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Dragonwatch, Page 3

Brandon Mull

  Bracken’s apprehension had led Kendra to envision a charred landscape with clusters of flowers beginning to grow and shoots of young grass coming up. She certainly had not expected flawless gardens stretching across rolling countryside to the limits of sight.

  “It’s beautiful,” Kendra gushed.

  “It’s a start,” Bracken said. “A big improvement from before. Come this way.”

  He escorted Kendra to a broad, shallow stream where shimmering water tumbled down a series of rocky shelves. Several fairies waded in the silvery flow. All were taller than Kendra, built with the lithe athleticism of ballerinas, with bright, extravagant wings and lovely young faces.

  “Big fairies,” Kendra said. “Like the warriors at Zzyzx.”

  “Fairies tend to be full-sized here,” Bracken said.

  “Would the tiny fairies at Fablehaven grow if they visited?” Kendra asked.

  “Most would, but Mother wouldn’t trust the majority with such power,” Bracken said. “Fairies can be so foolish.”

  “I heard that,” said an extremely fit fairy with striking red hair and glittering green eyes. She fluttered over and landed before Bracken, legs wet to the shins.

  “The fairies here are exceptions to that rule,” Bracken explained smoothly. “Tinori, meet Kendra.”

  “Hello,” Kendra said, trying not to feel intimidated as she looked up at a face that belonged on a fashion magazine cover. Thanks to her fairykind status, Kendra knew that fairies were supposed to obey her. But she wasn’t sure if that applied to these larger ones.

  “I remember you,” Tinori said with a broad smile. “You killed Gorgrog.”

  “Yes,” Kendra said, grateful to have some notoriety. “You must have been at the battle.”

  “I lost most of my left wing,” Tinori said, spreading her elaborate wings wide. Both looked perfect to Kendra, with colors like stained glass backlit by sunlight. “It’s been healed, of course.”

  “They’re so pretty,” Kendra said.

  “You,” Tinori said, bopping her on the nose with a fingertip, “know the way to a fairy’s heart.” She gave a squinty, self-satisfied smile and flitted away, her wings allowing her to turn gentle skips into soaring leaps.

  “She’s a little jealous,” Bracken whispered. “You’re so radiant.”

  Kendra glanced at her hands. They looked normal to her. Ever since she had become fairykind, certain magical creatures would comment on her radiance. Kendra had never really perceived it.

  “At least she spoke to me,” Kendra said. None of the other fairies had glanced her way.

  “Tinori has more confidence than most,” Bracken said. “You know how fairies get. This is their special realm. You’re the first human to come here. You killed the Demon King. You shine brighter than any of them. It’s a sure recipe for envy.”

  The tiny fairies back at Fablehaven had been generally nicer to Kendra since she became fairykind. She supposed their sizes were so different that it was easier for them not to view her as competition.

  “This way,” Bracken said, leading Kendra toward a bridge composed of smooth, rounded stones in several shades of blue.

  She passed a fragrant flower the size of a barrel and a shrub twinkling with numberless glittery petals. The perfume in the air was almost rich enough to taste.

  “Seems like you’re already finished,” Kendra said.

  “This area is more polished than some,” Bracken said. “But the land needs more shape and character. Some big trees would add a lot—ancient groves, or forests in their prime. And we have very few structures. We can do grass and flowers quickly.”

  “It’s a paradise,” Kendra said.

  Bracken winked. “Trust me, it’ll be more impressive in years to come.”

  As they crossed the bridge, a pair of astrids landed in front of them, brawny men with golden, feathery wings. Removing gilded helmets crafted to resemble the heads of owls, they bowed low.

  “You look familiar,” Kendra said to one of them.

  “I’m Denwin,” he replied. “This is Peredor. We were both at the battle of Zzyzx.”

  “Prince Bracken,” Peredor said, “Jubaya has announced that she will confer with us.”

  “Now?” Bracken asked. “I’m giving Kendra a tour.”

  “I believe that is why we got the offer,” Peredor said. “Jubaya expressed interest in conversing with her.”

  “Absolutely not,” Bracken said.

  “Who is Jubaya?” Kendra asked.

  “A demon,” Bracken grumbled.

  “You still have demons here?”

  “Not all of the demons exited Zzyzx with the horde,” Bracken explained. “We’ve purged most who remained, but a few have proven tough to root out.”

  “You can’t get rid of her?” Kendra asked.

  “She’s hiding in a sludge pit,” Bracken said. “There is ancient magic there, deep and dark. Plus her touch corrupts. Unicorns have temporarily purified the top layer of sludge, but the pool becomes tainted again immediately.”

  “This opportunity could bring her to the surface,” Peredor said.

  “Out of the question,” Bracken replied. “The risk is too great.”

  “How can I help?” Kendra asked, a little offended that nobody was checking her opinion.

  “Chiefly as bait, so to speak,” Denwin said. “The demon requested you by name.”

  “That doesn’t sound too bad,” Kendra said. After all, she had defeated the Demon King and faced his fierce army. Here she would be surrounded by allies. What could Jubaya do? “How dangerous is she?”

  “We have a dozen of our best warriors in place,” Peredor said. “We could get another dozen there. I’m confident we could protect you. And maybe capture her.”

  Bracken frowned. “What about Mizelle?”

  “She’s on her way,” Peredor said.

  “Who is Mizelle?” Kendra asked.

  “One of my sisters,” Bracken said. “She leads the warrior fairies.”

  Kendra laid a hand on Bracken’s arm. “If this would give you a chance to catch the demon . . . ”

  “She’s cornered,” Bracken said. “That’s never a safe scenario. A desperate demon could get vicious. I’d rather seal up the sludge pit, leave her there until the end of time.”

  “Begging your pardon,” Denwin said, “but can you imagine your mother leaving such an impurity in her realm, sealed up or not?”

  “You’re right,” Bracken said, folding his arms.

  “Let me do it,” Kendra urged. “I’ll be careful.”

  “I don’t like it.”

  “You have plenty of people to protect me. This could be a chance to get rid of some trouble. Let me do this. I insist.”

  Bracken sighed. “From what I understand, Jubaya isn’t much of a fighter. But she’ll undoubtedly play mind games.”

  “I’ll play them right back,” Kendra said, feeling brave. “I’ve been on much riskier adventures than this.”

  Bracken shook his head. “Don’t be so sure. Jubaya wants access to you for a reason. She sees an opportunity.”

  “I’ll keep my guard up,” Kendra said. “So will you. It’s an opportunity for us, too.”

  “Very well,” Bracken relented. “But at the first sign of trouble . . .”

  “You’ll bail me out,” Kendra finished.

  “Shall we transport you?” Denwin asked eagerly.

  “Probably for the best,” Bracken said.

  Peredor scooped Kendra into his strong arms, cradling her, and sprang into the air, powerful wings turning the leap into flight. Looking down at the receding bridge and stream, Kendra saw Bracken rising as well, dangling from Denwin’s ankles, using the astrid like a hang glider.

  The higher they rose, the more blooming fields and winding streams Kendra could see.
Zzyzx had apparently been a very large place, and so was the new fairy realm. In the distance, Kendra could see other astrids heading their way, light glinting off golden feathers and armor.

  From her loftier vantage point, Kendra also noticed some parts of Zzyzx the fairies had not yet reclaimed. Off to one side, a row of harsh, fanglike rocks interrupted a series of low, green hills. Sickly fumes steamed from a dark chasm that cut across an idyllic garden like a wound. And up ahead churned a bubbling pond of oily sludge.

  Peredor swooped down and landed in tall grass within view of the roiling pond. He set Kendra on her feet as Bracken landed beside them. The reek of the pond overpowered the aroma of the nearby flowers with a foul stench like molten tar and sulfur.

  “The fairy realm is huge,” Kendra said.

  “It’s big,” Bracken agreed. “Even up high we couldn’t see more than a fraction of it. But the sky here does not extend to outer space like it does on Earth. Our atmosphere eventually fades away. And if you go too far in any direction, the ground dwindles to nothing as well.”

  “Can you fall off the edge?” Kendra asked.

  “It would take great effort and powerful magic,” Bracken said. “As you get to the edge, you ordinarily get turned around and head back toward the center. Same if you fly too high—you start heading down when you thought you were going up.”

  “Strange,” Kendra said.

  “This is not actually a world—just a pocket dimension attached to your world.”

  I would speak with the girl!

  The words hit Kenda’s mind like a shout, though her physical ears detected nothing.

  Perhaps a conversation can be arranged, Bracken thought back calmly.

  You wish to capture me. I will not let that occur. But I may strike a bargain.

  We’re listening, Jubaya, Bracken answered.

  Withdraw your troops from my pool, Jubaya expressed. If you let me speak to the girl alone, I vow to cause her no harm, and at the end of our conversation, I will surrender myself, if you pledge to transport me to the new demon prison.

  You would exchange your freedom for private words with Kendra? Bracken replied.

  Do you call this freedom? Jubaya challenged. I intend to trade imprisonment among enemies for imprisonment among my kind!

  Why now? Bracken pressed. You could have asked for such a transfer months ago.

  I have my reasons, Jubaya answered. And you have my terms.

  “Can she lie?” Kendra asked Bracken.

  “Certainly,” he said quietly. “But demons tend to keep their formal vows. All magical creatures do. Our natures allow certain oaths and promises to bind us. It is partly how preserves like Fablehaven were founded and how rules were established.”

  “Then I’ll do it,” Kendra said.

  “Jubaya promised to cause you no harm,” Bracken said. “Agreements to confer during a truce are difficult to break. But she might tell you things that could lead you to harm.”

  “This solves your problem,” Kendra said. “It gets her out of here. And who knows? Maybe I’ll learn something useful.”

  “Or something hurtful,” Bracken said. “I’ve been shielding my half of our conversation from her mind. Because you’re fairykind, your mind is already protected. Jubaya can only see the thoughts you deliberately project to her. Go ahead and accept if you must.”

  When should we talk? Kendra thought at the demon.

  Immediately, Jubaya replied. Have the warriors back away. Send Kendra to my pool with your first horn. She will need it for us to interact properly.

  Very well, Bracken responded, then turned to Kendra. He pulled a straight, spiral horn from a leather sheath at his waist and handed it to Kendra. Pearly white and silky smooth, the horn was the length of a dagger. Unicorns shed their first horn after childhood and the second toward the end of adolescence. Both retain magical properties, including the power to purify anything they touch. To certain beings, that purification could be deadly. Kendra had used this very horn to slay a venomous dragon.

  “I’m shielding our conversation again,” Bracken said. “I was going to give you this anyhow as a precaution. Perhaps she anticipated me. Or she might have a trick up her sleeve.”

  “I’ll be careful,” Kendra said.

  Bracken gave a nod. “Very well. We’ll be close by if you need us.”

  Jubaya Speaks

  Astrids and warrior fairies withdrew from the turbulent sludgepool as Kendra walked toward it, the horn clutched tightly in her hand. She stopped a couple of steps from the edge of the roiling pond. The surface became still. Slowly a shape arose from the muck, dripping black filth. It looked to Kendra like the charred head of a praying mantis.

  “Hello, child,” said a slithery voice that matched the words she had heard in her mind.

  “Hello,” Kendra replied, unsure what else to say. She did her best not to stare in horror. Judging by the dimensions of the head, Jubaya was probably two or three times her size.

  “I am Jubaya,” the demon said. “Tell me your name, child.”


  “Your full name.”

  “Kendra Marie Sorenson.”

  “You are the one who slew Gorgrog the Vile, King of Demons.”

  “Yes,” Kendra admitted, her grip tight on the horn. She wondered if Jubaya might lunge at her to get revenge.

  “Relax, child,” Jubaya soothed in greasy tones. “I pledged not to harm you, and I am bound by my word. It is you who could harm me. Contact with that horn would send me to the endless night.”

  “I’m not going to attack you,” Kendra said. “How did you know I killed the Demon King?”

  “Such an act leaves an unmistakable residue for those with senses to perceive it.” A six-fingered hand emerged from the sludge, the grimy fingers extremely long. “Would you take my hand?”

  Kendra recoiled. “I’d rather not.”

  The elongated fingers rippled. “Please, Kendra, I must get a sense of you. The horn will protect you from my touch. It is why I asked you to bring it.”

  “Can’t we just talk?”

  “There are other ways to communicate besides speech. Just take my hand for a moment. Don’t be afraid. I promise not to hurt you. Do I appear so hideous?”

  “My brother got burned making a deal with a demon,” Kendra said. “People I love died.”

  “No deals,” Jubaya asserted. “Just a conversation. I wish to help you.”

  “Why would you want to help me?”

  “I will tell you after you take my hand. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be squeamish.”

  Kendra didn’t like the idea of touching the demon, but she didn’t want to be rude, and it was clear the conversation would not progress unless she relented. Bracken would not like it, she felt, but how big of a deal could it be? Was she just being prejudiced? She had the horn and could strike if the demon attacked. If Jubaya wanted, she could lunge at her right now. Instead the demon waited, hand extended.

  Kendra stepped forward, bent down, and shook cool fingers that felt like raw hot dogs. The contact gave her shivers. She let go and wiped her hand on her jeans.

  “Ah,” Jubaya said, her hand disappearing into the pool. “Much better. Why did you not strike me with the unicorn horn? You had my hand. You could have destroyed me.”

  Kendra felt off balance. “I don’t want to destroy you.”

  “But you could have,” Jubaya said. “I am a threat and a problem to your friends. You have personal reasons to mistrust demons. I have caused discord and strife throughout my long years. You made no oath to spare me.”

  “I don’t go around killing people,” Kendra said.

  “And yet you killed the Demon King.”

  “He was attacking,” Kendra said. “I was protecting my friends.”

  “You are not ruthless, Kendra,” J
ubaya said. “It’s an endearing weakness. We are fundamentally different, you and I. We do not view the world the same way. We do not employ the same methods. If at any moment in my life I could have killed Gorgrog, I would have done it without hesitation. My approach to life has particular strengths and weaknesses, as does yours. You used Vasilis to slay my king. The Sword of Light and Darkness.”

  “How do you know?” Kendra wondered.

  “When we touched, I saw much that you have seen. Your mind is well protected. I needed voluntary contact for a glimpse. After you killed Gorgrog, you could have claimed his crown. You could have attempted to become the Demon Queen. Why did you abandon the crown to Orogoro?”

  “No reason, really. Taking it never crossed my mind.”

  “We are so profoundly different, Kendra. That was one of the five major crowns. You could have become one of the most powerful women in history.”

  “I don’t really get what you’re talking about. Major crowns?”

  “The Demon King. The Fairy Queen. The King of Dragons. The Queen of Giants. And the Underking. The five great monarchs. You could have been one of them. Any regrets?”

  “Not really,” Kendra said. She thought about it. “I wouldn’t want to be the Demon Queen.”

  “But the power.”

  “Besides, some other demon would have probably killed me.”

  Jubaya nodded. “Yes. On that point at least we share common ground. Self-preservation. And you’re right. My kind would have eaten you alive had you attempted to rule them.”

  “Orogoro is the new king,” Kendra said.

  “Indeed. Ruling from a new prison. How very majestic.”

  “You didn’t leave with the other demons,” Kendra said.

  “And so I am in a position to help tidy up the mess they left behind,” Jubaya said. “Rushing forward at every opportunity is not always the wisest tactic. Are any of those who departed talking to the slayer of the Demon King?”