I felt my warrior come to the fore. Everything seemed to be in hyper focus as I stared at the approaching blast of Fae power. Time slowed as thousands of possibilities raced through my head. My muscles tensed in preparation, and that's when I felt it. The iron armband that Pounamu had given me felt constricting as I had flexed. It reminded me that I wasn't completely out of options. It was probably the reason I had resisted her glamour for so long.
I called on the power that was mine as a guardian. I knew there was a border between the Fae and the chaos realms, because Sam had been transported directly from the Lord of Lies,' den. My own realm was too far away. I didn't know if I had the power to do what I was proposing to do, but I was a stuck between a rock and a hard place. Desperate measures called for stupid stunts.
I drew on every ounce of power I could muster and felt something click inside. With a monumental pull, I called to the border that separated the Chaos realms from the Fae realms. The Palace shuddered as Chaos energy clashed against the wild magic of Fae. In the distance I heard the nether denizens screech and the Fae animals issue their own challenge.
It was too late for me. I knew this. The Queen's power was only a hairs breadth from hitting me. But, my warrior had other ideas and urged me to consider other avenues. I had sworn that I wouldn't do this, but my life was at stake. I didn't want Kevin to have a substitute doppelganger, me, to crawl into bed with. I loved him. I was determined to spend my life with him. He was mine.
With that in mind I broke a personal vow. I opened myself up to chaos energy. The Queen's magic hit my skin and started peeling the flesh away. I screamed as it burned down to the bone. At the same time, chaos energy flooded through my body, and the pain became excruciating pleasure. The smell of cooked meat filled my nostrils and my stomach rumbled as I looked through a vision of red.
The last time I had done this it had left an irrevocable stain upon my soul. Now, chaos filled my mind and body as if it had never left. My morals and conscience died as chaos ate away at my restraints. I looked at my melted flesh with fascinated interest.
My healing flowed through me like shards of glass and I hissed at the pleasure-pain that filled my senses. I heard gasps of horror from the crowd as they stared at what was left of me. The Queen was looking a little wide eyed as I remained upright on my feet.
Insane laughter echoed through the room and I felt the Fae shudder as my voice crawled down their spines. I licked my lips and tasted blood as my body was still healing. That was all I needed to bring the berserker out. I howled and rushed the Queen. She looked slightly startled before she threw shards of light at me. I dodged some, but most of them hit me.
I kept coming, but she managed to avoid my lunges. With another snarl I drew my telekinetic knives out and swirled them around me. They spun and rotated like the electrons around the nucleus of an atom. My punches were not hitting her, so I expanded my swords to cover the entire room. With wanton glee I twisted my swords hard and fast. Sparks flew in the air as they hit the marble tiles and the surrounding pillars, finding victims in their destructive paths.
Screams rent the air and I wallowed in the fear and terror I was generating. Blood splashed over me from the escaping crowd as my invisible knives slashed into them. I heard a grunt of pain from the Queen, and I rushed toward her once more.
I felt her blood splash onto me and I grinned like a joyful child as I licked the side of my mouth to taste her essence. For the first time I saw fear in those perfect eyes and I wanted to pluck them out and put them on a necklace. My child-like giggle reverberated throughout the room. It was the sound of my own voice that helped a tiny part of the real me recover.
I astral projected to Pounamu in hope that he would be able to come up with a plan to bring me back from the brink. I just prayed that time was much slower on the Earthly plane. Coming here to the Fae realms could mean that I lost an entire year, twenty years, or just one minute. Time meant very little to the immortals who had the power to alter the time space continuum. The part of me that still clung to my human compassion fled with my astral self. I turned and stared at the Queen. This bitch was about to get her comeuppance and I was happy to give it to her.
I remembered the dream that had haunted me for a while now; the one where I was wallowing in a shower of blood, licking and frolicking as if it were gentle rain tumbling down my body. Back then I had shuddered at the sight, crying at the loss of my innocence. This time, Chaos ruled, and I embraced and wallowed. Blood rained over me and I rejoiced at the sight. Anyone in the crowd was fair game and the ritual fight had now turned into a blood bath.
In my Chaos driven mind I underestimated the Queen. She got under my guard and I felt her hand push through my flesh and into my body. Her hand gripped my heart and I managed to stop her arm from ripping it out. The pain fuelled my rage and I squeezed hard, using my warrior's strength, as well as my telekinesis, to prevent her from moving.
I clenched my other fist and punched the side of her jaw. She squeezed hard inside my chest and, even with chaos in my veins, the pain could not be converted into pleasure. I sent a thousand razor sharp telekinetic daggers into her arm. Her scream of pain shook the palace rafters as I cut off her hand. But her hand didn't stop squeezing.
I was starting to lose consciousness and black spots were hazing the edge of my peripheral vision. My healing was trying to prevent the hand from killing me entirely, but healing could only do so much. I needed to get the hand to let go without killing myself in the process. My heart was under a lot of stress and the longer that this hand remained embedded in me, the less chance I would survive.
I looked over and saw the Queen's arm stump starting to regrow. In slow motion, bones regrew and nerves and flesh soon followed. I wanted to stop her and hissed. I stretched my hand out toward her. Because of the Chaos that filled my veins I had lost contact with my empathic skill. That skill could not survive under chaos' influence. But something filled the void that had been where my empathy normally resided. I felt it rush up and out of my hand. It burned all the way out and I gritted my teeth at the sensation.
It was almost the same way my empathic ball of energy had manifested, but this seemed foreign even for the power of Chaos. I couldn't see it, but I felt it as energy spread out from my hand like heatwaves. It hit the Queen and I watched as her body was lifted off the ground. She landed in an untidy heap, but I wasn't foolish enough to believe she had gone down. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
I placed my burning hand onto my chest where her fingers were still squeezing. I pushed that strange energy into my bloody wound and I felt her hand release my heart. Using my telekinesis, I pulled the offending body part out of my chest and gritted my teeth as my healing took over.
I screamed my rage and thrust my hand out once again. The pain in my chest was intense and I lashed out at the nearest target: the Queen. A heavy, dull pain crept into my hand as I projected that strange energy at her. Faster than my eye could see, she held my hand in her own and twisted. I felt the bones crack, and her power pushed against mine.
Our voices mingled as my power flared through her veins, just as hers flowed through mine. Her light shone through my healing skin, burning it from the inside out, just as my power seemed to peel the skin off her body. My clothes lay in tatters and it was the glint from my iron band that caught my attention. With a quick flick of telekinesis, it rolled down my arm and made contact with the Queen, whose hand was still clinging to mine.
I felt her power fade once the iron touched her skin. She tried pulling her hand from mine, but I held on tightly. She lifted my body with just one hand and slammed me down in the hope I would let go. I snarled and held on tight. I could see blood and smell rot oozing down her arms and legs as my power seeped deeper into her body.
Her back arched and I watched as pain etched across her face. Her blood was making her hand too slippery to maintain my grasp so I used telekinesis to hold on tight. She gave an ear piercing squeal, looked at me, and I felt the ground shift as she drew on the life source of this realm and shoved it into me. I bowed my back and gritted my teeth as my muscles constricted.
I sucked in the power of Chaos and felt it push against her magic. It was as if two behemoths were gnawing at each other. I snarled my own attack, hoping the rest of the Fae would not interfere. With a quick scan I was relieved to see that none were present. The walls began to crack as our power clashed over and over. I screamed my rage once more and thrust more power into hurting the Queen.
She retaliated and, for a second, I blacked out. I dropped to the ground and tried to orient myself. She shouted her fury and triumph as her power stripped away my healing talent. Even with the iron armband against her skin, she was much more powerful than I.
I was dying. I knew this. I could feel her trying to close the barrier between her world and the chaos realms. I held on to the barrier and slipped into unconsciousness one more time. When I came to she was screaming in pent up fury as my control had not wavered, even unconscious. For a split second I felt the floor drop out from beneath me. I saw darkness and then I was back, lying on the marble tiles once more. I wanted to laugh hysterically, if only the pain would allow me enough breath for it.
Dimly I heard screeches and shouts as if a large battle were taking place outside. The Queen had me in her grip and she was shaking me like a rag doll. The warrior within me smiled. I was calling the nether realm denizens to come to me and, like mindless killing puppets, they had responded. They might not get to me in time, but many fairy creatures would die on this day. The warrior rejoiced at the destruction.
There was a flash and the Queen dropped me as something impacted against her body. She fell on her back, flopping around like a beached fish. I looked up and saw Pounamu and my doppelganger beside him. Jealousy, dark and unrelenting, flowed through me and, if I had enough strength, I would have tried killing the impostor. He looked too perfect for my taste and I wanted to feel his blood glide down my body.
Instead, I sank back down as my breaths became laboured and darkness ate at my vision. I gritted my teeth and turned my sight towards the Summer Queen. She,, in turn, looked at me and hissed. Faster than any of my rescuers could react she turned into light and pierced my eyes, body, and mind. I saw no more.
I was curled up in the hollow of a tree. I stretched and shook myself as I got up. There was emptiness inside me, and it took only moments to realise what it was. I was relieved and mournful at the same time. The energy of Chaos had been removed from my system and, where my tree of talents should have been, there was nothing. I searched into my chest wondering what the hell was going on. I sat back down and thought hard about what had happened.
The last thing I remembered was seeing the Summer Queen dive into my body. How I got here, or where this was, had me stumped. There was a taint of things putrefying and I curled my nose at the scent. It reminded me of what the Queens stagnant power smelled like. With that thought I scanned my surroundings. Where was the Queen? Why was I still alive?
I got up and began wandering around. I was in some kind of tropical forest. But that putrid smell permeated everything. Covering my nose, I tried to walk as stealthily as possible and realised how foolish that was. I couldn't draw on my warrior's knowledge to help me here. Anyway, if the Queen was somewhere out there she could get to me before I blinked. My hand brushed against a tree and I pulled it back when I felt how moist, squishy, and wet it was.
Looking at my hand, I did something utterly embarrassing and was grateful no one could hear me. I squealed like a girl. Blood and maggots were squirming over the tips of my fingers and I shook them off madly. My breathing was harsh and shallow as I wiped my hand against a large leaf. Grinding my teeth at the self-loathing I felt at my show of weakness, I strode forth.
Large fronds and dark green leaves, as large as paddles, flopped into my path. I could sense prying eyes watching me struggle through the underbrush, but I refused to allow my `observers,' the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. I wasn't sure if I was walking around in circles but I couldn't stand in one place either. Moist heat caused rivulets of sweat to slide down my naked flesh. I plodded on, determined not to allow this place or whatever was going on to get to me.
That sense of eyes watching slithered down my back, and I paused to stare behind me. Who ever it was had the hairs on my nape and arms rising to attention. The old fight or flight instinct pumped through my veins. Once upon a time I would have fled with my tail between my legs. I would have screamed and thrashed the shrubbery in my haste to run as far from that ominous feeling as I could.
Now, too many things had happened for me to run like a coward. There were too many unknown factors, and rushing headlong without thinking would get me into more serious trouble. If they thought that I would play their `mouse in a maze' game, they had another think coming.
I knew that standing to fight whatever this thing could be would be a foolish endeavour, however. But why would `whoever or whatever' that brought me here allow me to live? I giggled a little as another thought came to mind. Perhaps I was actually dead and this was the afterlife? If that was the answer, then I was going to search out this `thing' that was watching me and get some fucking answers.
I strode towards the place where I could feel eyes watching and saw the surrounding trees rustle as if some enormous creature was rumbling through the forest towards me. I laughed at the special effects. "You're going to have to do better than that!" I shouted.
My heart was pounding and I idly wondered if chaos energy was still flowing through my veins. I was talking a whole lot of shit; my bravado was going to get me killed faster than fleeing wildly into the forest. Nevertheless I stood my ground and could feel nervous laughter wanting to bubble up out of my throat. Clenching my teeth, I prayed that I wouldn't wet myself or do anything more embarrassing.
Boughs rubbed against each other, sounding like the creaking of a ship, as the trees lifted their roots out of the soil and flowed into pillared formation, creating an aisle. The churned soil looked moist and soon green clovers and fresh grass was growing out of it. Spots of colour appeared in this carpet as flowers burst into full bloom. The scent of roses wafted toward me, cancelling the scent of rotting forest behind me.
An old woman walked sedately toward me. She held herself with regal poise as she glided towards me. I knew who this was and I had to suppress a whimper from escaping. Summer and Winter had three phases: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Although the Fae were immortal, the Summer and Winter Queens went through the cycles in order for their power to replenish. This had been so since the beginning of creation.
This `harmless' looking woman was the Summer Crone. Behind her, I saw her opposite, the Winter Crone. These two were the grandmothers and, as fierce and as powerful as the Queens were, the crones surpassed them. Pounamu had mentioned once, in his lectures about the Fae, that the Crones were never allowed to interfere directly with the Queens because, if the balance ever tipped, it would lead to the apocalypse.
I sighed, trying to shake the tightening in my neck and shoulders. I was not ready to meet these Goddesses, for that is what they were.
"Come boy, we do not have all day. Step onto the path."
Her brisk tone reminded me of Grams and, without thinking about it, I walked onto the carpet of grass. Everything changed around me. I ended up inside a small, but comfy cottage. The Winter Crone was sitting snugly in a chair that seemed to dwarf her frame. She was knitting and the light from the window glinted on her silver, blue, and white hair. She had an aristocratic look and she stared imperiously at me before continuing with whatever she was making. I turned and watched as the Summer Crone pottered around what looked like an iron pot bellied stove. I did a double take to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. She worked industriously over some kind of broth. But it was the iron stove that had my attention. How was she able to work with pure iron?
She looked up at that moment and saw my inquisitive look. They were the same eyes as the Summer Queen; I now knew where the Queen got those perfect eyes. She smiled and grasped the iron handle of the pot, moving the steaming broth to a coaster that was placed on a long table. Her hair was wrapped up in an elaborate bun, wisps of white, gold, and red hair sparkled from the reflection of the fire she was stoking.
"Grandmother," I asked tentatively, "were you the one that saved me?"
She looked at me as she opened cupboards and set out three bowls. "If I did that I would be breaking the balance, now wouldn't I?"
"So who did?"
"Think boy, we the Grandmothers can not interfere directly, so who can?"
The light bulb went on in my head. There was only one more power I hadn't yet met. The Maiden power; the Summer and possibly Winter Princesses. I sat down gingerly on a stool. Things were obviously going on beyond my understanding here.
"I think I've just fallen into a nest of politics that I'm not sure I can find my way out of."
She moved a bowl of stew in front of me. "Eat up, boy; you will need your strength."
Without thinking, I raised the spoon up to my lips. I stopped just before it entered my mouth and looked at the soup with dawning horror. I had very nearly eaten something from the Fae realm. I heard the Winter Crone cackle as she watched me hesitate.
"Sorry, but I'm not sure it would be wise of me to eat food from the fairy realm."
She stared at me seriously before speaking. "For the task that is set out in front of you, you will need all the help you can get. The balance is precarious right now and, if we don't try to help, things may get completely out of hand. The food will not harm you; it will help you regain that which is lost. If you do not right the balance then your realm will be next to fall. Without summer the world will know another ice age, one that will last millennia. I fear the human race will not survive such a catastrophe."
I looked down at the steaming broth and shivered. I took a sip of the broth and felt the heat slide down my throat into my belly. The food was exquisite and without further hesitation I began to scoop more into my mouth. So absorbed was I in my food I was surprised when the Winter Crone came up beside me. In one hand was a pair of plain cotton trousers. In the other was a woollen shirt of the same colour. They were beautifully made. I was stumped and looked at her offering stupidly.
"You are most welcome to travel our realms in the nude if that is what you want," she said with apparent amusement.
I took the clothes and thanked her sincerely. My concentration on food had been so complete I had forgotten I was naked. I quickly donned the clothing and felt better for it. I turned to thank her again, but she was back in her chair, knitting. She flicked her hand and a pair of black leather boots, complete with socks, appeared on the floor beside my chair. I put those on gratefully. Sitting back at my chair, I finished my stew and felt replete. The Summer Crone had already finished her stew, and the Winter Crone had her bowl beside her chair. I was warm and content and my eyes felt drowsy.
"Come child, rest."
As if I were six all over again, I felt hands guide me to what felt like the softest bed. My eyes kept drooping, and the blankets were pulled snugly around me. I felt a kiss on my forehead before slumber pulled me into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up back in the Summer Queen's palace. A young girl about the same age as me, or maybe a year older, was peering at me intently. I gasped as I saw what looked like a briar rose superimposed over her body. There seemed to be weeds entangled around the flowers. I could see wheat and fruits growing and fading away. They looked like living tattoos except it was crawling over her clothes and her body.
"I'm glad you're awake." She said.
"You're the Summer Princess," I blurted out.
She looked startled and a calculated gleam appeared in her eyes before she smiled. "I thought my glamour would make me appear as a normal Fae. I guess I failed miserably at it."
"The briar rose was a little too much."
She gave me a quizzical look, before it turned pitying. "I think the battle bumped your head." She giggled to herself as she said this before turning more serious, "There are no briar roses on my body."
It was my turn to look confused. I knew the Fae were mercurial but her sudden mood swings and secretive nature were getting on my nerves. I stared at the moving images upon her body. "You have a briar that is being strangled by weeds. There are images of wheat and rye that keeps fading..." my voice died out at the bleak look on her face.
"What have the Grandmothers done to you?"
I wanted to be glib but my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I didn't know what was going on and, if I allowed myself, I would begin crying or laughing hysterically. It was as if I had fallen into `Alice of Wonderland.' Everything seemed so surreal. I was on a runaway horse with no reigns and me gripping as tightly as possible in the event I fell off, knowing that eventually I would fall off.
I took a deep breath and felt my warrior stir within me. A tight muscle I hadn't realised I had clenched, loosened within me. I quickly scanned my tree and was relieved to feel all my skills upon its branches. I didn't know what the Grandmothers had done exactly, but I had a feeling I owed them big time.
Staring at the fear and wonder in the Summer Princess' eyes, I gathered my wits about me. I needed to know what had happened to my friends that had come to rescue me, the Queen, and how I ended up alive in these chambers instead of ash and soot. At the same time I needed to get this young Princess on my side, so I needed to play along with her game.
"To be truthful, I haven't the faintest clue as to what the Grandmothers have done to me."
She stopped, staring at me in a new light. "Let me try something." Closing her eyes, a small frown marred her features. For a second I could see an orange light shimmer above her skin, before it receded. "Do you see anything different?"
I shook my head in the negative. "There was this burst of energy at the beginning, but your face didn't change, nor did anything else about you."
She issued a sharp bark and another female Fae came in and bowed. "Liselle, tell me what you see when you stare at me?"
Liselle squinted and covered her eyes. "I see a light so bright it hides your face from view, your Highness." The Princess turned her face towards me. Like her grandmother and mother she, too, had those beautiful purple streaked eyes. "Tell me, Guardian, what you see."
I looked at her confused. "I see a girl with the same eyes as her mother, but with the gold, red and ash blond hair that is your grandmother's." There was stillness in the room as if violence were about to erupt once more. I readied myself, but mentally cursed for getting myself into these predicaments in the first place. I was a diplomatic disaster and I didn't know when to keep my own counsel. Not to mention that there were a lot of undercurrents and political machinations going on that were way beyond me.
"Leave us, Liselle." The Fae bowed and backed out of the room. I watched the Princess warily as she paced back and forth.
"Princess, where are my friends?"
She stopped pacing and stared at me as if she only now realised I was still here. "They left when they saw your body explode from the inside out. Of course, if they hadn't closed the border between my realm and Chaos, I would have destroyed them. Your Pounamu is a clever creature. He got a boon out of me for safe passage."
I felt the blood drain from my face. She continued pacing, unaware of the impact her blithe words had on me. "Where is the Queen?"
A small smile curled her lips. "You killed her. She was quite mad, you know."
I wanted to snort. The apple didn't fall far from the tree. I swallowed my guffaw; I wasn't stupid enough to voice my opinions aloud. "If I... exploded, then how come I am still alive?"
She looked at me as if I were simple. I resented the look but held my tongue. I needed to be a little more mature about this. There were far too many things going on that I wasn't aware of. I needed information and, while she was in this mood, perhaps I could get some answers.
"While you were fighting my mother, did you feel the ground drop from under you at any time during the battle?" She walked closer to me, swaying gracefully to unheard dance music.
Closing my eyes, I visualised the battle. I felt my precog kick in and I was pulled into the past. I saw from at the beginning and fast forwarded. My warrior snarled as he saw what my conscious mind couldn't. I stopped the frame at the discrepancy. I was lying on the ground and I was dying. My skin looked bloody and a snarl had my face twisted into something demonic.
For a quarter of a second, my body blurred. I remembered the experience to go with the visual. I felt as if the floor had dropped away and I was falling into emptiness.
I opened my eyes and stared at the Princess. Only seconds had passed. Now things were starting to make a little more sense. The Princess had managed to open a portal beneath me and, before the Queen could kill me completely, I had been shoved into the more influential realm of the grandmothers. The exploding body had been an illusion. But that still didn't explain where the Queen was or the fact that she had actually shot into my body. There was no getting around that. I had felt her invading me.
"You said the Queen is dead, and I killed her, but how? I mean I know she entered me, but wouldn't she have come into the same realm I did? I never saw any sign of her."
The Princess shrugged. "The Grandmothers are more than a match for the Summer Queen. After all, the Grandmothers are older and wiser, and therefore their power is has grown over the millennia's. The Queens may be the font for the rest of the Fae, myself included, but the power originates from the grandmothers. So if grandmother Summer or Winter were keeping watch over you, then even the Summer Queen wouldn't know about it."
"So how do you know that the Queen is dead?" I asked
She smiled at me. It was beatific to behold, and yet I couldn't help but shiver. "Because the moment you woke up I felt my mother die, and knew that the mature power of Summer will be at my disposal."
I stared at her, and my gut instinct was telling me there was something she was not telling me. I could see it in her eyes. "As a Fae you cannot lie, so tell me, what is it that you're not telling me?"
She gave me an unpleasant look. "Would you like to leave this place, Guardian? I can send you back with your boon accomplished and you will not have to concern yourself with the Fae again."
I narrowed my eyes. It was tempting to leave this nest of twisted beings to their own devices, but I knew it would bite me on the ass if I chose that path. Also, the Grandmothers had hinted that I would be travelling their realms a little more intensively. It meant that there were things that I needed to do in order to maintain the balance. If the Fae political power turned ugly it would spill over into my world. I had to stay and sort this mess out.
Before I could voice my reasoning, something unexpected happened. My eyes glazed over as I felt fire and ice slide up the roots of my talent tree. I heard the Crones whisper to me, strengthening and urging the roots of my tree to dig deeper, search further. I felt my branches grow and expand. The bark turned dark, and hardened. There were things going on inside me that I needed to deal with. Now was not the time to confront the Princess, or try to investigate, when my own power was changing.
I looked at Summer Princess and bowed. "If you are offering me safe passage out of here, back to my own realm, I gladly accept."
She gave a triumphant smile. "Done." With a wave of her hand I felt the Fae realm fade around me. I was left in a void for only a moment, but it felt like an eternity before I was back on Oleander Ledge. I sent a telepathic message out to Pounamu. I didn't even have time to break the connection before he appeared beside me. There were worry frowns that I had never seen on his youthful face before.
Beside him were the four Maori warrior women who had helped me in my rescue attempt with Leila. All of them had their weapons drawn and were staring at me suspiciously. But it was the sixth member of their party that had me stunned. Kevin was beside them, but not like I had last seen him. He was dressed in dark clothes that conformed to his body. In his hands was a sword that hummed with power. I could feel its presence brush against my senses. There was hardness in his eyes I had never seen directed my way. I moved toward him.
"Take one more step and I will lop your head off."
I stopped in my tracks, my heart pounding and my lower lip quivering. "Kevin?"