The abandoned castle was a magnificent sight to see for Narisse’s travel-weary eyes. It was massive, the ivy-covered walls towering over even the largest trees that pressed against the clearing. Kolt, Narisse’s horse, whickered as they broke through the tree line. She spurred Kolt into a lazy canter, and the castle’s shadow overtook them.
As they neared, it loomed above them. Even abandoned, it looked far more graceful than her own home.
The gates of the castle were off their hinge, easy to maneuver around. Once inside the courtyard, Narisse sucked in a breath. Except for a clearly-defined path to the castle’s interior, the entirety of the ground was covered in wildflowers and unkempt shrubbery. If Kolt had felt flighty under her, she might very well have spun around and found some place to sleep under the stars, but her horse was quiet.
Narisse dismounted, one hand settling on the top of her lithe sword. Something made her hair stand on end, but it didn’t feel malevolent. She wasn’t sure what it was.
Kolt’s reins were smooth beneath her ungloved fingers. Narisse led him up the steps, her leather whispering as they ascended. The stairs were utterly smooth. They glinted in the dying sun. There was a scent in the air, one she had trouble placing. Iron, she realized. It was the bitter tang of iron.
A place of a thousand battles, a million lives be lost. What’s that? That scent? Blood in the air. Be wary, young Prince, for danger lurks here.
An old prophecy. An old remembrance. She refused to believe this was the place that she sought, though. Creepy, she could deal with. The dead silence that clung to the walls like some sort of protestation, though, she could not. The young woman reached for the pendant around her neck. This place felt haunted. The pendant brought her little comfort, though. Only Kolt’s steady demeanor kept her firmly planted on the ground.
The door leading into the castle was a monstrous thing. Animal heads were carved out of the wood, but they were worn down by time and defaced with symbols made by anxious hands. The songs said the castle doors had once been a lively moss green, but now it was little more than a lesser, more sickly pastel shade.
The rugs lining the hallway greeted the both of them. Kolt’s heavy hooves sent dust clouds up to settle on his muddy fetlocks. He snorted, and the silence swallowed the noise whole. Narisse kept her free hand hovering over her sword, and searched for a good place to sleep.
In the end, Narisse found her sleeping quarters in the doorway of a small, eerily empty room towards the end of the main hall. She filled up Kolt’s nosebag, and then found herself marginally more content from the familiar sound of his noisy chewing. It was enough to lull her into a quiet, light sleep.
Yet she dreamed. Narisse dreamed of home, of what it had been when she’d left a year ago. The castle walls were crumbling where they’d once been strong and sturdy. The halls themselves were empty, but there was always an echo of pain and misery. She imagined herself looking out the window of her room, perched high enough to see above the walls. Dozens of people in ragged clothing traveled the street.
The dream shifted and she was a few years into the future. So many buildings were burnt to ash. The streets were barely traversed, because there were so few left to traverse them. A dog crossed her line of view, so emaciated that its skin pressed painfully against its ribs. It opened its mouth and began to howl in the most beautiful, mournful tune that spoke to her of lost times and lost freedoms.
It wasn’t until she heard Kolt stamp his feet nervously that Narisse’s mind pulled her from her slumber and found that the singing, at least, was not actually from her dream. Narisse pushed herself to her feet. Kolt still dozed.
Be wary, young Prince, for danger lurks here.
Narisse slunk down the hall, alert and sword drawn. She held no fire; she didn’t want to give her position away. Her footsteps held the trained silence of a hunter. Down the corridor she went, away from the door that would have offered her an escape from this haunted place.
The haunting, high-pitched voice drew her down a left hall, and she turned again and again. The singing, she knew, was drawing her into the deepest parts of the castle. If she hadn’t marked the turns, she might have become lost. What then? But when kingdoms crumbled, warriors didn’t have the luxury of caution.
Eventually, she found herself in front of a door. It was both grand and average at the same time, and it made her head hurt. Like the door into the castle, this one was marked with gylphs of age-old writing. Don’t go in, the glyphs screamed at her. But the malevolence that hit her chest like waves on the sand in a tempest did not come from the magic permeating through the door. It was the door itself that snarled at her, the iron handle that burned her fingertips.
Narisse spun the knob with her free hand, and swung the door open.
A roaring fire sat in the middle of the room, except sat wasn’t the appropriate word. Floated, danced. Bottomless, spell-driven. Narisse’s fingers again. Behind the fire sat an old woman, hair whiter than falling snow, metallic yellow eyes simply staring at the flickering. Her mouth moved, but no words seemed to be coming out. The song, though, certainly came from this room.
The old woman’s eyes flickered up, suddenly, and met Narisse’s stare. The singing stopped abruptly, and the silence was even worse. The young girl stepped back, and lowered the point of her sword. She wasn’t stupid enough to put it away, though.
She pulled authority over her like a cloak. Was fear the right description of how she felt? Not really, but what else it was, she could not determine. “Who are you?” Narisse demanded.
The old woman smirked. “You are in my castle.”
Narisse gasped, clutching her forehead. Again, the old woman’s mouth had moved, but the words did not come from there. It came to Narisse’s mind. “What is this? What are you?”
The old woman’s eyes flicked to an unearthly green. “Magic deposed is life killed. Spare the kingdom, spare the crown, but lives be lost ere magic is yet again found.” She rose to her feet, the most graceful movement Narisse had ever seen. It was almost snake-like. This time, when the old woman spoke, she didn’t bother to form the words with her lips. “I warned them centuries ago that magic is not a beast to be locked up and forgotten about. They pay the price now.”
“You’re who the prophecy speaks of?”
Suddenly, the fire was extinguished and the room was cloaked in darkness. Narisse didn’t know how she kept herself from crying out. And then, a small flame appeared, dancing on the fingertips of the old woman, again visible, if barely. “I am who the prophecy cries out for.” The old woman corrected. “Arisbett, heir to the kingdom that died before its princess could claim it.” She gave a sad sort of frown, and then threw a flame at Narisse’s direction.
The young warrior moved lithely out of the way, but she didn’t need to worry. The flame hit some invisible wall and was extinguished.
“Do you know your histories, child?” The woman’s voice asked, echoing in her own head.
Of course she did. There was a war in which magic went against fierce might. Narisse’s own kingdom was one of the very few to stand against the rest of humanity, on the side of the elves. For it, they were paid with a token that would keep their kingdom safe from retaliation, but when the elves lost the battle, magic slipped away. Their fiercest enemies struggled to survive a world that ran on a dying magic. Now even Narisse’s kingdom found itself slipping away.
“They built this castle out of iron so that our people might survive, in some shape or form, for the end of times. I wonder if they expected it to happen sooner, for the battle was long ago and now I’m nearing my own eternal end.”
“The world’s savior is an old fairy, trapped in a castle by her own kind?” Narisse’s nerves had calmed, but the questions now pressed and belief had been suspended. She’d heard too many stories as a child about evil fairies tricking youngsters into giving up things that ought not be given.
The old woman shook her head. “No. You are mistaken. I survived the war to act as a tether to… Ah. You do not, of course, understand the fundamentals of magic. Understand, child, that magic is a wild thing that requires a tether to this world, yet this world was born of magic and cannot survive without it. The ancient clash between humans and elves resulted in the severing of thousands of ties that kept magic here. Do you comprehend?”
No, Narisse thought, but she tried to anyway. If this woman was telling the truth, it might explain what had been happening slowly for thousands of years. She just wished Kolt was by her side to steady her. “Magic can fade?”
“Yes. And when it does, the world fades with it.” The old woman’s features softened. “You were one of our allies, weren’t you?”
“So the stories say.”
“You’ve managed to survive the longest, then, but now even your world is crumbling. Is that true?”
Narisse nodded carefully.
The old woman shook her head sadly. “I was told to survive the battle to keep at least some magic connected to this world until its occupants were willing to acknowledge that magic is needed and its wielders cannot be shoved away.”
“I think the world is ready for that. Can the world still be fixed, though?”
The old woman inclined her head ever so slightly. “Below this castle once sat our largest source of magic. They warded it to slow its dissipation. But there is another spell on the magic too. If a human opens the door to release the magic, the magic itself will become tethered to the human population.”
Narisse took a step back, fighting back disgust. “Magic? With humans? That’s impossible! No, no, that’s not right. I left home searching for a way to fix my kingdom, not change the world!”
“If you want one, you must have both,” the fairy said darkly. “When magic fails, so does the world. So do the kingdoms. Humanity went to war with my people and, when they found themselves the victor, destroyed them. There are no more fairies for this. They were warned, child, and they fought anyway.”
“But magic,” Narisse said in awe. Then narrowed her eyes. “The source for humanity’s survival was supposed to be found on a battlefield. I only came here for sleep. You’re tricking me, aren’t you?”
“If only,” said the fairy. She pointed at Narisse, at her neck, at the pendant hanging there. “That is enchanted, you realize. It drew you here. You’ve been using magic all along, just not directly, and it has helped you, has it not?”
Narisse toyed with the pendant, refusing to believe.
“Look at the castle’s roots, young child. If there is nothing there, then you lose nothing by it. Or perhaps you find you can save your people, as you set out to do.”
Narisse nodded, slowly.
“The pendant, I think, will show you the way.”
Narisse left the room and the trapped fairy within. There were two choices: return to Kolt and leave this strange place behind her, or do as the fairy suggested and hope it was not some trap. Kolt was to the left. The pendant pulled her to the right.
In the end it was a simple choice. If there was a chance to save her kingdom from its inevitable downfall, she’d take it.
Narisse went right.
The pendant led her to a staircase, lit by a torch. Narisse took it, and descended. The steps were numerous, and slippery, but down she went. Down. Until she found herself at the beginning of a short corridor with a door on one end. It did not take her long to reach the door. There were so many glyphs scratched into the wood that they overlapped again and again. But the knob remained untouched.
When Narisse put her fingers around the knob, it was warm. The hinges creaked as she pulled the door itself open.
Inside was a sort of garden, but the flowers were not tangible. They glowed. Luminescent green ivy climbed the walls. Sturdy, iridescent trees reached towards a sun that was not there. They were made of light, all of them. A dim, dying light, Narisse realized, but still it glowed. And when she stepped in, a strange wind picked up, and blew the magic garden flat. The flowers, the trees, the ivy all dissipated, rushing towards her and outward.
And Narisse knew instantly that the fairy was not, at least, lying about the last major source of magic.