Headmistress Serena was a strict woman, and not very kind, but not cruel either. She had her good points: like the times she would let them stay up late and watch holo-vids past their bedtime, but those were rare, and she almost always made up for it by being more strict than usual the next day.
Today was one of those days…
Alisha was trying to avoid her. She ducked into a broom-closet, banging her shin against a bucket. She bit her lip and covered her mouth with one hand to stifle the ouch as she clicked the door closed. Heavy footsteps passed by, then faded into the distance. When she couldn’t hear them anymore, she chanced a peek. The hallway was empty. It was still too early for most of the children to be awake. It was week’s-end, and almost everyone slept late, except for her and Darran, they liked the quiet.
She threw the door open and ran, taking a right at the first corridor. The Jos Hollow Orphanage was shaped like the letter H, with three hallways extending from either side. She ran toward Darran’s room; her socked feet barely touching the tile floor. She almost slid past the opening in her rush, grabbing the edge of the door-frame to slow herself down.
“What are you doing?” He laughed at her, setting aside the ship model he was working on: it was an old sailing ship—the kind they used to make before they discovered flight. Darran had a whole collection of them lining the shelves on one wall of his room. He’d been building them as long as she could remember, and he was good at it. Now, everything was shuttles and cargo-carriers, but she liked the old ships better. She thought that might be one reason he kept building them, but she didn’t want to read too much into it.
“Hide me, Darran…” Her blue eyes were wide.
“Hide you from what?”
She checked both ways down the hall and slipped inside.
“There’s someone here that wants to adopt me.”
“Really? That’s great!”
“How is it great, you idiot?” She glared at him and slapped his shoulder.
Darran Zevo was Alisha’s best friend, and he understood her like no one else. His parents had died in a shuttle accident three years ago and left him alone, a twelve-year-old boy with no family—Alisha had filled that void, becoming the one thing in his life he could depend on. They depended on each other. They were the same age, their birth dates separated by a mere twenty-six days. The thought of losing her tore him apart, but the idea of her gaining a family eased that pain, and she knew it.
“You deserve to have a family, ‘Lisha.” He always called her ‘Lisha, dropping the A. She claimed he was lazy. He’d just laugh at her and roll his eyes.
“But I’ll lose you…” Tears filled her eyes, and she put her hand over her mouth.
“You’ll never lose me.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “You’re like the sister I never had.”
She wasn’t sure why that answer ripped the center of her heart out, but it did. She threw her arms around him and squeezed as hard as she could, swallowing the lump in her throat.
“Ahem…” A female someone cleared their throat.
They hadn’t heard the footsteps approaching. Headmistress Serena stood in the doorway with her arms crossed—she was a rather large and imposing woman. Two older people stood behind her, a man and a woman. They were dressed well, and they had kind faces.
Alisha let go of Zevo and turned to face her. “I’m sorry, Headmistress, I was just headed to your office…”
“I called you an hour ago.” Serena looked down her nose, glancing suspiciously at Zevo, who just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Alisha nodded and hung her head. “I wanted to say goodbye first.”
Serena made a noise that might have been a satisfied grunt but sounded like a disbelieving grumble instead. She pointed at the strange couple behind her.
“This is Cyris and Glory Dalancy, and they’ve come to pick you up. Have you packed your things as I asked you this morning?”
“Good. Now, leave Darran to his ships and get your bags, it’s time to go.”
Alisha grabbed Darran’s hand and blinked away a final tear.
“Wait, a second.” Glory Dalancy stepped past Serena (which was difficult, because Serena took up much of the doorway) and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “You two have been here together for a while, haven’t you?”
Alisha looked into her eyes and realized she’d mistaken caring for kindness—they were similar, but she knew from experience that one was deeper and meant more than the other. She nodded at Glory, and the older woman took her hand and turned back to Serena.
“Would it be a problem if we took…” she looked at Zevo, and he told her his name “… Darran, with us as well? We have more than enough room, and it would just be for a few days to help Alisha adjust to the change. We promise to bring him back in good shape.”
Serena turned the thought over in her mind, her chubby fingers stroking her chin. Alisha had both hands behind her back with her fingers crossed. She held her breath.
“I suppose that would be Ok. This is sixth-day, and the shuttle from the Guardian Academy will be by to pick him up early morning first-day; can you have him back by then?”
“I can drop him off at the academy myself.” Cyris Dalancy nodded. The soft gray at his temples, catching the light from the plasma lamps in the hallway. It made him look like he had a halo around his head. “It’s only a few miles from our home.”
Alisha squeezed Darran’s hand and grinned.
Serena aimed a thick finger at him. “Then you should get packed, Mr. Zevo. Meet us at the front gate in twenty minutes.”
Alisha pulled the straight black hair out of her face and tied it behind her head with a thin brown leather cord. She tossed the ponytail over the seat-back and let it whip in the wind. The Dalancy’s had the top off on their roller, and the mountain breeze blew through the cab. It was summer and warm, but the fresh air flushed the heat from their skin. She felt the freedom of the wind. It was a new experience. She’d ridden in rollers before, but mostly the big one that took them to the market once a month. The windows were small, and it was more like being in an enormous metal can than being free.
Zevo had his nose in the air, smelling the scented pine and sage along the roadway. The smile on his face was mirrored on hers, and she watched the trees blur by as Mr. Dalancy pushed the accelerator closer to the floor, the hum of the engine a soothing purr of sound. The roller’s tires hit a stretch of rocky dirt and raised a cloud of dust. Mr. Dalancy slapped the button on the dash that raised the shield. A shimmering bubble popped up surrounding the cab, holding back the grime. When the rough patch passed, he lowered it again, and the cool breeze hit them in the face once more.
The pass broke through the last set of mountain peaks, and the road started down toward Erador Prime. Alisha could feel the angle change in her stomach. She looked over the front seat and out the window. King’s Harbor lay in the far distance. She couldn’t see any of the old ships from here, but she knew they were there, forever at anchor, dying of uselessness and neglect—victims of progress and advancing technology.
The enormous circular wall that surrounded Erador Prime rose above the treetops like a man-made mountain, and just before they got to it, Mr. Dalancy spun the wheel to the left and aimed the roller down a narrow lane flanked by tall pine trees. The trees opened into a wide field in front of a house. But, house wasn’t really the best word for it. The place was huge: three stories, two barns, and a stable, on one side of a large field full of horses. The house was built of warm red stone, and it reminded Alisha more of a Castle—a chunk of rock to be defended—than someplace people might live. There were even battlements along the roof. She couldn’t see any cannons, though.
The drive circled, passing in front of the door. The roller came to a stop, and the Dalancy’s hopped out.
“Come on,” Glory grabbed Alisha’s hand and motioned at Zevo to follow, “I’ll show you around.”
“I’ll get the bags.” Cyris shooed them off.
Glory Dalancy pushed the large double doors inward; the ancient hinges shrieked in protest as the massive wooden panels parted, the right one banging against the stone wall behind it.
Directly in front of them was a colossal staircase that rose one flight, then split back along either wall leading to the second floor. A large stained-glass window shattered the light pouring in from the two suns and showered the landing with multicolored shards. It was the most beautiful thing Alisha had ever seen. There were two arches, one on either side of the room that opened into larger rooms than the one they stood in. The arch to the left looked like it led to a library. Glory walked through the one on the right, and they followed her.
“This is the living area, and where we spend the most time.”
There was a rack of split logs next to a well-used fireplace, black soot-streaks on the stone. Alisha imagined the smell of wood smoke on a chilly night. The idea made her smile. A thick gray rug stretched out in front of the fireplace, surrounded by what looked like very comfortable leather couches with a thick wooden table between them. A row of tall windows looked out on the front lawn; purple and gold drapes tied back at either end.
The back half of the room was the kitchen, and just to one side, the dining table. She noticed there were only five chairs when the table seated six. She didn’t put too much thought into it. Maybe they broke one, or perhaps they used it in the library, to reach books on the higher shelves.
“Are you hungry?” Glory walked into the kitchen and opened the cooler, just as Cyris came in.
“I’ve put your things in your rooms,” he said. “It’s the first two rooms on the right on the second floor; you should be able to find them.” He smiled and sat at the table.
Glory set out chilled meat and cheese, and the remaining half of a loaf of bread she had baked that morning. The bread was still soft, and Alisha loved the doughy texture as she chewed. The bread at the orphanage had always been at least two or three days old: the throwaways of the bakery in Jos Hollow, and it was always hard and crunchy. She liked this better. They washed it all down with tall glasses of ice-cold milk.
When they finished eating, Alisha helped Glory put the remains away and wash the dishes.
“We have to go into the city to pick up your sisters,” Glory said.
The word hit Alisha in the stomach like a punch, and she lost her breath for a moment. “I have… sisters?”
Glory threw her arms around her and rubbed her back. “You do! They’re starting a break from school today.” She let go and walked toward the door with Cyris. “We’ll be gone for several hours. Feel free to explore and enjoy yourselves. If you need anything, Mrs. Morrel lives in the little house next to the woods, behind the stables. She will take care of you.”
They waved at the roller as it traveled down the circular drive and disappeared.
Zevo turned toward her and winked, a mischievous look on his face. “Let’s check this place out…”
They started building Dalancy Castle in the second cycle of 1001—two-hundred years ago—that was also the year that Clive Dalancy died, and even though the house was his idea. The rest of the family believed he was crazy, but they let the construction continue, as a memorial to him.
Clive started the family business, and he’d made them all rich beyond their wildest dreams. The fact that the money came from making weapons of war didn’t seem to bother any of the younger Dalancy’s. Clive was the only one who ever had a conflict of conscience, but it came too late and died along with him. His children just went on spending the money, with no thought about where it came from, or what it cost in human lives.
The architect Clive hired to design the Castle was sworn to secrecy, and he died not long after it’s completion, supposedly by accident, but there were rumors. The plans were destroyed when the house was finished. More rumors spread about secret passages and hidden rooms, but no one could ever prove it. If there were hidden rooms, they were well-hidden.
There was one issue of a stablehand’s dog that somehow got into the Castle through an open back door. They searched the whole place, top to bottom, but they found no dog. Carrus Dalancy fired the man, claiming he was a drunkard and had imagined it all.
They built the Castle when the war with the Draggons was still raging, and there were cannons mounted on the roof. Not that cannons could stop a Draggon—they might slow them down—they were removed after the peace treaty with Darkonus, and stored in an underground bunker somewhere on the property; it had since grown over and become lost, tall grass hiding the entrance. No one remembered where it was.
The library Alisha had seen from the front hall was everything she’d dreamed of: stacks upon stacks of dusty leather-bound books lined every wall, sizeable wooden reading tables filled the center of the room, with comfortable chairs surrounding them. The smell of musty pages tickled her nose and stirred her imagination. She loved to read as much as Zevo loved building ships, maybe more, because it was the one thing she did just for herself.
She went down the rows, checking the titles. There were several books here she had wanted to read: “The Obvious Choice,” by Willem Graves; “Reaper,” by Castus Donal; and “Leave a Piece Behind,” by Fared Hund. And that was just the fiction section; books she’d never been able to find in the orphanage library. She was thrilled.
Then, there was a section of books at the back in one corner. The light was more subdued here; the glow from the windows didn’t quite reach. She felt a strange stir in her chest as her finger touched each spine, and she read the titles under her breath.
“Incantations and Charms”
“Positive and Negative Orphic Flows”
“The Myth of Casting Without a Talisman”
She didn’t recognize any of the authors until she came to the fifteenth book.
“The Three Tokens of Power,” by Glory Dalancy.
Alisha pulled the book from the shelf and flipped through the pages, stopping somewhere in the middle. She read from the top of the left page.
“—Each of the Tokens uses a different type of power, but each is balanced against the others. The Scepter balances the Circle, which balances the Dagger, which balances the Scepter. It’s a perfect circle of energy. It’s unsure what would happen if one part of the balance were removed—”
“Darran!” She turned to find him. He was on his knees in front of a section of books about the Draggon wars, flipping through the pages, looking at the pictures. “What?”
He joined her in front of the gloomy rack; he even commented on it, “Wow, it’s really dark back here.
She ignored him and thrust the book in his face, pointing at the author’s name.
“So?” He wrinkled his forehead. “She wrote a book, so what?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed in frustration. “This is a section about magic!” Her hands framed the bookshelf, focusing his attention on the other titles.
“Wow, you’re right…” Zevo faked a yawn and put his hand over his mouth. “Can we go now?”
“You don’t think this is interesting?”
“I think she wrote a book about magic.” He waved at the rest of the books on the shelf. “So did they… whoever they are. Ask her about it when she comes back. Can we go do something else now?”
They spent an hour exploring the woods behind the house, and another hour lying on their backs in a field of flowers on the mountainside overlooking the Castle, watching the clouds and arguing about the shapes. Zevo found ships, and ship-related-shapes: anchors, sails, waves, even one pirate-shaped eyepatch. Alisha turned them into animals, and he had to agree that she was right more often than him, except for one three-masted schooner that she grudgingly agreed to, but only because the rabbit she saw would have had one extra ear.
They explored the stables and talked to all the horses. Some were disinterested, but a few, especially a big black horse with a white blaze down its face, paid particular attention to Alisha. The name-plate on his stall said Mercury, and she found a bushel of redfruit in one corner of the barn. She gave him three, and he wanted more, but she didn’t want to be unfair to the others, so they left with a promise to return. Mercury nodded and nuzzled her hand, his solid black eyes watching them go.
The cottage behind the stables crouched amongst the trees, overshadowed by the branches hanging down around it, brushing the red-tiled roof. It was white, or off-white—it was dull because the paint was old, and the trim was a bright-green, or what used to be bright. Now it was just green, and it blended into the background of the forest like it was trying to hide, ashamed of the shabby state it was in. A thin whisper of smoke curled into the air from the chimney, drifting off on the breeze.
Alisha rapped her knuckles against the door. The echo bounced off the trees and disappeared into the forest like a forgotten memory. Birds protested from the lower branches: a squawking symphony of discord.
“I don’t think she’s here.” Zevo turned and stepped down off the porch just as the door flew open, and an old woman dressed in a multi-colored robe grabbed Alisha and pulled her inside, slamming the door behind her. “Hey!” He spun around and pounded on the wood, twisting on the doorknob. It was locked. “Hey! Let her go!”
Mrs. Morrel ignored the banging on her door and placed one hand on each of Alisha’s cheeks. She squeezed and then threw her hands in the air. “Well, we can’t concentrate with all this noise, can we?”
She pointed one finger at the door and muttered something Alisha couldn’t hear. The sound of the lock clicking was followed by the racket of Zevo bursting through. He fell forward as the door flew wide, ending up on his knees, staring up at them.
“What on Erador…?” He was out of breath, and his face was red.
“Oh, calm yourself.” Mrs. Morrel smiled at them both and walked into the kitchen. “I have tea brewing, would either of you like some?”
Zevo got up, brushed the dust from his knees, and followed Alisha into the house.
Mrs. Morrel didn’t wait for an answer. She grabbed three cups and filled them from a dark-green teapot, placing them on a small table in her kitchen. They all sat and stared at each other for a moment. The steam rose from the cups, filling the air between them.
“Mrs. Dalancy said we could come to you if we needed anything…” Alisha took the cup and sipped the hot tea, blowing the steam away. She breathed in the rich aroma, it was invigorating, and it made her smile.
“And do you?”
“Do we what?” Alisha looked confused.
“Oh, no, we were just exploring.”
“And have you found anything interesting?” There was a bright gleam in Mrs. Morrel’s eyes, like a spark flashing off of metal. It was brief, and Alisha couldn’t swear it was there, but it made her pay more attention to the older woman.
“Maybe, I’m not sure…” Alisha said, unsure of what she meant.
“Well, come back when you have a question, or if a beast is chasing you, or if I can help you in any other way…” She sat her cup down and pushed them toward the door. She had them halfway there when Alisha spun around and grabbed her hands.
“Is Glory a Sorceress?”
Mrs. Morrel stopped and stared at them for a moment, then waved her hand toward the kitchen.
“Grab your tea and follow me.”
They sat on the front porch of the little cottage in high-backed chairs that were more comfortable than they should have been, based on the design.
Mrs. Morrel took a long sip from her cup, watching Alisha over the rim. “Glory was the Head Preceptor at the School of Orphic Mysteries before Arriana Brillow took over.”
“Why did she quit?”
“Quit means giving up; she would never do that.” Mrs. Morrel shook her head.
“Ok, so what happened?”
The old woman sat back in her chair, her eyes glazing over. “I’ll tell you both a story, but I need you to swear that you’ll never repeat it, especially not to Glory…”
Alisha and Zevo looked at each other, curiosity driving them both to agree.
She slid a thin dagger from her right sleeve and held it in front of her. Alisha felt like the day got suddenly darker and not like a cloud passing overhead either, more like the light had been sucked out of it. The birds were silent, and the wind had stopped.
“You’ve heard of a blood-oath?” Mrs. Morrel raised the dagger and drew a glowing blue rune in the air with her fingertip. “Luminaria.” The rune twisted and pulsed, tiny electrical sparks shooting from the surface.
They glanced at each other, wide-eyed.
Zevo asked the obvious question. “Does it require blood?”
“Only if you break the oath…”
They both nodded.
“Touch the rune.”
They each stretched a finger toward it. It zapped them several times before they could lay a finger on it, but finally, they managed. Zevo stuck his finger in his mouth.
“Now, tell us,” Alisha said.
“Fine… just remember your promise, or you’ll owe me a greater debt.”
“Many years ago,” Mrs. Morrel leaned back in her chair and stared into the woods, “there was a Fae’rie named Minerva. Minerva remained in the neutral universe far too long, and it was showing, but the longer she stayed, the more powerful she felt. Fae’rie keep to the positive dimensions, but she’d been here well past the safe-range, and it was affecting her mind.
“She was going insane and didn’t realize it—in fact, the worse she got, the less she understood, and the more dangerous she became.
“She still remembered who she was, where she came from, all the important things. But she thought everyone was trying to kill her, which wasn’t true, so she made plans to avoid death, and defeat her imagined enemies, which was everyone else that could use magic.”
“Wait, what’s a Fae’rie?” Zevo interrupted her story.
“Positive dimensions?” Alisha nodded agreement.
Mrs. Morrel saw the confusion on their faces. “You two are clueless, aren’t you?” She finished her tea and set the cup down. “I will give you the short version of how the multi-verse works. No interruptions until I’m finished…” She wagged one bony finger at them.
They nodded, focusing on her eyes.
“There are four immortal races: the Draggons, the Fae’rie, the D’jinn, and the K’Pa. There are three types of energy, and also three types of dimensions: positive, negative, and neutral. Erador exists in a neutral dimension. I won’t get into how the flows of Orphic energy work, it’s a little more complex, just understand that each of these races, except for the Draggons, belong to a positive, negative, or neutral dimension. If they stay too long in a different one, it drives them mad.”
She watched the understanding wash over their faces, Alisha quicker than Zevo, but he came around.
“So, you got all that?”
“I think I understand.” Alisha nodded. “The Fae’rie are positive beings, and being in our neutral dimension was making Minerva sick.”
“Exactly.” Mrs. Morrel smiled, and the spark returned to her eyes for a moment. This time Alisha was sure she saw it. “These are advanced magical concepts; I’m surprised you grasped them so fast. Well, I’m not, considering who you are, but I’m glad you did.”
“Considering who I am?” Alisha looked confused again. “What do you mean?”
“Mother!” Glory Dalancy stopped at the bottom of the steps, startling all three of them and making them jump. Her eyes were thin slits, and her forehead wrinkled; she shook her head as she stared at Mrs. Morrel. “Stop filling these children’s heads with your wild tales. You must forgive my mother; she exaggerates sometimes…”
Mrs. Morrel was silent, but a thin grin crossed her face.
Glory pointed toward the main house. “Becca and Carril are here. Why don’t you two go introduce yourselves, while I talk to mom?”
The two older women watched them disappear around the corner of the stable, and Glory sat on the top step of the porch and glared at her mother. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“She has a right to know who she is. And what she is.”
“You think I don’t feel that way too?”
“I’m sure you do. I raised you right. So, when are you going to tell her?”
“It’s dangerous right now.”
“It’s always dangerous, dear, that’s never stopped us before.”
“I’ll tell her when I believe she’s ready, and you…” Glory stood up and stepped off the porch, “… will not interfere. Do we understand each other?”
“Can I at least finish my story about Minerva?”
“No.” Glory shook her head and walked away, then looked back over her shoulder. “Minerva will be everyone’s problem before long, let’s not rush it.”
“Whatever you say, dear…”