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.