Thursday, June 17, 2010

Epilogue

All over the world, all over the worlds, through Doorways and lost kingdoms and the Seven Seas, the wishes of an old woodcarver and an even older wizard take hold of reality, reset the pieces of the chessboard and turn back the book to its opening page.

It is a most exhilarating sensation for all - the living and the dead and the hungry, lost souls - who return to their healthy skins and beating hearts.

The Dwarf kneels with his six brothers before the coffin of Snow White, and for a moment, he mourns for himself and for the loss of sweet Cinderella left behind.

In her tower, Cinderella wakes with a yawn, the taste of apple still on her lips. Remembering her travels with a bald-pated Dwarf and a broken Wolf, she smiles, grateful for the family she found after being abandoned by her own.

Back in his den, the Big Bad Wolf scratches at his now-stitchless chest. Next to him, his son sleeps fitfully, troubled by nightmares of the dark and watchful forest in which he died. Feeling the cub tremble, his father holds him close.

Not so far away, the Little Pig sweeps his house of brick. He wishes his own brothers - singing and loafing away, as always - were half as brave as the wooden puppet who threw stones at the Wolf in that most curious of dreams that might have been.

Deep in the Wildlands, the scarred Lion also remembers his dream - traveling with a little wooden boy and finding peace in a land that never was. From the shadows he watches Mowgli laughing with the gray sloth bear, and the sound gives him pause. Smiling sadly, the Lion dismisses his old notions - how foolish they were - of leading an army of soldiers not made up of flesh and blood.

Worlds away, his two would-be soldiers, the Candelabra and the Clock, stop their eternal argument at the sound of singing - their guest roams once more through her beloved library. The once-lonely castle bustles with excitement at her presence, and the Enchanted Mirror lies forgotten in the Master's chambers.

At the same time, another mirror, the Magic Mirror, is studied by the Queen. She would be troubled by the white strands of hair upon her head if she couldn’t remember the horrible power of the Book, which claimed her as prisoner, even in death.

And deep inside her enchanted castle, the Dark Fairy strokes her Book, the mightiest of all grimoires, its spells both tantalizing and forbidden, and she decides that instead, on this day, she’ll content herself to leave the Spell of Living Death unspoken.

For in the end, even if her chaos and destruction was undone by the Blue Fairy and the Genie, the memories will carry on in people’s nightmares. And, she thinks with a heartless smile, the remembrance of death is so much sweeter than the ultimately empty and worthless curse she once unleashed upon the world.

And in all the world, in all the worlds, perhaps it is only Merlin, so used to living backwards in time, who is untroubled by the reversal of everyone’s fortunes and fates.

Within the courtyard of a quaint castle, he calmly smokes his pipe, the Owl perched on his shoulder. Merlin chuckles quietly to himself. These dreams, he decides, are a fair price to pay, if their lives can be reborn and rewritten with the lessons and sacrifices remembered.

And, he thinks, laughing still - much to the Owl’s annoyance - that he must be a clever magician indeed if he could convince the Dark Fairy to change her mind.

“What’s so funny?” demands the Owl, but Merlin doesn’t answer, and after a while, the two are content to sit in silence and listen to the cheerful and busy song of the world.

THE END

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chapter Ninety

“Please,” says Gepetto. “Please, take us home.”

The wishing star continues to twinkle, equally oblivious to the thundering storm and the old man’s prayers.

After a long, despairing look into the Enchanted Mirror, the old woodcarver slowly and painfully rises from his knees.

Perhaps in the morning, if the Blue Fairy doesn’t come, when the Blue Fairy doesn’t come, he’ll tell his son that this is their home now, and the wish was granted after all.

The belly of a monster - of a dead monster - isn’t much, but the two are together once more, and that’s all that should matter.

Pinocchio keeps his innocent gaze upon the Mirror, smiling slightly.

“I think it’s working,” he whispers, and holds it up for his father to see. The star shines brightly, as it has for centuries, as it will for centuries.

“I’m sure it is, Pinocchio,” Gepetto says with a sad smile. He tousles the boy’s head, but Pinocchio's wooden hair cannot move. “Now why don’t we go to sleep, and things will be aright in the morning.”

And the old man trudges toward the pathetic planks and pieces of flotsam that protect him from the dead still lurking within Monstro.

The wind continues to howl as another storm churns the Seventh Sea. Monstro groans a dull roar in protest of the crashing waves, towering even over the great beast itself. There is the noise of ever-rushing water, peculiar when heard from within the caverns of Monstro.

Gepetto shivers, and the change in the air causes him to wonder. What breeze would there be in here, inside a creature that no longer breathes, but only eats? Where would the wind come from?

Pinocchio’s smile grows wider. “It’s working,” he says again, and grabs hold of his father’s hand. “She’s coming!”

The storm hits them suddenly, immediately, against the laws of nature and weather, for the typhoon, the hurricane, the rain and the wind and the lightning, it is all there inside Monstro, coursing through its belly.

The wind catches hold of Pinocchio, grabbing him, ripping at him, snatching him from the hands of his father. Gepetto is unable to cry out or scream, for the world has gone silent in a mess of water and wind, and Pinocchio is pulled, screaming, into the darkness, through the inky blackness of the bottom of the sea, and momentarily, the Mermaid is with him once more, holding him close in her soft and sure arms, as the water becomes lighter, brighter, warmer, calmer, the waters of Neverland, within her own little house of treasures, and there is the hook, here is the Mirror in his shirt, he bobs in the cold and dark waters of night, only to fall upwards, upwards and dry and even the explosion of the pirate ship is nothing compared to the rushing of the wind and of the storm and of time, and Pinocchio is pulled, ever so briefly, across the decks of the Jolly Roger, only to swim out once more, touching for a moment the polished gold of the lost Candelabra, and they are on the beach again, all of them, the Lion and the Clock and the Candelabra and the little wooden boy, chasing - or being chased by - those poor, lost, dead boys in their animal skins, and they walk and run past trees and bushes and blades of grass, and there is for one bright and shining moment the Doorway marked Neverland, and the world is so different as they march still, trapped in silent and minute conversations as the wind funnels them ever backward, through another Doorway, to the lonely castle of the Beast, where a rifle shot goes unnoticed and blood drips from the Lion’s mouth into the corpse of the hunter, alive again and walking cautiously out the door, but they rush just as cautiously after him, the Lion and Pinocchio, through empty forests, past dying towns, and the ground puffs up as bullets fly through the air and back toward their owners, unobserved by the duo, and another Doorway, and tears fall into the puppet’s eyes once more when the Lion stalks off into the shadows, for Pinocchio is alone, alone, abandoned by his friend the Little Pig, as he crawls through the top of a Doorway, seeing the Little Pig alive and stout once more, methodically unbricking the Doorway, and there is a moment where he sees the Big Bad Wolf, all teeth and eyes and tongue, away from the Castle of the Door, down the roads of his old lands, hurling rocks at the Wolf, and crying by the side of the road, where the Little Pig departs for his own destiny, leaving Pinocchio to cry and wander and sit by a well, surrounded by the dead, then to find himself at sea once more on that horrible island where boys turn into jackasses, the fun and games and the smoke and the liquor and the boat ride back to his hometown, where people bustle by silently, as that friendly fox and cat advise him not to go to school but to play and enjoy life, then they are gone as well, for Pinocchio is pulled, skipping innocently, into the shop of Gepetto, where he sits at his workbench, and suddenly the storm and wind and magic disappear, sound returns, the sound of the townsfolk, the ticking of the cuckoo clocks, the whistling of his father, well-fed and clean and amazed to find himself hard at work on a toy soldier, and his son leaps into his lap and says:

“It came true, Father. We’re home.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Nine

Merlin’s frail and mottled fingers grab the Dwarf’s callused hand. With his other hand, the wizard takes hold of the Wolf’s scratchy paw.

His smile comes across as a grimace, cold and dead in the fairy light. "Stand strong, my friends," whispers Merlin. "This will all be over soon."

They stand before the chamber of the Dark Fairy, a room not bound by the laws of time and space. A room for fairykind, never meant to be seen by foolish mortals. It is larger and darker and truer and yet more of a dream than anything else in this castle.

It takes a moment for the Dwarf’s burning eyes to adjust to the magic. The purple and yellow hues remind him of the poisonous fumes found in caves, or of the acid that is used to foul gold.

“Just tell me what to do,” says the Dwarf. He drops his voice to a growl in the hopes that it will not tremble.

“Hold her off,” says Merlin. “Whatever it takes." He sighs. "Good-bye, my friends," he says, and lets go of their hands.

As one, the Dwarf and the wizard run in opposite directions. The Wolf remains transfixed at the sight before him, at the godlike Dragon in the infinite room.

How dead she is, how horrible. And her serpent stink is amplified by the odor of rotted flesh, of the grave made living, and over all this is the terrible smell of magic - dark, otherworldly magic that doesn’t care about the fates and follies of any mortal.

Merlin, so nimble for a man his age, leaps across the ever-shifting ground and makes for the great Book on its pedestal of bone and stillborn demon. One hand stays by his belt as he rubs the Lamp for his final wish.

The Dwarf rushes toward a comforting glint on the ground - a forgotten Sword and Shield that lie at the Dragon’s twisting feet. They glow with a different light, a light of goodness and kindness, of virtue and truth. These are far nobler, he decides, than the common iron poleaxe in his hand.

The Dragon, the Dark Fairy, the magic, the spirits, all slaves of the Book, remain patient and clever. They sense the waiting power of the Genie, they see him inside his Lamp, already vibrating and humming, and they will protect the Curse.

The Dwarf is nothing. The Wolf is nothing. It is the old man who must be stopped. And the Dragon leans forward, a tower within a cavern, her skeletal mouth snapping and slathering.

Unaware of anything except for the beast, the Wolf has been breathing heavily, huffing and puffing, and before the throne-like jaws can impale themselves upon Merlin, the Wolf blows at the wizard with a mighty gale.

Merlin flies across the chamber, a scarecrow in a nightgown. His hat and spectacles fall to the ground, and yet without them, he appears less silly, less a doddering tutor and more a true wizard.

“Two weapons,” says the Dwarf. One enchanted, one made of cold iron. A final test for him, then. One is enchanted to pierce dragonhide, surely, and the other is the bane of fairykind. Which, though, is he fighting, Dragon or Dark Fairy?

He spits and takes up the Sword, though he keeps the poleaxe in his left hand. No need for the Shield, he figures, and he hacks with both weapons at the Dragon’s claw.

She doesn’t notice, and the Dwarf looks up at the ripped chasm where the beast’s innards should be. He nods grimly. She’s dead, like all the others, free from pain and responsiveness, only a mouth and a hunger.

The Wolf watches dazedly, hungrily gulping at the horrible air. Her snaking neck writhes and turns toward the screaming little Dwarf. The air around him buzzes with the tang of cold iron and the hum of good magic.

The Dragon roars a challenge of her own, a raspy, hollow laugh that is more spirit than any corporeal sound, and she breathes a foul yellow fire. The air is poisoned with the horrible scent of burning flesh and hair.

The Dwarf, unprotected by the Shield, screams as he dies, burning, smelted like a jewel, fierce and unafraid. Though the flesh melts form his skin, he hurls his weapons, the Sword and the iron axe. One disintegrates in the wicked blaze, the other flies through the fire and strikes true into the skull of the Dragon, even as the blackened bones of the Dwarf clatter to the ground.

Merlin is at the pedestal. He feverishly reads the Book, running his fingers along the forbidden words and turning the unholy pages. The Genie hovers over his shoulder and reads along. Together, they seem to know what they are looking for, and they turn to an incantation read only once before.

They do not see the claw of the Dragon, a puppet pushed and wielded by spirits and forces from realms beyond. It reaches for the old man. The Wolf has barely the breath to scream, and Merlin is snatched away, surprised and dismayed. He looks down at the Book, but without his spectacles, he cannot read the all-important words.

Silently, Merlin is lifted toward the abyss that is the Dragon’s maw, yet he stares calmly, knowingly at the Wolf.

Before he can decide otherwise, the Wolf runs, ragged and breathless. He doesn’t know where. Surely not toward the foul Book, so full of repellent smells and sounds - for only the Wolf’s ears can hear the screaming of the souls whose flesh provided its pages, whose blood provided its ink - and then the horrible item is in his paws, held aloft over his head.

There is no air left in the cavern, none in his lungs, but somehow he huffs and puffs and blows the Book towards Merlin - away from his life, away from his death, too far to be thrown, too far for anything except his mighty breath. He hardly notices his lungs fill with blood as the wizard catches the Book.

Weakly, the Wolf smiles a fanged smile, despite smelling the old man’s blood and burst entrails, despite seeing the Dragon's clenching claw, despite hearing the snapping and crackling of Merlin’s brittle bones. For over that, he can hear the bubbling, slushing voice of the wizard as he reads the magic words and wishes his final wish with his final breath "to undo the curse from this and from all worlds."

There is a booming thunderclap, a Genie’s laugh, a Dark Fairy's wail, then the magic dies and all goes dark forever.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Eight

“Pinocchio?”

The old man's voice, so unused to the foul, salted air, is little more than a husk. There's been no need to speak since being swallowed by Monstro.

“Father, it’s me!” Pinocchio sloshes across the briny water, and at first Gepetto raises his stave warily, so accustomed is he to the dangers of this new world. But then he realizes if his son can speak, he must be alive. The undead only growl.

“Pinocchio, my son!” Gepetto drops the stave to his feet and lifts Pinocchio high. Tightly, ignoring the splinters and the rumble of rushing waters, they embrace.

“Oh, Father, I’ve missed you so much!”

"As have I. But you look so different now! You're... different."

Not that it's possible for a little puppet made of pine to actually grow, but Pinocchio has changed since those long-ago days in the shop. His skin is no longer smooth and sanded. He is cracked in several places, and a tiny musket ball is lodged into his chest, but he is alive.

How lucky he is, thinks Gepetto, to be immune to all that has happened.

"You look different, too, Father. You're so skinny!"

Gepetto chuckles. "That I am. But look, my clever boy has found me!” He refuses to let go of Pinocchio's hand. If this is a dream, it's one he will not give up easily.

“I thought I was doomed to spend the rest of my days alone, but now you’re here.”

Pinocchio smiles modestly, and would undoubtedly blush if he were able. “Well, I had help."

“There are more of you?” says Gepetto. He peers across the cavern, but their world is silent save for the eternal rush of water and the inner gurglings of Monstro.

“No, Father, it’s just me. It was too dangerous for my friends to come here.”

“Of course, of course. I understand.”

The woodcarver barely remembers the destruction that led him here. It was a storm, perhaps stirred up by the beast’s tail. There was rain, a heavy crash, louder than the thunder and the waves, louder than anything he ever heard. And then there was the horrible crack of wood – the ship’s mast, perhaps – something struck him in the head, and he woke up within the belly of the beast.

He never encountered any of the other crewmen. What were the odds that any could survive such a journey? And who would walk through the mouth of death for the sake of escorting a puppet to his father?

“But now that we’re together,” Pinocchio says over his father’s thoughts, “we can leave here and fix everything and find the Lion and turn the Beast back into a prince and help everyone!”

“Leave here?” asks Gepetto. He smiles as kindly as he can. “My son, how can we leave? I’m not like you, I’m made of flesh and blood. If we go near Monstro’s mouth, surely he'll chew me up.”

“Father,” Pinocchio says patiently, “you wished for me to come to life. Just wish us out!”

He sits in his father's arms, smiling such a trusting smile, no doubt or despair clouding his painted eyes, that it breaks Gepetto’s heart.

“Father? Why are you crying?”

“Am I?” says Gepetto. “It must be the salt air... it stings a little.” His nose does not grow.

“I can't... I mean, I don’t know if it’ll work, Pinocchio,” says Gepetto. “I, I… There is no wishing star here.” He looks forlornly at the wet walls that make up his world’s sky.

To his surprise, Pinocchio laughs. He reaches within his shirt and pulls out a silver mirror.

With eyes tightly closed, he says, “Show us the wishing star,” and the Enchanted Mirror dazzles with a dark blue light.

“The sky!” gasps Gepetto. He can see stars, twinkling as they always have and always will, indifferent to the suffering of the world, giving light to the living and the dead alike.

One star is greater than the others, yet its light is more subdued. It pulses faintly, as if to sigh and mourn over that which has been lost, and it is to this star that - after an encouraging nod from Pinocchio - Gepetto addresses these words:

“Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.”

He takes a deep breath, looks at his son, so peaceful and at ease, and gives his wish. “Please,” he says. “Please, take us home.”

Head bowed, he keeps his eyes closed, and he wonders what he'll say to Pinocchio when the wish doesn't come true.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Seven

“So, you have come,” whispers a voice, cold and beautiful.

The fairy lights fade to nothingness. The Dwarf and Wolf stop cold.

“It’s her,” says the Dwarf. His innards turn to ice, his limbs suddenly frozen and shaking. “The Queen.”

“Stay calm,” says Merlin, his voice unpleasantly loud and booming in the corridor. “She cannot hurt us, and she knows it. Fairy tricks.”

Through the closed, round doors - made of cold iron, the Dwarf observed, one of the few metals sturdy against magic - floats something, someone, though they cannot quite see her with their eyes. That she drifts through such a barrier without any difficulty makes them feel very nervous, indeed.

She is like a spiderweb lost on a breeze. Insubstantial and bare, seen only momentarily in the sunlight. And here in the dark, she is all but invisible.

And yet the Dwarf is certain she only has nine fingers.

“Don’t be a fool,” says the apparition that was once the Queen. She lazily gestures with her insubstantial arm, and a horrible pressure, the weight of a castle, presses against Merlin’s heart.

“Fairy tricks,” Merlin struggles to say. He holds a gray and withered hand up to his chest, and crumples against the wall.

And yet the Wolf suffers most, for all animals are cursed with the ability to see into the spirit world. Her smell - death and blood and magic - is suffocating, worse than the forests of the dead, worse than the rotting giant. The banshee comes closer, ripped and bloodless, cursed and consumed - he would run if his legs would only listen.

“And,” says the Queen as she drifts toward Merlin, “you’ve brought me a gift.” Her hollow eyes fall to the Lamp hanging from the wizard's belt.

“Wish her away,” says the Wolf. He would huff and puff if he could only breathe. His once powerful lungs have shrunk in her presence, and there is not enough air in the room, in the world, to blow away her ghost.

“No,” grunts Merlin. He presses farther into the wall, away from the hungry hands of the Queen. “That’s what she wants, for me to waste it.”

“Give me the Lamp,” whispers the Queen. The wizard turns his sweating face away, but her chill is everywhere.

“Why?” shouts the Dwarf suddenly. He still foolishly holds onto his useless polearm. “What do ya want it for?”

Her spirit turns slightly away from Merlin and floats serenely in front of the Dwarf. To the Wolf’s eyes, she coils like a snake.

“Ya cain’t use it,” he continues, his breath visible. He forces himself to take a step toward the round doors. “Yer dead. Ya cain’t wish for nothin'.”

She hisses, and a brittle pain melts through the Dwarf’s bones. His heart stops mid-beat. But as the darkness closes in upon him, he remembers Snow White and Cinderella, unjustly poisoned by the Queen, and his heart angrily resumes beating.

“Merlin was right,” he says, and he falls against the iron doors. They scrape open. “Ya cain’t hurt us. Yer just a ghost.”

She drifts closer, eyes blazing, and the Dwarf forces himself to laugh a rusty chuckle. “Yer nothin’. Ya ain’t even a fairy trick. Yer just dead and you don’t know it.”

And the Queen’s essence, which subsisted on the power of the Dark Fairy's Book, sees what little remains of her body. Just scraps of her traveling cloak, really, and her bloodless, fleshless hands, still bound to the magic of the Book.

And the chill is gone. Blood flows once more through their bodies, rapidly warming them, and the Wolf can breathe once more.

“Well done, old boy,” says Merlin. He wipes at his forehead with the dirty sleeve of his robe, and calmly walks toward the blackness of the final room.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Six

There's a most disagreeable feeling - fading, emptying, disappearing - and then just as suddenly they stand before the Dark Fairy's castle.

Behind them is the forest of thorns and brambles, deep and thick and sprawling. The smell of earth and death is all too reminiscent of the many graves the Dwarf has made.

The castle is wreathed in vines that writhe like lazy serpents. The Dwarf doesn’t like it. Such buildings shouldn’t be. He’s never trusted anything made of magic, and he snorts at the dark, eternal stone.

“I do apologize,” says Merlin in his kindest voice, “but I had to have you work out the wish for yourself. It’s one of the problems of living backwards, you see.”

“Are you gonna do it again?” scowls the Wolf. His fur still bristles at the unexpected magic. “You’re not gonna send us inside and then make us figure out what to wish for?”

“No, not this time,” says the wizard, “I promise. Once we reach the source of the curse, I can handle the rest.” He pats the brass Lamp.

"One wish left," says the Dwarf. His voice is dark, accusing.

Merlin says nothing. He studies the sky for a moment, then checks the gray dirt beneath his feet and attempts to smile. It is a bland attempt.

“One wish is all I need," he finally says.

The others say nothing.

"Well, no time like the present. Let’s be off, shall we?” The Wizard resolutely steps toward the exquisitely carved doors, but the Owl alights from his shoulder.

“Oh, no, not me,” says the Owl. It flies toward a withered tree and perches in its highest branch. “I’ll stay out here, if it’s all the same to you.”

The Monkey looks at the castle, at the tree, and then scampers after the Owl. It shrugs ashamedly in response to the Dwarf’s glare.

“Oh, don’t be a coward,” begins the wizard, but the Owl defiantly closes its eyes and pretends to fall asleep.

Merlin sighs. When he speaks, his voice is softer, older. “Oh, very well, stay here. But if we don’t come out…”

The Owl opens one eye.

“Find someone. Let them know what happened to us. The Fairies, perhaps. They'll know what to do.”

The Owl closes its eye with the barest of nods.

The Dwarf takes a deep breath, spits on the ground one final time, and follows the wizard. He looks back toward the Wolf.

“You wanna stand guard out here?” he asks, his voice casual. “I know you animals don’t like magicks.” It’s a minor concession.

“Nah,” says the Wolf, his voice an octave higher than usual. "You know,” he adds weakly, “there might be treasure or somethin’.”

The doors part before them, but the Dwarf doesn’t ask if this was caused by Merlin or by something else.

Once inside, the doors silently close. The Wolf whines, “Now why’d they do that?” He cringes away from everything - the light, the floor, the portraits on the walls.

“To keep us in, dummy,” growls the Dwarf. He grips his new axe - the only item rescued from Merlin's tower - tightly, his hands itching with distaste at the clumsy iron. He doesn’t like the fairy lights, either. They make his eyes water.

“On the contrary,” says Merlin. He walks without hesitation down a wide carpeted hallway, and passes from corridor to staircase to tunnel. “It’s to keep anything else from getting out.”

“What else is in here?” asks the Wolf, but Merlin doesn’t answer.

“Don’t you eat nothin’,” says the Dwarf. “If you eat or drink anything, you’ll be trapped in here forever.” The warning is unnecessary, however. For once, the Wolf isn't hungry.

“Hey, where are we going?” asks the Wolf.

“Down,” realizes the Dwarf. It’s a familiar sensation from his youth in the mountains, although the enchanted rock ruins what would be comforting memories. “We’re descendin’ into the cliff.”

Merlin sings quietly. "Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen, we daren't go a-hunting for fear of little men. Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together - green jacket, red cap, and white owl's feather."

There are windows in these rooms, and the Wolf rushes to one. He throws it open and desperately breathes the air, only to realize it is as false as the light and the illusory skies beyond. The smell burns his nostrils.

“I told you to wait outside,” says the Dwarf.

“I’m fine,” whines the Wolf, though he is suddenly thirsty for water. Real water, flowing in a stream, unsullied by the stink of man or magic. “But do we have to go underground?”

“We do, I’m afraid,” says Merlin softly. “Can’t you feel it? Listen, my friends, and you’ll see. The castle is alive.”

For the Dwarf and Wolf, it’s a sensation they wish they could block out, the pulsing life-force of magic, somewhere deep within, creating illusions both fine and detestable.

This is Merlin’s territory, not theirs, and they are worlds away from any forest or mountain cave.

"Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together..." The song whispers from the walls in a voice old and young, dead and alive.

“It knows we’re here. Oh, yes, it does,” continues Merlin. “Such deep magic from so long ago.

“It makes one wonder,” he continues in a dreamy voice. “Who is the tool and who is the builder? Is it the spellcaster who has the power, or is it the spell?”

The Dwarf and Wolf exchange glances. Perhaps it isn’t just food or drink that can enchant the unwary intruder.

“Merlin…” begins the Dwarf, but he is unheard.

“Perhaps I will know more when I grow to be a young man. But that was long ago for you two. Your past, my future, you see.” He sighs deeply, and a wall fades from sight to reveal yet another descending staircase. Signs and symbols twinkle faintly from Merlin's robes, no longer faded but shining as the sea.

“Perhaps,” he adds, “I will create all this, at the dawn of time, at the height of my youth and power. And now I come, in my senile, inexperienced winter, to challenge my future legacy.”

Merlin looks at his companions, a cruel smirk across his face. The lines around his eyes have faded, and his coarse beard quivers with life. He is taller.

“With nothing more than a Dwarf and a talking beast! This is what comes to fight the Apocalypse? This is all that remains to defeat me?” His words echo in the singing wall.

His smile grows colder, and his fingers brush against the tarnished Lamp hanging from his belt. Merlin jumps slightly at its stirring warmth, and it seems to the Dwarf that the fairy lights dim by the tiniest amount.

“Nonsense,” he says in a much gruffer, wearier tone. “What was I saying? Humbug, whatever it was. Fairy tricks, that’s all.” His voice betrays the slightest of trembles, and he grips the Lamp more firmly.

The wizard sighs. He is old and dusty once more.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Five

Under the sea.

Beneath the waves, beneath all light, Pinocchio trudges through the silt and the slime. And once again, he finds himself alone.

No, not alone, he thinks, because somewhere in this dark abyss swims Monstro.

The Mermaid was torn by the decision, but she left Pinocchio some days ago. As desperate as she was to find any survivors, it was just too dangerous, they both decided, for her to swim anywhere near the great beast.

“He might swallow you whole,” she said, “but I don’t think he’d do the same to me.”

The thought of other Merfolk in Monstro's stomach is tantalizing but horrible, and Pinocchio swore to tell them about the safe waters of Neverland.

And so he completes his journey on foot, step by heavy step. He doesn’t mind the chains draping from his body - they keep him from floating away. He hopes that Monstro can hear him clanking and clinking, and even now the great beast might be swimming toward him with an open, hungry mouth.

It's impossible to tell how long he's been traveling, now that the moon and the sun and the Clock are gone. Perhaps the Mermaid could tell by the ebb and flow of the waters, but Pinocchio had never thought to ask, and now it's too late.

At least there is some comfort in her words - that whenever someone is lost, they seem to wind up in Neverland - because right now he is most certainly lost, so far from his home.

Even his words - for Pinocchio constantly calls out Monstro’s name - have nowhere to go. Immediately, they are swallowed up by the heavy, black water. Can Monstro hear him? Is he even nearby?

The Mermaid, though she tried to hide it, was doubtful. “He travels the world,” she said. “Always moving, always eating. He could be anywhere. My people, they know… they knew of his patterns, but even then, it involved a lot of guesswork.”

“I think he’s nearby,” she after many days of traveling along a fast-moving current. The fresh wreckage, the ravaged bodies, the scales and bits of bone were too much to suggest otherwise. “But it’s an entire sea to search.”

Yet Pinocchio is nothing if not persistent. In a world devoid of day and night, he has nothing but time. There’s no need for him to sleep or eat, no more tears to shed. There is nothing left - not even the Lion - except for the darkness and the water and, somewhere, his father.

“Monstro?” There is still hope in Pinocchio’s voice, but if his calls have been heard, they go unanswered.

He takes the Enchanted Mirror from underneath his shirt and holds it tightly.

“Show me my father,” he says, and it illuminates the murky water with its magical light.

Gepetto - how old and worried he looks - is once more asleep. Scattered about him are various bits of flotsam and jetsam - bottles, metal pipes, pieces of wood leaning precariously against each other - and the whole area is crisscrossed with rope.

The undead, unused to stealth and subtlety, will not be able to reach him without falling or making noise. Pinocchio smiles at his father’s resourcefulness, when suddenly the room, the cavern, the stomach - whatever it is that Gepetto considers his world - turns and shudders and rumbles.

The old woodcarver falls from his perch and awakes with a jump. The bottles tilt to the side, shattering silently in the Mirror’s reflection, and the driftwood collapses.

Gepetto looks around wildly. He stumbles against a wall and reaches for his staff as it begins to roll away.

Around Pinocchio, the waters swirl and churn, almost as if they are trying to escape the ocean itself. There is nothing to see in the darkness, though this doesn’t stop the puppet from trying.

He can feel it rather than hear it, the harsh rush of a typhoon, the change in the water and the disruption of the tide itself.

Something bellows at him from the right, and Pinocchio is swept away, hit with the full force of a tidal wave. The chains do him no good. Pinocchio flies - who knows how high or how far - still clutching the glowing Mirror.

And Monstro is suddenly upon him - almost as big as the sea - and he swallows Pinocchio up, hungry for something, anything, and only knowing that where there is light, there is life.

Pinocchio is falling, falling, the water crushes him with a roar, and suddenly he realizes there is air, a foul reek of death and decay and salt, but it is air, and the walls press against him, soft yet strong and flapping, and Pinocchio hits the ground, deep inside Monstro.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Four

"Here?" asks the Wolf. Doubtfully, he sniffs at the air, and it is indeed full of magic.

Once, this castle had been a cheerful - if isolated - fortress surrounded by the savage forest, a perfect place for an adventuresome young boy to grow up. Now, the jousting fields are overgrown with weeds, the farmlands lie untilled, and no fire burns in the hearth.

"Yar," says the Dwarf. "We need a wizard, don't we? And this is where we'll find one. The best. Now hurry." He cautiously steps from the Magic Carpet and through the window of the tallest tower. The Monkey leaps from his shoulder and scampers before him.

The Wolf looks around and sneezes.

The room is a mess. Creaky, dusty, drafty, musty. Broken brass instruments and inventions - worth little to the Dwarf and even less to the Wolf - lie strewn about. Taxidermied animals hang from the ceiling and casually watch with glass eyes. Shelves lined with pots and cannisters, which the Monkey paws through eagerly. The floor lies spotted with bird droppings, especially over the rafters in one shadowy corner. And books, an entire library of books, so many of them that the floor sags and it’s a wonder the tower still stands at all.

But all that is of interest to them is the figure lying on the large, lumpy bed.

"Hey, you! Wake up,” says the Wolf.

“He’s dead, you idiot,” says the Dwarf, and he throws down his hat in disgust. “The Genie was wrong.”

Upon the bed lies Merlin the Magician. His long gray hands are folded calmly over his chest, his tremendous beard is neatly combed, his mousy robes are stained and creased, and one shoulder is covered in a heavy, blood-soaked bandage.

“He isn’t dead,” comes a low voice from the shadowy corner. A small owl flies across the tower and perches on one of the many antlered skulls that adorn the walls. “Only sleeping.”

“Yar, it’s a spell, I know,” growls the Dwarf. He stumps over to the window where the Carpet waits. “Sleep of death, love’s first kiss. Seen it before.”

The Owl hoots out a chuckle. “Now why would he cast something like that? Look.” It points a wing at the wizard's chest, and they notice a small bit of parchment held in Merlin’s cold hand.

The Wolf snatches it up and holds it to the light (the candles in Merlin’s tower never seem to die). He looks at the words carefully for several moments before admitting he can’t read them.

“We ain’t got time for this,” says the Dwarf. “Come on.” They are all too aware of the Giant’s thundering footsteps, half a kingdom away, but coming ever closer.

“No, wait,” says the Owl, and it plucks the parchment from the Wolf’s paws. It glides through the room and drops the note before the Dwarf.

“I can’t read this either,” he says finally. “It’s backwards.”

The Owl twitters and clucks its beak. “That’s Merlin. He lives backwards in time, you know. He was rushed when he wrote that, and old habits die hard, I suppose.”

Perching on the Dwarf’s shoulder - the Dwarf is too outraged to object - it closes one eye and slowly reads: “’Friends, I am not dead, merely dying. But if you are here with the lamp, all is not lost. Simply wake me with a wish, and we shall set about righting the wrongs of the world.’

“Hmph,” humphs the Owl. “A bit off-meter, I'd have to say, but he didn’t have time to write a masterwork.”

The Dwarf places a foot on the ledge of the window. “Well, we ain’t got any more wishes, so that’s that.” He throws a meaningful look at the Wolf and Monkey, then mutters into his beard something about finding a fairy.

After one final look around him for anything of value - though most of it appears to be junk - the Wolf starts to follow, but the Owl will not be defeated.

“Wait, wait, wait,” it hoots, and flies to the cupboard. "There's another way." It circles near the Monkey, who greedily clutches a pot of dried currants to its chest.

“You want me to kiss him?” snorts the Dwarf. He whistles for the Carpet to circle closer and gives the Owl one last contemptuous glare. “No, thanks.”

“I told you,” says the Owl as it grabs a small bottle, “this isn’t that kind of spell.”

Fluttering to Merlin's bed, it says, “This will wake him up. It'll wake anybody up.” Gently, it drops the bottle upon the wizard’s robe. The approaching footsteps of the Giant cause the bottle to tremble, and the Owl hurriedly sits on it to prevent it from falling.

“Anybody?” says the Dwarf, his voice in a different tone.

“Anybody. Just a drop will do.”

The Dwarf thinks for a moment, then rushes to the bedside. With the wave of a hand, he pushes - not unkindly - the Owl away.

Some dust falls from the ceiling rafters. “Better hurry,” says the Wolf. The ground trembles as the Giant stumbles toward the smell of blood.

Quickly, the Dwarf uncorks the bottle. The label contains a word written in the maddening, spidery letters that wizards seem to always employ.

With a practiced hand, as if he were cutting the finest jewel for Snow White’s wedding ring, the Dwarf cautiously pours a single tiny drop of the shimmering liquid into the wizard’s mouth.

“Like liquid silver,” he thinks, and he wonders if such a thing could exist, and how wonderful it would be if it did.

He casually pockets the bottle, and the liquid wriggles and slithers down Merlin's throat. Almost immediately, his pale face, so different than the smooth and porcelain features of Snow White or Cinderella, and yet so similar in their pearly death, colors and crinkles.

But something is wrong. The Dwarf can tell right away - he's seen it before - by the unfocused, bloodshot eyes of the wizard. Merlin clutches his wounded shoulder with a strangled gasp.

“Hello, my friends, and good-bye,” he whispers weakly, and the edges of his mouth twinkle into a dying smile. His eyes sharpen slightly, and they hold the Dwarf spellbound.

In that instant, he sees wisdom and mirth and such infinity that it even holds the stony heart of a Dwarf in awe. Knowledge deeper than the caverns of the earth, higher than the peaks of the mighty mountains, time of the ages, all pouring and dwindling like a snuffed candle, all ruined by one bite, poisoned into an all-consuming hunger, and yet, still the wizard smiles.

“The lamp!” hoots the Owl, and it nips at the Dwarf’s wrist.

The pain is nothing - he’s used to worse - but the words jolt the Dwarf from his thoughts. He pulls the lamp from his tunic and presses it into Merlin’s unwounded hand.

“Ah, yes,” says the wizard, and he weakly caresses the brass lamp. He sighs with his final breath, and says, almost absently, “I wish to be made whole and healthy.”

The lamp sparks to life. It trembles and twitters and glows like a brass sun and the Genie rockets from the spout, laughing and twirling and dancing.

“Hey, hey, hey!” He laughs, dressed once more in his white coat and odd facemask. “Paging Doctor Genie, paging Doctor Genie,” but he stops short and pops back to his normal self at the sight of the wizard beginning to twitch.

“Oops, sorry!” The Genie claps his hands with a mighty boom, mightier than even the Giant’s unsteady footsteps.

"Quite all right," says the wizard with a chuckle. Already whole and healthy, his skin is pink and his eyes are crisp. He clumsily removes the bandage with one hand.

“Merlin, baby!” says the Genie, now wearing dark spectacles and a shining black suit. “So good to see you, my man! We must do lunch sometime. Why don't my people call your people?”

“Shut up!” says the Dwarf. The ground shakes, and the rotting stink of the Giant seeps into the musty tower. “We’ve gotta get out of here right now. That thing moves fast. Come on, we'll explain later."

“Ever the pessimist,” says the wizard, his voice gently scolding. He hops lightly from the bed and brushes himself off. “Some things never change. Especially Dwarves!” Merlin nudges the Wolf in the ribs and winks.

Oblivious to the earthquake, he reaches for a gnarled leather suitcase. “It’s so good to be back,” he says. “Now then, where are we heading?”

“Away from here!” says the Dwarf. He snaps his fingers, and the Monkey stuffs the last of the currants into its mouth and climbs back onto his shoulder.

“Yes, but that could be anywhere, couldn’t it?” says Merlin. He points at several of his books, and they come from the shelves and waddle toward suitcase, shrinking all the while.

“There’s a Giant coming!” shouts the Dwarf, his voice dwarfed by the echoing footsteps. “Wish it away!”

The Genie looks over to Merlin eagerly. His hands prepare to clap, but the wizard shakes his head with a smile. “I’ve only got two wishes left. Can’t waste them on frivolous things like Giants, my boy.”

The Dwarf doesn’t know which is more shocking - being called a boy or the wizard's insanity. “Then we’ve got to leave!" he sputters.

He seizes a rusty iron poleaxe from a suit of armor and looks out the window. The suit of armor gasps at such impudence, but is ignored.

“I can see that,” says the wizard calmly. He opens the larder and absently throws a chunk of green cheese and a loaf of yellow bread, which the suitcase catches with a gulping mouth. “But wherever do you wish to go?”

The Genie's head goes from side to side, and he says something about forty loves.

“Just wish them all away, then!” says the Dwarf. The sunlight is suddenly blocked from the window, and a milky yellow eye stares vaguely at them. He plunges the polearm into the eye, and it slow backs away.

“Ah, it's not quite that simple, but at least we’re getting closer,” says the wizard, and he nonchalantly grasps a column as the floor tilts suddenly. The Owl flies to Merlin’s shoulder, and the Wolf skids into a corner of the tower. “You wish me to undo the undead, do you?”

“We’re going to die,” thinks the Dwarf, not for the first time, not for the last time. “And all because this blasted wizard wants to teach me some blasted lesson.”

“Yes!” is what he shouts.

“But to do that, I’d have to be at the source of the curse, wouldn’t I, Genie?”

“That’s the way it works, O Bearded One!” says the Genie.

“Then...” says Merlin over the roar of ripping stone and mortar. They tumble against the walls as the Giant tilts the tower his mouth. “I wish for you to take us there.”

Books and pillows and a chandelier and armor and paintings from many years in the future all fall through the window into the Giant’s cavernous maw, but the bodies - with the thunderclap of the Genie’s hands - have disappeared.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Three

"Faster!" screams the Dwarf, and the Magic Carpet weakly, desperately pushes through the storm with the tiniest amount of acceleration.

"We're dead, we're dead, we're dead," chants the Wolf, and though he doesn't want to, he can't help but glance at the Giant chasing them.

The Giant is a world all unto itself, an unstoppable force, a moving mountain. Its footsteps overpower the thunder, its rot corrupts the smell of the rain. And with every step - every league-spanning step - it comes closer to its meal.

"We ain't dead yet," shouts the Dwarf, but his voice is lost in the piercing wind.

He’s faced Giants before - he knows how they think. A lone Dwarf versus a Giant might be madness, but the brutes were never known for their smarts. Take out its eyes nice and quick, and it'll back down.

A dead Giant, however, is another tale altogether. Even blinded, it will pursue them as long as it can smell their blood - namely, forever.

“Of course,” he thinks, “never fought a giant while flying before.” That must count for something.

His body numb from the wind and rain, he forces the Carpet to climb higher and higher. His brief hope of breaking through the clouds is dashed - Lady Luck was never one to favor Dwarves. The Carpet stops, exhausted, at eye level with the Giant.

It reaches for them with a hand the size of a cottage.

The Dwarf pats the Carpet's sodden pile, and wraps its tassels around his gnarled hands.

“Hold on tight,” he shouts to the Wolf.

"You too," he whispers to the Monkey, which clutches desperately to his beard.

“Now drop!” says the Dwarf, and with a shake of the Carpet’s tassels, they fall from the sky.

The Monkey screams, the Wolf howls, and the Dwarf - to his surprise - laughs madly.

The giant swipes at them with its massive hand, and the ensuing rush of wind slams into the Carpet.

It is only Dwarven stubbornness that keeps him from letting go of the Carpet. The rest of his body flies into the air, the Wolf flails like a flag, and their few supplies fall away into the sky.

Now almost at the Giant's waist, the Dwarf leans into the Carpet and shouts, “Now! Through his legs!”

With an uncanny instinct, the Carpet slows down somewhat before going through the bowed legs of the Giant. It rests for one final moment until the huge hands are near - grasping and grabbing and stained with a kingdom’s worth of blood - and then it zooms through.

“And up!” screams the Dwarf, though the Carpet is already traveling upward, back into the sky, somewhat rejuvenated by its momentary rest.

Again the Wolf dares a look behind him to see the Giant bent over, reaching foolishly between his fat legs.

The Giant’s face, so close to the treetops, is suddenly attacked by a flurry of arrows. They fly into his eyes, nose, mouth, nothing more than probing mosquitoes.

It takes some time for the Giant to notice, and then it plunges its hands into the forest, more interested in the many nearby morsels of blood that hide in the trees than the retreating speck of cloth.

“There’s archers down there,” murmurs the Wolf. It cranes its neck to get a better look.

The Dwarf wishes that the Wolf hadn’t said anything, or that the storm would’ve blocked out the words, but Lady Luck was never one to favor Dwarves. He’d heard rumors, long, long ago, it feels, that there had been a refugee camp in the Forest of Sherwood, one ably defended and safe. No more.

He tries not to think of them, the brave and the weak, all taking bow and blade to the hungry mouth and legs and hands of the Giant in a last, desperate, futile battle. And though his hands twist and knot the Carpet's tassels, he does not turn back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Two

Calmly, he pads through the forests of Neverland. Nose and whiskers quiver at the scent of his enemies. The smells, though different from the Wildlands, are still familar - life and death, prey and predator.

And yet, everything tastes different from his homeland, or the cobblestoned city, or even the castle of the Beast. This land smells alive, alive in a way even the Wildlands could never hope to be. The bursts of greenery and air from the salt-scented sea combine with a wondrousness, a dreaminess that only exists in memories that never truly were.

He inhales deeply.

The stink of corpses is there, but buried and faint. The plague is here - he's seen that firsthand - but most remains untouched and alive.

Some thing - some things, rather - have marked their territory with tiny spurts of urine. Not that it matters. They are small creatures, their squabbles over territory and shelter are beneath him and hardly worth the hunt.

More interesting are the bits of spoor he finds here and there, smelling of a bountiful diet of fish and berries. Something strange and large. Best to be avoided, if possible.

And the most unmistakable smell of all - the scent of Men. Their marks are faint and aged. They haven't been in this area for some time. Still, he notices a strand of stray hair, long and black, and a bit of worked metal lodged into a tree.

When the wind is favorable, he can smell red fire to the north, and he changes course.

He walks on, ever alert for the crunching of twigs or the throaty groans of the dead, but he remains alone. There is water to drink when he is thirsty, as several brooks make their short journey to the sea, and he’s grown used to being hungry.

In some ways he is lonely, in some ways he is not. He tries not to think of the boy and the pirate ship and the abandoned Clock. Such distracting thoughts are driven from his mind by concentrating on his surroundings - where he is, where he’s come from, where he will eventually stay - and then the inviting shade of the forest breaks off suddenly, and he is amidst familiar grass, long and yellow.

So similar is this wide field to his home that he looks around with a start, thinking perhaps all that came before was a dream or a fantasy, but behind him, like a gentle wall, is the green forest. Ahead of him are the yellow grasslands, and further beyond them are brown, rocky hills.

Truly, this is a land that never was, that never could be.

He stops short. Death is nearby. Even if it weren’t for the smell, the buzzing of flies - how they seem to prosper in this time of plague - gives the intruder away.

The grass, long an ally in the art of concealment, now hinders him, and he bounds from the forest toward the hills. The broken, hungry thing cannot match his speed, and it's a small risk in order to better see his adversary.

It follows, slinking down into the grass, but still visible. In its excitement, its tufted tail, a broken reed, sticks out sharply. A lion, of all things. Male, from the smell. And large.

In no time at all, he’s reached the edge of the yellow grass, and looks up at the sturdy brown stones that grow quickly into a mountain. Plenty of time to choose his spot, which he does with ease.

The corpse lion drags itself on three legs after its would-be prey, closer and closer to the web of its demise. Finally, it looks up, fangs permanently bared - its lips and muzzle have been chewed away.

Calmly, he presses and leans against a heavy rock. It teeters and falls and tumbles, and the dead lion does not blink or flinch, even as the stone crushes its skull.

His enemy defeated, he looks out over the yellow grasslands and lets out a roar; full, mighty, happy. There are, he’s smelled, other lions on this island. Living ones. Females. They should know of his presence.

And with this large male killed in combat, that means a change in the social order. Hopefully, it hasn’t infected the rest of the pride, but he is ready to take care of such a matter.

He thinks of the future. Perhaps the Men, those still living in the north, can be reasoned with, and might use their weapons of metal and wood against the child-corpses that still roam the forests and grasslands and beaches of this island. Perhaps they’re hunting them already.

A smile crosses his scarred face and the Lion roars again. In time, he will destroy the Doorway out of Neverland, tear it apart with his claws, and let no invader, living or dead, intrude upon his island, his kingdom, his home.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chapter Eighty-One

The Magic Carpet floats serenely over the rooftops - a sight that would be wondrous, were there anyone to see.

Even at this speed - slow and steady wins the race - the Dwarf can't help but admire how much land they've covered. From the desert kingdom to this silent, nameless city, and soon enough, through the Doorway to their homeland.

The Wolf sulks in a corner, paws folded in front of him. "I want my wishes," he growls.

The Dwarf growls back. "Not yet."

Something about the lamp, something about the Wolf, something about the Dwarf makes him hesitate to hand over his tarnished and perfect treasure. At least, for now.

"You'll get it after all this is said and done," says the Dwarf. "Then you won't have to waste 'em on any necessities." Traces of Cinderella's cunning flavor his words, and he doesn't know whether to smile or frown at how she can manipulate him, even now.

“You know what I'm gonna wish for?” asks the Wolf for the fourth time. He counts them off on his claws. "First, I want all the treasure in the world. Second, I want all the food in the world. Third, I wanna be king of the world."

The Dwarf peers off the edge of the Carpet, and spits. "Well, go and greet yer loyal subjects, your majesty."

Below them, a procession of the dead parades through the cobblestone streets, trailing after the Magic Carpet.

Taking a deep breath, the Dwarf brings one hand to his mouth and sings, “Heigh-ho…” His scratchy voice echoes through the skies. The Wolf, arms still crossed, howls in accompaniment.

“If you can hear us, answer back!” shouts the Dwarf. “Stay indoors! It isn’t safe! But answer back!”

Silence from the city, as it’s been for their entire flight. The random cry from a cat or dog would be welcome, but there is nothing. Even the birds have fled.

“Not even the crickets,” wonders the Dwarf.

“No one’s left,” says the Wolf.

“Course not,” grumbles the Dwarf. “These people were soft and foolish. Couldn’t defend their homes, probably didn’t store up their larders, at least. Probably all starved by now.”

They continue to fly, still at a cautious pace. Someone else in the Dwarf’s position might find the view breathtaking. The girl, maybe. Or Snow White. It is true, this city - so foreign to the Dwarf - spreads out like a wonderful, enormous map, but who remains to see the beauty that once lived here?

All that has been created, all that has been achieved is now lost.

“Hey,” says the Wolf suddenly. “Let’s go check on Cinderella.”

“No,” says the Dwarf flatly, and now it's his turn to fold his arms. The Wolf doesn’t know it, but the Dwarf has purposefully steered them away from the girl and the bonneted dog.

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“But it’s not that far,” says the Wolf. “I can find her. I bet I could smell her if we go a bit lower.”

“No,” says the Dwarf, louder this time.

“Why not?” repeats the Wolf, louder as well.

“Because!”

“Because what?”

“Because it wouldn’t do any good!” says the Dwarf, and he resolutely scans the gray faces in the horde. “What are we gonna do, stay there, waste some of the food and water we left ‘em? They’re fine.”

“Go there,” he adds gruffly, patting the Carpet. He points to a familiar Doorway. “But set us up on that roof first, we’re gonna need you to scout ahead and let us know if it’s safe to go through.”

The Carpet ripples in understanding, and banks toward a high, flat roof, devoid of any windows, stairs, balconies, or nearby trees that the undead could possibly climb.

“Just, you know, say hello,” says the Wolf, his voice uncertain after the Dwarf’s outburst. “Make sure she’s sleepin' all right.”

“We ain’t going back,” says the Dwarf. Stupid creature doesn’t understand. “We gotta go forward. We’ll see her after all this mess is clear. There’s just... there ain’t nothin' more we can do for her.”

If he could, he would’ve built the girl an even finer coffin than Snow White's tomb of glass and gold. Inlaid with platinum, this time, smelted from the doors of the Sultan's palace. Alabaster and marble, take those nice, fancy pillows. It’d be something.

Instead, she must make do with the creaky bed of some poor dead family, locked away in a nursery, sharing fleas and water with some other dead fool’s dog.

“Ain’t fair,” he scowls into his beard. “Ain’t fair.”

“But what if they got her?” presses the Wolf.

“Yeah, what if?” says the Dwarf, and he quickly glares back with reddened eyes. “What could we do about it, ya fool? Nothin’, that’s what. She’s fine. They’re fine.”

He turns around quickly and repeats to himself, more for his own benefit than the Wolf’s. “They gotta be,” he adds quietly.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chapter Eighty

“You’re a mermaid!” says Pinocchio. He points unnecessarily at her tail.

“Of course!” she laughs.

“You’re… Maybe you can help me!”

“By finding your friends?” The Mermaid swims back from her alcove of treasures. “Is this one of them?" She holds a copper kettle. Perhaps this is his clock or the - what's that word again? - candle's stick.

“No, no, no,” says Pinocchio absently, and he takes her hands. “You see, I’m really looking for my father. I mean, we all are. My friends and I. And all we know is that he’s near where the mermaids are, so maybe you... What’s wrong?”

The girl gently pulls away. Her wide, clear eyes cloud over. “This is where the mermaids are, now. And I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen your father. Or any surface-dwellers, for that matter.”

Nonplussed, Pinocchio shakes his head and reaches into his shirt for the Enchanted Mirror. “No, look.” He squints his eyes shut for a moment and thinks of how much he wants to be with his father again.

Light dazzles from the Mirror, illuminating the alcove, and the Mermaid peers at the image.

An old man kneels. He holds a candle. A stout cudgel rests against his knees. And he scratches and scrapes at the lichen on a dark, ribbed wall. When he has enough dark-green shavings in his hand, he brings them to his mouth. The Mirror goes dark.

“That’s him! That’s my father! And I’ve seen him fighting off dead mer-people, so you must know where he is, right?”

Her eyes grow cloudier, and she stares without seeing into the vacant Mirror. When she responds, her voice has lost some of its melody.

“I think I do,” says the Mermaid, and Pinocchio leans forward, smiling.

“I came from there, you could say,” she continues, mostly to herself. “I wanted to stay, but I was sent away by my father. And I got lost.” She remembers the rushing waters, the screams of battle, the tide pushing her away.

“And when you’re lost, this is where you end up... in Neverland.” The Mermaid picks up a fork and idly runs it through her ethereal hair. “Which isn’t so bad, I suppose. It’s mostly safe here. And at least I’m not alone. But the other mermaids aren’t like me, so I keep to myself nowadays.”

All this goes unheard by Pinocchio. “So, where’s my father?” he asks, a little too loudly.

“I’m sorry,” she says again, and gently lays the fork back amidst her meager treasures. “But your father is inside Monstro.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Nine

The Dwarf has spent several long moments pondering his next wish - after hearing the Genie's explanation of the rules and ignoring the increasingly horrible suggestions from the Wolf - and finally he speaks.

"Can you help him?" he asks, his voice oddly gentle. He points toward the dying Monkey.

“Aw, poor little fella,” says the Genie, and he is suddenly covered in a white tunic with a white paper cap on his head. A mask covers his nose and mouth and rubber gloves pop into place over his hands.

“Ol’ Doc Genie will have you good as new,” he whispers to the Monkey, but then looks up shrewdly at the Dwarf. “If that is your second wish.”

“Yar.”

“I’ll take that as a yes!” says the Genie. A flurry of magical light - through which it seems several Genies appear and disappear, all dressed in strange white outfits, some of them with long, blonde hair, and much odd beeping - and the Monkey’s head un-bruises, its ribs reconnect, and its body plumps slightly to a healthier weight.

“Bingo, bango, bongo, no tips, please,” says the Genie, and he laughs. “I’m not a mohel.”

The Dwarf stares at him blankly, and the Genie pulls at the collar which appears about his neck. “Tough crowd,” he says. “What is this, an audience or an oil painting?”

“Third wish,” says the Dwarf loudly, and the Wolf nods eagerly. “Can you get rid of the undead?”

“Yeah, yeah!” says the Wolf. “Do that! Then get to my wishes!”

“Sorry, Charlie,” says the Genie, now a spectacled, hatted fish. “I can’t kill anyone, even if they’re already dead. Them’s the rules.”

“I figured,” grumbles the Dwarf. He slaps the lamp thoughtfully against his hand. “But can't ya just undo it? Whatever caused this mess in the first place?”

“Oh, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that, I’d be a millionaire!” says the Genie. His expression - full of such foreign words like "nickel" and "millionaire" - is lost on the Dwarf, but he understands its meaning.

“I wish I could - get it, ‘wish’? No, you see, buddy,” says the Genie, and he drapes an ethereal arm around the Dwarf’s shoulders. “Maybe I could do that. Maybe...” He stretches that word out for several seconds.

“There's probably a loophole, and maybe we can work around it. But turn back time? That’s tough stuff! And I’d have to undo some serious magic! Damn it, Jim, I’m a genie, not a Hercules!” The blue-skinned arm buffs up and now belongs to a handsome man in a tunic and sandals.

“That’s big-time! And that ain’t easy, no-sirree-bob, it ain’t! And I can’t do that all by my lonesome. I’m just a small-timer! A nothing! A minor-leaguer!”

“So unless,” he continues, now sporting long hair and a beard and speaking in an unfamiliar accent, “the wish came from a powerful spell-slinger, someone whose magic could boost me up to an eleven,” the Dwarf has no idea what sort of contraption the Genie morphs into, “I’m afraid I can’t grant your wish.

“And even though you have a funny hat and a funny beard,” adds the Genie, “I don’t think you’re a wizard.”

The Dwarf fumes, and the Genie continues, “But... do either of you happen to know a powerful wizard?”

Together, the Dwarf and Wolf turn toward the crumpled corpse of the Vizier.

"It all makes sense," grumbles the Dwarf. “Right at the moment when it’s too late to do anything about it.

“A wizard sends us to retrieve his lamp. Right?” He scowls and sputters. “But he doesn’t tell us what he’s up to. Why should he? So what do we do? We kill him. We ruin our only chance of undoing this entire mess.”

“We ain't licked yet,” says the Wolf, and the Dwarf stops mid-rant.

“What do you mean?” he says, suspicious of any hope.

“Don't you remember the Queen?” says the Wolf. “Couldn’t she make the wish?”

“Oh, yeah,” says the Genie, and he becomes a female version of himself. “I’m not gender-biased! Either sex will work.”

“The Queen," growls the Dwarf, and he spits on the sand. "I wouldn’t trust her as far as I can throw her. You'd go back to her? After leaving you to die, and doing what she did to Cinderella?"

“Yeah, well, beggars can’t be choosers,” says the Wolf.

"I ain't no beggar."

The Dwarf sits on the carpet, his feet dangling over the edge. He ignores the Monkey jumping onto his shoulder, the Wolf panting impatiently, and the Genie ticking like a clock and humming a catchy tune.

Finally, he says, slowly and carefully, “For my third and final wish, Genie, I want you to give us a list of all the people still living who are powerful enough to wish away the undead."

The Genie's smile grows and grows until, like a Cheshire cat, only his grin remains. "Great wish," he says, and he disappears amidst a sheaf of paper.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Eight

“Let the buzzards have him,” the Dwarf says to no one in particular. For good measure, he spits on the Vizier’s corpse.

The Wolf hopefully sniffs at the body.

“Forget it,” says the Dwarf. “He’s full of poison.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” says the Wolf. He can still smell the bile-like tang of magic - it would make for a most unappealing meal. “What about his magic stick, though? It could come in handy.”

He takes the golden staff from where it lies on the sand and aims the serpent’s head at some stones.

“Bang, bang!” the Wolf commands. He flicks the staff wildly. “Open, sesame! Shoot!” But the ruby eyes remain flat and lifeless.

“Leave it alone,” scowls the Dwarf. “Probably cursed. And I don’t want that thing in my sight.”

“So much for the all-consuming fire,” says the Wolf, and he tosses the staff onto the Vizier’s broken body.

Nearby, the Monkey lies motionless. The Dwarf gingerly picks it up, and his frown darkens. Too many bones are broken, and what can he do? Mending wounds had been Cinderella’s specialty.

“Black magic,” he mutters. “You see what’s wrong with people? They get so greedy, their hearts go black, and they turn into that.”

The Wolf isn’t listening. He stares up into the sky at the Vizier’s carpet. He whistles, and the carpet’s edges perk a little. With a bit of coaxing, it floats down.

“Can you believe that fool?” complains the Dwarf. He takes his woolen cap and turns it into a sling for the Monkey. “Willing to kill over his blasted lamp. Doesn’t he know we’re all in this together? Why’d he want it for himself?”

He looks over to make sure the Wolf is paying attention, then scowls. The Wolf - now sitting atop the carpet - is delighted and nervous as he floats over to his companion.

“Greed. That’s all it is,” scowls the Dwarf. “Pure, stinkin’ greed.” He gently lays the Monkey on the plush carpet, and pulls out the dingy lamp to look at it in disgust.

“Yeah, yeah,” says the Wolf absently. “But what does it do?”

“I don’t know!” growls the Dwarf. He turns it over and over in his hands. “Wish I did, but I don’t.”

But then he does. Something clicks in his mind, and the lamp buzzes and trills. It nearly jumps from his hands, but the Dwarf holds it close.

“What the heck?” says the Wolf, and he sits up to watch the dancing lamp. Smoke wafts from its spout. It doesn’t have the reek of bile that had followed the Vizier’s magic, it smells like something… good, something better, something more, like a cloud or baking bread or the moment before dawn.

The smoke - or is it steam? - does the exact opposite of normal smoke when it dissipates in the wind. It thickens, grows, comes together, becomes more real, and suddenly it is a glowing, grinning blue figure.

“That’s your first wish!” says the Genie. His smile makes up nearly half his size. “You now know just what the heck this lamp does!”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Something brushes the wooden cheek of PInocchio. He stirs slightly at the touch. Everything is cloaked in a comforting, blurry darkness. He is cold and wet and feels... strange. Light. Almost airy.

Then the half-remembered images of swimming and falling and and fire and a deafening crack that tore apart the sky flood through his memories, and he gasps.

Only there is no air. He sputters and chokes and coughs out the mouthful of water, bitter water.

Then that thing - a pair of hands - touches his cheek once more, hands that are small and smooth and strong, reaching beneath his arms, and Pinocchio is flying. Is he flying? He's lifted, carried through a blanket of blue darkness, and above him the sky lightens like an egg, more and more, until he breaks the surface of the water and hungrily, desperately gasps for air.

“Are you all right?” says a voice, and Pinocchio can finally see, free from the confines of the ocean’s depths.

It is nighttime, but the full moon shines silver light over the water. It reflects and sparkles, a million tiny mirrors...

“The Mirror!” says Pinoccho, and he pats frantically at his chest. He smiles in relief as he feels the golden handle, still safely tucked into his shirt.

Beyond him lies land, presumably still Neverland, but of the pirate ship or his friends, there is no sign. How did he get here? What had happened?

“You're alive!” says the voice. “I’m sorry, I, I didn’t know you were real.”

Pinocchio turns around, splashing slightly, and he realizes he is still being held. The hands belong to a wide-eyed girl, more beautiful than any he’d ever seen. Her red hair flows and swirls and cascades down her shoulders with the ease of the ebbing tide.

“Hello,” she says, and chuckles in spite of herself.

“Hello,” says Pinocchio, somewhat shyly. “I am real. In a way.” How long ago he’d wished to be a real live boy. And now, a wish like that would be secondary - not to mention foolish - to his true heart’s desire.

“I found you under the water,” says the girl. “I thought you were a doll, and I took you with me. But then you started coughing, and I realized you're a land-dweller. But you seemed fine for hours beforehand.”

But Pinocchio is only half listening. He’d never thought about breathing, or why he didn’t need to - just as he didn’t need to eat or drink or sleep - but the gasp and accidental inhalation of water must have triggered something.

“Where are my friends?” he asks. He scans the surface of the water, but there is no sign of the Candelabra. And off in the distance, the Lion should still be waiting on the beach. But no one is there.

“Friends?” asks the girl. “I didn’t see anyone else. A ship had sunk, and I was just looking around for anything interesting. For my collectibles.

“Oh,” she adds, suddenly realizing. “You must have been on the ship. I’m sorry, I really am, but... I didn’t see any other people.”

“They weren’t people,” the puppet blurts. “They’re like me. One is a candlestick. And back on shore there's a clock. And a lion!”

Confusion clouds her face. “I don’t know what those words mean,” she says. “A lion? Like a,” she searches for the proper word, “giant... cat?”

“Yes," he says, incredulous. Who's never a heard of a lion?

“I’m sorry,” the girl says again. “But there was no one like that.”

“Oh,” says Pinocchio. He tries not to think about being left alone again, but it’s hard. The last thing he remembers is finding the pirate ship and being so happy, so close to finding his father, and now...

“There were some other things I found,” adds the girl quickly. “Maybe one of them is your candle’s tick. Or the clock.”

Pinocchio blinks, and feels a little better, a little warmer, at her smiling, hopeful face.

He nods, and she chuckles again. “Take a deep breath!” she warns, and then sinks into the water.

Pinocchio tries not to breathe as they speed through the murky blueness, down and deep. Then he realizes he doesn’t need to breathe at all, and watches eagerly.

The girl swims as fast as a bird flies, it seems, and Pinocchio is soon surrounded by her dancing red hair. And though he can only make out wavering shadows and the occasional glistening scale, she moves without any hesitation.

At last they come to a cave - an underwater cave! Maybe the Clock was right! But immediately, Pinocchio can tell this isn’t the same place as Gepetto’s shelter.

There’s no air, for one, and it’s too, too dark. How the girl can see anything is a mystery.

“Let’s see...” she says, looking around. Bits of metal and other items lie atop the coral. Some rest upon the natural ledges in the walls.

“It’s not much of a collection,” she says, and swims from shelf to shelf. “Just what I‘ve found since coming here.”

She looks at several of the items, then grabs one and brings it to Pinocchio. “Is this your friend?” she asks, and holds up a large, silver hook. It gleams in the murky light, elegant and menacing.

“No,” says Pinocchio. “That’s a hook.”

“Oh, right! A hook.” She darts over to another section of the cave, and that’s when Pinocchio let's out a bubbly gasp.

Instead of legs, she has a fishtail. Just like the creatures he's seen in the Mirror, the girl is a mermaid.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Five

“It’s not your lamp,” says the Dwarf stubbornly.

The skeletal man chuckles coldly, quietly. He is dressed in elegant silks of red and black. A large, dark turban gives even more height to his imposing figure. And he carries a golden staff, the end of which is fashioned into the head of a hooded serpent.

His feet do not touch the ground. He stands atop a faded carpet of foreign design that floats a few feet in the air.

“Should’ve known,” thinks the Dwarf, and suddenly he remembers that large shadow in the sky. “A wizard.”

“It certainly isn’t your lamp,” says the skeletal man.

“We found it,” scowls the Dwarf, and he hides the brass lamp behind his back. He wishes that his polearm wasn’t lying uselessly on the ground, but what good are wishes?

“Yes, I’m sure you did,” sneers the wizard. “With a key, I suppose? A key carried by a parrot? I’m correct, aren’t I?” It is a statement, not a question, easily confirmed by the faces of the Wolf and the Dwarf.

“That parrot served me. I am the owner of the key.”

“You?” asks the Wolf. The skeletal man’s voice and smell make the hackles of his fur rise. “You’re the prince?”

That final word flusters the wizard somewhat. “What? No, I was the Vizier to-- what prince?” He subtly points the serpent’s head in the direction of the Wolf.

“We were told,” says the Dwarf slowly, “to help the prince.” He turns the lamp over and over in his hands, thinking how best to fling it into this wizard’s face.

Again the man glares in surprise. “That wasn’t the message,” he says shortly. “It was to help the princess. Help the princess. Stupid bird.” His eyes go distant for the briefest of moments.

“Never mind that,” he resumes, returning to the present. “Since she did not exit the palace with you, I can only assume she didn’t survive. So be it. But at least you recovered the lamp. That’s of more importance.”

“Hey,” says the Wolf. He backs up slightly to avoid the acidic stink of magic. “Why couldn’t you just get it yourself?”

The Vizier says nothing for a moment, but when he speaks again, his voice is sweeter. “The palace,” he says, and the ruby eyes of the serpent flash in the sunlight, “is better protected than one can imagine.”

The Wolf nods slowly, his eyes never leaving the rubies.

“My spells would not work in there,” continues the wizard, and he sways the serpent’s head over to the Dwarf and the Monkey, “so I was forced to call for brave, able-bodied men such as yourselves to find the lamp.”

The rubies shine even brighter, and the Dwarf finds himself nodding. It seems like a reasonable idea. And after all, this wizard seems trustworthy. “And he’s right,” the Dwarf admits to himself, “I am brave and able-bodied.”

“And,” adds the Vizier, “to help the princess, of course.”

The Dwarf vaguely remembers a girl, the dead girl in the palace. He had helped her, in a way, death being a blessed release after the unholiness of the undead. And there were other girls, too, weren’t there?

Snow White, for one, lying cold and alone in her glass coffin, hopefully ignored by whatever creatures, living and dead, might tread in those dark woods. And Cinderella, too, lonely and asleep with only a bonneted dog to protect her. He has to help them.

He blinks away the tears, and the rubies of the staff are just rubies. Slowly, his face flushes as he realizes a spell was almost forced upon him.

“No,” says the Dwarf, and he surprises himself.

“Oh, very well,” sighs the Vizier with theatrical exaggeration. “Then we’ll do this the hard way.”

He only has to think of the Word of Power, but before he can bring the magic into creation, the Monkey has leapt, screeching and scratching, from the Dwarf’s shoulder.

It lands on the wizard’s face and tears furiously with its tiny claws. The Vizier screams and grabs. The Monkey is still too weak to dodge away, and it’s flung savagely to the ground.

The Dwarf crouches and sweeps up his polearm, but already the wizard is floating away on his magic carpet, now a dozen feet in the air, now two dozen.

“What are you going to do, Dwarf?” he shouts, and an evil bolt of magic flies from the serpent’s eyes. The Dwarf leaps across the ground. The sand sizzles and blackens in the wicked light.

“You’re going to die, that’s what you’re going to do!” shouts the Vizier. He elegantly, almost lazily, flicks another flash of light.

The Dwarf sprints, but there is nowhere to run - the only protection comes from the collapsed buildings that have trapped the dead, and the marble palace is too far away. Too far, especially, for a short-legged Dwarf who is being pursued by a flying foe.

More bolts of death drop from the sky. The Dwarf considers throwing the lamp into a pile of rubble and undead, just to create a diversion, when the wizard screams.

He turns to see the Vizier fall from his flying carpet. He flails helplessly, pathetically, but the carpet remains suspended in mid-air. And quickly, too quickly, the wizard collapses onto a jutting piece of foundation. The sand surrounding him turns into a crimson mud.

“How?” says the Dwarf, and he looks around.

The Wolf, hunched over with his paws on his knees, winks weakly at the Dwarf. In between breaths, he gasps, “I huffed… and I puffed... and I knocked him outta the sky.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Four

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FOUR


Pieces of the pirate ship - what little remains after the heart-wrenching fireball - crashes into the water. The splash is barely audible in the aftermath of the explosion.

“Well,” says the Lion. “So much for that.” Head held high, he pads away from the beach.

The Clock stammers and looks back and forth between the destruction and the disappearing form of the Lion.

“Maybe... maybe they’ve survived?” the Clock shouts, but the Lion doesn’t respond, doesn’t even slow down. Within moments, he’s disappeared into the foliage.

The Clock takes a tentative step toward the shore, but it does not enter the waters. Even as a human, it never learned how to swim.

Instead, it scans the gentle waves. Could Pinocchio survive so much fire? And the Candelabra, even if it hadn’t been melted by the blast, at best would have sunk to the bottom of the bay.

“Pinocchio!” Its voice is meek and tinny, a pathetic sound against the playful vastness of the water.

Silence.

Farther out, the burning wood is quickly extinguished. Mostly planks, by the look of it. Too big to be the boy. The mast still floats, perhaps made buoyant by the sails. But no sign of Pinocchio.

Still, the fact that some things remain gives the Clock hope. Small as it is, it’s still there.

But the eerie silence of the beach is troubling. The Clock becomes aware, as it always does when alone, that it’s ticking quite loudly. Steadily. Out of place and jarring on the beaches of Neverland.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” it murmurs, worried. “Nothing can harm me.” Even the dead pirates, should they come crawling from the water, would pay no mind to a ticking clock. It’s the Lion who has to worry now.

But isn’t there a story about a crocodile that eats clocks?

The ticking is quite loud. Almost echoing.

“Lion!” shouts the Clock, but the foliage merely sighs and dips in the breeze.

“Pinocchio!” The water laps against the shore.

Silence.

The Clock had never been one for being alone. And it can’t go out into the wide waters to search for its friends. But it can’t abandon them, either.

Several hours later – several exhausting hours later – the Clock steps back to survey its work.

Lying on the shore is a sign, placed carefully above what is hopefully the high-water mark. Black stones, round and heavy, have been set in the shape of an arrow. It points into the foliage and will be ignored by crocodiles or dead men, but invaluable to Pinocchio and the Candelabra.

“Almost done,” says the Clock, its voice full of false cheer. “That didn’t take quite so long.” It looks at its face to mark the time, then frowns. It’s certainly taken longer than that.

And the ticking, still quite loud, still quite echoing, has slowed noticeably.

“Oh, dear,” says the Clock. “I need winding.”

The duty has always fallen to Pinocchio, as the boy is the only one who had hands, but perhaps the Lion can use his claws…

“Lion?”

Silence.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Three

“What the heck is it?” asks the Wolf.

“It’s a lamp, you idiot,” says the Dwarf.

They stand before a small alcove, so nondescript in this delicately wrought throne room that they would have missed it entirely had it not been for the Monkey’s pointing paw.

Now the tiny creature curls around the Dwarf’s neck, combing through his ragged beard for mites. Its eyes dart constantly toward the Wolf.

“This is what we were sent to find?” asks the Wolf. “That’s gonna help the prince?” He kicks at a pillow, then looks at the lamp once more. “That’s it?”

“Looks like it.” The Dwarf’s voice is gray, bitter.

Moments before, he’d greedily unlocked the alcove, only to find a tarnished brass lamp, not even big enough to light a room through an entire night.

“Maybe it’s one of those magic lamps,” says the Dwarf. He peers into the alcove, but there’s no secret catch or lever to reveal a better treasure.

“Maybe it stays lit for a long time… but even then, who needs it? Or maybe it burns with the all-consuming fire, and it’ll kill all the dead forever.”

“Those exist?” asks the Wolf.

The Dwarf shrugs and scowls. “Doubt it. Never heard of humans knowing about the all-consuming fire. And if they had,” he adds with grim satisfaction, “they would’ve accidentally burned themselves up long ago.”

“Just like the buildings outside,” says the Wolf, and it grins.

The Dwarf’s eyes widen. The Wolf’s always been a fool, but even fools get it right once in a blue moon. The entire desert city laid to waste, and not by mere fire. Dragonfire, he’d thought, but maybe that wasn’t the case. They didn’t find a dragon within the palace. They found a lamp.

“How does it work?” asks the Wolf. He is salivating again, but only the Monkey notices. It whimpers and tries to hide beneath the Dwarf’s beard.

“Not sure. It’s dangerous stuff. Dangerous but useful. That’s how we made Excalibur, you know.” He brings the lamp closer and studies it sharply, shrewdly.

His eyes suddenly gleam.

“What? What is it?”

“No human made this lamp. It looks like garbage, but it ain’t. It was made to look like this. It’s... you wouldn’t understand, but it’s the finest, most perfect piece of junk that was ever made.”

He holds it high and admires the dents and scratches on its cheap brass exterior. No self-respecting Dwarf would create such an ugly thing, of course, but someone had a very good reason for making this lamp so horrible. Underneath, like a diamond in the rough, hides a perfect piece of craftsmanship.

“It’s fire,” says the Wolf. “It’s your all-consuming fire, isn’t it?”

The Dwarf hesitates and licks his lips. “Could be.” There’s a flint and steel in his pockets, and his hands tremble with the thought of lighting the lamp.

All-consuming fire! The finest, truest fire, that which can destroy anything and everything that isn’t pure. And, they say, that which is forged in the fire lasts forever and can never, ever be broken.

“Best we go outside to test it,” the Dwarf says. “This place would go up like tinder if it gets out of hand.”

The Wolf nods eagerly, and all but pushes the Dwarf from the alabaster palace.

Outside, the Dwarf blinks and scowls at the shining sun.

“Light it, light it!” says the Wolf.

“Not here,” says the Dwarf, and he surveys the ruined city before finally choosing a collapsed hovel. Like the others buildings, it had been destroyed long ago, but he should be able to set fire to the rubble. And, more importantly, it’s far, far from the palace.

“Keep clear,” he says, and firmly unwinds the Monkey from his neck.

It whimpers and points up toward the Wolf, but it goes ignored. The Wolf only has eyes for the precious, ugly lamp.

Quickly, the Dwarf rips some dried weeds from the ground, and moments later has a tiny fire burning.

The Monkey chatters louder and jabs its finger upward, but all the Dwarf’s concentration is on the lamp. He tries to keep his hands steady as he touches the spout to the budding flame.

Then, at the last moment, he puts it on the ground, safely away from the fire, and drapes his beard over his shoulder. “Lot of careless Dwarves probably made that mistake,” he mutters.

The Wolf, salivating openly, tries not to breathe, for his powerful breath could blow the fire any which way.

Still the Monkey points upward and now it shrieks, and finally the Dwarf and the Wolf are aware of the shadow descending over them.

“Pray tell,” comes an elegant, cold voice, “what are you doing with my lamp?”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Two

Under the sea.

"Witch!" bellows the King of the Sea. He points his trident at her cave and a white-hot bolt of power crashes into the coral. The water turns cloudy and bitter.

"What have you done to my people?" he screams.

Nighttime and darkness bleed into the water. The Sea Witch arrives.

"What do you want, old man?" she spits, and casts an angry look at her home. “I’ve only ever given them their own greedy little wishes.”

"Don't play games with me, Witch," roars the King, and he turns to face her.

She’s never seen the King of the Sea in all his fury, and his presence, his power, forces her to recoil. She thought they'd had an unspoken agreement - she could prey on the fools that came for her magicks, and he would leave her in peace... in return for some matters left unspoken.

But clearly, the agreement has ended.

The King of the Sea still bleeds. Patches of his white beard are stained a brownish red. He's been attacked by something. Not sharks. Barracudas?

The Sea Witch realizes he’s still waiting for an answer, and she feels the first tricklings of fear. There’s something in the King’s eye that brings to mind tsunamis, waterspouts, and death.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Your Majesty. I'm just a simple woman! I would never send anything to attack..."

"Lies!" he screams, and unleashes another bolt in her direction. The Witch sprays more ink and propels herself away.

"No, I swear it!" she cries, all the more frightened because she is innocent, and has no idea what sort of malevolence has come to the Seventh Sea and dared attack its king.

Frantically, she tries to think of any spells that might save her, but she is a specialist in trickery and deception, not raw power. Nothing alive under the ocean can match the King’s trident.

He swims toward her, the golden prongs stained with blood. "Your oath means nothing, Witch!"

She shrinks deeper into the inky shadows of the water, and the voice that begs is quite unlike her usual milky purr. “Please...”

"You've killed my people," he snarls, and he stabs at her with the Trident. Although she raises her powerful, flabby arms to protect her face, she is cut through.

"You've killed my kingdom!" he screams, and stabs again.

"You've... killed... me."

The Sea Witch doesn't answer.

The King of the Sea stares at her for a long time. The water clears of ink and blood and coral. His breathing calms. The rage in his eyes fades into an uncaring, vacant gaze, and his brow unfurrows, free from the pain and suffering of his people.

And then he drifts, slowly, toward the shredded corpse of the Sea Witch, and he eats.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapter Seventy-One

Wasting no time in his victory over the tiger, the Dwarf jerks the spear-point from its skull. Weapon held before him, he stalks into the throne room, a scowl marring his face.

They’ve come all the way here, to the farthest edges of the hottest desert, to “help the prince.” And what have they found? A city destroyed. A palace unlocked. And a throne room overrun.

He scans the wide and airy room, empty save one person in the corner. Once she was a graceful young woman. Reaching pathetically toward the ceiling, she would climb the wall if it weren’t so smooth. Her fingers constantly pry at the stone, digging for any sort of handhold.

She doesn’t notice that one foot has lost its soft, curly-toed slipper, and most of her blue silks have ripped away. Evidence enough for the Dwarf that she is dead.

But what’s kept her distracted from the living prey that’s come through her door? Doesn’t matter, really. He gestures to the still-cowering Wolf in the corridor that the room is safe.

“Keep an eye on her,” he mutters. “And make sure no one comes in after us.”

Without waiting for an answer, the Dwarf walks over to the scant remains of a body. He has no need to be cautious - its head is missing. Most of it is missing, in fact, probably eaten long ago by the tiger.

Probably wasn’t the prince. Not in those street rags. And his curved sword doesn’t seem special in any way.

Blocking out the scratch-scratch-scratch from the blue-silked woman, the Dwarf takes out the golden key and frowns. All this work, all this trouble, for nothing.

The Wolf chuckles to himself, causing the Dwarf to look up.

“What’s so funny?” he whispers.

“Look,” says the Wolf. He points with one claw up to one of the alcove windows.

“That’s what she’s grabbin’ for - her lunch,” says the Wolf, and then the Dwarf’s eyes make it out. He’d taken it for a shadow, but it’s a small... something. Curled into a tight ball on the small ledge. Beneath, the woman reaches and scratches patiently.

“Oh, for the love of...” the Dwarf snorts and mutters to himself, and moments later cleans her blood from his blade.

He looks up at the shape. “Y’can come down now,” he says, but it doesn’t move.

“It’s too weak,” says the Wolf. His nose twitches - the better to smell with - and he smacks his lips. “Or scared. Yeah, come on down so we can eat you, instead."

The Dwarf gives a disapproving grunt.

“What?” snarls the Wolf. “You had no problems with eatin’ kittens and the like.”

“That was different. You killed ‘em, I just ate ‘em. They couldn’t defend themselves, but that’s the way of the world. Don’t mean I have t’like it.”

It ain’t fair, thinks the Dwarf, but who ever said the world was? None of these people asked to die. No one ever does, yet they still die. And the living have to survive somehow, too, don’t they?

“But that thing,” says the Dwarf, with a turn of his nose at the window, ”it survived. It deserves better. Besides, we got plenty of food and water here.”

“Bah,” spits the Wolf. “He wouldn’t have been more than a mouthful, anyway.”

The Dwarf raises his polearm, blade in his hand, so that the handle taps gently on the windowsill.

“You all right?” he growls, not unkindly.

The creature stirs and looks down at the Dwarf with bulging brown eyes. Then it gazes at the Wolf, who is sniffing doubtfully at a platter of long-rotted fruit.

“He ain’t gonna hurt ya,” says the Dwarf. Balancing the weapon with one hand, he fishes in his pockets with the other. Finally pulls out some pecans - sour, though - he’d found somewhere.

The brown eyes widen even more, and it reaches out with a tiny, stick-thin arm for the polearm’s handle. It takes several seconds, but finally it wraps its spidery limbs around the pole, and the Dwarf lowers it.

“Good boy,” he says gruffly. He takes the waterskin off his shoulder as the monkey desperately eats the pecans. They are almost as big as its head.

“Eat up, but don’t drink too much or you’ll regret it. Just a little at a time does the trick.”

“It can’t talk,” says the Wolf.

“Just keep an eye out,” says the Dwarf.

“Now tell me,” he says, as the monkey gazes at him with rapt attention. It sucks greedily from the waterskin as the Dwarf reaches around his neck and produces the golden key. “Do you know what this opens?”

And the Dwarf smiles thinly as the monkey nods.