“Whoa Uley,” Luin said as he pulled the reins of his horse. Uley stopped its trot. The forest in which they were riding was full of dark trees. The light from the outside was fully blocked, and the only light available resonated from the end of Luin’s staff. This staff he held in the hand that did not control his horse. “I think I saw something ahead Uley, though I can’t be sure what it is,” Luin spoke to the horse. Then Luin saw it again. It was a dot of light that seemed to flash across his vision. A pixie, Luin thought, or a wisp. He brought Uley to a trot, stopped, and waited. The pixie brought itself to him and began to float around him in a circle. She was the size of an apple and glowed blue.
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“So, you are headed to Zell’s castle?” The pixie said, “I’ve been watching your path. Not many venture into these woods, except those seeking Zell. You’re not welcome I’m afraid.”
“Of course not. No one’s welcome here,” Luin said, “these woods are cursed.”
The pixie laughed. “How long have you been wandering?”
“A few days,” Luin said, “I follow the castle’s resonance. You’re the first being I ran into.”
“Zell is much more powerful than you.” The pixie said, “He’s charmed the woods and his castle. I’m impervious to it, so he’s been trying to kill me for years. You’ll never find the castle without my help, and you’ll die if you try to walk into it without me. I can protect you.”
“What do you want?”
“I need you to get into the castle. Zell has bound me out, but not you. There is a room in the castle from which I want to suck the magic out. The room is full of crystal orbs and one, harmless snake. Zell will lose some power, and I will gain some.” The pixie laughed again. Luin shuddered.
“Ok,” he said, “but tell me your name.”
“Call me Cora.”
Luin followed behind Cora. She floated in front of him in sporadic patterns. He took a sip of water from a leather flask at his side and sagged his shoulders, hunching in the saddle. “I feel a heaviness,” Luin said, “Uley feels it as well. I feel sluggish, as if someone has given me an unpleasant herb.”
“The charms are getting stronger. We are nearing Zell’s Castle,” Cora said. She wore a silver circlet on her head and a blue dress on her body, though it was masked by her glow. Luin wore a green cloak and raw, leather pants. His hair and eyes were brown and he wore a jade ring on his finger. “You didn’t tell me yet what draws you to the castle,” Cora said.
“A friend of mine’s in trouble,” Luin said, “Zell has something of value to me.”
“I hope you don’t plan on fighting him.” Cora glowed a little brighter.
“Of course not,” Luin said. He was now practically lying on Uley’s back and instead of trotting Uley was at a slow walk.
It was night. At the top of the tower Luin kneeled next to a man, sleeping soundly on his back. The level was open to the air, and a single torch created a glow of light. “What has become of you?” Luin said, “Why don’t my spells wake you?” On a stone, oval table the figure was covered in a black cloak. Some fabric from the man's hood covered his face. A white owl landed on the ledge of the tower. “Why do you trouble me, Enzi?” Luin asked the owl.
“I know why Segel doesn’t wake,” Enzi cooed and turned its head in a circle.
“Why should I trust you?”
“Because you know that I take no sides. I am here to serve no one.”
“So you come to help me for your own ends. I’d like to know now why during a reading of the Inay forests my master collapsed at his orb, and hasn’t woken in sixty days.”
“It is because of a wizard named Zell,” Enzi said, “He’s charmed the forest. He has a castle there that can’t be seen with an orb. He’s much more powerful than Segel, or you.”
“Zell? I’ve never heard of him.”
“Don’t assume he’s human,” Enzi said, “and he obviously doesn’t like Peeping Tom’s. I’ve seen the castle myself, and it challenged my life force. It flickered in and out of Luria like a dying candle. Sometimes it is made of ivory, sometimes onyx, sometimes gold or silver. Sometimes it disappears completely and leaves a black vacuum in its wake—the grass underneath disappears and your eyes burn.”
“Maybe it’s a being of reason,” Luin said, “Perhaps I can convince it to let him go.”
“He’s gripped with a powerful charm,” Enzi said.
“More like a powerful curse,” Luin said.
“I can lead you there if you like.”
“No. I don’t trust you enough.”
Enzi sparkled with an electric charge. Lightning shot from him in a circle around his body. “But you’ll never find it alone.”
“I’ll have to try,” Luin said, “minus the flying vermin.”
The forest was getting darker. Luin tried to lift his hand from Uley’s mane and found that he couldn’t. The light from the end of his staff was flickering. “So much power,” Luin gasped.
“Wait for a moment or Uley will collapse,” Cora said. “I will charm you. It’ll drain me a bit, but of course without you I’ll have to wait for another to come by. That doesn’t happen very often.” Cora floated in front of Luin. A pulse of blue light shot from her and lit the blackness around them in a wave. The trees moaned. Luin sat up in his saddle.
“No more heaviness,” Luin said. “And the forest its…alive?”
“It’s all a part of Zell’s power, though, I’ve been here long before him. That’s why he can’t control me.”
Luin brought Uley to a trot and Cora picked up her pace in front of him. Some time passed. “What’s that?” Luin asked. Ahead, a giant sword the size of Uley was staked lopsided in the ground. It was a silver sword with braids shaped like snakes spiraling around its hilt. Along the flat of its blade large jewels were embedded—emeralds, rubies, and lapis lazuli; all equal in size to Luin’s fist. Cora halted.
“One of Zell’s magic weapons,” Cora said. The sword picked itself up and floated, shifting side to side as if it were being held. It neared Cora and took a vertical slice at her. Cora flew upwards, dodging it. Missing, the sword cut through a tree and the tree fell with a groan. Luin held out his free hand and let loose a pillar of flame toward the sword. The sword took the flames unaffected.
“It’s got good defenses,” Luin said.
“Yes, back up,” Cora said. Cora pulsed a wave of blue. The sword staggered in its float. Luin brought Uley back a few feet and dismounted. He twisted and hit his hands on the ground. A shard of ice emerged from the ground and covered the sword, making it fall to the ground. Cora pulsed again and the jewels on the sword shriveled. “Ahh, more power for me,” Cora said.
Luin and Cora continued their walk. After a time, tendrils of light began to shine their way into the darkness ahead of them. “It is Zell’s castle,” Cora said, “we are in the heart of the forest now.” Luin and Cora reached a clearing, a perfect circular cut in the trees. The castle was bright and white, radiating its light amidst the blackness surrounding it. It seemed almost to float and despite no trees being above it there was no sky visible, just a black nothingness.
“It is the size of King Aneurin’s castle, maybe even larger,” Luin said. The castle had many pinnacles and shifting balconies, doors, and windows. Enzi perched on a tree at the edge of the forest and watched them as they neared the castle.
Luin dismounted Uley and he and Cora walked to the main door. “This is the only way in,” Cora said. The door had many ancient scripts on it. One symbol was shaped like a crescent moon and others were scratches and curves supplemented by inlaid runes.
“Can I just open it?” Luin asked.
“Try it,” Cora said. Luin touched the door and collapsed.
“You’ve found me, Luin,” Segel said. Luin looked at his master. A blurry, white light surrounded them. Segel’s face was distorted in the brightness. He had blue eyes and grey hair, and wore a grey cloak. He looked like a man who had spent many years hunched over scrolls and books.
Luin stood up. “Where are we?” he asked.
“We are in a room in Zell’s Castle,” Segel said, “Think of it as his, or its dungeon.”
“But I haven’t even entered the castle yet. And you’re laying in our tower, amidst the pines of Onur forest.”
“Zell’s castle lies not in the plane of the physical, but the plane of the mind. Its physical form emits an image that exists as an abstraction in the presence of its immense power. Cora’s failure to realize this and Zell’s lack of desire for her to enter the castle is why she can never enter it. I was absorbed into it when I crossed it in my reading of Inay. It was a simple scan of a new area, and I stumbled into this mess.”
“I’m going to murder that blasted owl,” Luin muttered.
“Most likely a trap set by Zell,” Segel said.
The light began to intensify and the wizards were hit with a powerful force of wind. Luin’s vision shook and he looked at the blur of this master. “Is this the end?” Luin asked. His voice echoed. He closed his eyes.
When Luin opened his eyes he was sitting at the bottom of some white, glowing stairs. The railings on either side of the stairs were golden and spiraled while shifting like a growing plant. Luin began to ascend. When he reached the top the stairs disappeared and he was standing in a long hallway, full of many stone doors all scratched with different marks and runes. Luin passed a few doors and opened a door to his left. I don’t understand any of these markings, but I have to find Zell, Luin thought. Inside the door was blackness. Luin stepped in and closed the door behind him, and a torch flamed on one of the room’s walls. The room was square with stone bricks composing its walls, ceiling, and floor. A jester stood juggling a green ball, a blue ball, and a red ball nearest to the wall opposite the door. The jester had spiked teeth and its green, blue, and red costume was dirtied and foul smelling. Luin cringed.
I have a joke for you, the jester said while juggling. The voice came in a whisper and seemed to come from all directions, not from his mouth. Who is the oldest wizard in all of Luria?
Luin looked down at his hands and noticed that they were the hands of an old man. His back began to sag and he fell over form exhaustion. His hair tuned white. He held out his hand and focused. The jester disappeared into a ball of white and floated to Luin’s hand. Luin’s youth returned. I feel more alive now than ever before, even before the spell, Luin thought.
Luin stepped out of the room and back into the hallway. As he walked it, he passed more doors and walked down a few stone steps. He reached a split in the hallway, which made available two paths. One path had a red, ornate carpet on the ground with gold trimmings. The other was full of mist and cobwebs. Luin walked the path with the carpet for a time. I suppose I’ll try a door, Luin thought. He opened a door to his right and stepped into the blackness. When he closed the door he found himself in a treasure room. There were gold coins piled high, covering all the floor space around him. A scepter with a diamond tip lay on the coins in one area, along with jeweled cups, weapons, armor, necklaces, and bracelets. There were also ornate treasure chests on the coins and Luin opened one of them. Inside some white mushrooms were growing in some black soil. I love the taste of mushrooms, Luin thought as he picked one and put it in a satchel at his side. Luin walked to another chest, which was black and inlaid with perfectly cut, purple jewels. He nearly shrieked as large black spiders, millipedes, and beetles rushed out at him. They covered his arm and he forced some flame to jump from it, turning his limb into a long torch. Many of the insects fell off and smoked, but one red and black spider made it to his neck and bit him. Luin felt an instant shock from its poison, grabbed the spider and froze it with a spell. He stumbled out of the room and collapsed on the hallway floor, passing out.
When Luin woke he looked around himself. He was lying in lush, green grass under a blue sky with many white clouds. He was surrounded by rolling green hills that stretched into the distance as far as he could see. A young girl in a frilled, yellow dress squatted next to him holding a yellow rose. “I’ve been watching you sleep for hours,” she said.
“Where am I? And who are you?” Luin asked.
“My name is Ada. You are in a room in Zell’s Castle. I’ve been here for decades, and I never grow older. You never get hungry or thirsty in this place, that’s the lovely part. Try to run and you won’t find anything. You’ll eventually have to sleep. When you wake up you’ll return here.”
“Why does he keep you here? He’s taken my master and I. We are both wizards.”
“I am a druid,” Ada said, “I have the power of nature behind my thoughts. Perhaps that is why Zell has selected this room for me. It’s very pretty I think, though of course I’d like to leave.”
“Is Zell a man?” Luin asked.
“Not any more,” Ada said, “his physical body perished thousands of years ago, before the building of the castles of the five kings. He is raw magic. That is all that is left of him. He likes to feed off of beings who possess power.” Ada smiled and fell down next to Luin in the grass. “Would you like to play a game?” she asked, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen another being. Let’s see who can be the first to reach those hills in the distance.”
“I don’t want to play,” Luin said, “I want to get out of this room and find Zell. I want him to let me and my master go, and I’ll ask him to free you as well.”
“Don’t you see?” Ada said, “Zell is the castle, his magic has consumed our minds. There is no escape.”
“I’ll find a way,” Luin said as he looked up at clouds. A grey object was visible on the top of one cloud. “What is that?” he asked. She shifted her rose to her other hand.
“I’ve seen it before,” Ada said, “I suppose it’s the door out of this place, though it’s obviously not within reach—unless you can fly.” Ada sighed.
“Can you make it rain?” Luin asked.
“Of course,” Ada said, “but I prefer this temperament. It’s much more pleasant.”
“Follow me,” Luin said. Luin led her to a spot underneath the cloud. “Do it now.”
The sky became grey and the clouds poured water. Luin put his hands together and kneeled, muttering a spell. The rain falling from the cloud above them began to slow and freeze, sticking together and forming pillars. Soon a ladder of ice led up to the cloud. Luin stood up. “Now climb,” he said. The two climbed the ladder, reached the door, opened it, and entered.
Luin and Ada found themselves in a room surrounded by mirrors at every angle. In the center of the room was an oak grandfather clock with a golden pendulum and hands. Luin walked up to the clock and watched it for a time. “Sometimes the hands turn backwards, sometimes they stop completely, sometimes they run around the numbers in a swift stroke—all in an instant.”
Ada looked at herself in one of the mirrors. “Funny,” Ada said, “I see an old woman staring back at me.” She walked to another mirror. “And in this one, over here, I see a woman walking the mountains of Aldross.”
Luin walked to a mirror and saw himself when he was younger, reading a book in Segel’s tower. He walked to another mirror and saw himself reading a fire scroll in the pines outside the tower, bits of flame bursting from his fingertips. In the next mirror he was lying in a bed, an old man. Perhaps this is my deathbed, Luin thought. The next mirror Luin looked in was black and cloudy. A muscular, black, clawed arm reached out and grabbed him by the neck.
Luin awoke in a state of free fall. He was surrounded by blackness. “Why do you torture me, Zell?” Luin said aloud.
“This is the end,” a voice similar to the jester’s whispered in Luin’s ears. Luin began to feel his whole body being crushed. The air escaped from his chest. He curled himself up in a ball and put his hands together.
A shield is my only hope, he thought. A clear ring formed around him in the nothingness. He continued to fall.
“Why do you resist?” the voice whispered, “many that were stronger than you have already yielded. The high priestess Shera from the northern isles of Kai, for instance. I took her while she slept in her palace. The mere thought of me gave her a nice room with a statue of Althea.” The dark outline of a man appeared in front of Luin. He appeared to be a cloaked in black, and his face was not visible. He held out his hand. “Take my hand. Your life is only a matter of time. I will make it quick. But you must stop your resistance.”
Luin’s shield began to shrink. I suppose I could just have one last treat, Luin thought to himself. He took the mushrooms out of his satchel and popped them into his mouth.
“Finally, he ate them,” Cora’s voice woke Luin up. He was lying in the Inay forests. Segel was standing above him, and Cora was hovering. Segel looked tired, and his grey hair and cloak looked a bit ruffled. He held a silver staff with a wispy orb at its end, and his grey horse was tethered near by. Uley walked free near the horse. Cora glowed her usual blue and there was a smile on her face. “I weaved the charm of the mushrooms into the castle to get you out, it took all my strength. Segel caught on a little bit earlier, but I had to get him with some herbed bread.”
“I thought you might die in there,” Segel said. His eyes lifted in elation. “But you came through. Now it is over. Let us leave the forest, and return to our studies.”
“You, Cora, are welcome at the Odran Tower of Onur Forest any time,” Luin said with tenderness in voice.
“Good day,” Cora said, “and until we meet again…” Cora disappeared and blue sparks of energy dropped to the ground in her wake.
Luin and Segel began their ride home. I can feel the grip of this place leaving me, Luin thought as Uley trotted forward. After a time, the darkness in the forest eased and some light came through the trees and shined on Luin’s face. He thought of a time Segel had spoken to him in Odran Tower:
“There are beings in this world of Luria that you or I could not even dream of defeating with our harnessing of Luria’s forces,” Segel said. The wizards stood in a circular room composed of granite. The room was used strictly for the practicing of spells.
“So what is the point? If there is nothing we can do?” Luin asked. The room was dark except for the lighting of one torch on the wall. The light flicked off Segel’s face.
“There is something we can do,” Segel said, “We can do good ourselves, and simply help when we can. Now, practice your staff light.”