A/N: For those who are new, Madeline and Ayda have just reached Crescent Moon and are petitioning the leaders there for help in getting Madeline home. Also, this is a rather important chapter, so feedback is greatly appreciated.
There was little light in the Hall Ayda and Madeline entered. The air was heavy and treelike, the boughs that formed the ceiling lined with rough bark and little pockets of leaves wherever light fell through the windows — the whole room had a distinctly wild feel. Ayda wasn’t sure if she liked it. Plants in a forest didn’t have this feeling of unbridled power. Maybe it was just the magic she could feel — it ran stronger than ever here.
A low voice issued from the shadows. “So. The fairy and the human. Come forward, and sit.”
Ayda swallowed, staying close to Madeline as the girl moved forward. As her eyes adjusted she saw that at the other end of the long hall stood two woven thrones, and in them sat two dryads that had to be Lord and Lady Elerian. Two of the most powerful dryads alive, the head of Crescent Moon and arguably the whole of Arvania, they were exactly whom Ayda had been hoping Madeline would be able to see, but now that she was here…
In front of the thrones was a simple chair, which Madeline sat in, and after a moment, Ayda landed on her shoulder. Sitting in the chair, Madeline was nearly at eye level with the Lord and Lady.
“Welcome to Crescent Moon.” This time it was Lady Elerian that spoke, her voice melodious but restrained. Her expression was unreadable. “It has been long since a human has graced these halls, and we have many questions. But first, what are your names?”
“Madeline Reyes,” Madeline said quietly.
“And I’m Ayda Mossfrost, of Nikka,” Ayda said.
“Thank you. Madeline, do you come from another world?”
“Yes,” she said. “I come from Earth, and I’m here to ask you to help me get home.”
“First, tell us how you arrived here,” Lord Elerian said. “Are you aware that there has been no communication with Earth for a thousand years? That it was cut off, permanently?”
“That’s what Ayda said,” Madeline said. “But from what she’s told me, I think I came a normal way?”
“From what she described, she came through a temporary portal,” Ayda explained. “There was a woman —”
Lord Elerian held up his hand. “Please let Madeline speak.”
Chastened, Ayda listened as Madeline briefly recounted her story of meeting the woman in the woods and following her to the landmark and through the portal. Ayda picked up the story from where she met Madeline in the woods, explaining that she had brought Madeline to Nikka, then on to Crescent Moon. She also mentioned the Shade’s attack, but it didn’t seem to concern them as much as she had thought it would.
“Can you describe the woman?” Lady Elerian pressed Madeline.
Madeline closed her eyes and thought for a moment. “She had black hair… shorter than mine. She was tall. I’m sorry, I don’t remember what she was wearing. Just normal clothes, I think.”
“Perhaps this will help.” Ayda jumped, for the voice had issued out of the shadows. It was not as deep as Lord Elerian’s, but rough and firm. A centaur stepped forward into the light. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a face wrinkled by age behind a russet-red beard. His expression was grave and his eyes deep and thoughtful.
He made a quick movement with his hands, and there between his palms stood the image of a woman, tall and slender, with an angled face and hair that matched Madeline’s description. She wore a striking gown that fell to her feet but left her shoulders bare. Ayda had seen centaur illusions before and didn’t react, but Madeline’s sharp intake of breath betrayed her wonder even at something this simple.
“That’s her,” Madeline said. “That’s definitely her. She wasn’t wearing anything that fancy, but it’s the same woman.”
The centaur dropped his hands and the image vanished.
“Thank you, Xaniphe,” Lord Elerian said to the centaur. He passed a hand over his eyes. “We were fairly certain already, but it is good to have another confirmation.”
“We will move now?” Xaniphe asked with a swish of his tail.
“Yes, and as quickly as possible, particularly now that we no longer have the element of surprise,” Lord Elerian replied.
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked. Ayda had a hunch.
“My lord,” Ayda said. “The centaur at the gate said you’d been expecting us. Why?”
Lady Elerian gave a grim smile. “I’m afraid that after your encounter with the shopkeeper, rumors have been sweeping the land between here and Nikka. Our watchers were able to find you on the road. We knew you were heading for Moonwater, and we hoped you were coming here. It is unfortunate that you were unable to keep Madeline’s presence here a secret.”
“What does it matter who knows I’m here?” Madeline asked, defensive. “Who is this woman?”
Lord Elerian said nothing. He studied Madeline as if trying to decide something.
“This concerns her,” Lady Elerian said softly. “She may be pursued, she may never go home, and she has the right to know why.”
“Yes,” said Lord Elerian. He addressed Ayda. “But not you, Ayda. Thank you for your kindness in bringing Madeline here, but your part in this has ended. What we are about to tell Madeline is not to be shared lightly. You are of course welcome to spend the night here, and in the morning we will outfit you with whatever supplies you may need for your return trip. You will find an aide outside; she will assist you.”
This was it? It would be so easy — Ayda would slip away and enter the contest tonight, spend a night here, and then set off home tomorrow, back to angry but relieved parents. They would leave a few days later, and then Ayda would be left to hammer wood and hope desperately for news of the contest.
But say goodbye to Madeline now? After their journey through the forests together, after Ayda’s promise last night? “I — ” she began, not knowing what she was going to say.
Madeline glanced at Ayda, a wide-eyed, startled look, and that was all Ayda needed. She took flight, hovering above Madeline’s shoulder.
“With respect, my lord, I swore an oath on Relis,” Ayda said, clenching her fists at her side. “I bound my fate with Madeline’s. I’m not going to leave her now.”
His brows drew together and his eyes grew stormy. “Ayda, go home. You are but a child and you have no place here. There is nothing more you can do to help your friend; go home.”
“There has to be some way I can help,” Ayda said, speaking wildly now. “You don’t have to tell me everything, just let me stay!”
“My lord,” Xaniphe cut in. Ayda realized he had been studying her, watching behind an expressionless face. But now he stepped forward, hooves clopping on the wooden floor. “Sending her home even now is a risk. Her parents will ask what errand took her to Crescent Moon. Although the subject of Madeline is fast becoming widespread rumor, knowledge of her whereabouts is not, and I suggest we keep it that way.”
He glanced back at Ayda and his expression softened. “My research team needs one of the Little Folk to read the smaller tomes and take notes. She would be useful — I see no reason not to let her stay.”
At last, Lord Elerian nodded.
“It is settled then,” said the Lady. “We will send a letter to your parents, Ayda, explaining what we can of the situation. And now let us begin a tale that starts a millennium ago. Xaniphe, would you care to begin it? He is our primary historian, and a magical expert on the side,” she explained.
“Of course,” the centaur said, turning so that all four of them could see him.
“Once,” he said, “three Kingdoms were four, and the fourth was the humans’ world, your world, Madeline. It, like the others, was connected to the Well, the place from which all magic flows. But the connection was broken.”
Ayda thought he must like a touch of the dramatic, for as he spoke, he created small illusions with his hands, and with a slash of his right arm, a jagged crack ran through the river of light he had created.
“But the story begins earlier than that. It begins with a young woman — human — named Nadra. By chance, she grew up among elves, who in this time still lived in Neleluna and they and the dwarves formed the two great centers of civilization there. By all accounts, Nadra was very bright and soon became a leader in the field of magic. But, growing up among them, she had come to hate the elves.
And with his hands, he created a shadowy picture, of a stern woman, a silhouette among other, different silhouettes with with pointed ears. Elves.
“She gained great power — we don’t know how. Few records remain. But she gained power far outside the limits of human magic. And she made dark servants to serve her, and she slaughtered the elves. The dwarves, whom she had no quarrel with, escaped to the mountains of Erinore. They still live there to this day.”
The image erupted in flames, and Ayda could have sworn she heard faint, echoing screams.
“But if any of the elves survived, it was not enough to continue their race. During the chaos, the leaders of the other Kingdoms banded together, led by the unicorns. They fought Nadra at the Well. They won, and they dealt her the most terrible punishment they could devise, locking her into another dimension, a faceless and formless Void. But it was too late for the human world — Nadra had already severed its link to the Well. The portals vanished, and the memory of magic faded from the human world. Her servants, freed from her control, became the peaceful Shades we know today.”
The shadowy picture showed a legion advancing on the woman, now dark but still beautiful, showed her scream as the dryads and dragons and humans overwhelmed her. Then the picture vanished with a wink.
“I’m guessing she got out somehow,” Madeline said.
“We think the lack of magic in your world created a weak spot she exploited,” Xaniphe said. “Once in your world, she could easily make a portal back to Arvania with the magic she already carried.”
“It’s that easy for me too? I have magic — I can just learn how to make a portal?”
“No,” Lady Elerian said gently. “It is the lack of magic in your world that is precisely the problem. Portals need anchors, and those anchors are found in ley points, intersections on the pattern of ley lines that runs throughout the Kingdoms, carrying magic from the Well. When the connection to the Well was severed, the magic in the ley lines ran dry. There is no way we know to anchor a portal to your world. Nadra used the magic she already had to anchor a portal here, where the ley lines run pure. And now that you’re in a world connected to the Well, your own magic has begun to manifest.”
Madeline sank back into her seat. “So there’s no hope.”
“We didn’t say that,” Xaniphe said firmly. “There is much about this situation that has been lost except in the memory of the unicorns, and they have been… less than forthcoming. But there may be other ways to anchor a portal, ones we’ve forgotten or never had the need to discover.”
“We will do all we can,” Madeline,” Lady Elerian said. “But your arrival accompanies a threat the Kingdoms haven’t seen for years. Our first priority is not to get you home; it is to defend our kingdoms and recapture Nadra. She almost certainly knows that you followed her through the portal; the Shade who attacked you will have told her by now that you’re human. We have reason to believe she is looking for you, though we don’t understand why.”
“It may simply be because you are human, Madeline,” Lord Elerian said. “You are the only one in the Three Kingdoms with human magic. You could very well prove the key to understanding Nadra’s powers. We will do our best to get you home, but know that we also need you.”
Madeline swallowed and nodded. “I’ll help.”
“You’ll need training,” Xaniphe said brusquely. “I’ll teach you. We’ll see what we can work out together.”
And that was the last of it; everything was settled. Ayda was staying at Crescent Moon, but she had learned more than she’d ever wanted to.
The Lord and Lady dismissed them, and Xaniphe said he would accompany them to the great-tree where they were to live and work. They were not to go beyond the boundaries of the tree and the surrounding gardens, for security reasons.
“One last thing, my lord,” Ayda said as she turned to go. A sick feeling churned in her stomach. “The Shade who attacked us — he was working for Nadra?”
“Yes,” Lord Elerian said. “He must have been. Nadra can control any of them at will. We’ve contacted Neleluna about it. So far, only a few have been taken, but it’s only a matter of time until she decides to amass her army.”
Ayda shook her head, thinking of Ashmount, that grandfatherly Shade she saw each year on the road. The thought of him beast-like and snarling, with those awful red eyes, made her shudder. How long before he was taken? Before all the Shades in Neleluna were unleashed upon Arvania and Erinore?