the wind picked up. “If it weren’t for Fantys, Qwace wouldn’t be here and I would be different. Lyranda would be different. But yes, I made the same mistake as you–fleeing into the dead arms of the mind to escape the torment of the heart. But the heart will find you in the end and must be dealt with.” She paused. “Fantys isn’t for you. Whatever quest you think you’re on, abandon it before it’s too late. Find yourself before Fantys scatters like ashes in the wind.”

Nim eyed the ground, slowly shaking her head. “I made my choices long ago.” She met Ambrosia’s fiery gaze with eyes of ice. “I don’t have to explain them to you. And Lewis is wrong about many things, not the least of which is Arie.”

Susurra had warned them about the Witch of the Winds, but what could Ean do? She was out his league. He was about to launch a projectile when Nim stretched out her hand. The fairies guarding Arie scattered and the vines unwound from her hands and feet. With a flick of her hand, Nim threw her shield over Arie like a soft blanket, and Arie ran to her under its cover.

“No!” Ambrosia screamed. Ean covered his face as a fierce gale began to blow, howling and bombarding Nim with debris from all sides. But her shield held.

Ambrosia wasn’t finished. With eyes like bottomless pits, she held out her arm. A black field gathered around Nim, crushing her like a vice. Even from where he stood, Ean staggered under the weight of its effects. Withering despair ate away at his insides like acid.

Nim stumbled and gasped, her shield shrinking to a thin glow around herself and Arie. It wouldn’t last much longer. Summoning all his will, Ean launched a fireball at Ambrosia. She shot him a look of contempt, but the pause allowed Nim to fire a blast of energy that knocked her backwards. Her shield recovered quickly, but Nim kept the pressure on until it fizzled out and the black field dissipated in a cloud of vapors.

Ambrosia shrieked. “You could never do that here without your authority. Use it while you can.” She closed her eyes and dissolved into wisps of smoke trailing into the wind. When the wind died down, she and her fairies were gone.

Ean bent over, catching his breath. “That was Robin’s wife?”

“Yup,” Karl said, picking himself off the ground. “She’s available, if you want to ask her out.”

Arie laughed. “Ean could teach her computer programming.” Her expression darkened. “I guess we’re not safe anywhere. How did she find us?”

Karl waved his thumb at the edge of the clearing, where a mountain stream babbled to itself. “Take a wild guess.”

Nim smiled at Ean. “Nice distraction. I knew she was strong, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional intensity.”

“Why did she try to punish Qwace?” Arie asked.

Nim waved it away. “Oh, an old family squabble I wish I didn’t know about. She had a thing for him and he ended up marrying her sister.”

Karl shook his head. “Can’t imagine why that would upset her.”