The Dark Lord couldn’t remember what sleep was. Every day he became increasingly familiar with back-and-forth pacing, bloodshot eyes, and mental tug-of-war. Kyan had taken his Book of Spells, but the Dark Lord had forgotten to first take out the portrait inside. He really should have burned it years ago. Now that the last memory he had of her was gone, she was invading his dreams (actually nightmares), his visions, and his thoughts. She should have known better than to choose the rotten little prince over her own husband—the most feared man in all of Eurovia.
“Face it, you miss her,” said a know-it-all voice that caused the Dark Lord to wince.
He turned around and saw a middle-aged man with slightly curled gray hair, a short gray beard, and a gold crown on his head. The man crossed his thick, hairy forearms, and his keen green eyes watched the Dark Lord as he waited for a confession they both knew would not come. Dark Lord hissed and held his head between his hands as if he felt he was about to explode. After taking a few seconds to compose himself, the Dark Lord adopted a smug grin and looked back up at the phantom in front of him.
“You think I miss a lying traitor like her?” the Dark Lord inquired in a sickly-sweet voice.
“I don’t know, why would you?” questioned the phantom.
The thought of her overwhelmed him again, forcing him to turn away from the phantom to hide the tears stinging his eyes.
“Indeed, why would I?” he asked himself.
He could remember a time when King Elchanan was still alive and he could get a nightlong sleep. A time when he was a young man recently knighted, who couldn’t get over the pleasure of hearing a sword being removed from its scabbard, and who didn’t shudder at the name of Adonai or Yeshua. He was dueling legions of trainees, one after another in every beat of his heart, until someone stopped him mid-strike. She was ten yards away, adjusting her armor and chatting with Elchanan as if they were the best of friends. Demetrius hated to admit that that made him kind of jealous. Upon seeing the beauty of her smile, however, Demetrius figured he could learn to forgive her for possibly stealing his friend. Despite the groans of the trainees (“Sir Demetrius, our session’s not over yet!”), he ran to where Elchanan and the young lady stood. He stumbled a bit (running in armor was not always the easiest thing to do), but he righted himself in time to catch her eyes just when they swung his way.
“Demetrius, this is Lady Diana,” introduced Elchanan, whose expression hinted that he knew what Demetrius was thinking.
Demetrius kissed her hand and smiled, although his nervousness still showed in his dilated eyes if one looked carefully. She did, if the twinkle in her eye was any indication.
“Are you one of my new trainees?” Demetrius inquired.
Elchanan laughed. “Actually, I believe it might be more the other way around.”
“You haven’t even seen her fight, Elchanan!” protested Demetrius with a good-natured laugh.
“I know a master’s stance when I see it,” affirmed Elchanan.
Her eyes sparkled with teasing, humor, and challenge, a combination that a knight like Demetrius could never resist.
Demetrius bowed at the waist and said, “Would the lady do me the honor of a duel?”
“She will,” answered the young woman, “but perhaps when she is through with you, you will want to call her a lady no longer.”
“So she’s not above fighting dirty,” thought Demetrius as his smile widened. “Fantastic.”
The Dark Lord, a thousand miles away from the old Demetrius yet somehow still rubbing shoulders with him, sighed heavily. The flashback receded from his mind, leaving behind a darkened space once again.
“It’s been ten years,” a hissing voice in the Dark Lord’s head admonished. “You should be over it by now.”
The Dark Lord pulled out a potion bottle from a pocket in his cloak, uncapped it, and sniffed the puff of gray smoke that climbed out of it.
“Maybe a dose of black magic will help,” muttered the Dark Lord.
Joanne couldn’t even lift a finger without having her muscles scream angrily at her, but it was a price she was happy to pay. Once her body recovered from her intense strength training, Joanne was going to plunge right back into more endurance tests. She had never felt so empowered before. Joanne had been the first of her friends to pass the stand-your-ground test with flying colors. By now she realized that if she tried to face any test—be it a boulder flying towards you or life’s daily trials—on her own, she would fail. In the beginning of her time in Eurovia, Joanne had been uncertain about many things, Adonai’s existence included. However, the multiple visions as well as the scrapes that she and her friends had survived made Joanne realize that it was all too perfect to be coincidence. Somebody was taking care of her, and if it wasn’t Adonai then who else could it be? Facing the onslaught of the Terrathians in the arena was, at least for Joanne, simply another trust exercise between her and Adonai. Also, she realized, her training was actually becoming sort of fun.
Joanne was thinking all of this as she tried to dig out the dirt that had been shoved in her nails since she first met the Terrathians. She was waiting outside of the blacksmith’s shop to retrieve her repaired sword (on the second day of training she had tried to cut through a rock that had been thrown at her and it didn’t end well). A Terrathian named Admon passed by Joanne without acknowledging her hello until she shouted it a second time. Admon stopped, flipped around, and smiled apologetically at Joanne. He and Joanne had bonded during training, since of all the Terrathians, Admon was the one Joanne found the least annoyingly boyish—which she didn’t hesitate to tell him on several occasions. Admon ran his hand back and forth through his short, curly black hair and asked about Joanne’s welfare in a tight but polite voice. Joanne squinted at him; she didn’t know him well enough yet to completely decipher the tone of his voice, so she couldn’t exactly accuse him of being in a strange mood. Still, something seemed to be off about him.
“Are you doing all right?” Joanne decided to return the question to Admon.
“Me?” said Admon. “Besides the bruises, I think I can say I’m doing just fine. Listen, I have to be somewhere right now, so we can talk more later.”
Admon whirled around and began speed walking down the semi-dark corridor, but Joanne wasn’t about to let him go just yet. She waited a moment or two, and then began to travel behind him like a shadow. Admon stopped in front of one of the hatches leading to the outside world, and Joanne backed away just in time to avoid his glance. Once she heard the hatch seal shut, Joanne re-emerged, carefully opened it, and poked her head out. At that moment, Daevin came by with an armful of weapons that he was supposed to be taking to the blacksmith. However, he caught Joanne disappearing behind the door of the hatch, and couldn’t resist his impulse to follow her. He hadn’t seen her all day, and decided that the damaged weaponry could wait a few more minutes so he could talk to her. Putting down the weapons, he climbed through the hatch and scrambled after her in the small forest.
Hearing the crunch of dried plant remains underneath Daevin’s boots, Joanne turned around and shushed him. Daevin halted and looked at her, but Joanne didn’t have time to participate in a staring contest. She continued to quietly pursue Admon, who was much farther away than she liked, while Daevin caught up to her. Daevin noticed a Terrathian moving as sneakily as Joanne in between trees, but he couldn’t figure out what was so special about him that made Joanne stalk him. Daevin hesitated to ask, since the focus of Joanne’s gaze didn’t seem to invite any questions. So, his lips remained shut and his ears remained open while he maneuvered around the trees and plant debris.
Admon finally stopped at a small waterfall, which was encased by a thicket of trees that were hard for Joanne and Daevin to break through without drawing notice. The loud gurgle of the waterfall meeting the surface of the pool played a rhythmic tune in sync with the twitter of birds and buzzing of insects. The music of nature always relaxed the young Terrathian, which was why he considered this spot one of his personal favorites. Admon mounted one of the rocks lining the edge of the pool and thoroughly searched the skies with his brown-green eyes. He lifted his hand to shelter his eyes from the worst of the glare of sunlight and whistled a long, low tune. Instantly a strong wind blasted through the stillness, and Admon laughed as the swirling air caressed his cheek.
A miniature tornado came down from the clouds in front of Admon, spiraling and spiraling while a young woman stood inside. She snapped her fingers, and the winds around her dissipated. Waves of white blonde hair unraveled from the crown of her head, a long white dress rolled down to her feet, and streaks of gray spiraled into the glassy irises of her eyes. A silver cloak wrapped itself around her bare white shoulders, and she pulled it more tightly to herself. Her rosy pink lips curved concave and her fingers dipped in between his as their hands enfolded. He, with the mark of earth branded onto the attire he wore and stance he held, was unmistakably a Terrathian. She, with clothes that flowed like a breeze and a tread so light that it could ride on air, was undeniably an Aether. They, with hands firmly grasping and eyes brightly glimmering, were irretrievably lost in each other, and Joanne and Daevin were there to witness it.
Suddenly Joanne felt guilty for spying, and drew back to give the couple their well-deserved privacy. Daevin stayed in place for one or two moments, gazing at the embracing couple, glancing back briefly at Joanne, and returning his eyes to the lovers. Finally, he swallowed something caught in his throat and followed Joanne’s example. They had to walk some distance before Daevin was certain that they wouldn’t be overheard, nor would they overhear.
“What do we tell Ekon?” he asked finally, scratching the curls growing near his temple.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Joanne urged, clutching onto Daevin’s arm for emphasis.
“Joanne, they could be risking their lives,” Daevin whispered.
“It’s for love,” insisted Joanne.
Daevin chuckled, and Joanne raised her eyebrows.
“What?” she demanded.
“Out of all your friends, you were the one I least expected to be a romantic,” explained Daevin as he tried to swallow another chuckle.
Joanne rolled her eyes and shoved Daevin. “This is serious.”
“I know,” Daevin replied in a more grave tone. “But those two are from opposite worlds. Their love… it just can’t be.”
“Can’t it?” asked Joanne. “If they can manage to love each other despite the barriers, doesn’t that prove that a good relationship between all three peoples is possible?”
“Besides, we have been making at least a little progress by becoming friends with each of the three groups. Didn’t Mia tell you about Dayla and Imber? We can become their mediators, and with the help of Adonai we can bring peace.”
Joanne didn’t really need to keep talking; her pleading brown eyes were speaking enough words of their own.
“Well, all right,” sighed Daevin. “I won’t say anything, but it’s on their heads if they get caught. If Ekon in particular ever find out that I knew about this, he’ll never trust me again, and the Terrathians will become our enemies. Be careful if you’re planning on helping them.”
“Hey, as far as I’m concerned, you didn’t see a thing,” assured Joanne. “In fact, I didn’t see a thing, so if we leave now—”
“Joanne?” said Admon, whom Joanne and Daevin caught holding hands with the Aether girl when they turned around; Admon glanced at her and back at them with a guilty expression.
“Just pretend we were never here,” Joanne told him with a nervous laugh. “Sorry for interrupting your moment.”
“Don’t be!” exclaimed the girl, who broke away from Admon to run to Joanne. “It’s a relief that someone else finally knows. I’m Camira.”
“Oh, hello Camira,” greeted Joanne, who instantly relaxed. “This is Daevin.”
Daevin bowed his head stiffly. “To make things clear, I know nothing about this and I have no idea who you are.”
“Nice to meet you too,” drawled Camira.
“Ignore him, it’s pretty easy to do,” assured Joanne, causing Daevin to bristle and Camira to chuckle. “If you ever need someone to cover for you, you can come to me.”
“Thank you,” said Camira and Admon.
“Joanne, we should go before someone misses us,” urged Daevin.
“You’re right,” agreed Joanne. “I’ll see you later, Admon. Goodbye, Camira!”
Despite Daevin’s wishes to know as little about Camira and Admon as possible, Joanne couldn’t resist babbling about the two of them. Admon told Joanne fragments of the story of his relationship with Camira, which had started during his adolescence. He found the injured Camira near their current meeting place, where she was bandaging a cut from a Terrathian arrow that had sliced the skin on the side of her arm. The wrinkles of pain on her forehead and the vulnerability of her pouted lip made him realize that, aside from their opposite natural elements, she was as mortal and fragile as he was. That was enough to convince him to go over to her and say hello—at least as soon as she stopped trying to punch the dirt out of him in self-defense. Since then the two had secretly been friends, and recently had become, well, more than that. The squealing from Joanne’s mouth when she told Daevin that part made him wish his ears would melt off.
“Ugh, can you stop?” pleaded Daevin. “I used to like you best of all our friends, but now all I want to do is drown your voice out.”
“I’m sorry but out of respect for their privacy, you’re the only one I can talk to about—wait, you like me best?”
The surprised yet flattered smile consuming her face caused Daevin to replay what he said in his head and to flush from the neck up.
“Used to,” he emphasized quickly, “and only because you were the least gushy out of all your friends—or at least I thought you were.”
“Hey,” warned Joanne, punching Daevin hard on the chest, “don’t forget that I can still crush you—physically and any other way.”
“I’ll crush you right back,” retorted Daevin.
“Says the guy who came behind me in Terrathian class rankings.”
“Says the girl who will soon be beaten by me in Aqua warrior training.”
Joanne gasped. “We’re going to meet Dayla today, aren’t we? I completely forgot.”
“Memory,” said Daevin as he drew an invisible checkmark in the air with his forefinger, “another thing Daevin is better with than Joanne.”
Joanne slapped Daevin’s bare arm, which smarted, but he would never admit that to her. Her fingers closed over his wrist and she pulled him behind her, saying: “We need to leave now.” Daevin looked straight ahead of him and nodded—he wouldn’t look down at her hand, he wouldn’t. After a minute, Joanne released him and began to sprint ahead, laughing at him for being so slow. Daevin, whose nervousness dropped away, laughed and roared Joanne’s name as he preteneded to chase after her like a wild animal. The two arrived in panted giggles at the Aqua training, but since that happened often, their friends let it pass with amused silence.
Daevin sat in the mossy green center of a small gathering of birch trees with the black book resting in his hands. He was on the page with the spell that the Dark Lord had used to enchant the Whispering Timberland. If Daevin could figure out how this spell worked, he might be able to reverse it and bring the Dryads back. The hope that gave him was almost too much to bear. After reading the spell to himself several times, Daevin put the book down, stood up and held his hands out towards one of the smaller birches. Pinching his eyes shut, he mouthed the words to himself over and over until he began to feel a freezing cold sensation building up from his heart down to his palms. He opened his hazel eyes just in time to see a black mass blast out from his hands to the birch. It splattered across the white bark and began consuming its trunk, branches, and leaves until it transformed into a dead shell of itself.
Daevin reached out to touch the blackened bark, but he hissed and drew his hand back. His palm had a few new blisters on it, which was a consequence of him not using a staff as a medium for the spell. That couldn’t be helped, since he couldn’t exactly ask Magus to borrow his staff to practice black magic. The old wizard would probably pop Daevin’s head off his shoulders. Brushing the thought out of his mind, Daevin leaned closer to inspect the tree, but all he could find was that it was dead. No tree spirit lived in this birch, or else it would have already awakened as a slave to Daevin’s will. Killing random, spiritless trees would do him no good in knowing how to set the Dryads free. Daevin looked from left to right, and then cautiously brought his mouth close to the tree.
He let out a slow, warm breath that glittered for a moment before getting absorbed by the tree. A beat passed. Then, the tree jolted and stretched its thin branches like arms as it leaned closer to Daevin. Daevin, with his eyes bright and his mouth slack, was about to touch the end of its branch when the tree suddenly slashed its arm across his cheek. Over and over the tree whipped its branches back and forth across his face, chest, and legs. Daevin blocked himself with one arm as he batted the tree away with the other until he stepped back far enough to escape the trees’ reach. He stared for a moment at the wildly waving tree, but his paralysis was broken once he heard the tree emit a low growl.
Daevin whipped out his sword and began hacking at its branches. As he did so, he felt as if someone was cutting into him too, and he groaned in sync with the tree. While the tree continued to jump and twist, he sawed at it with the end of his sword, causing the tree’s moans to turn into screams. Finally, as he panted heavily, Daevin pulled out his sword and plunged its tip into the center. At that moment, his chest burned like he had been stabbed with a poker, and he released a guttural yell. After a final shudder, the tree stopped moving, and Daevin collapsed in front of it.
Daevin tensed. He turned around and saw that Joanne was standing a foot away from him with her hand over her mouth and her eyes nearly bursting from their sockets.
Daevin stopped and grimaced.
“Daevin, what are you doing?” asked Joanne, walking closer to him and touching his shoulder. “What would Magus say if he knew?”
Daevin scowled and shoved her hand away. “Go ahead, run off and tell him.”
“What? No, not until you tell my why you’re doing this. Where did you even get that book?”
“I… I found it. I had to find out for myself.”
“What, that black magic destroys?”
Joanne gestured to the dead tree to emphasize her point.
Daevin sighed. “That didn’t come from the book. I made it come alive with my animation power. Very few people have it, and even less use it.”
“I know,” replied Joanne, after pausing to stare at the tree. “I remember it. In my vision, we met as children… you animated a flower to guide me to my friends. I don’t remember that flower attacking me, however.”
Daevin looked back at the tree.
“Please, stop doing this and come clean,” continued Joanne. “We’ll get it all sorted out.”
“No,” he responded. “This is what I’ve chosen and nothing can wipe that decision out! I’m already in too deep, Joanne. Too deep…”
Joanne’s face fell, but before she could come forward with reassuring words, Daevin spun around and pointed to the book.
“That’s your chance, too, you know,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I know what must have happened to Diana, Demetrius’ wife. There’s a spell that can send people to another world. You could use it to return to Earth.”
Joanne inhaled sharply and stared at the book.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” she asked.
Daevin crumpled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to lose… any of you.”
Joanne took a step towards the book, and Daevin turned his face away so she wouldn’t see him wince. However, before she could stoop down and take it, Joanne snapped her head up and pressed her heart to her chest as if she had been hit.
“No, this is wrong,” she gasped. “All wrong. You have to let go, Daevin. Now!”
“What?” Daevin said.
He paused, and Joanne stiffened.
“I know why you’re doing this. You’re afraid of my power… of what it can do.”
Daevin scowled, and he squeezed his fists so tightly that his knuckles cracked. As he stepped closer to her, Joanne was suddenly very aware of the five inches of height and fifty pounds of weight he had over her.
“D-Daevin…” she said, backing away until she hit a tree.
“If I can do what I just did to that tree, imagine what I could do to creatures, to people, dead ones,” said Daevin.
Joanne involuntarily shuddered; she could hear an echo to his voice that made his words reverberate in her ears, louder and louder until she wanted to scream.
“Snap out of it, Daevin,” she pleaded.
“I have the power, and no one is going to stand in the way of my kingdom!” thundered Daevin, brandishing his sword and stopping just inches from Joanne. “Do you hear me? NO ONE!”
A blast of lightning shot down from an otherwise clear sky and struck the tree behind Joanne. She screamed and fell to the ground, but Daevin merely nodded and stepped over her prone form. Several minutes passed, and then Joanne finally decided that, other than the slight shaking of her fingers, she was fine. As she stood up and gazed at the smoldering tree, Joanne felt far less sure about Daevin.
As Daevin walked farther away from Joanne, his heart began to sink and the sword in his hand began to shake. What had he just done? That lightning blast could have killed Joanne, and for what? Trying to talk him out of using black magic? The blisters on his hands throbbed, and he dropped his sword to the ground as he held them up to his face. This magic was destroying him from the inside out while he turned a blind eye to all the times he had hurt his friends. Even if it was powerful, black magic was not worth all of this pain, but thinking about giving it up made Daevin want to vomit. Breathing in and out rapidly, Daevin searched his thoughts for something to settle his back-and-forth thoughts. Daevin sunk low to the ground, physically convulsing from the war within him and shutting his eyes to hold back the hot tears.
“I’m so broken,” he thought. “Please, Adonai, come help me. I’ve lost my friends, my peace of mind, and who I am. Yeshua, please forgive me…”
As he dropped his head on his arms, Daevin didn’t notice a fire in the sky that didn’t belong to the sun. The flames floated in midair, and if Daevin had been looking, he would have noticed after a few moments that the flames seemed to burn in the shape of a bird with its wings spread wide. Then, he would have realized with a start that the flames in fact were a bird, swooping down to where he hunched over on the dusty ground. Its fire burned white hot from its center to the red-orange edges of its wings, and it licked dangerously close towards Daevin. However, the bird was deft, and snapped its feathers out of the way just before alighting in front of Daevin.
The flames receded, giving way to the brilliant crimson red of the feathers of a regal phoenix. The bird held its head aloft as if it were a king Daevin was bowing down before. Daevin’s breath had hitched when he heard the bird land in from of him, and he was looking nervously through the gap of the arms folded in front of his eyes. Golden talons were all that he could see, but they in themselves were sharp and fearsome enough to send shivers coursing through his body.
“Lift your head, son of Elchanan,” commanded the phoenix.
Daevin obeyed, but the fire still burning hot in the phoenix’s eyes made keeping his gaze unbearable, so he looked away.
“I know what you have done in the dark,” declared the phoenix. “You have brought great grief to me and you friends.”
Due to something in the phoenix’s tone, Daevin didn’t even think to question how or what the phoenix knew.
“I know,” sighed Daevin. “My actions have caused two of my friends to almost die, but even then I didn’t listen. I’ve distanced myself from them and anyone else who could have helped me.”
“There is yet another thing more terrible. You have missed the opportunity to know me.”
Daevin frowned a little. “Who are you?”
“I am the one who raises kings, and tears them down. I am the one who humbles the proud, and lifts up the weary. I am the one who strengthens the weak and saps the energy of the powerful. I am fire. I am light. I am I.”
The phoenix shimmered in the sunlight as he said this, and ever afterward Daevin could never accurately describe the feeling in his chest as he saw this.
“I’m sorry for everything,” said Daevin, trying to squeeze every syllable with remorse.
The phoenix nodded. “I forgive you, my son. Be sure that as soon as I leave you, you confess your wrongdoing to your friends and burn the book. There is one thing I must do, and you will have the strength to do as I commanded.”
The phoenix lit afire again, causing Daevin to jerk, but the young prince leaned forward when a burning wing urged him to.
“Do not be afraid,” whispered the phoenix before pressing its beak to Daevin’s forehead.
The moment the phoenix did this, Daevin gasped, for his body also burst into flames and instantly melted into the fire of the phoenix. The inferno did not burn Daevin’s skin, but he could feel a heat spread throughout the interior of his lanky body. It felt hottest in his heart—so hot that Daevin wondered if it was literally on fire and he hadn’t realized it. Finally, the fire was doused, and Daevin blinked several times to readjust to the normal lighting around him. If phoenixes could smile, this one would have upon seeing the peaceful smile resting on Daevin’s countenance.
“Remember what I told you, dear Daevin,” urged the phoenix.
The phoenix leapt off the ground with a push of his powerful legs and a sweep of his broad wings. He flew on and on, straight into the sun, so Daevin could not see him any longer. At that moment, he could hear Joanne calling his name; she apparently would not even let a lightning bolt deter her from reaching out to her friend, even when that was the last thing he deserved. Daevin sighed and finally stood up, knees aching and heart pounding, so that he could go to his friends and tell them everything.
It was a relief for Daevin to see the book crumble into ashes in the middle of an all-consuming fire. Staring at the burning blaze in front of him felt cleansing, and Daevin was ready to shut this chapter of his life. If only things were that easy. Joanne’s eyes met Daevin’s, but the prince turned his gaze away hastily to continue watching the burning book. Jack said Daevin’s name, and when Daevin summoned the courage to look at him, Jack was smiling with an aura of forgiveness radiating off his features. Aatu, in the meantime, looked like he wanted to bite off Daevin’s finger. Jack pinched Aatu’s skin and whispered something in his ear that caused the wolf to meekly lower his head. Daevin hadn’t really minded, since he knew he deserved much worse than a harsh glare from a wolf.
“I have another confession, Magus,” Daevin whispered.
“What is it?” asked Magus.
Daevin held out a crumpled paper in his hand and showed it to Magus.
“I found this in the book as well,” informed Daevin. “I want to preserve my memory of my aunt Diana before… you know.”
Magus reached for it, but he closed Daevin’s fingers over it at the last moment.
“Keep it,” urged Magus. “I find it very telling about Demetrius.”
Daevin nodded and tucked his keepsake into his satchel.