The last thing I saw was Sorceress, her eyes wide, and her mouth open as if she were screaming. Then, she was just . . . gone.
No, wait. She wasn’t gone. Everything was gone. Sorceress. Dragon. The milky-eyed grackle. The tree. The house. All of it was just . . . gone! Everything was hidden by a thick, opaque fog. Trying to see through that impenetrable haze, I slowly realized that they weren’t gone. I was. That’s probably why Sorceress had screamed.
The murky cloud soon encompassed me completely, like a fluffy cotton blanket. I was disoriented. Up and down had no meaning, and I felt as if I was floating, weightless. Time had no meaning, either. I could have been drifting in that fog for minutes, or for days. I had no way of knowing.
Eventually, the fog started to dissipate. It did so slowly, as if layer after layer after thin layer was being stripped away. Finally, it became translucent enough for me to make out my surroundings. I appeared to be on a desolate stretch of coastline. Ahead of me, a thin ribbon of dark, wet sand separated the lapping waves from towering cliffs.
I turned around, and found the coast in that direction curved away from the cliffs and the sandy beach widened. To the right, the cliffs gave way to a vast expanse of meadows and fields that reached to another body of water on the horizon. At the end of a path, near the other body of water, was a tall, circular tower of stone. As the fog lifted completely, and the warmth of the sun splashed across my face, my blood ran cold. I knew that dark, foreboding tower. Within its windowless walls, the evil wizard Morcant was spending his eternal exile.
So, Morcant was behind the recent disappearances. He had warned me he would exact revenge for my perceived part in his incarceration and exile. Now he had made good on his threat.
My every instinct shouted at me to run – run as fast and as far as I could! But my rational self knew running was futile, escape impossible. If Morcant was capable of dragging me from my world into his, then he would find me no matter where I would run here, on his world. I straightened my rumpled outfit, squared my shoulders, and prepared to meet my fate.
I had taken but a single step in the direction of the tower when I jumped at the sound of a voice directly behind me. “Forsooth! We would not advise thee to travel in that direction, milady.”
I whirled around to confront the speaker, and found myself facing a trio of women in archaic garb. Their hoods were thrown back and their cloaks were open to the warmth of the sun. Even though they did not appear threatening, I eyed them warily and looked about from the corner of my eye, seeking a route of escape.
“Prithee, allow us to present ourselves, milady. I am called Deoiridh.” The careworn figure in the middle, grey-haired and wrinkled, stepped forward. She lowered her eyes, and clasped her hands in front of her face, as if in prayer or supplication. She curtsied deeply. When she rose, she motioned for the second woman to come forward.
The second figure, the youngest, shortest and roundest of the three, had flaming red hair and a profusion of freckles. She edged forward, fidgeting with her cloak and staring at the ground. She stopped while still many steps away. “I am Helewys.” She bobbed a quick curtsy before scooting back to take her place next to the third figure, earning her a frown from her companions.
“I am known as Zephyrean.” The last figure, tall and willowy, with jet-black hair and alabaster skin, moved forward with regal grace. She took my hands as she curtsied, and pressed the back of them to her forehead. She rose, still grasping my hands, and boldly regarded me. She spent a long few moments studying me and taking my measure.
Finally, she smiled, nodded, and dropped my hands. I presumed she had made up her mind about me. I remained unsure of her and her two companions; still, I sensed no malevolence from them. I found myself more curious than fearful.
As if reading my mind, Zephyrean addressed me. “Thou art quite correct, Mistress Writer. Thou hath nothing to fear from us. Come thither, break bread with us, and all thy questions shall be answered.”
Helewys said nothing, but she gave me a sidelong glance. Then she pulled her cloak tight around her and scuffed her tiny slippered foot back and forth in the dirt before running ahead.
“We shall explain much, milady.” Deoiridh snatched my hand and tugged me along toward a sheltered knoll by the beach, where a fire had already been laid. “But first, thou art our guest. Come, we shall brew some tea and feast on mortrew and brown bread.”
I sat on a large piece of driftwood while the three strange figures prepared a meal. It was ready in short order, and the four of us ate in a comfortable silence. I found the mortrew, a thick stew of unfamiliar meats and sundry vegetables, nicely seasoned and remarkably palatable. The brown bread tasted sweet and nutty. The accompanying tea was strong and hot and pleasantly spiced. As I drained my third cup, my companions began their tale.
“Thou recognized the tower.” It was a statement rather than a question, and Deoiridh did not wait for an answer. “It is more than seven centuries since the evil wizard, Morcant, was tried in absentia by the judicial system of this world, and found guilty of atrocities too numerous to list. Their prescribed punishment was exile, but they did not know how to enforce the exile of a wizard. A coven of good witches put their minds to the task. It took them five years, but they finally devised a way to trap Morcant for all eternity.”
Helewys stared at the ground and fidgeted with her cloak as she took up the tale. “One of the witches lured him into a tower with the promise of an artifact of enormous power. Once he was distracted by the object, she slipped out, closing the door behind her. The other witches rushed forward to lock the tower. They had constructed three magical locks in the side of the tower, and crafted three magical keys. The three keys were inserted into the locks and turned at the exact same moment. The top and bottom keys were turned clockwise, while the middle key was turned counterclockwise. Once the keys were turned, Morcant was sealed inside the tower forever.”
Zephyrean continued. “The tower itself is enchanted. No one can break into it by physical force, nor can Morcant break through the walls to free himself. He can not break through the floor to tunnel out of the tower. There is no physical means of escape. When the tower was sealed, the windows and doors disappeared, leaving only solid stone walls. The tower has also been enchanted against magical means of entry or egress.”
I nodded. “I know all this. I also know that Morcant is not only trapped in that place, he is trapped in time. That is why he needs no food, otherwise entrapment within the impenetrable tower would be a death-sentence, and that was not the intent of the magistrates who sentenced him.”
“Forsooth.” Helewys wrung her hands and chewed her lower lip. “He is trapped in the moment in time that the keys were turned. Yet, through his psychic connection to the milky-eyed grackle who serves as his familiar, and who was not trapped with him, Morcant is aware of the passage of time outside the tower. Of greater significance, he can communicate with others through his familiar.”
“Mayhaps thou has surmised, milady, we are descendants of three of the witches from the coven that entrapped Morcant.” Zephyrean furrowed her brow. “We seek to undo a terrible misdeed enacted by our predecessors.”
“Misdeed?” I gaped at the trio. “You believe they were wrong to imprison Morcant?”
Deoiridh shook her head. “Nay, Mistress, thou misunderstands! The misdeed was not in trapping him, but in their handling of the keys.”
I frowned. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Helewys sighed. “When the coven learned that Morcant was communicating with his henchmen, through his familiar, they feared his henchmen would overpower the coven and obtain the keys. They could not permit the wizard to escape, so they used their considerable magic to send one member of the coven to another world. She took the keys with her, and found an order of militant clerics to whom she entrusted the guardianship of the keys. She impressed on them the danger of the keys ever falling into the wrong hands.”
“So that is how they came to exist in Cleric’s world.” I cocked my head. “But legend has it that they disappeared from that world. What happened?”
“The witchs’ magic was flawed.” Zephyrean rubbed the back of her neck and lowered her voice. “A magical conduit remained between the worlds. Somehow, Morcant discovered the location of the keys, and sent his familiar to retrieve them. The clerics managed to thwart him, but they realized it was just a matter of time before he succeeded. They petitioned their deity to be released from their sworn duty.”
“And were they?”
Deoiridh shrugged. “They must have been, milady, as the keys disappeared from their midst. Ever since their disappearance, many generations of the coven have been searching for them, as has Morcant, through his familiar. Somehow, through means unknown, the keys found their way into thy world, and thy possession. It has been a race between us and Morcant to retrieve them.”
Helewys looked at me, eyes wide. “When the milky-eyed grackle followed the magic signature of the keys to thy world, we thought for sure he would seize them!”
Zephyrean raked her hand through her hair. “We tried everything to recover those keys, milady! We tried to contact thee, to bring thee here as we finally did today. Unfortunately, we ended up taking others by mistake – the ones thou call the Arrogant One and the Bounty Hunter, and later, the Cleric. But when we took them, we were unable to bring them all the way through the conduit. They remained trapped within its magic for some time before returning to thy world.”
“The same thing happened the first time we took thee, as well. We could not bring thee all the way through” Helewys blushed, her face turning as red as her hair. “We suspect Morcant interfered with our magic.”
“I see. So then, Morcant was not responsible for my disappearances and that of my characters, at least not directly.”
The three women nodded.
“At length, we resolved to enter thy world to talk with thee. We decided to take the undignified form of those small, furry creatures.” Deoiridh grimaced. “We knew they were common on thy world, and would attract less attention than three crones appearing within sight of thy neighbors.”
I nodded. “I thank you for that discretion. On too many occasions, my neighbors have been alarmed and unsettled by unexplained events spawned by my characters.”
Deoiridh inclined her head. “When we realized Morcant’s familiar was present and spying on thee, we could not risk further exposure. We left quickly, but continued trying to communicate with thee. We tried to enter thy dreams, but, alas, once again our magic failed. We ended up causing thy dreams to enter the minds of others.”
I smiled and raised an eyebrow at them. “So that is what caused us to share dreams. We blamed that on Morcant as well.”
“When all else failed, we just waited and watched.” Helewys hugged herself tightly, pulling her cloak snug. “We feared we would never be able to get to thee and retrieve the keys. But today, thy Dragon and Sorceress secured the bird. This distracted Morcant so he could not interrupt our spell, and also prevented his familiar from following thee. We finally made good our attempt to bring thee here through the magic conduit.”
I looked at them and sighed. “I’m afraid you have gone to a great deal of trouble for nothing. I no longer have the keys.”
The trio looked at me dumbstruck, and Deoiridh protested. “But we never felt their magic signature leave thy possession!”
“I had them in an enchanted box that hid their signature from all, even those searching for them by magical means. I asked Dragon to ascertain if we could destroy the keys, so that Morcant would be unable to obtain them. She determined that the destruction of the keys would release the magic locks, freeing Morcant. So we decided on another solution. Dragon has transported the enchanted box, with the keys still secured within, to an undisclosed location. She assures me that no one will ever find them again.”
The three witches sighed. Smiles slowly spread over all three faces. “If the ancient Wyrm says the keys will never be found, then we are safe. Morcant will remain in his eternal prison.” The shy Helewys jumped up, ran to me and gave me a jubilant hug.
I laughed. “What can we do about his familiar? I’m rather tired of having to deal with the bird and its master; yet I lack the heart to destroy it and plunge Morcant into eternal darkness and silence.”
“When we send thee back to thy world, we will retrieve the bird and collapse the magical conduit. Thou will never be troubled by Morcant or his familiar again.” Zephyrean smiled.
The three women stood and faced me. Deoiridh lowered her eyes, clasped her hands in front of her face, and curtsied deeply. Zephyrean once more took my hands and pressed them to her forehead as she curtsied to me. Helewys bobbed another quick curtsy and then the three of them quickly joined hands and began chanting. Before I even had the chance to say goodbye, I was engulfed in the dense fog. When I arrived home, Sorceress was still in mid-scream, and Dragon still held the milky-eyed grackle in her talons. Everyone else was running towards us, probably in response to the scream.
As everyone crowded around, trying to see what was wrong, the milky-eyed grackle squawked loudly. Then, it was just . . . gone. I motioned to everyone to calm down. I beckoned them inside, hoping the neighbors had not noticed the strange and abrupt comings and goings. I herded them all downstairs to the conference room.
I shared with everyone the incredible events of the day. Miles and my characters had many questions and we discussed the matter well into the evening hours. Finally, my characters retired for the night. Miles and I headed upstairs to enjoy a bit of television before we, too, went to sleep. As we reached the landing, Miles turned and gave me a penetrating look. “So, they’re gone? They’re really gone?”
“Well, Morcant and the milky-eyed grackle are gone, as are the keys.” I paused and cocked my head. “But my characters remain, and who knows what mischief they will get into next?”
Miles groaned as he reached past me and turned on the porch light.