There wasn’t much time, but who was he to deny them one last hoorah before they all faced the brink of darkness? It was the calm before the storm, the drink before the dance. He would smile and he would join in the laughter, but Malice was never too far from his thoughts. He had to lead these people, his people, into the depths of hell and he hoped to all the Gods that were that he could lead them all out again.
“Let us have the party in Mariah’s garden.” Mist smiled as she too surrendered herself to the moment. “We have yet to show Gil the marvels within. The perfect place for a wedding feast, right beside the pond. It will be a feast to be remembered for all time.”
“Not only as the day we sealed our bond, but also as the day we set aside our differences and set out to conquer the evil that lurks in the shadows.” Sif’s voice rang out for all to hear, and then she turned back to Gil. “The gardens have always been a favorite place of mine.”
-Mariah’s Garden?- Gil signed to Morant in their own secret language and the male laughed and rubbed at his belly.
-Yeah, yet another wonder of the Asgardian Realms. Their Elders, literally, moved a forest inside and place an enchantment on it so it would always be protected.-
-A forest? I thought it was a garden?- Gil’s hands moved furiously as he tried to understand.
-Woodland Elves depend on the forests around them, they need the energy stored within to maintain their abilities.- Morant explained. -They would not die, per say, but their strength and agility are derived from the natural balance of nature.-
-So, when the forests began disappearing…-
-The Elders took care to ensure there would always be places for them to rest. From one forest sprung hundreds of gardens, all over the realms and a few planets too beyond the rim, though they are used for more than just rest.-
-You are going to explain the more part, right?- Gil inquired and cocked a brow as Mist and Sif took the table with Freya to plan their party.
-Eventually, but for now, just know that inside those gardens you are safe and not even Malice can find you there.-
-So, a great place to get drunk and reminisce with a few old friends?- Gil signed as he chuckled, drawing the attention of his two females who looked up and grinned at him. -What exactly should I expect?-
-It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.- Morant laughed, then spoke with his own words. “I don’t want to spoil the experience, my friend, just know, that the parties held in these gardens are more than your wildest dreams could ever prepare you for.”
Gil looked again to Mist and Sif, who by now were deciding which fabric they wished their gowns to be made of and which of the Elven crowns they would wear upon their heads. Again, a wave of worry crept in past the joy and set him in a foul mood.
“What if Malice does show up?” He whispered to Morant. “Because of me?”
“It has been five thousand years since last she was welcomed within these walls, and the gardens have moved a thousand times since then.” Morant laughed. “The people may have forgotten who she is, but Lady Ashlyn and Lady Freya would never risk the lives of their people. Those gardens are special, and accessible only to those who know where they currently reside. Malice is not one of those people.”
It was not just Tisiphone watching the story this time, but them all, and the mixed reactions throughout her room were making it hard to concentrate. Khor and Lithia were lost in their own moment, while Loki continued to shake his head and mutter under his breath. Markhon too was confused, his eyes glued to the Valkyries as they planned out their party.
“Aren’t they supposed to be readying for war?” Markhon inquired. “I mean, I have read that exerting oneself before a fight is only appropriate when it is a female in question? Should the males be draining their resources, so to speak?”
“You make it sound like it’s a whore house.” Khor chuckled, sitting next to Lithia with his arm around her.
“They were, in a sense.” Loki sighed. “And oh, they were magnificent.”
“The Petals are not whores, nor were they then.” Lithia cut in. “Their gardens were full of potential, and their tactics for collecting secrets were outmatched by none.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Tisiphone smiled. “There were others, though they did not follow the Guild’s code.”
“You’re talking about Malaness!” Markhon laughed. “I have heard of that place. A tormented world run by slavers, until Malice arrived and cause a slave revolt. It was said to have been destroyed.”
Tisiphone was beaming from ear to ear. “My mother often swore, during her bouts of madness, that she’d left her warriors behind to protect it...”
“Those involved, paid the ultimate price.” Lithia hung her head. “Her master did not take to kindly to her role in the uprising. It is said that he destroyed all that was and sent the slaves to new masters.”
“Pathen was a bastard.” Khor growled.
“Pathen is dead, and now another of his kind has taken my mother prisoner.” Tisiphone let out. “It is the only explanation.”
“I fear she may be right.” Lithia added in. “Malice would not go so long without checking in with Lord Nyx or Lady Euphamia.”
“My father knows nothing of her whereabouts, or he would have already summoned the first fleet to attend him on his journey to bring her back.” Khor replied.
“Perhaps she found Malaness?” Markhon piped in. “If the gardens were the only safe place…”
“Shak’Morikai gen Marwolaeth.” Tisiphone’s voice changed suddenly, then again as it returned back to normal. “They can help us.”
“The Five Sins of Marwolaeth?” Khor laughed. “No one has heard from them in years.”
“If you can find Malaness, you can find the Shak’Morikai.” Lithia announced, and even Khor looked to her in confusion. “It was not uncommon for Malice to, misplace things, including planets.”
“I can second that statement.” Loki shuddered and closed his eyes. “Try being on one as it transports into a realm of shadows.”
“You survived.” Tisiphone laughed.
“Because I am part El’Terran.” He shot back. “No mortal being could withstand the force of the shift.”
“Is it possible that the gardens are in some sort of shift, which is why its position is always shifting?” Markhon let out.
“Anything is possible when magic is involved.” Lithia smiled.
“Can we get back to the story? I’d really like to see this garden.” Loki grinned.
“Is that your only way in?” Khor laughed. “My guess is, you were not welcome at their party.”
“No, I was not, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing my own goals of getting Malice back.” Loki shot him a look and the room darkened again as the story continued.
It only took a few hours, but as they crossed the courtyard to the southern wall and Mist placed her hand to the rock, a door appeared to fall away from the stone. The door opened, revealing a winding staircase that led deep into the ground. Musty and dark at first, Gil wasn’t sure what to expect, but the lower they got, the brighter it appeared to get, until Gil’s breath was stolen from his body on the last step. The forest before him looked just like Aclara, with trees of every shape, color and size. If that was not enough to stare at, a cloud of swirling light formed around Gil and all but lifted him off his feet.
“A new Valkyrie? How wonderful.” The voices squeaked, zooming around the group like tiny aircraft.
“What the hell are they?” Gil looked up at the five tiny creatures now perched atop his head like a halo.
“They are called Fairies; Woodland Sprites to be exact. We brought them here to protect them after Malice destroyed their homes.” Mist answered as she and Sif toyed with the dozens of little glowing balls in their hair.
They didn’t seem to mind the playful banter at all as they led them further into the glade, past hanging lanterns and strings of flowers; but none of it compared to the sprites illuminating each step with an ethereal glow. Gil felt as if her were walking in the heavens with Angels at his side…
“No, my love, we are far from the grounds of Sanctuary, but thank you, I am honored you see me as one of those most noble creatures.” Mist smiled and lay a kiss on his cheek.
They reached a large clearing by a pond with waters of purple and blue, and beneath the surface swam fish with scales that shimmered in the Sprite’s light. Gil found himself in a large bowl-shaped dugout, surrounded by stones covered in vines and moss and standing a good three or perhaps even five feet taller than he was... By the Gods, he’d seen structures like this back on Earth.
He was just about to tell Mist how incredible this place was when another creature with wings appeared before him, eyeing them curiously. He’d seen this sort before, though she had been much larger and he wondered if this was one of her race’s young? It was, for lack of better words, a miniature dragon. A little more than three feet long, with dark-violet skin that could have passed for black, and amber eyes that lit up her face with a warm glow.
“Hello, Valkyries!” Its voice was sharp, but sweet, and totally caught Gil off guard. “Oh, and a new one.” She giggled. “I am Celen.” She fluttered over like a Butterfly and landed on Gil’s shoulder; whispering fiercely in his ear as she wrapped her tail around his neck. “You are a pretty soul, I think I will keep you.”
There was laughter at the little Dragon’s remark, but for Gil the alarm had nothing to do with the little beastie, but rather the word keep. The dragon thought he was the pet, instead of the other way around, and they all thought it was normal? Had they Dragon minions of their own as masters?
“So, they realms are run by tiny Dragons?” He blurted out and felt the beasties tongue on his cheek as Mist, Sif and Rob stood snickering behind their hands.
Gil looked at his partner, who started laughing even harder as Celen tucked her head under Gil’s chin and batted her eyes at Rob. “You’re a big help, pal.”
“Sorry, my friend.” He managed to get out as he gasped for air, then continued with another bout of rolling laughter.
“Mist, what is this, uh, creature?” Gil asked as the wee beastie clung even tighter with her tail and let herself hang down his chest.
“She is an Imp Dragon, and judging by the color, a Great Wyrm. Do not scare her!” The Valkyrie grinned.
“Don’t scare, her? What about me? I’m the one being assaulted by a flying handbag.” He grumbled, trying ever so carefully to unwrap her tail.
“Assaulted?” The Dragon gasped. “Well, I never.” She added and unwound herself. “To think, my love would be considered an assault.”
From a passing tray, Mist and Sif each grabbed an apple and Mist put hers in Gil’s hand as she whispered in his other ear. “Imp Dragons love apples.”
As soon as he raised his hand with the ripe, red apple in it, the little Dragon’s eyes lit up and the apple disappeared almost instantly. The Dragon held it in her forepaws, for a moment, then stuffed the entire thing in her mouth. Gil chuckled, as for several seconds the only sound any of them could hear was Celen loudly crunching away. She swallowed, rubbed at her belly and then belched quite loud in Gil’s ear.
“Oh, excuse me. Good apple! More now?”
Sif handed Gil the second apple and no sooner had he passed it in front of her, the entire process started again from crunching to satisfied belch. By this time, both Mist and Sif were laughing so hard they could barely stand, and poor Rob looked at if he was still struggling to catch his breath. His face was so red, he too looked like a nice, juicy apple.
The little Dragon leapt from Gil’s shoulder to Robert’s, climbed up to his face and took it in both of her hands. “No, not crunchy enough!” She let him go and returned to Gil, where she curled up in his hair, looking like a deranged hat.
“Looks like you have made a new friend.” Mist was still giggling as the Dragon slid down the side of his face and craned her neck around to look Gil in the eyes.
“Apple? Please? You are so very pretty.”
“Con artist!” Gil chuckled and shook his head until she sat fully on his shoulder. “All right, one more, then that’s enough for now.” Gil grabbed an apple and threw it straight up in the air where Celen caught it with her teeth and once again resettled herself on his shoulder and began to crunch and munch.
“Awe, an Imp Dragon.” Alura let out as she approached the group. “Celen, how are you doing this fine evening?”
“He is pretty. He gives me Apples. I will keep him.” The Dragon replied, belched a third time, and curled up under Gil’s hair.
“Oh, that is sweet. Perhaps, Gil, Celen is your… What is that word? Familiar?” Alura suggested. “They are quite intelligent and make great pets.”
“Oh, I don’t think the wee beastie wants to hang around with me for the rest of her life.” He smiled and gave the thing a pat on the head.
“In ancient times Imp Dragons were a symbol of great status amongst Elven nobility, not that you would need a symbol at all. The people already know who you are, but Imp Dragons have magic just like their larger ancestors. They can create very intricate illusions, called a glamour, in some cases, not even the Valkyries could tell them apart from the real thing.” Alura smiled and tickled Celen beneath the chin. “My Elders said to watch out for their charms, and their breath. If they get you with it, you will sleep for a week.” She grinned and turned back to her mother. “See, momma, I did pay attention.”
Queen Alara laughed as Celen began grooming the tips of Gil’s hair. The abrupt noise startled her and she hid at the nape of his neck, peeking out through his hair slowly. Alura picked an orange of the table nearby and pulled back the skin, allowing the aroma to float in the Dragon’s direction. The little dragon moved from Gil’s shoulder to Alura’s arm, coiling its tail around her wrist as it took the orange in its tiny hands. As it ate, Alura stroked the small creature’s back, eliciting a sort of purr that even Gil could feel. After it finished it crawled up the princess’ arm to her shoulder, kissed her lightly on the cheek, curled into a ball and went to sleep.
“She is so cute.” Alura smiled and lay her soft, red hair over top of the slumbering beast.
There was the sound of rustling wings and a dozen of them appeared coaxed out of hiding by their own curiosity; and the fragrant citrus scent. One of them flew to Alura’s shoulder and started squabbling at Celen, who in turn growled and mumbled something back. That set off a furious exchange of squeaks and squawks and Celen left the comfort of Alura’s shoulder and began chasing the other’s tail.
“Hey? Knock it off!” Gil shouted as they flew higher and higher, but it did nothing to stop them.
Gil had to walk over and physically separate the two of them, and only then did he understand their plight. “Grandmother said we must not leave the nest, but you just had to see the visitors.” The little red male shouted at the dark-violent, Celen. “You are always getting us into trouble.”
“Be silent, Tamar. You are just so, timid. These are Valkyries. They took us in when we had no place else to go.” Celen shot back and let out a puff of smoke in the male’s direction. “Grandmother would have come herself, but she is ancient and can no longer see.”
“And why does she not see? Tell the truth, it has nothing to do with being ancient. Mother is ancient, and she still sees just fine. In fact, if she were to see us here…”
“Relax, Tamar.” Celen shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. “Really, Grandmother did want to see you. She speaks of you constantly as the man who will give us back our homes. The Valkyrie that will end the terror of the Black Queen.”
“Wait, Mariah still lives?” Brunhilde interrupted. “Ancient you say, I say she was ancient when the first of the Valkyries were still young. Come, Gil, we need to go see a very old friend.” His mother put her hand on his shoulder.