The troll took a step back as his gaze shifted to the wraith. “I see. Very well. Since you are returning to fulfill an assignment, you enter by invitation.”
Seth glanced at the wraith. “I think you’ll like him,” he whispered to the troll while stepping across the threshold. “Great roommate. One of the guys.”
Long feet flapping against the ground, the troll led them along a corridor that looked like a pale gray throat. The troll periodically glanced back at the wraith, clearly unsettled. Apparently even other monsters didn’t love the idea of having their life leeched from them.
The corridor sloped down before opening into a damp chamber cratered with puddles. Huge white maggots stretched and flexed grotesquely, pale flesh rippling, one in each little pool. Several short trolls with puffy builds and oversized heads scuttled away at the approach of Seth and the wraith.
Around one of the puddles, three women stood in a ring. They had no hands. Instead, their wrists were fused together to form a conjoined circle. Seth recalled that the tall, skinny one was Berna. The flabby one with the droopy flesh on her arms was Wilna. The shortest, Orna, had acted nicest on his previous visit. The sisters shifted to better see him. Wilna had to look over her shoulder.
“Seth Sorenson,” Berna greeted. “You return well before we expected you.”
“Can’t you see the future?” Seth asked, trying not to breathe too deeply. The chamber smelled sweet and rotten, like a decaying mix of mushy fruit.
“We don’t peer down every avenue,” Orna said. “Ruins the suspense.”
“We could have sent the covenant knife after you,” Wilna said. “You weren’t supposed to reveal our arrangement to anyone.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Seth complained. “Bracken read my mind. He’s a unicorn. I didn’t tell him.”
“She knows that,” Orna said. “Otherwise you would already be dead. And such a shame! You’re starting out on a path much like the one walked by your great-great-granduncle.”
“I have a long way to go before I can compare myself to Patton Burgess,” Seth said.
“Don’t be so hasty to dismiss the comparison,” Orna warned in gentle tones. “It’s why I like you.”
“We voted two to one against sending the knife,” Berna said. “Orna vouched for you because you intrigue her. I joined her because I sense you could be useful.”
“Our private agreement leaked to outsiders,” Wilna complained with a scowl. “We were within our rights to slay the boy.”
“And then we would have no sword and no wraith,” Berna said. “That wraith could come in handy.”
“The boy still owes us a favor,” Orna added. “And don’t forget Nagi Luna.”
“You heard about that?” Seth asked. He had killed two ancient demons with Vasilis—Nagi Luna and Graulas.
“Why would we need to hear of it?” Wilna snapped. “We can behold such events at our leisure.”
“Are you . . . angry?” Seth asked.
The three sisters cackled and swayed, wrists creaking.
“Because Nagi Luna mentored dozens of witches?” Orna asked through her giggles.
“Well, yeah,” Seth said. “I guess you heard about Gorgrog, too?”
The witches laughed harder.
“What witch with any right to the title would have failed to note the fall of the Demon King?” Berna asked.
Seth felt confused by the merriment. “Don’t witches get their power from demons?”
“That is more or less true,” Orna said, using her shoulder to rub away mirthful tears. “But the power comes at a price.” She raised her arms, which lifted the connected arms of her sisters. “The demons are our sponsors but seldom our friends. Fear and respect are not the same as love. The fall of a high demon can be . . . delicious.”
“To see the king brought low by a child . . .” Berna said.
“An amusing day for one and all,” Wilna concluded.
Seth couldn’t take credit for slaying the Demon King. His sister, Kendra, had done it. “You’re glad the demons were imprisoned after their escape?” Seth verified.
“Oh, my, on the whole, yes,” Orna said. “Imagine all the groveling and bootlicking we would have to do with so many powerful demon lords on the prowl.”
“It would have shaken things up,” Berna said. “No doubt about it.”
“We could have found ways to turn an age of demonic rule to our advantage,” Wilna asserted stiffly.
“It would have been complicated,” Orna said.
“It’s always complicated,” Wilna replied. “Now we have the dragons to worry about.”
“But they have less direct interest in us,” Berna said.
“Dragons?” Seth asked.
“No free predictions,” Wilna said.
“Your future is entwined with the rise of the great wyrms,” Orna said.
Berna jerked Orna to one side. “Stop blabbing!”
“Don’t pull me!” Orna griped, yanking Berna hard enough to make her stumble.
“You saw my future?” Seth asked.
“We observe many futures,” Wilna said. “Not all come to pass.”
“Are you going to send me on a mission involving dragons?” Seth wondered.
Wilna narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You sound hopeful.”
Seth shrugged. “I missed some of the dragon stuff at Wyrmroost. I was stuck in a knapsack. The dragons looked really cool at Zzyzx.”
“Told you,” Orna said. “Patton all over again.”
“We have not yet settled on your task,” Berna said.
“Are you sure?” Seth checked. “I wouldn’t mind getting it over with.”
“Why the hurry to repay us?” Wilna asked.
“Things have been kind of dull around Fablehaven,” Seth said. “And it doesn’t seem like a good idea to owe favors to witches.”
“Dullness won’t be a problem for long,” Orna said.
“Hush,” Wilna ordered.
“Why?” Seth asked.
“Turbulent times await us all,” Wilna stated.
“You brought the sword,” Berna said. “And the wraith appears serviceable.”
“It’s great,” Seth assured them. “Hungry. Cold. Lonely. Everything you could want in an undead servant.”
Empty, the wraith thought at them.
“And empty,” Seth agreed. “Thirsty, too. Fun at parties.”
“You’ll serve us?” Wilna asked the wraith.
Seth sensed the answer in his mind. The boy brought me as a gift. I will serve.
“It would appear Seth Sorenson has paid back two of his three promises,” Berna said.
“I’m happy to do the third now,” Seth reminded them. “I get to use the sword for it, right?”
“Leave the wraith and the sword,” Wilna said. “We’ll contact you when the time comes for your task.”
“When will that be?” Seth asked.
“When it suits us,” Wilna replied. “Good day.”
“Do you want my e-mail address?” Seth asked.
“We have ways to reach you,” Berna assured him.
Seth unshouldered the sword and set it down. He turned to the wraith. “Behave for the witches. Thanks for volunteering.”
So very cold, the wraith expressed. No peace. No rest.
“I’ll miss you too,” Seth said. “It was a blast.” He turned to the witches. “Anything else?”
“Not unless you care to strike a new bargain,” Orna suggested hopefully.
“Not today,” Seth said. “Especially since I still owe you a service.”
“Our business is concluded for now,” Wilna said. “Begone.”
“Or linger uninvited,” Berna suggested sneakily.
p; “I’ll go,” Seth said, moving toward the way he had entered. “If you forget to ask for a favor, I’ll forgive you.”
The three sisters cackled.
“Don’t fret about that,” Orna said.
“We always collect on our debts,” Berna said.
“Our dealings are far from complete, Seth Sorenson,” Wilna said. “We spared you from the covenant knife. Kindly repay the courtesy by staying alive.”
“What’s coming?” Seth asked, still moving away.
Wilna grew grave. “No hints. Knowledge comes at a price.”
“Maybe a little hint?” Orna asked.
“No,” Berna insisted.
“I have my own mouth and my own mind,” Orna fumed. “We already gave it away.” She gazed intently at Seth. “A storm is coming. A storm of dragons.”
“Orna!” Berna and Wilna cried in dismay.
“You won’t have to wait long,” Orna promised.
“Good, I guess,” Seth replied. “I’ve never liked waiting.”
The Fairy Realm
A pair of oars propelled the rowboat toward the tiny island, stirring up miniature whirlpools with each powerful stroke. Twelve graceful pavilions surrounded the modest lake, connected by whitewashed boardwalks. Beyond the pavilions, satyrs wrestled on green fields encompassed by hedge walls.
Kendra knew that most at Fablehaven feared the Fairy Queen’s shrine. The typical trespasser would be immediately turned to dandelion fluff. It had happened before.
But today was more exciting than scary. Bracken sat opposite her in the rowboat, manning the oars, eyes on her as he guided the craft. Though she knew he was a unicorn, Kendra had never seen him in his horse shape. Bracken had become trapped in human form after surrendering his third and final horn to create an artifact that helped lock the demon prison. All Kendra had ever seen was a teenage boy who looked a couple of years older than her. His silver-blond hair, boyishly handsome features, flawless skin, and penetrating eyes hinted at his true identity—son of the Fairy Queen, a young man of astonishing power and purity.
And she suspected he might have romantic feelings for her. But despite her best efforts to crack his shell, he kept his distance. She was still hoping for a first kiss!
“Are you sure this is all right?” Kendra asked as the prow of the boat slid against the muddy bank of the island.
He flashed a reassuring smile. “I told you my mother granted permission. That is the definition of ‘all right’ in the fairy realm.”
“No humans have ever been there?” Kendra asked.
“Never,” Bracken said. “You’re setting a new precedent. Mother kept it closed off to the outside world, especially after Gorgrog captured Father.”
Kendra shivered at the mention of the Demon King. She could still picture him, titanic in size, a vast tangle of contorted antlers sprouting from his bullish head. Chains had dangled from his wide belt, allowing him to drag around his most prized victims, including the Fairy King. After Kendra had killed the Demon King with Vasilis, the Fairy King had been rescued.
“How is your father?” Kendra asked.
Bracken lowered his eyes. “Not much has changed since we found him. His body is whole, but he keeps to himself and hardly speaks. Others still have to feed him, though at times he will wander on his own.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kendra said.
Bracken brightened. “It’s not your fault. Kendra, you saved him. Most of us figured he was dead. I wish we had known! I would have mounted a rescue. Mother warned me his recovery would take time. After all, he was dragged around inside Zzyzx for centuries, chained to the Demon King. It’s a miracle he survived.”
“I can’t imagine how horrible that would have been,” Kendra said, trying not to picture it.
“We’re lucky to have him back.” Bracken vaulted gracefully from the rowboat and Kendra followed, unable to avoid noticing how clumsy and slow her efforts seemed compared to his effortless coordination. Watching her with eyes that made her feel like the only real thing in the universe, Bracken took her hand.
Three female heads popped up out of the pond not far from the island, and three eager smiles gleamed.
“Hi, Bracken,” one of the naiads called in a flirty singsong.
“Pretty day,” another remarked coyly.
“Care for a swim?” the third offered.
Kendra frowned. Normally naiads only welcomed men into their waters so they could drown them. But Bracken was different. Part of his superstar status among magical creatures meant naiads actually wanted his affection. Normally the aquatic maidens would have harassed the rowboat, but the crossing had been tranquil. Kendra had even seen Bracken carelessly throw off his shirt and swim with the naiads before, never experiencing any trouble.
“Hi, Chiatra!” Bracken said. “Good to see you, Zolie! Hey, Ulline.”
Kendra watched the naiads blush as their names were spoken.
“Sorry, I can’t swim right now,” Bracken went on. “I’m taking Kendra to the fairy realm.”
Three sets of glaring eyes fixed on Kendra.
“Did you need somebody to sweep up the place?” Chiatra teased.
“Is she going to be sacrificed?” Zolie wondered.
“It’s part of our job to forbid the unworthy,” Ulline said.
“Be nice, ladies,” Bracken said. “Your orders come from my mother. You know Kendra is coming with permission, as my guest.”
Ulline and Zolie rolled their eyes and disappeared beneath the water. Chiatra looked Kendra up and down with naked disgust. “I don’t get it,” she said before vanishing below the gently rippling surface.
“Your fan club doesn’t approve,” Kendra said. The naiads all had lovely faces. Kendra knew any of them would belong to Bracken in a heartbeat if he showed any interest.
“Don’t waste any thought on them. They’re silly and harmless.”
“Unless they drown me.”
Bracken furrowed his brow. “I’ll talk to Mother. We ought to forbid that.”
He led the way to where a spring bubbled up out of the ground. A two-inch statue of a fairy stood nearby atop a small pedestal. A silver bowl rested close at hand as well. It had been some time since Kendra had visited the Fairy Queen’s shrine.
“How do we cross over?” Kendra asked.
“Simple,” Bracken said, but he suddenly seemed hesitant.
“What?” Kendra asked.
His posture slumped a little. “There has been a lot of buildup to this. I don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Why would I be disappointed?”
Bracken grimaced. “The splendor of the old fairy realm was unreal. We sacrificed all that to create a new prison for the demons. Zzyzx was a mess when Mother and the others claimed it and began to transform it. This new home is still developing.”
“It makes me sad to think of the demons wrecking your old realm.”
“It’s what got them inside,” Bracken said. “In all their millennia of evil, none of them even saw the fairy realm. The chance to go there and spoil it was too hard to resist. Especially when the alternative was to fight dragons. Before they knew it, our old home became their new prison.”
“And their prison became your new home,” Kendra said.
“It was available,” Bracken said. “Like our previous realm, the prison was a pocket dimension tied to your reality. The demons left the way open, and we were free to move in. There was lots of space. We’ve put in loads of work. Don’t forget, Zzyzx held many of the most powerful demons in the world for thousands of years. It wasn’t just a mess—it was horrifying. Nobody can purify like unicorns. And beautifying is what fairies do. But plenty of work remains.”
“Can I help?” Kendra asked.
“Who knows?” Bracken replied. “Your fairykind status makes you a powerful source of
“I’d love to be your battery,” Kendra said. “I can’t wait to see your home.”
“I’ll show you a lot,” Bracken said. “Mother won’t let anyone inside the palace yet. She refuses to accept anything short of perfection there.”
“Maybe I can drop by again,” Kendra said.
“Once we set the precedent of you visiting, I expect Mother will keep having you back. It is very difficult to get to know my mother. I’m only beginning to understand her myself. But when you killed Gorgrog, you made a friend for life.”
“I hope so,” Kendra said. “The Fairy Queen has always been good to me.”
“She doesn’t grant fairykind status to many,” Bracken said. “Mother liked you even before you freed her husband. After the battle at Zzyzx, I don’t think she has more respect for any human.”
Kendra thought about the barrage of fairy kisses that had made her fairykind. Since that day she had understood the languages of the fairy folk and didn’t need special food or drink to see the magical creatures at Fablehaven or elsewhere. She could energize magical items, see in the dark, speak several languages, and who knew what else? Her abilities were still emerging. How would the Fairy Queen feel if someday her only son proclaimed his love for a human girl? Would Kendra’s fairykind status make her more acceptable?
“Do you think we’ll see your mom?” Kendra asked.
“She spends a lot of time in the palace with Father,” Bracken said. “If we run across her, she’ll probably be in horse shape. She likes to go for runs in that form.”
Kendra had been surprised to learn that the queen of the fairies was actually a unicorn. Unlike Bracken, she still had her third horn, so she could take horse shape whenever she pleased. She could also appear as a beautiful woman.
“Ready?” Bracken asked.
“What do I do?” Kendra asked.
A rippling glare of whiteness accompanied a disorienting sensation. Kendra recalled a similar feeling when she stood in the shallows on a beach while the water pulled away. As the seawater withdrew all around her, she had seemed to be in motion while standing still. She felt that same way now.
When the whiteness dissipated, Kendra stood in a blossoming field. The cloudless sky was a golden orange with streaks of red and yellow. Peculiar flowers thrived in all directions, flaunting colors more luminous and bright than any Kendra had ever seen. The blossoms were of such diverse shape and size that Kendra wondered whether they were tropical or if perhaps they existed only here.